Samuel (Hebrew: שְׁמוּאֵל) was an important leader in the history of ancient Israel and Judah. The last of the Hebrew judges, we was also a seer, prophet, priest, warrior, national unifier, and kingmaker. His story is recounted in the first of the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible.
The literal translation of the name Samuel (Shemu'el in Hebrew) is Name of God (from Shem, meaning "name" and El, an ancient Israelite name for God). However, in some contexts "Shem" can also mean "son," and hence "Samuel" would mean "son of El."
Samuel worked mostly in the tribal area of Ephraim and Benjamin but reportedly became a famous judge and prophet throughout the area that later became the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He is described as the leader of several bands of prophets who attended various high places and engaged in enthusiastic singing, dancing, and trance-like ecstasy. The Bible portrays him as a successful military leader, as well as a powerful prophet who could control the weather and predict the future. He is particularly well known as the prophet who anointed both Saul and David as kings, having identified them by God's guidance. He is the only Hebrew Bible figure to make an appearance as a spirit after his death.
In rabbinic tradition, Samuel is viewed as the last of the judges and the first of the major Israelite prophets after Moses. He is traditionally credited with having written the books of Judges and Ruth as well as the books which bear his name. Few—if any—modern scholars accept this view, however.
Birth and early years
Samuel's mother was Hannah, the wife of Elkanah. Like several women in the Hebrew Bible, she had been barren before the birth of her providential son. Though much beloved by her husband, she was persecuted by his other wife and prayed desperately that her childlessness would be taken from her. Hannah made a pilgrimage to Shiloh, the village which housed the sacred Ark of the Lord, to worship. There, she earnestly prayed to God that she might become the mother of a son. In return, like the mother of Samson before her (Judg. 13:5), she promised to dedicate the child to God and not allow his hair to be cut.
The judge and Tabernacle priest, Eli, at first mistook her fervent prayers for drunkenness, but soon recognized her true intent and blessed her. Hannah then returned home and became pregnant with Elkanah's son. After she gave birth to Samuel and weaned him, Hannah did as she had promised, dedicating her son to God and leaving him in the care of Eli at Shiloh. In these acts she is portrayed as having the full support of her husband, Elkanah. As he grew, Samuel's parents visited the boy each year to provide him with clothes and offer sacrifice at Shiloh's sanctuary.
Eli's own sons, Hophni and Phinehas, however, were corrupt and abused their priestly offices for personal gain. Meanwhile, before reaching full manhood, Samuel began to hear a voice during the night. He initially assumed it was coming from Eli. The old priest, however, sent Samuel back to sleep. After the third such calling, Eli told Samuel that the voice belonged to God and instructed him to say "speak Yahweh, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam. 3:9). Samuel was then told by God that the wickedness of the Eli's sons had resulted in their dynasty being condemned to destruction. Eli asked Samuel to honestly recount to him what he had been told, and upon receiving the communication merely said that God should do what seems right to him.
The text summarizes the rest of Samuel's adolescence and young adulthood in the following manner:
The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord [Yahweh]. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel's word came to all Israel. (1 Sam. 3:19-4:1)
Despite God's presence with Samuel, 1 Samuel 4 describes two subsequent disastrous defeats of the Israelites by the Philistines. During the second of these, the sacred Ark of the Covenant was seized, and both Hophni and Phinehas were slain. Hearing the news, Eli fell over backward in his chair and died from a broken neck. Soon, the entire land of Israel fell under the oppression of the Philistines.
The Ark remained for seven months with the Philistines, where it proved much more of a curse than a blessing to them.
They returned it to the Israelites, but it was not until after another 20 years that Samuel rallied the nation against the Philistines. He summoned the people to Mizpah (one of the highest hills in the land), where he made them promise to forswear all deities except Yahweh. He then organized them into an army. The Philistines were utterly defeated while attacking this newly amassed Israelite force at Mizpah. The Israelites then slaughtered the routed Philistine force as it retreated. The lands formerly seized by the Philistines came again under Israelite control, and a long period of peace reportedly followed. This section of the text concludes with the following summary of Samuel's life:
Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. (1 Sam 7:15-17)
The exact location of Ramah is not certain, a probable site being near the town of Gibeon, a few miles northwest of Jerusalem.
Samuel the Kingmaker
Samuel and Saul
The text skips the intervening years stating that when Samuel grew old, he found himself in a situation similar to that of his spiritual father Eli, for "his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice" (1 Sam. 8:3). Representatives of the people then came to him and demanded that he appoint a king. In a memorable speech, Samuel strongly warned them about the dangers of the institution of monarchy. The people insisted, and God himself confirmed their decision, commanding Samuel to do as they wished.
Soon, while on his way to a "high place" to worship, Samuel encountered a tall, handsome youth named Saul who was searching for his father's lost donkeys. The two dined together at the high place, and Samuel predicted great things in store for Saul. The next day, before sending him on his way, Samuel made several prophecies concerning Saul and anointed him, declaring: "Has not the Lord anointed you leader over his inheritance?" (1 Sam. 10:1).
