Together with what is now referred to as the Book(s) of Kings, the translators who created the Greek Septuagint divided the text into four books, which they named the Books of the Kingdoms. In the Latin Vulgate version, these then became the Books of the Kings, thus 1 and 2 Samuel were referred to as 1 and 2 Kings, with 3 and 4 Kings being what are called 1 and 2 Kings by the King James Bible and its successors.
A conclusion of sorts appears at 1 Kings 1–2, concerning Solomon enacting a final revenge on those who did what David perceived as wrongdoing, and having a similar narrative style. While the subject matter in the Book(s) of Samuel is also covered by the narrative in Chronicles, it is noticeable that the section (2 Sam. 11:2–12:29) containing an account of the matter of Bathsheba is omitted in the corresponding passage in 1 Chr. 20.
Hannah is introduced as childless, but she makes a vow to YHWH stating that if she has a son, he will be dedicated to Yahweh as a permanent Nazirite. Eli blesses her, and a child named Samuel is soon born.
At the same time, Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are priests at Shiloh who abuse their position. A "man of God" comes to Eli and tells him that due his tolerance of their behavior, YHWH has revoked his promise of perpetual priesthood for Eli's family, and that Eli's sons will later die on the same day. Samuel confirms that there is no way for them to avoid this fate. A while later, following a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, it is reported to Eli that his sons are dead and that the Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant. Upon hearing the latter, Eli falls backward off his seat, breaks his neck and dies. Phinehas's wife, hearing that Eli had died and that the Ark of the Covenant was captured, is overcome with birth pains. Giving birth to a son, she names him Ichabod (without glory), and dies shortly thereafter.
The Philistines take the Ark of the Covenant to their temple of the god Dagon. The next morning, the Dagon statue is found prostrate before the Ark, so they adjust the statue; but the morning after, it is found broken into pieces. The town surrounding the Ark falls victim to a plague, so the Philistines resign themselves to get rid of the Ark, first sending it on to Gath, then to Ekron, both of which fall victim to the same plague. At the advice of fortune tellers, the Philistines put the Ark and additional offerings on a cow-pulled cart, sending it off without a driver. The cart reaches Beth-shemesh, and the locals celebrate, but then mourn because some of their men are struck dead by YHWH for looking into the Ark of the Covenant. So they ask the people of Kiriath-jearim to collect the ark, which they do, and it is taken into the house of Abinadab.
Later, the Philistines attack the Israelites gathered at Mizpah. Samuel appeals to Yahweh, and so the Philistines are decisively beaten. As a result, Samuel sets up a memorial stone between Mizpah and Shen, naming it Ebenezer. Israel reclaims the territory spanning Ekron to Gath, and makes peace with the Amorites.
Nahash, an Ammonite, lays siege to Jabesh-Gilead, so its people request a treaty, but Nahash is arrogant and requires that each person must have their right eye gouged out. The people request that Nahash let them send out messengers in search of a savior, and Nahash agrees, unaware that Israel has a king and believing that the tribes are still separated. After hearing of the siege, Saul orders the people of Israel to join him in an attack on Nahash and threatens them by sending out a piece of a cow to each of the 12 tribes, stating that if they do not comply, he will do the same to their cattle. Saul consequently gathers an army and attacks Nahash, obliterating his army. The people take this as evidence of Saul's ability to lead, and so they are told by Samuel to appoint him king, which they do.
Samuel gives a speech reminding the Israelites not to fall into heathenism like their previous generations have done. The Hebrews/Jonathan (depending on the text—Masoretic has Jonathan, Septuagint has Hebrews) overcome the Philistines in Gibeah. Saul sounds the trumpet to tell all Israel that he (Saul) has overcome the Philistines there. The Philistines assemble for battle, frightening the Israelites, but in accordance with Samuel's instructions, Saul waits seven days for Samuel to arrive, before giving up his wait and making a sacrifice. Samuel castigates Saul for not waiting, telling him that as a result his kingdom will not last. Saul, successful and brave, defeats Amalek. Samuel orders Saul to exterminate Amalek, but although Saul subsequently slaughters the Amalekites, he does not slaughter the animals, and he captures King Agag alive. Saul also erects a trophy at Carmel in his own honour. Samuel berates him for not carrying out the mass extermination completely, so Saul repents and begs Samuel to go with him. Samuel refuses and leaves, but Saul grabs at him, tearing part of Samuel's mantle, for which Samuel says that part of Saul's kingdom will be torn off and given to another. Samuel kills Agag himself, by hacking him into pieces (wa-yeshassef).
