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Samuel (Bible)

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Infant Samuel by Joshua Reynolds 1723

Samuel (Hebrew: שְׁמוּאֵל, Modern Šəmuʼel Tiberian Šəmûʼēl; Greek: Σαμουηλ; Latin: Samuel) is a leader of ancient Israel in the Book(s) of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible.

His status, as viewed by rabbinical literature, is that he was the last of the Hebrew Judges and the first of the major prophets who began to prophesy inside the Land of Israel. He was thus at the cusp between two eras.

According to the text of the Book(s) of Samuel, he also anointed the first two kings of the Kingdom of Israel: Saul and David.

Biblical account

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Anna toont haar zoon Samuël aan de priester Eli

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli ca.1665

The main account of Samuel's life comes from the book bearing his name in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament.


Samuel's mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah. Hannah, at the beginning of the narrative, is barren and childless, like Abraham's wife Sarah, Hannah prays to God for a child. Eli who is sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, sees her apparently mumbling and thinks Hannah is drunk, but is soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. Eli was, according to the Books of Samuel, the name of a priest of Shiloh, and one of the last Israelite Judges before the rule of kings in ancient Israel. He blesses her after she promises the child to God. Subsequently Hannah becomes pregnant; her child is Samuel. After he is weaned, she leaves him in Eli's care.

Elkanah is Samuel's father and lives at Ramah (1 Sam. 1:19; 2:11; comp. 28:3), in the district of Zuph. His genealogy is also found in a pedigree of the Kohathites (1 Chron. 6:3-15) and in that of Heman, his great-grandson (ib. vi. 18-22). According to the genealogical tables, Elkanah was, a Levite, a fact otherwise not mentioned in the books of Samuel. The fact that Elkanah, a Levite, was denominated an Ephraimite is analogous to the designation of a Levite belonging to Judah (Judges 27). [1]


According to 1 Samuel 1:20, Hannah named Samuel in memory of her requesting a child from God and God listening. Samuel is translated as Heard of God or possibly as a sentence "God has heard" (from 'Shama', heard and 'El', God — with "Shama" as the verb and "El" as the subject).[2]


One night, around the age of 13 (maturity), Samuel heard a voice calling his name. He initially assumed it was coming from Eli and went to Eli to ask what he wished to say. Eli, however, sent Samuel back to sleep. After a few times Eli told Samuel that the voice was God's, and instructed Samuel on how to respond. Once Samuel responded God told him that the wickedness of the sons of Eli 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 Himself.


During Samuel's youth at Shiloh the Philistines inflicted a decisive defeat against the Israelites at Eben-Ezer (1 Sam. 4:1,2), placed the land under Philistine oppression, and took the sanctuary's Ark for themselves. (Some modern textual scholars consider that the Song of Moses, believed to be originally distinct from the surrounding text of Deuteronomy and not written by Moses, may in reality have been written in response to the theological implications of this disastrous defeat, possibly by Samuel himself.)

This was decades before the Israelites began to be ruled by a king. After 20 years of such oppression, Samuel, who had gained national prominence as a prophet, summoned the people to Mizpah (one of the highest hills in the land), where he organized them into an army, and led them against the Philistines. The Philistines, having marched to Mizpah to attack the newly amassed Israelite army, were soundly defeated and fled in terror. The retreating Philistines were slaughtered by the Israelites, which the Bible portrays positively. The text then states that Samuel erected a large stone at the battle site as a memorial, and there ensued a long period of peace thereafter.

National prophet, local seer

Some authors see the biblical Samuel as combining descriptions of two distinct roles:

  • A seer, based at Ramah, and seemingly known scarcely beyond the immediate neighbourhood of Ramah (Saul, for example, not having heard of him, with his servant informing him of his existence instead). In this role, Samuel is associated with the bands of musical ecstatic roaming prophets (shouters - neb'im) at Gibeah, Bethel, and Gilgal, and some traditional scholars have argued that Samuel was the founder of these groups. At Ramah, Samuel secretly anoints Saul, after having met him for the first time, while Saul was looking for his father's lost donkeys, and treated him to a meal.
  • A prophet, based at Shiloh, who went throughout the land, from place to place, with unwearied zeal, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting the people to repentance. In this role, Samuel acted as a (biblical) judge, publicly advising the nation, and also giving private advice to individuals. Eventually Samuel delegates this role to his sons, based at Beersheba, but they behave corruptly and so the people, facing invasion from the Ammonites, persuade Samuel to appoint a king. Samuel reluctantly does so, and anoints Saul in front of the entire nation, who had gathered to see him.

