Review of Tsumura’s NICOT volume on 1 Samuel

David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. 720pp. $50.00, Hardcover.

Japan Bible Seminary’s David Toshio Tsumura has given us a fine new commentary on 1 Samuel. He lucidly overviews the history of the modern discussion of the text of 1 Samuel, which, he notes is “allegedly ‘in extremely poor condition’” (3). Against the tendency to emend the Masoretic Text in light of the LXX and the other versions, Tsumura insists that “The primary task of exegetes of ancient texts . . . is to interpret data in its original context, not to alter the data so that they can explain it easily” (8). Tsumura suggests that some difficulties are due not to a corrupt text but to phonetic spellings, misunderstood Hebrew grammatical structures, or idiomatic expressions. He suggests that “A narrative like 1–2 Samuel could have been written, at least partly, as if it was heard or spoken,” thus “the majority of proposed emendations are needless” (10). How might scholars two thousand years from now, whose only recourse to English is what they find in surviving written texts, respond to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying? Would the dialects in Faulkner’s prose be corrected or emended if the English text were compared with the French translation (or even with an English dictionary!)?

Tsumura argues that the “final editing of 1–2 Samuel, with minor adjustments, was probably made no later than the late 10th century b.c.” (11). The Philistines are identified as being from the “Sea Peoples, who migrated from the Aegean” (34). They were uncircumcised but neither unsophisticated nor uncultivated (37). Tsumura provides a fascinating discussion of the historical and religious background of 1–2 Samuel, and his discussion of Grammar and Syntax is informed by both modern linguistics and more traditional grammatical categories.

The traditional threefold division of 1 Samuel is broadly followed: Samuel (1–7), Saul (9–15), and David (16–31). Tsumura sees the purpose of 1 Samuel being to highlight the establishment of the monarchy and the preparation of David (73). He argues that the references to daughter/sons of Belial (e.g., 1:16; 2:12) should be rendered to reflect a person’s connection to the divine name Beliyaal rather than as a “worthless” man or woman (124). He does not explore what this might imply about the way that people in the OT are reckoned in terms of “corporate personality” as belonging either to the “seed of the woman” or to the “seed of the serpent.”

This commentary is very strong on matters textual, grammatical, and historical, and Tsumura allows the rest of the OT to inform his interpretation. But readers should be aware that the commentary gives almost no attention to canonical biblical theology—the flow of redemptive history, the typological patterns between, for instance, Joseph and David, or the ways this flow of redemptive historical patterns might influence and be fulfilled in the NT. For another commentary on 1–2 Samuel that reverses these emphases (little attention to text criticism, grammar, and history, while focusing on canonical biblical theology), see Peter Leithart’s A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel.

For the most part volumes in this series are very user friendly, but I have two complaints about them: First, it makes no sense to me why the series hides the bibliography between the Introduction and the Commentary. The bibliography would be so much easier to find if it were located in the same place as it may be found in most other volumes: at the back of the book. Second, these are long commentaries read mainly by people who at least know the Greek and Hebrew alphabets. Therefore, all transliteration of Greek and Hebrew in these volumes should be abandoned. Transliteration hinders those who know the languages, and it does not give understanding to those who don’t. While it may help those who have not studied Greek and Hebrew feel more comfortable, how many people know what sounds are signified by the superscripted e’s or the backwards apostrophe? And even if they can sound out the word, sort of, they still don’t know what it means. Down with transliteration!

We congratulate David Toshio Tsumura for this accomplishment. He has advanced the discussion of 1 Samuel, and his bold position on the text of 1–2 Samuel is a refreshing, if controversial, perspective on the reliability of the Masoretic Text. No researcher will be able to ignore this volume, and no preacher will want to be without it.

UPDATE: JT wrote to tell me that Tsumura wrote the study notes on 1-2 Samuel for the ESV Study Bible. One more reason to look forward to its appearance this fall!

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  1. Thanks for this review.
    Amen on the transliteration. I have never understood its value in books like this.
    May transliteration, along with endnotes, fade quitely from the scene!

  2. Dr. Hamilton, my wife and I have been going through Samuel in our devotions, and I too have enjoyed reading through Tsumura’s commentary. I was surprised that, being a commentary set to explain a lot of the textual issues in the book, it did so without losing the story in the details. Thank you also for your sermons through Samuel. I must say, sadly, that you are the first person I’ve heard actually preach through the books of Samuel. I pray that God will raise up more who preach through the whole counsel of God. How badly do our churches need a fuller picture of God!

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