Why did Eli Fall? On the Relationship between Story and History in the Book of Samuel

Article—Issue 21 (February, 2017)

Leo Kwan-hung Li
Interpretation as genre recognition

The opening of a work often guides us in a direction which the author or compiler wants us to follow. It sets up the scenery of the acts, portrays the protagonist(s) of the story, or even states the purpose and intention of the writing. However, it is very rare that an opening explicitly denotes what is the text’s genre. Most of the time, the genre of a text needs to be conjectured by the reader. The opening of a text sometimes gives us sufficient clues in order to pin down what it is all about, how to categorize it, and how to interpret it accordingly. As K. Sparks states when discussing E. D. Hirsch’s concept of heuristic genre, ‘[h]euristic genre is an imaginative conjecture in which readers make an educated guess about how a text ought to be read. The guess is not a leap in the dark because it begins with assumptions based on the generic traits and elements that readers already recognize.’ However, if ‘this initial guess misses, the result is an uneasy feeling that the text does not cohere and that it has not been understood. In such case, we often read the text several times, each time postulating anew how the piece’s elements might function together as a unit and within a context’ until ‘a sensation that the text has been understood.’ Sparks concludes that we can ‘make sense of what is generically new through a metaphorical process that connects it,’ i.e. the text, with what we already know (Sparks 2005, p.9).

By reading the opening of it heuristically and alternatively as ‘story’ and as ‘history’—two very broad categories of genre—this essay will explore how the book of Samuel should be read. I will focus on the first few chapters of the book of Samuel in order to show the relationship between story and history in the Hebrew Bible and how this genre recognition process help us to adjust our reading strategy when we are encountering the narratives in the Hebrew Bible.

Why did Eli Fall?: a good story to tell

When we look at the first line of the Book of Samuel, ‘There was a certain man…’, it looks much more like a ‘story’ beginning than a ‘historical’ account. How can we tell a work is an artistry story or not? Gunn and Fewell helpfully give three features that are typical of narrative (here narrative and story are used interchangeably). First, narrative constructs a verbal world that imitates and centers on human characters; second, narrative is distinguished by plot, rather than non-temporal images used in lyrics or proverbs; and finally, narrative is a genre that enjoys the patterning play of words, in other words, a self-conscious artistic use of language is in view (Gunn and Fewell 1993, pp. 2-3). It is undoubtedly that the beginning of the Book of Samuel presents us a story. The characters that the beginning of the story introduces are all members of a family: the husband Elkanah, and his two wives, Hannah and Peninah. However, the story is not about some ordinary family matter. As F. Deist observed, when the story is now ready to unfold, suddenly two (or three) new characters are introduced: ‘at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.’ It is, in Deist words, an ‘abnormally presented piece of information’ that ‘interrupts the flow of the story and conveys information seemingly irrelevant for the story, but precisely for that reason draws the reader’s attention.’ (Deist 1992, p. 25) The beginning of the Book of Samuel is a story with the intricate plot that Elkanah, Hannah along with their unborn son, and the corrupt priests Hophni and Phinehas the sons of Eli, fatefully intertwined together at the sanctuary of Shiloh.

If we look further at the characterization of the main actors within the story, we find a high level of artistry in it. To use the characterization of Eli as a demonstration, the ‘patterning play of words’ within the narrative illustrates that this work really is a good story. In this regard, the repetition of a word are worth noting. In 1 Sam 4:18, Eli is described as ‘heavy’ (kabed), and it is this heaviness that broke his neck—‘heavy’ that finally killed him! Where did this ‘heavy’ come from? ‘Why then look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor (wattekabbed) your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel,’ said an anonymous man of God on behalf of YHWH that announced the punishment on the house of Eli (1 Sam 2:29). And YHWH declared ‘For those who honor me I will honor (ki-mekabbeday ’akabbed), and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ (1 Sam 2:30). Eli earned himself ‘honor/weight’ and lost the ‘honor’ from YHWH. The root ‘honor/weight’ (kbd) is not only repeated around Eli, but it is also associated with the Philistine who took the Ark of YHWH. The narrative mentions that the hand of YHWH was heavy (wattikebad) upon the people of Ashdod, and was very heavy (kabedah me’od) upon all the Philistine’s cities (1 Sam 5:6, 11). When they decided to return the Ark of YHWH to Israel, the Philistines also warned against ‘hardening’ (tekabbedu) their own hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh had ‘hardened’ (kibbedu) theirs (1 Sam 6:6). It seems that the Philistines better comprehended when to ‘get heavy’, and when to honor YHWH (1 Sam 6:5 ‘and give glory (kabod) to the god of Israel’) than the Israelite priest Eli. The glory (kabod) associated with the Ark has repeatedly been cried out as ‘departed’, while at the same moment the daughterin- law of Eli delivered his grandson Ichabod (’i-kabod), a name actually sounds like ‘Where is the Glory’ (or meaning Weightless one, due to his premature birth?) (1 Sam 4:21, 22). However, the occurrence of the word ‘glory’ (kabod) starts not with the incident surrounding Eli’s family, but in the song sung by Hannah after she gave birth to Samuel: ‘He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap; To make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor (wekisse’ kabod yanhilem)…’ (1 Sam 2:8). The word ‘glory’ / ‘honor’ (kabod) appears here to foreshadow the upcoming narrative, and it links with the other key word pregnant with dynastic meaning, ‘seat’ or ‘throne’ (kisse’) which, in the first few chapters of the Book of Samuel, is strongly correlated with Eli (1 Sam 1:9; 4:13, 18). In other words, the song of Hannah is foretelling what will happen in the later narrative that someone (this may be Samuel, Saul or David) will take the ‘seat of honor’, or even better translated as ‘throne of honor’, of Eli, and implicitly predicts the fall of Eli’s family.