Samuel then summoned the people to Mizpah. He scolded them for preferring to be ruled by a king than by God, but performed his duty. Through a system of lots, the tribe of Benjamin was chosen, and from that tribe, the lot fell to Saul, the son of Kish. In a comical twist, Saul was eventually found hiding among the baggage. His reluctance contrasts with his outstanding physical characteristics, and it is hard to tell whether Samuel is being ironic when he says, "Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people" (1 Sam. 10:24). In any case, the people exulted, shouting "Long live the king!" Yet, the text hints at coming trouble as it tells of certain troublemakers grumbling and bringing no gifts to their new king. The reason for their attitude is not stated, but the final chapters of the Book of Judges make it clear that Saul's tribe of Benjamin was despised by many of the other Israelites.
When the Ammonites besiege Jabesh Gilead to the northeast, Saul proves his worth as a national leader by relieving the town and routing the enemy. Samuel then invites Saul to join him at Gilgal where his kingship will be reaffirmed. Samuel delivers what is commonly called his "farewell address" (1 Sam. 12). Samuel is still upset with the people for demanding a king. To punish them, Samuel prays that God will send rain during the wheat harvest—an act that could mean the ruin of the crop—and indeed a powerful storm descends. After the people admit their sin, Samuel changes his attitude and declares he will not "sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you."
With a major battle impending against the Philistines, Saul and his troops wait seven days for Samuel at Gilgal. Saul's soldiers, anxious about the battle, lose morale and begin to desert. When Samuel fails to arrive at the appointed time, Saul proceeds with a sacrificial offering to God. Immediately afterward, Samuel appears and declares that Saul has sinned grievously. He prophesies that Saul's kingdom will not endure and that God has found another to take his place. Samuel then separates from Saul, leaving the king with a depleted force of just six hundred men.
Saul battles the Philistines and other enemy tribes with success, and Samuel seems to give Saul a second chance. He orders Saul to attack the Amalekites. "Do not spare them," Samuel commands. "Put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys" (1 Sam 15:3). Saul carries out a widespread, major offensive against the Amalekites and defeats them. However he allows their king, Agag, to be taken captive alive; and his troops claim the best cattle as plunder. Samuel accuses Saul of disobeying God's command, but Saul objects that the cattle were taken only to offer to God as sacrifice. Samuel, in good prophetic fashion, declares: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). Samuel refuses to forgive Saul's offense, and turns to leave. Saul dramatically clings to Samuel's garment, which rips, and Samuel declares that God has torn the kingdom from Saul. Samuel then orders Agag brought to him, and "Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal" (1 Sam. 15:33). A narrator adds that "God repented that he had made Saul king over Israel."
Samuel and David
God then instructs Samuel to go to Bethlehem, to the house of a man named Jesse, among whose sons the new king will be found. Samuel fears retribution from Saul, but obeys. In Bethlehem, Samuel assembles Jesse's family and the town elders for a sacrificial meal. One by one, Jesse's sons are brought before him, but none of them is the chosen one. Finally the youngest son, who is out tending sheep, is brought. This, of course, is David. Samuel anoints him and departs the next day.
Later, when Saul has come to see David as a threat to his throne and attempts to kill him, David flees to Samuel at Ramah for protection. Saul's men—and even Saul himself—eventually find them, but are miraculously prevented from capturing David when the Spirit of God comes over them, apparently due to Samuel's presence:
Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel's presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Sam 19:23-24)
Samuel's Death and a Final Prophecy
Samuel's death is reported in 1 Samuel 25, the text noting that "all Israel mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah." His story is not quite finished however, as he makes one final appearance from beyond the grave. The unfortunate Saul seeks God's advice, but none is forthcoming through normal means of dreams, divination, or prophecy. He then goes to a medium at the village of Endor, in violation of his own command against such activities, to seek Samuel's guidance. The woman duly conjures the spirit of Samuel. However, Samuel only scolds Saul for disturbing him and confirms God's judgment that, because of his disobedience in the matter of the Amalekites, God has withdrawn his support of Saul's kingship. In a final prophecy, Samuel declares Saul's doom: "The Lord will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me" (1 Sam. 28:19).
Perspectives on Samuel
The Books of Chronicles connects Samuel to later priestly traditions. In 1 Chronicles 26:28, Samuel the seer dedicated gifts to the sanctuary, and 1 Chronicles 9:22 credits him with having ordained the "porters in the gates."
Rabbinical tradition has much to say about Samuel. Although 1 Samuel says he is of the tribe of Ephraim, the Talmud prefers the tradition of 1 Chronicles 28 that he was in fact a Levite, since he acted as a priest. He is said to have been both highly intellectual and delicate as a boy. He remained a strict Nazirite throughout his life. Notwithstanding his taking offense at Saul's usurping the priestly role at Gilgal, Samuel was liberal in his view of the priesthood, affirming that laypersons could indeed offer certain types of sacrifice. Samuel was reportedly very rich. Rather than traveling as a solitary prophet, he was accompanied by his entire household.
