Study Guide

1 Samuel Themes

  • Traditions and Customs

    As the good Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, traditions let us know who we are. It's because of our traditions (along with some other important stuff) that society functions and cultures thrive. 1 Samuel talks about a number of different traditions and customs. Many of them center on the religious customs at the temple at Shiloh. Back in the biblical days, it wasn't possible for people to go to temple every week. Most were only able to make the journey once a year. People sacrificed, prayed, feasted, and talked with old friends at their temple. It was here that a woman named Hannah prayed for a child and because God granted her request, she allowed her son Samuel to live at the temple. Every year, Hannah began her own tradition of bringing him a robe.

    Questions About Traditions and Customs

    1. The temple was the main place where people got together every year. Where do you meet you with your family and friends for special occasions like holidays? And what other purposes does the temple serve in the story?
    2. In one story, David has soldiers who fight and others who stay with the army's belongings, but all share in the spoils. Do you think this is fair or should those put in harm's way get first dibs? What do you make of this tradition?
    3. What non-religious traditions are present in 1 Samuel? What purpose do you think these traditions serve?
  • Competition

    Shmoop confession: we are extremely competitive. Sports, board games, walking past old people, you name it. We must win at everything. But hey, that's why we're awesome. We're number one.

    Deep down inside we're all competitive in some sense. The book of 1 Samuel talks about many different forms of competition. Some are obvious like the game of thrones between David and Saul. Others are a little odd like two wives competing to see who can give their husband more children. We even have gods competing against each other, as when the Philistines capture the Ark and put it in front of their own god, Dagon, who then bows down to the Ark (looks like the Israelite God won that round).

    Questions About Competition

    1. How do different religions and belief systems compete against each other in 1 Samuel? How do religions compete against each other in the modern world?
    2. David and Goliath each represent their countries in a battle. If you were selecting a champion to fight for your country, who would you choose?
    3. In what way does interpersonal competition appear in 1 Samuel? What about competition on a wider scale?
  • Warfare

    1 Samuel gives us a little taste of the horrors of war. In the first battle of the book, the Israelites lose, and the Ark of God is taken by the Philistines. The Philistines think that they've won a major victory. But God punishes the Philistines with a plague because they took the Ark. If plagues aren't bad enough, next we meet a really weird guy named Nahash. He'd loved to make a treaty with you. But his treaty has one twisted condition: he must be allowed to gouge out your right eye. This seems like a natural response, we say sarcastically.

    Fortunately, there are some good guys. Jonathan is Saul's son, and he has one of the few swords in Israel. See, the Philistines tried to keep weapons out of the hands of Israelites and for good reason. Jonathan uses his sword to defeat the Philistines and bring a great victory to Israel. Still, there's not much good news to tell. Men, women, children, and animals are slaughtered. In the end of the book, Saul and his sons have their heads cut off, and their bodies are hung on a wall.

    As fun as playing war can be, real war, no matter how long ago, is never fun.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What kinds of war do we see in 1 Samuel? Small skirmishes? Big battles? How are these moments of war described? Are they glorified at all? Do we ever see the nitty gritty horrors?
    2. The punishment for losing a battle is severe. The Israelites often completely destroy their enemies. Does this seem fair to you? Why or why not?
    3. The Bible says Goliath has been training to be a soldier since he was a boy. And David fights Goliath when he's quite young himself. Why do you think these cultures relied on such young people in battle?
  • Leadership

    Following the leader, the leader the leader. We're following the leader wherever he may go.

    Sounds fun enough, right? But here's the thing: blindly following a leader just because they're in charge probably isn't the smartest thing you could ever do. (There is one exception: when we're in charge, listen to us.)

    Why's it a bad idea? Well, think of it this way. The book of 1 Samuel is all about changes in leadership. Before Saul was anointed king, the people of Israel only had judges to unite them. This was cutting it for the fine folks in ancient Israel, so Saul got the top job. As it turns out, he's not such a great leader. Most of the time, he's more concerned with public opinion than doing what God wants. If he were a president or a prime minister in the modern world, he would always be studying opinion polls in order to make his decisions. And when he's not trying to please the people, he still makes really dumb moves. During one battle with the Philistines, he tells his troops that they aren't allowed to eat. With a hot and difficult battle ahead, they really should be grubbing. Saul's poor decision ultimately cost him the throne, but hey, we kind of saw that coming right?

    Samuel then chooses David to be king. Saul has more resources than David, but David is the better leader. He always seems to triumph—no matter what the circumstances. We're sad to say, if you really boil down the story, Saul loses the throne to a 12-year-old boy. Just when you thought Saul couldn't get any sadder.

    Questions About Leadership

    1. What makes David such a good leader, anyway? Is it all charisma, or does he make smart, decisive choices, too?
    2. Why is Saul such a failure as a king? Is he entirely to blame, or are there other circumstances affecting his leadership?
    3. What kind of a leader is Samuel? How would you describe his leadership qualities?
    4. What do the Israelites need in a leader, based on what you know of them as a culture from 1 Samuel?
  • Appearances

    Remember what your mother taught you: it's what's on the inside, not the outside that counts. Which is pretty much how the Bible sees people, too. We very rarely ever get to know what people look like. Only on rare occasions do you read that a man is good looking or that a woman is beautiful. In those cases, the information is only given because it is an essential part of the story. For example, the Bible tells us that Abraham's wife Sarah is beautiful because Pharaoh will be interested in her. It's not that there weren't more beautiful people in the Bible, it's just that physical descriptions aren't a big part of Biblical literature. Maybe the Bible's mommy taught it that true beauty is on the inside. Although, we guess the Bible's mommy is technically God, so that makes sense.

    Despite the Bible usually not mentioning physical descriptions, appearance plays an important role in 1 Samuel. In fact, most people who know anything about the book or the life of David often like to quote 1 Samuel 16:7. The verse says that God looks on the heart (what's inside a person) and not on the outward appearance. Saul will be chosen king, and many people will accept him because he is tall and good-looking. But this a terrible mistake. David is next anointed king, and even though he's a cute kid, that's not the reason why he wins the throne. We guess it's nice to know that even thousands of years ago people were still likely to pick the good looking people first.

    Or maybe that's a terrible thing to know?

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What physical descriptions are present in 1 Samuel? What do they add to the story?
    2. Instead of physical descriptions, does 1 Samuel use any other methods of description? What do these tell us about the people, and the stories in which they are featured?
    3. Is there anything—or anyone—in 1 Samuel that isn't quite what it seems? In other words, do outward appearances ever deceive people in this book?