The repetition of one word not only reflects the fall of Eli’s family/dynasty in a different dimension, but from the distribution of this word, we can construct a structure that tightly links the narrative of 1 Sam 1-3 with 1 Sam 4-6, which once separated by scholars as independent narrative. The noun form of kbd ‘glory’ (kabod), repeated twice at the birth of Ichabod (’i-kabod) in chapter 4,also appeared in chapter 2 (2:8) and chapter 6 (6:5), i.e. before and after the birth of Ichabod. The verbal form of kbd occurs 4 times each, both before (2:29, 2:30 x 2, 4:18) and after (5:6, 5:11, 6:6 x 2) the birth of Eli’s grandson. In other words, the pivot moment of the opening of the Book of Samuel is the birth of Ichabod, not the birth of Samuel. The story, from the families’ issues of Elkanah and Eli, to the lost of Ark at the hand of Philistine, is structured around this symbolic birth.

Whilst this biblical book is named after Samuel, it is not until chapter 7 that Samuel takes precedence. Samuel’s birth scene and the deeds of his parent (1 Sam 1-2) are used to set off contrast to the deeds of Eli’s family (for this, R. Alter has already discussed it very well in his now classic The Art of Biblical Narrative, see Alter 1981, p.85). The prophecy received by the anonymous man of God and by Samuel (1 Sam 2-3), and the capture of the Ark (1 Sam 4-6), all focus upon the fall of the Elide dynasty and the consequences that it induced. From the repetitive use of the Hebrew word-root kbd (heavy/honor/glory), we can say that the theme of the opening of the book of Samuel is about the ‘fall’ of Eli. Why did Eli fall? Eli fell from his ‘seat’ because he was ‘heavy’; Eli also fell from his ‘throne’, i.e. the fall of his dynasty, because he and his family did not deal with the matter of YHWH ‘heavy’ enough. Eli’s own fall artistically and vividly symbolized the fall of a dynasty once ruled in the history of Israel.

History writing as a complex genre

Through the characterization by repetition of a key word I think I have shown the Book of Samuel indeed starts with a very good story-telling. However, can the Book of Samuel still be read as ‘history’? Is the Eli’s fall really a chapter of history of Israel, or is it only an ironic folktale story about a ruler lost his dynasty because of a theological reason that he was not respectful enough to YWHW and as such other rulers of Israel should take note? Once again, we should ask about what ‘history’ as a genre means. In response to the notion of J. Barr’s ‘Story and History in Biblical Theology’ (1976), E. Nicholson once wrote that historia are the result of ‘enquiry’, in the sense that this term was coined and used by the Greek historian in 5th B.C.E. and the socalled the father of ‘modern’ history, Herodotus. In this regard, Nicholson further described that ‘“[e]nquiry”, questioning and a critical assessment of sources, the active pursuit of dependable historical information, all of which are analytical of writing history in the way that the early Greek historians conceived this, are not in evidence in the work of…Deuteronomist.’ (Nicholson 1994, p.147) In other words, it is hard to consider the Book of Samuel, as most scholars have accepted it as part of the Deuteronomistic History, as a history in the Greek historians’ standard. What Nicholson reminded us is that ‘in essentials a wide gulf separated’ the biblical text and the Greek historians’ history (p. 143). Is the Book of Samuel not a history at all? Or, as Nicholson quoted the words of Barr, is it ‘merit entirely the title story but only in part the title history’ (p. 149)?