Textual criticism

Textual scholars suggest that these two roles come from different sources, which later were spliced together to form the Book(s) of Samuel. The oldest is considered to be that which marks Samuel as the local seer of Ramah, who willingly anoints Saul as King in secret, while the latter is that which presents Samuel as a national figure, who begrudgingly anoints Saul as King in front of a national assembly. This later source is generally known as the republican source, since here, and elsewhere, it denigrates the actions and role of the monarchy (particularly those of Saul) and favours religious figures, in contrast to the other main source – the monarchial source – which treats the monarchy favourably. Theoretically if we had the monarchial source we would see Saul appointed king by public acclamation, due to his military victories, and not by cleromancy involving Samuel. Another difference between the sources is that the republican source treats the shouters as somewhat independent from Samuel (1 Samuel 9) rather than having been led by him (1 Samuel 19:18ff). The passage (1 Samuel 7:15-16) in which Samuel is described as having exercised the functions of a (biblical) judge, during an annual circuit from Ramah to Bethel to Gilgal (the Gilgal between Ebal and Gerizim) to Mizpah and back to Ramah, is thought by textual scholars to be a redaction aimed at harmonizing the two portrayals of Samuel.[3]

The Book(s) of Samuel variously describe Samuel as having carried out sacrifices at sanctuaries, and having constructed and sanctified altars. According to the Mitzvot only Aaronic priests and/or Levites (depending on the Mitzvah) were permitted to perform these actions, and simply being a nazarite or prophet was insufficient. The books of Samuel and Kings offer numerous examples where this rule is not followed by kings and prophets, but some textual scholars look elsewhere seeking a harmonization of the issues. In the Book of Chronicles, Samuel is described as a Levite, rectifying this situation; however textual scholars widely see the Book of Chronicles as an attempt to redact the Book(s) of Samuel and of Kings to conform to later religious sensibilities. Since many of the Mitzvot themselves are thought to postdate the Book(s) of Samuel (according to the documentary hypothesis), Chronicles is probably making its claim based on religious bias. The Levitical genealogy of 1 Chronicles 4 is not historical, according to modern scholarship.[3]

Samuel's retirement and death

Louvre rosa apparition

Apparition of the spirit of Samuel to Saul, by Salvator Rosa, 1668.

In 1 Samuel 12, just before his retirement, Samuel gathers the people to an assembly at Gilgal, and gives them a farewell speech, in which he emphasises how prophets and judges were more important than kings, how kings should be held to account, and how the people should not fall into idol worship, or worship of Asherah or of Baal; Samuel threatens that God would subject the people to foreign invaders should they disobey. This is seen by some people as a deuteronomic redaction;[3] being that archaeologically sees that Asherah was still worshipped in Israelite households well into the 6th century. However, the Bible is clear in 1 Kings 11:5, 33, and 2 Kings 23:13 that the Israelites fell into Asherah worship later on. [4]

Samuel then went into retirement, though he reappears briefly in the two accounts of why Saul's dynasty lost divine favour (parts of 1 Samuel 13 and 15), essentially acting, according to scholars, as the narrator's mouthpiece. Apart from being the individual who anoints David as king, a role Samuel is abruptly summoned to take, he does not appear any further in the text until his own death at his hometown Ramah (1 Samuel 25:1, 28:3), where he is buried (cf. 2 Kings 21:18, 2 Chronicles 33:20, and John 19:41). According to classical rabbinical sources, this was at the age of fifty-two.

