1, 2 Samuel. Vol. 7 in The New American Commentary

By Robert D. Bergen
Nashville, TN : Broadman & Holman (1996). 512 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 117-119

Robert D. Bergen is professor of Old Testament at Hannibal-La Grange College in Hannibal, Missouri. He has researched and written about discourse criticism and its application to the study of the biblical text. In this volume, Bergen applies his exegetical methodology to the study and resulting exposition of the book(s) of Samuel.

The New American Commentary is a continuation of the tradition established by the older An American Commentary series under the editorship of Alvah Hovey at the end of the nineteenth century. The current series, as did its predecessor, affirms the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Bergen adheres to this perspective, referring to 1, 2 Samuel as the accurate and trustworthy Word of God (53-55). The commentaries are based on the NIV, which is printed in the volumes. However, the commentators, as does Bergen, are free to differ from the NIV when they deem it necessary in their comments on the text. The format makes the materials available to layman and scholar alike with the technical points of gram mar and syntax occurring in the footnotes rather than the text.

Bergen begins his volume with a 40-page introduction to 1, 2 Samuel (17- 56). He concludes that the canonical form of 1, 2 Samuel was produced in the exile in the middle of the sixth century B.C., based on written documents from the times of Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David with reflective theological insights not present in the original source documents (23). The human author is unknown, but his work was integrated into a larger literary unit, though there are differing perspectives of what that larger unit is (23-25). Bergen opts to see 1, 2 as a part of the Former Prophets (Joshua–Kings) that affirmed and explained the teachings of the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy) (18, 46-53). The position taken in this commentary on the textual debate is that “generally the M T is to be accepted as the most probable original reading, except, in cases where insuperable problems are created by holding to it” (27). Bergen presents a detailed discussion of the purposes that have been proposed for 1, 2 Samuel, in which he settles on a multi-faceted function (27-55). The introduction concludes with an outline of 1, 2 Samuel that serves (with further amplifications) to guide the discussion of the commentary on the biblical text (55- 56).

The author devotes the bulk of this volume to a detailed commentary on the text of 1, 2 Samuel (57-480). Bergen’s seminal article “Text as a Guide to Authorial Intention: An Introduction to Discourse Criticism” (JETS 30/3 [September, 1987]:327-36) gives valuable insight into his methodology in the commentary section. The structural dynamics of the text at higher organizational levels influences all the lower levels of which it is composed, i.e., language is organized from the top down. With this perspective, Bergen introduces each major division of 1, 2 Samuel with a lengthy discussion of themes that unify the division. He also highlights most sections before commenting on the individual paragraphs. By this means the commentator helps his readers to see the overall flow of the biblical book(s) and the interconnections between different divisions and sections. Further, the author continually shows the connections of 1, 2 Samuel with what has been written before (especially the Torah) and what canonically comes later (especially the Latter Prophets and the N T).

Bergen further sees the biblical author as giving hints about what sections are important in three major ways. First, the writer will vary lexical/grammatical structure from the norms. He cites the text concerning Saul’s evil spirit from the Lord as an example of this phenomenon (182-83). Second, the quantity of material presented within a unit is observed through word count. The book(s) of Samuel evidence this in a number of significant passages (75, 126, 140, 239, 247, 249, 336, 450). Third, unusual kinds of information-bearing structures appear. For instance, 1 Sam 9:1-2 emphasizes Saul’s height. Significantly, Saul is the only Israelite specifically mentioned in the Bible as being tall; elsewhere it is only Israel’s enemies whose height was noted. Saul is a king such as the nations might have, even to his physical details (120-21). With these higher-level insights, Bergen then proceeds to a valuable study of the individual paragraphs. This is a well-researched, well-written commentary.

Although this is an excellent work, two weaknesses are apparent. First, Bergen shows fourteen similarities between Samuel and Moses. From this, he concludes that Samuel is the long-anticipated prophet who would be like Moses (cf. Deut 18:15) (59-60). However, Deut 34:10-12 especially highlights the signs and wonders that Moses did. Samuel was not a prophet who did signs and wonders like Moses; thus the NT points to Jesus Christ, not Samuel, as the long-anticipated prophet like Moses (Gospel of John; Acts 3:19-23). Second, Bergen notes that 2 Sam 7:12 in its immediate historical context referred to Solomon, but that its primary application in later Scripture was to Jesus. Further, 7:13-15 was also applied directly to Jesus in the NT. A discussion of the hermeneutical principles applied by the commentator to arrive at his conclusions would have been helpful here.

Even with the weaknesses, 1, 2 Samuel is the best evangelical commentary available on this portion of Scripture. This volume should be the first work bought and consulted on 1, 2 Samuel.