Nevertheless, if we consider the oft-cited definition of history by Dutch historian J. Huizinga (1963, p. 9), that ‘[h]istory is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past,’ then critical enquiry into the sources that was employed by the Greek historian may only be one ‘intellectual form’ for writing history. It is legitimate for us to read the Book of Samuel as history as well if we consider the other ‘intellectual form’ of history writing. Certainly, there are other forms of history writing. R. Gordon notes that ‘the most obvious thing to be said about biblical history, is that much of it is event-laden, personality-orientated.’ And this kind of history-writing, ‘[a]ccounts of peoples and periods that pay attention to social structures, the role of the ordinary citizen and the family unit are currently enjoying enhanced status.’ (Gordon 1994, p. 258) Gordon has further cited F. Braudel and L. Namier as historians who are associated and were practicing this kind of history writing.

All these definitions of history show that the concept of ‘history’ as a genre is in practice a very complex one. If we assert that the Book of Samuel is history, we still need to stop and clarify what kind of history sub-genre we are discussing. The Book of Samuel can be called ‘history-like story,’ a romance loaded with history-like information (after H. Frei). Another option is ‘narrated history,’ an account of the past written by consciously use of artistic narrative skills (after F. Watson). The difference between these two alternatives depends on the intention of the writing. Did the writer intend to write an entertaining story, by making use of history-like facts in the characters and plots (even they are fictive rather than factual); or did the writer intend to write a history (and care about the referential character of it), by using narrative skills in the presentation?

The historical intentionality of biblical story

B. Halpern’s book The First Historians (1988) examined different passages from within the Former Prophet to address the issue of historical intention of the history writing in the Hebrew Bible. The criterion suggested by Halpern in order to judge the historian’s intentions, is:

‘[D]oes the work parlay the available evidence (sources) into coherent narrative about events susceptible to reconstruction from the sources? In other words, did the narrator have reason to believe what he or she wrote, or did the narrator depart at will from the sources, concocting freely about matters concerning which he or she had no, or contradictory, evidence?’ (p.12)

Nevertheless, if the sources are no longer isolable or extant, Halpern further suggested an ancillary test, which is a corollary of the principal criterion:

‘[T]he historian who is digesting sources into a coherent, justifiable presentation of a reconstruction will minimize divagations extrinsic to the evidence. He or she will focus upon events, states, and persons of historical significance. The historian may so far yield to the importunities of an antiquarian conscience as to incorporate details incidental to the main themes of the work. But he or she will avoid gratuitous decorations…whose reconstruction is not demanded by the evidence…’ (p. 12)

As ‘we should not expect to know more than the ancient sources knew, but we can hope to know more than they chose to tell,’ (Hallo 1990, p.189) we might find the historical data that is in the Book of Samuel is not ‘concocting freely’ and focusing ‘upon historical significance.’ This can be shown by the work of archaeologist I. Finkelstein who found that the archaeology of the places that play a central role in the story of Samuel has not been discussed sufficiently. Using the archaeological findings concerning Shiloh, he suggested that the biblical memory on the prominence of Shiloh in early Israelite history, like at the opening chapters of the Book of Samuel, must echo the importance of the site no later than the tenth century B. C. E..

From the mentioning of the Philistine city Gath in the Ark Narrative, Finkelstein believed that it ‘may have served the needs of the later author, but may also preserve an early memory.’ Because if the story was fictively shaped in late-monarchic or exilic times, ‘one would have expected to find in it the cities of Ashkelon or Gaza instead of Gath—in line with the information on the Philistine cities provided by the prophetic works of the time’. The overall conclusion drawn by Finkelstein is that ‘even if the Ark Narrative was redacted or even compiled in later times to serve the religio-political agenda of Jerusalem temple and dynasty, or to encourage the Judahite exiles, it certainly echoes layers of earlier realities.’ (Finkelstein 2002, p. 155)