While Saul and his son occupy Geba, the Philistines raid the nearby land. Previously, the Philistines had ensured that there were no smiths in the land, causing the people of Israel to be devoid of weaponry, except for Saul and Jonathan. Jonathan secretly heads to the Philistine outpost at Michmash with his armour bearer, first crossing a ravine, and they slaughter large numbers of Philistines who panic and scatter. Saul notices and eventually sends his army to help. The Hebrews were previously on the Philistine side (some translations add the words some of, making this refer only to a sub group of Hebrews) but decide to join the forces of Israel. In a moment of foolishness, Saul curses anyone that eats anything before the evening, but Jonathan does not notice and consumes some honey he finds. This rapidly leads to others following suit and ignoring Saul's curse. Saul builds an altar, insisting that it be used to sacrifice before the food is eaten, and he condemns to death whoever is at fault for violating his curse. Saul uses Urim and Thummim to find out it was Jonathan, so reluctantly condemns him, but the army threatens to revolt if Saul kills him, so he does not.
David flees to Ahimelech, priest of Nob, who only has holy bread. Since David abstains from the company of women on such journeys, Ahimelech allows David to take the bread and Goliath's sword which Ahimelech had been keeping. David then flees. Saul's chief henchman, Doeg, witnessed Ahimelech assisting David, so Saul has Doeg kill him and all the people in Nob. However, Ahimelech's son Abiathar escapes to tell David.
David hides in the caves near Engedi, and Saul hears of this and pursues him. Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, coincidentally the cave in which David is hiding, and David sneaks up on him and cuts off the end of his mantle (Saul had also done this to Samuel). Because Saul has been anointed, David regrets this and forbids his men from harming Saul, and then he steps out of the cave to show himself. David convinces Saul that he is not a threat, and the two reconcile. The two depart from one another, and Samuel dies. Men from Ziph tell Saul that David is hiding at Hachilah, so Saul goes to search for him. David and Abishai sneak into Saul's camp and steal Saul's spear. They then go a long way away and shout back what they have just done and persuade Saul that David is not a threat; the two consequently are reconciled.
David tries to get hospitality from a man at Ma'on, named Nabal, who owns property in Carmel, but Nabal is miserly and refuses. Angered, David prepares to attack Nabal and kill those surrounding him. Nabal's clever and pretty wife, Abigail, sends David provisions, causing David to relent. She tells Nabal once he has sobered up, and Nabal is soon after struck dead by Yahweh. David thus proposes marriage to Abigail, who accepts. David also marries Ahinoam of Jezreel, though meanwhile Michal, his original wife, is transferred by Saul to another man, Palti.
David decides that it is better to be on the safe side and so chooses to reside amongst the Philistines, staying with the King Achish of Gath. Previously David had briefly fled to Achish having left Ahimelech, where he feigned insanity to avoid attracting attention, but this time he lets Achish realise that he is an enemy of Saul. However, David continues to make raids against the surrounding population, slaughtering everyone he meets so that none will tell Achish what he has done. When he brings back spoils, he tells the king of Gath that he has raided against some foreign group or the Israelites or Judah. Achish trusts him implicitly and so requests that David join him in an attack on Jezreel. The Philistines encamp against the Israelites but are curious why the Hebrews (some translations have "some of the Hebrews") are amongst the Philistines. Uneasy about David's presence, they tell Achish to send him away, and so Achish reluctantly does so.