Samuel's death, however, is not completely the end of his appearance in the narrative. In the passage concerning Saul's visit to the Witch of Endor, ascribed by textual scholars to the republican source, Samuel is temporarily raised from the dead so that he can tell Saul his future. Although Christian interpretations of this event portray the Witch and Saul as having been frightened by his appearance, and Samuel as having been composed, classical rabbinical sources argue that Samuel was terrified by the ordeal, having expected to be appearing to face God's judgement, and had therefore brought Moses with him (to the land of the living) as a witness to his adherence to the mitzvot.[3]

Perspectives on Samuel


According to the Book of Jeremiah, and one of the Psalms (99), Samuel had a high devotion to God, which was mutual. Classical Rabbinical literature adds that he was more than an equal to Moses, God speaking directly to Samuel, rather than Samuel having to attend the tabernacle to hear God.[5] Samuel is also described by the Rabbis as having been extremely intelligent; he argued that it was legitimate for laymen to slaughter sacrifices, since the Halakha only insisted that the priests bring the blood (cf Leviticus 1:5, Zebediah 32a).[6] Eli, who was viewed negatively by many Classical Rabbis, is said to have reacted to this logic of Samuel by arguing that it was technically true, but Samuel should be put to death for making legal statements while Eli (his mentor) was present.[6]

Samuel is also treated by the Classical Rabbis as a much more sympathetic character than he appears at face value in the Bible; his annual circuit is explained as being due to his wish to spare people the task of having to journey to him; Samuel is said to have been very rich, taking his entire household with him on the circuit so that he didn't need to impose himself on anyone's hospitality; when Saul fell out of God's favour, Samuel is described as having grieved copiously and having prematurely aged.[7]


For Evangelical Christians Samuel is considered to be a Prophet, Judge, and wise Leader of Israel, and treated as an example of fufilled commitments to God. On the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar, his feast day is August 20. He is commemorated as one of the Holy Forefathers in the Calendar of Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 30.


In Islam, Samuel is regarded as a revered prophet who is mentioned in the Quran at Chapter 2 Verse 246: Have you not thought about the group of the Children of Israel after [the time of] Musa [Moses]? When they said to a Prophet of theirs, "Appoint for us a king and we will fight in Allah's Way." He said, "Would you then refrain from fighting, if fighting was prescribed for you?" They said, "Why should we not fight in Allah's Way while we have been driven out of our homes and our children (families have been taken as captives)?" But when fighting was ordered for them, they turned away, all except a few of them. And Allah is All-Aware of the Zalimun (polytheists and wrong-doers). The Quran refers to him as a knowledgeable prophet (as mentioned in the above verse) whom the Israelites ask to appoint a king for them, for they would otherwise fail to fight in the cause of God.His Arabic name is Al-Samaw'al.Then the next verse 247 talks about Samuel declare that God appointed Saul as a king.The next verses relate the story of Saul and his army crossing of Jordan River and David killing Goliath.

See also


  1. Jewish Encyclopedia:Small Text Hence in I Sam. i. 1 his ancestral line is carried back to Zuph (comp. I Sam. ix. 5 et seq.). The word in I Sam. i. 1 should be emended to ("the Zuphite"), the final mem being a ditto-gram of that with which the next word, , begins; as the LXX. has it, Σειφὰ. Elkanah is also represented in I Sam. i. 1 as hailing from the mountains of Ephraim, the word here denoting this (comp. Judges xii. 5; IKings xi. 26)—if indeed is not a corruption for "Ephraimite"—and not, as in Judges i. 2 and I Sam. xvii. 12, an inhabitant of Ephrata (see Lxx.). Read more:
  2. Behind the Name: Meaning, Origin and History of the Name Samuel
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Jewish Encyclopedia, Samuel, Saul, Book of Samuel, et al.
  4. Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed; Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  5. Berakot 31b, Ta'anit 5b, Exodus Rashi 14:4
  6. 6.0 6.1 Berakot 31b
  7. Berakot 10b, Nedarim 38a, Ta'anit 5b
Preceded by
Judge of Israel Saul
Anointed king

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.


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