Gordon also has a positive view on the historicity of the Book of Samuel. In his discussion on the reason behind the emergence of the Monarchy, he employed Finkelstein’s earlier finding about the Israel’s ‘settlement pattern’ in the central hill country of Palestine. Finkelstein’s conclusion is that the Israel secondary development of the western part of the area resulted Israelite in friction with the Philistine inhabitants of the coastal plain. Gordon elaborated that ‘Israelite expansion westward as well as Philistine interest in their neighbors’ territory to the east’ can be account for the situation described in Judges and 1 Samuel. Because of the inhabitants of Benjaminite territory suffered most directly from Philistine encroachments, this ‘stimulus of Philistine aggression, facilitated by Israelite expansion,’ played a role ‘to the circumstances in which Israel discovered its need of a monarchy.’ (Gordon 1994, p. 260) Gordon not only believed that the monarchy developed from a single reason (‘nearly monocausality’, p.257) can be confirmed by Finkelstein’s finding, he also invokes the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ to argue about the ‘genuineness of the traditions about’ Samuel. (p.262) ‘Criterion of dissimilarity’ means ‘the presence of features in a narrative despite their conflicting with what would be regarded as normative or appropriate in the period when the traditions crystallized in more or less their final literary form.’ (p. 262) One example of this criterion sited by Gordon is ‘[t]he plurality of offices held by Samuel’ that at a later date was quite impossible. Thus, it should be that this tradition has its historic core when it was being written down at the date the narrative was formed.

All these tell us that, although we cannot absolutely certain about the historicity of the narrative in the opening of the Book of Samuel, we still have some way to check whether the ‘history-like’ characters of the biblical narrative are only devices in the telling of story or they have their referential value in reality. In other words, it is more likely that the narrative of the Book of Samuel was intended historically rather than just being a sensational and provoking story.

Biblical story as history: friend to trust or suspect to torture?

History is not about facts and figures. By ‘an explanation of the meaningful connectedness of the sequence of past events in the form of an interested and focused narrative,’ (Deist 1999, p. 380) the antiquarian interested narrator of biblical history drew the audiences into a distant reality, in order to influence the life and to shape the vision of those who wanted to find meanings in the present. The interplay of story and history is not to serve the purpose of modern historians who demand the pure objectivity of history inquires, but to serve those people who want to recognize their place in the present, the existence that is the continuation of the past. Story is the means to bring out the morals and significance of the history, and I believe in the Book of Samuel that the storyline serves well to the purpose of the historically intended author/redactor/narrator/ historiographer, whoever he/she was.

However, good intention will not guarantee good work. One may argue that the historically intended narrative does not mean that the narrative reflects the accurate historical situation of the past, and the ideological/ theological purpose of the narrative will hinder the presentation of the history. Nevertheless, with a certainty of the historical intentions of the biblical stories, their ‘witnesses deserve to be treated more like friends we should be able to trust than potential deceivers whom we need to suspect and torture.’ (Goldingay 1994, p. 36)

References cited in the essay

Alter, R. (1981), The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books).

Barr, J. (1976), “Story and History in Biblical Theology”, Journal of Religion, 56, 1-17.

Deist, F. E. (1992), “‘By The Way, Hophni and Phinehas were there.’: An Investigation into the Literary and Ideological Function of Hophin, Phinehas and Shiloh in 1 Samuel 1-4”, Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages, 18, 25-35.

Deist, F. E. (1999), “Contingency, Continuity and Integrity in Historical Understand” in V. Philips Long (ed.), Israel’s Past in Present Research Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns) 373-390.

Finkelstein, I. (2002), “The Philistines in the Bible: A Latemonarchic Perspective”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 27(2), 131-167.

Frei, H. W. (1974), The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Goldingay, J. (1994), Models for Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster Press).

Gordon, R. P. (1994), “Who Made the Kingmaker? Reflections on Samuel and the Institution of the Monarchy” in A. R. Millard, J. K. Hoffmeier, & D. W. Baker (eds.), Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in its Near Eastern Context (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns) 255-270.

Gunn, D. M., & Fewell, D. N. (1993), Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press).

Hallo, W. W. (1990), “The Limits of Skepticism”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 110, 187-199.

Halpern, B. (1988), The First Historians: the Hebrew Bible and history (San Francisco: Harper & Row).

Huizinga, J. (1936), “A Definition of the Concept of History” in R. Klibansky, & H. J. Paton (eds.), Philosophy and History (Oxford: The Clarendon press) 1-10.

Nicholson, E. (1994), “Story and History in the Old Testament” in S. E. Balentine, & J. Barton (eds.), Language, Theology, and the Bible: Essays in Honour of James Barr (New York: Oxford University) 135-150.

Sparks, K. L. (2005), Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: a Guide to the Background Literature (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers).

Watson, F. (1997), Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Pub).