Saul sees the Philistines encamping at Shunem and is disheartened. Saul tries to consult God for advice but receives no reply, and since he has banned necromancy and prophecy in accordance with the mitzvah, he is forced to disguise himself and go to the Witch of Endor. He asks her to bring up Samuel from the dead, which she does, and Samuel admonishes Saul for acting this way and tells him that owing to Saul's past failure to commit complete genocide regarding Amalek, Saul is already condemned. Saul becomes deeply shaken and refuses to eat, but he is eventually persuaded.
David attacks the Philistines, taking their methegammah (literally bridle of the cubit though many translations render this as chief cities). David also defeats Moab and executes a proportion (either ⅓ or ⅔) of their entire population, making Moab a vassal. David then defeats Hadadezer, and though the Aramaeans come to Hadadezer's aid, David slaughters them, making the Aramaeans vassals. King Toi of Hamath, Hadadezer's enemy, congratulates David and adds to his spoils of precious metals. On his return (from an unspecified location), David becomes famous for slaughtering 18,000 Edomites, whereupon Edom becomes a vassal state.
A list of officers in David's court is given on two occasions. The list includes the head of the army, chancellor (Jehoshaphat), master of the slaves, and commander of foreign troops, as well as the two priests, Zadok and Abiathar.
The king of the Ammonites dies and is succeeded by Hanun. Reflecting the prior king's kindness to David, David sends messengers to Hanun to give his condolences. However, they are interpreted by Hanun as spies, so he has the base of their beards cut off and the base of their garments below their buttocks, giving them a Babylonian appearance. When they return, David tells them to wait in Jericho until their beards grow. The Ammonites then prepare for war and hire a mercenary army from Aram, Tob, and Maacah, but it does not reach the Ammonites before David's army are too close. Joab splits David's army into two groups, one to attack the Aramaeans, and one to attack the Ammonites. The Aramaeans flee before David's army, and so the Ammonites withdraw. Hadadezer hires Aramaeans that live beyond the Euphrates, and they attack the Israelites at Helam. Shobach, Hadadezer's general, is defeated and killed, and so Hadadezer's vassal states decide to become David's vassals instead.
Absalom builds up a gradual following, eventually having enough supporters that he plans a coup against David. An informant tells David, who tells his supporters to flee Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. At the Mount of Olives, David tells his foreign mercenaries to go back to Jerusalem since they owe no allegiance, but they insist on going with David. David also sends back Zadok and Abiathar, the priests, and his friend, Hushai, to act as an informant. A man, Shimei, throws stones at David and curses him, so Abishai asks David to kill Shimei, but David will not let him, claiming that Yahweh has made Shimei do this. On the advice of Ahithophel, Absalom has relations with David's concubines on his roof, so that the whole nation can see his contempt for David. After receiving counsel from both Ahithophel and Hushai, Absalom chooses Hushai's plan to send all Israel to attack David over Ahithophel's, so Ahithophel commits suicide in shame. Hushai sends word to David of the plan via spies hidden in a cistern at En-rogel. Absalom sends his army across the Jordan, and David prepares his own troops, asking that Absalom be treated gently. A huge battle erupts between the armies in the forests near Mahanaim, but while riding on his mule, Absalom gets caught in a tree by his hair and is stuck hanging there. Although the first people from David's side to discover Absalom like this refuse to harm him, owing to David's request, Joab has no such qualms and kills Absalom. David becomes extremely upset but pulls himself together and returns victorious to Jerusalem, accompanied by Judah.
Jonathan had a son named Meribbaal, who was 5 when Jonathan and Saul were killed. When she heard the news of this, Meribaal's nurse took him and fled, but he fell and became crippled. In memory of Jonathan, David shows Meribbaal kindness, gives him Saul's lands, and lets him dine at David's table. He also tells Ziba, a servant of Saul, that Ziba and his family must serve Meribbaal. During Absalom's revolt, Meribbaal remained in Jerusalem; Ziba told David that this was because Meribbaal hoped that the people of Israel would restore him to his father's throne. Meribbaal does not wash his feet or his clothes or trim his moustache until David returns to the throne in Jerusalem. On meeting David, Meribbaal tells him that Ziba was lying about his motive for remaining and reminds David that Meribbaal is lame. David does not care and orders Meribbaal to split his property with Ziba.
