The Road to Kingship

1-2 Samuel

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Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , March
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Road to Kingship: 1-2 Samuel is the second of Johanna W. H. Wijk-Bos’s trilogy “A People and a Land”commentary series on the historical books of the Deuteronomistic History. While Wijk-Bos translates only a few verses from each chapter, she carefully works with the Hebrew text throughout. Kingship is not a technical commentary and so skips past famous tensions between the Greek and Hebrew texts (no mention of the textual issues of 1 Samuel 17, for example), but the author does occasionally look to the Septuagint to resolve Masoretic text issues. She discusses Hebrew words (transliterated) and includes an index of Hebrew words referenced with brief definitions in the end matter. Wijk-Bos does not aim to discern historical truth underlying these books. She states her position that these texts came into being during times of national trauma prior to Judah’s exile in 586 BCE, with final editing taking place after the return, but she does not defend that position.

Wijk-Bos follows traditional paths as she divides these books into five cycles: 1 Samuel 1–12, 1 Samuel 13–30; 2 Samuel 1–8; 2 Samuel 9–20; 2 Samuel 21–24. Each cycle is divided into three to five acts which are further divided into scenes, usually a half-chapter to a chapter in length. She introduces each scene with a pithy quote from the work of another Samuel scholar, or occasionally some other piece of literature (I especially like the introduction to 1 Sam 16:14–23, “Little David, play on your harp,” drawn from an African American spiritual, 124). She concentrates on the narrative action of each passage, explaining what an ancient Israelite would have visualized when reading or hearing these texts.

Kingship devotes particular attention to the many significant female characters of Samuel, including Hannah, Michal, Abigail, Tamar, the wise women of Tekoa and Abel, and Rizpah. Wijk-Bos is a devotee of second wave feminism, and explores the characters of these women accordingly, delving into their human complexities. Hannah is a model of agency and initiative; Michal moves from deep love for David to sharp disapproval; the wise woman of Tekoa is uniquely able to restore Absalom to David’s good graces. Preachers, teachers, and scholars who examine the women of Samuel will do well to consider Wijk-Bos’s exegesis.

Given that the main character of 1­–2 Samuel is David, a reviewer should say something about a Samuel commentary’s treatment of Israel’s greatest king. One of the positive features of Kingship is that since Wijk-Bos does not seek to uncover the “historical” David, she does not try to imagine the biases involved in portraying a real human being, enabling her to read the narratives as narratives. This distinguishes her readings from other modern efforts that argue that 1–2 Samuel regularly apologizes for David to make him appear better than he really was. An excellent example of the utility of her approach appears in her comments on 2 Samuel 19, in which David mourns the death of his rebellious son Absalom and so shames loyal troops who had killed Absalom to preserve David’s throne. Many scholars cynically suggest that David’s expressed grief is part of a ruse to hide the reality that he had in fact ordered his men to kill his son and end the threat. Wijk-Bos argues that this kind of criticism obviates the possibility of a complicated, layered, human David who is concurrently a king trying to preserve his throne, a ruler who must preserve morale among his troops, and a father confronted with the sudden death of his son. Reading the text without theorizing its relationship to history allows us to see the author’s depiction of a grief-stricken man struggling with powerful conflicting emotions.

Wijk-Bos is abundantly clear about her enjoyment of 2 Samuel 9–20, which she calls the “Court History” instead of the more usual “Succession Narrative.” She discerns a distinct style that richly portrays the complexities of family, as per the 2 Samuel 19 passage discussed above. The “Court History” is the one section for which Wijk-Bos speculates about authorship, making a case for David’s daughter Tamar. It features three women who speak openly with conviction, thus revealing an interest in the ability of women to influence events. Tamar would have been close to the action, given her relationships with her father David and brother Absalom. Most scholars (including me) reject Tamar as a possible author because archaeological findings indicate that 10th-century Jerusalem was far too small to support the royal household depicted in the “Court History,” and because of the lack of evidence for the existence of more than minimal Hebrew writing activity in Israel prior to the 8th century BCE. Furthermore, once we theorize an author of an “historical” text, we must consider how the author’s bias impacted the text, something that Wijk-Bos consistently avoids.

While Wijk-Bos works with the Hebrew, her sporadic references to Hebrew words combined with her decision to translate only selectively leads to spotty conclusions. For example, she concludes that references to Saul as “leader” rather than “king” of Israel in 1 Sam 9:16 and 10:1 indicate ambivalence of God and Samuel toward the monarchy. Unfortunately, she does not identify the important Hebrew word nagid (which she renders as “leader”) used in these verses, although in her discussion of 1 Sam 25 (which references David as future nagid of Israel) she notes that nagid was the word used of Saul in 9:16. Wijk-Bos misses the fact that in the historical books nagid is exclusively used for kings or future kings (as in the theologically crucial 2 Sam 7:8). This is why major English translations do not render nagid in 1 Sam 9–10 as “leader,” but instead opt for “ruler” or “prince” (the King James Version uses “captain”). A more rigorous translation strategy could have helped avoid this error.

Yet as I wrote at the start, Kingship is not intended as a technical refence. It is a joy to read, whether devoured on its own or consulted alongside a volume on the historical David or history of Israel. Scholars, preachers, and teachers will all benefit from reading this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John W. Herbst is a scholar-in-residence at the Virginia Peninsula Baptist Association.

Date of Review: 
August 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos taught as professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary from 1977 to 2017. She serves the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) as ordained pastor and is deeply engaged with issues of equity in terms of gender and race. 



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