He is considered by some rabbis to be the equal of Moses and Aaron, and even to be superior to Moses in that God visited him in his bedroom rather than requiring him to ascend to the abode of the Almighty. Samuel is described as having grieved deeply and having prematurely aged as a result of the failure and divine rejection of Saul. He reportedly died at the age of 58.
Influence on Christianity
While mentioned only in passing the New Testament, the story of Samuel's birth parallels in several respects the stories of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist. John, like Samuel, is dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. His conception, like Samuel's occurs immediately after his parent visits the Temple of Jerusalem.
With regard to Jesus and Samuel, just as Hannah visits the old priest Eli at the high place in Shiloh to fulfill her desire for a holy son, so Mary visits the home of the aged priest Zechariah in the hill country of Judea immediately after the Annunciation. More directly, the "Magnificat of Mary" has much in common with the "Song of Hanna."
- My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high...
- Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
- but those who were hungry hunger no more...
- The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
- He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
- he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (1 Sam. 2:1-8)
And Mary echoes:
- My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...
- His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
- He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
- he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
- He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
- He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)
Samuel and the Samaritans
In Samaritan ideology, Samuel is a false judge, false priest, and false prophet; and the kings he anointed are illegitimate. Samuel received his authority from Eli, who is viewed by the Samaritans as a schismatic and evil priest because of his moving from Mount Gerezim to Shiloh and setting up an unauthorized shrine there. The Samaritans accept the legitimacy of Moses, Joshua, and most of the other judges but believe that theirs alone is the true priesthood and that shrines outside of Gerezim are illegitimate.
Modern Critical Views
The biblical story of Samuel raises many questions. For one thing, it contains a number of inconsistencies and seeming contradictions, leading many biblical scholars to conclude that the text is a composite of several sources, which do not easily harmonize.
For example: is Samuel national prophet, or a local seer?
- The general view is that Samuel is famous from "Dan to Beersheba." Moreover, he is a well known military leader and powerful prophet who travels throughout the land with unwearied zeal, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting the people to repentance.
- But in the story of Samuel's first encounter with Saul (1 Sam. 9)—which occurs well after Samuel's fame is supposedly already established—he seems to be simply a local holy man, scarcely known beyond the immediate neighborhood, attending the "high place" at Ramah.
Textual scholars often theorize that these two roles originate from separate sources, which later were spliced together to form the Book(s) of Samuel. The oldest is probably that which marks Samuel as the local seer of Ramah, who anoints Saul in secret, while the later is that which presents Samuel as a national figure, who anoints Saul as king in front of a national assembly.
Other questions include:
- What was Samuel's (and God's) true attitude toward kingship? Did Samuel willingly comply with God's will to evolve beyond the institution of the judges in favor of the monarchy? In the first account of the people asking Samuel for a king, there is no indication of God's disapproval of the institution—although clearly Samuel himself did not like the idea. However, in several later instances, Samuel tells the people that they have sinned against God by demanding a king. Scholars theorize that two sources are again at work here: one which sees the Israelite monarchy as a providentially initiated institution to which Samuel, the last judge, had trouble adjusting, while the other sees the monarchy as a human contrivance which God accepted only reluctantly.
- Why did God reject Saul and instruct Samuel to anoint David in his place? Is it because he attempted to usurp Samuel's priestly position by offering a sacrifice at Gilgal, or because of his failure to complete the slaughter of the Amalekites, or both? Critical scholarship theorizes another explanation altogether—that the story of David's anointing by Samuel is a later invention to bolster the idea that the southern monarchy (the Davidic line) was approved by God to a greater degree than the rebellious northern monarchy.
Indeed, most textual critics believe that the story of Samuel reflects the ideology of a much later period, probably around the seventh century B.C.E., when both nationalism and the "prophetic" ideology had become dominant. Saul, whose base was the northern tribes, was therefore portrayed as anointed by God but earning His disfavor, while David, as the king of Judah, was portrayed as God's beloved.
The Books of Chronicles refers to several historical/prophetic works which provide possible sources of the story of Samuel. For example, 1 Chronicles 29:29 refers to "the records of Samuel the seer, the records of Nathan the prophet and the records of Gad the seer." Contents of the former work may indeed be found in today's story of Samuel; the other two texts have been lost, unless parts of them are to be found in our Books of Samuel. Other sources too may exist, and the final work shows definite signs of editing by a "Deuteronmistic" editor from the time of the later kings or beyond.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Blenkinsopp, Joseph. A History of Prophecy in Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. ISBN 0664256392
- Evans, Mary. The Message of Samuel: Personalities, Potential, Politics, and Power. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. ISBN 0830824294
- Gowan, Donald. Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. ISBN 0664256899
- Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001 (original 1955). ISBN 0060936991
- Machinist, Peter. Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. ISBN 158983027X
- Podhoretz, Norman. The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are. New York: Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0743219279
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