Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Chapman, Stephen B., 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016). Pp. 357. Paperback. US$36.00. ISBN 978-0-8028-3745-5.

This monograph is a standalone commentary in which the author explores 1 Samuel from an openly Christian perspective. It consists of an introduction, where Chapman justifies this project, followed by three major sections. The introduction reflects on the purpose of commentaries in general and decries the tendency to “dwell on historical and linguistic minutiae” (p. 2) at the expense of theological interpretation. Chapman also expresses concerns with recent literary readings that isolate texts from their broader canonical context. In contrast, he asserts that in this work he will “pose explicitly Christian questions and consider explicitly Christian responses” (p. 4). He also mentions the impulse inherent in a theological approach to move quickly to Christian theological categories and to lose points of connection with Jewish biblical interpretation. Consequently, his stated goal is to “listen with Judaism as much as possible” (p. 9, italics original), before bringing Christian theological perspectives to bear on the text. This introduction effectively informs the reader of the approach that Chapman will follow, one which sidelines standard commentary questions such as date of composition and layers of authorship and redaction.

In the first section, Chapman continues to defend his theological reading, arguing for the insufficiency of historicity as the primary criterion to determine a text's value. Further, Chapman argues that while it is important to consider the text's aesthetic character, the interpreter should not succumb to the “grave danger” of making their analysis “a way of talking about texts rather than talking about God” (p. 28). Chapman also discusses what it means to read 1 Samuel as a book, noting that 1–2 Samuel were transmitted together in the Hebrew tradition for centuries. Ultimately, he argues that it is worth embracing the tension of reading 1 Samuel on its own and as part of the larger composition that includes 2 Samuel. He does, however, appeal to 2 Sam 21–24 and suggests that it makes explicit the implicit characterization of Saul and David in 1 Samuel. In practice, Chapman's focus on 1 Samuel permits him to explore these narratives in detail while keeping the broader context in view.

The second section of this monograph is by far its longest since it consists of Chapman's commentary on the text itself. It differs from standard commentary formats since it does not divide the text into pericopes (which are run through a rubric), provide a new translation of the text, or a structural breakdown. Instead, Chapman interweaves narrative and theological discussion without explicitly arguing for the boundaries of each passage. The absence of a macro-structural analysis means that the reader encounters each narrative in turn, without any prejudgment about its place in the hierarchy of the book. It also means that more well-known sections (e.g., 1 Sam 8, 12, 17) are not given any special prominence in the layout of this commentary.

Chapman's close reading of 1 Samuel in this section consists of three chapters, which correspond to major narrative blocs (1 Sam 1–12, 13–20, 21–31). The commentary here is similar to other literary treatments of the text, with a focus on plot, setting, and characterization. Chapman uses these details to consider broader questions of the text's portrayal of worship, divine presence, and the function of institutions like the priesthood and the monarchy. He notes an overarching concern with proper leadership of human institutions, where devotion to YHWH's service is portrayed as more important than biological succession. On several occasions, he focuses on Saul's interactions with YHWH, noting Saul's essentially pragmatic approach to religion in contrast to David's seemingly more genuine commitment to trust YHWH. He also rightly focuses on the way in which the narrative hides David's character and internal motivations for much of 1 Samuel where the text relies upon his interactions with other characters, including Saul, Jonathan, and even Abigail, to shape the way that he is evaluated. He also traces the tension in the narrative concerning whether David's growing proximity to power will compromise his trust in God—a key factor in his early narratives. This ambiguity is perhaps best expressed in David's use of violence to maintain his deception of Achish in 1 Sam 27. Chapman notes this as an example of how “the narrative of Samuel resists the reduction of characters into ‘black hats’ and ‘white hats’” (p. 199). This identification of nuance and ambiguity is found throughout the work and is a valuable contribution of this commentary.

In the final section, Chapman returns to questions related to both the historicity of the events recorded in 1 Samuel and their enduring theological legacy. He asserts that he is deliberately inverting Stendahl's famous dictum to consider what a text meant before reflection on what it means (p. 218). He argues that his approach preserves the literary sophistication of the text since he reads it as a narrative in its own right rather than appropriating it to answer questions about what “really happened.” Consequently, he can appreciate the tension in the narrative concerning characters like Saul and the rise of the monarchy. He situates his work between skeptical readings, which view much of 1 Samuel as Davidic propaganda, and approaches that argue for the complete historical reliability of the events recorded in the text. Chapman does not want to completely divorce his reading from historical referentiality, however, he suggests that 1 Samuel in its present form bears witness to the deuteronomistic theology of the seventh and sixth centuries. He engages with standard presentations of theology to situate his reading within its context.

In the latter half of this chapter, Chapman transitions to overtly Christian theological reflection through categories drawn from literary tragedies that he uses to suggest that Saul's character reflects a case of “overliving,” or living beyond one's time and purpose (p. 240). He links this idea to the Christian injunction to bear one's cross and die daily, suggesting that Saul's struggle “can be viewed as adumbrating the Christ of Gethsemane and Calvary, the Christ of divine forsakenness” (p. 245). Whether or not this is convincing, Chapman is right to note the complex and sympathetic nature of the portrayal of Saul throughout the narrative. This pushes a theological reading of 1 Samuel beyond the more well-known parallels between David and Jesus as the son of David. Chapman notes a number of dangers in the David-Jesus typology, including his discomfort with the appropriation of David's rise to power by rulers and empires in Western civilization, who wield secular authority in Jesus's name. His theological reflection concludes with a consideration of the irreducibility of the divine within the narrative. Divine freedom is at work throughout 1 Samuel and it resists attempts to make its power something that human leaders and institutions can wield for their own designs.

An overall evaluation of this monograph is inextricably linked to the reader's perspective on Chapman's project. Some will question the scholarly value of a commentary that brackets historical issues, reads “with the grain” of the text, and concludes with unabashedly Christological reflections. However, even those who do not share Chapman's confessional perspective will likely gain something from the close and careful reading of the text that he provides in the second section of the book, especially as it concerns how the text shapes the reader's evaluation of key characters. Readers who do share his orientation to the text will appreciate Chapman's defense of robust theological interpretation and will be challenged by his depiction of Saul as a type that prefigures Jesus. It is a solid contribution to the ongoing project of thoughtful theological reflection on biblical narrative.

Joel Barker, Heritage College