The people of Israel feel slighted that those of Judah were preferred by David to accompany him back to the throne, so a war of words breaks out between them. A man named Sheba sounds a horn rallying the people of Israel to him. David asks Amasa to summon the people of Judah to him and go after Sheba. At the great stone in Gibeon, Amasa meets Joab and them, and while asking how he is, Joab stabs Amasa to death and drags the body to the side of the road. Joab leads the amassed army of Judah against Sheba who has amassed his own army of Israel at Abel Beth-maachah. Joab lays siege to the town, but a wise woman tells Joab of an ancient expression and that Joab is effectively trying to destroy Yahweh's inheritance. Joab tells her they are only after Sheba, so she gets the townspeople to cut off Sheba's head and throw it over the wall to Joab. Joab then returns to Jerusalem, and the rebellion ends.
A famine arises which David blames on Saul for having put many of the Gibeonites to death. David asks the Gibeonites what he should do as atonement, and they ask to dismember seven men from among Saul's descendants on Yahweh's mountain. David gives seven of Sauls descendants to them, and they are dismembered. Rizpah, the mother of two of them, uses a sackcloth to protect the remains from scavengers, and so David collects the bones of Saul, Jonathon, and those of the seven, and buries them at the tomb of Kish. The famine consequently ends.
Several warriors of David are listed, with a gloss covering some of their deeds. A significance is attached to the Thirty and the Three, all the warriors being in at least one of these groups, with the Three being the more significant. Despite the name of the group, 37 people are listed, and it is made explicit that there are 37.
Yahweh becomes angry with the people, and Satan tempts David to order a census (this story is also told in 1 Chronicles 21:1ff,). The census makes Yahweh angry (as it was motivated either by pride in the size of his empire and reliance for his security on the number of men he could muster) so Gad the prophet tells David that Yahweh has given David three options of punishment . David chooses the pestilence option, and so an angel duly goes out and starts killing people. When the angel approaches Jerusalem, Yahweh commands the angel to stop. David buys the land where the angel halted from its owner, Araunah, and builds an altar upon it.
This theory is not supported by some modern scholars, who consider that the text is clearly not the work of men contemporary with the events chronicled. Even the Book of Chronicles explicitly refers to multiple source texts for the information, naming several. Roughly in the order they are believed to have been created historically, the sources that modern scholarship considers to have been interlaced to construct 1 & 2 Samuel are:
The relationship between these sources is uncertain, though it is generally agreed that many of the various shorter sources were embedded into the larger ones before these were in turn redacted together. Though some scholars disagree, many academics have proposed that several of the sources are continuations of others, such as the Jerusalem source, and royal source being in some way continuous with one another, and the prophetic source and sanctuaries source being likewise continuous with each other. Some, most recently Richard Elliott Friedman, have proposed that the sources were originally parts of the same texts as the Elohist, Jahwist, and possibly Priestly, sources of the Torah, with the court history of David being considered part of the Yahwist text. What is considered likely is that the Deuteronomist is the one which redacted together these sources into the Books of Samuel.
Within these, there are sometimes what appear to be very minor redactions. For example, 1 Samuel 1:20 explains that Samuel is so called because his mother had asked Yahweh for him; however Samuel means name of God, while Saul means asked; this has suggested to many biblical critics that the narrative originally concerned Saul at this point, a later editor substituting Samuel's name. There are also several points in the Masoretic Text that appear more obviously corrupted in comparison to the Septuagint version.
Gilead and Jezreel are listed as tribes of Israel, rather than being treated strictly as locations. In accordance with evidence of this kind elsewhere, all attributed by scholars to the earliest sources, such as in the Song of Deborah, scholars have concluded that the tribal system known as the tribes of Israel evolved over a period of time:
Gilead, Jezreel and Joseph were originally three tribes in the confederation. Jezreel later split into Zebulun and Issachar. Gilead later split into Machir, Gad, and Reuben. Machir later merged with part of Joseph to form Manasseh, while the other part split off to become Ephraim.