Icon of the prophet Samuel from the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum.
|Born||c. 1064 BCE|
c. 1012 BCE|
Ramah in Benjamin (traditional)
August 20 (Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran & Roman Catholicism)|
July 30 (Armenian Apostolic Church)
9 Paoni (Coptic Orthodox Church)
Samuel is a figure in the Hebrew Bible who plays a key role in the narrative, in the transition from the period of the biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from Saul to David. He is venerated as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In addition to his role in the Hebrew Scriptures, Samuel is mentioned in the New Testament, in rabbinical literature, and in the second chapter of the Qur'an, although here not by name. He is also treated in the fifth through seventh books of Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, written in the first century CE (AD).
Samuel's mother was Hannah and his father was Elkanah. Elkanah lived at Ramathaim in the district of Zuph. His genealogy is also found in a pedigree of the Kohathites (1 Chronicles 6:3-15) and in that of Heman, apparently his grandson (1 Chronicles 6:18-33). According to the genealogical tables in Chronicles, Elkanah was a Levite - a fact 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 17:7, for example).
According to 1 Samuel 1:1-28, Elkanah had two wives, Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had children; Hannah did not. Nonetheless, Elkanah favored Hannah. Jealous, Penninah reproached Hannah for her lack of children, causing Hannah much heartache. The relationship of Penninah and Hannah recalls that between Hagar and Sarah. Elkanah was a devout man and would periodically take his family on pilgrimage to the holy site of Shiloh. The motif of Elkanah and Hannah as devout, childless parents will reoccur with Zachariah and Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist, and with Joachim and Anna and the birth of Mary.
On one occasion Hannah went to the sanctuary and prayed for a child. In tears, she vowed that were she granted a child, she would dedicate him to God as a Nazirite.Eli, who was sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, saw her apparently mumbling to herself and thought she was drunk, but was soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. Eli was the priest of Shiloh, and one of the last Israelite Judges before the rule of kings in ancient Israel. He had assumed the leadership after Samson's death. Eli blessed her and she returned home. Subsequently Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Hannah's exultant hymn of thanksgiving resembles in several points Mary's later Magnificat.
According to 1 Samuel 1:20, Hannah named Samuel to commemorate her prayer to God for a child. "... [She] called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the Lord" (KJV). The Hebrew root rendered as "asked" in the KJV is "sha'al", a word mentioned seven times in 1 Samuel 1. Once it is even mentioned in the form "sha'ul", Saul's name in Hebrew (1 Samuel 1:28).
According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, Samuel was a "[p]ersonal name in the Ancient Near East meaning, 'Sumu is God' but understood in Israel as 'The name is God,' 'God is exalted,' or 'son of God.'"
Samuel worked under Eli in the service of the shrine at Shiloh. One night, Samuel heard a voice calling his name. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Samuel was about 11 years old. Samuel initially assumed it was coming from Eli and went to Eli to ask what he wanted. Eli, however, sent Samuel back to sleep. After this happened three times, Eli realised that the voice was the Lord's, and instructed Samuel on how to answer:
Once Samuel responded, the Lord told him that the wickedness of the sons of Eli had resulted in their dynasty being condemned to destruction. In the morning, Samuel was hesitant about reporting the message to Eli, but Eli asked him honestly to recount to him what he had been told by the Lord. Upon receiving the communication, Eli merely said that the Lord should do what seems right unto him.
This event established that Samuel was now "established as a prophet of the Lord" and "all Israel from Dan to Beersheba" became aware of his prophetic calling. Anglican theologian Donald Spence Jones comments that "the minds of all the people were thus gradually prepared when the right moment came to acknowledge Samuel as a God-sent chieftain"
During Samuel's youth at Shiloh, the Philistines inflicted a decisive defeat against the Israelites at Eben-Ezer, placed the land under Philistine control, and took the sanctuary's Ark for themselves. Upon hearing the news of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant, and the death of his sons, Eli collapsed and died. When the Philistines had been in possession of the Ark for seven months and had been visited with calamities and misfortunes, they decided to return the Ark to the Israelites.
According to Bruce C. Birch, Samuel was a key figure in keeping the Israelites' religious heritage and identity alive during Israel's defeat and occupation by the Philistines. "[I]t may have been possible and necessary for Samuel to exercise authority in roles that would normally not converge in a single individual (priest, prophet, judge)."
After 20 years of oppression, Samuel, who had gained national prominence as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:20), summoned the people to the hill of Mizpah, 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. 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.
Samuel initially appointed his two sons as his successors; however, just like Eli's sons, Samuel's proved unworthy. The Israelites rejected them. Because of the external threat from other tribes, such as the Philistines, the tribal leaders decided that there was a need for a more unified, central government, and demanded Samuel appoint a king so that they could be like other nations. Samuel interpreted this as a personal rejection, and at first was reluctant to oblige, until reassured by a divine revelation. He warned the people of the potential negative consequences of such a decision. When Saul and his servant were searching for his father's lost asses, the servant suggested consulting the nearby Samuel. Samuel recognized Saul as the future king.
Just before his retirement, Samuel gathered the people to an assembly at Gilgal, and delivered a farewell speech or coronation speech in which he emphasised how prophets and judges were more important than kings, that kings should be held to account, and that the people should not fall into idol worship, or worship of Asherah or of Baal. Samuel promised that God would subject the people to foreign invaders should they disobey. This is seen by some as a deuteronomic redaction; since archaeological finds indicate that Asherah was still worshipped in Israelite households well into the sixth century. However, 1 Kings 11:5,33 and 2 Kings 23:13 note that the Israelites fell into Asherah worship later on.
When Saul was preparing to fight the Philistines, Samuel denounced him for proceeding with the pre-battle sacrifice without waiting for the overdue Samuel to arrive. He prophesied that Saul's rule would see no dynastic succession.
During the campaign against the Amalekites, King Saul spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, and the best of their livestock. Saul told Samuel that he had spared the choicest of the Amalekites' sheep and oxen, intending to sacrifice the livestock to the Lord. This was in violation of the Lord's command, as pronounced by Samuel, to "... utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Samuel 15:3, KJV). Samuel confronted Saul for his disobedience and told him that God made him king, and God can unmake him king. Samuel then proceeded to execute Agag. Saul never saw Samuel alive again after this.
Samuel then proceeded to Bethelehem and secretly anointed David as king. He would later provide sanctuary for David, when the jealous Saul first tried to have him killed.
Some time after his death, Saul had the Witch of Endor conjure Samuel's ghost in order to predict the result of an up-coming battle. This passage is ascribed by textual scholars to the Republican Source. Classical rabbinical sources say 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.
Some authors see the biblical Samuel as combining descriptions of two distinct roles:
Source-critical scholarship suggests 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 marking Samuel as the local seer of Ramah, who willingly anointed Saul as king in secret, while the latter presents Samuel as a national figure, begrudgingly anointing Saul as king in front of a national assembly. This later source is generally known as the Republican Source, since it denigrates the monarchy (particularly the actions of Saul) and favours religious figures, in contrast to the other main source – the Monarchial Source – which treats it 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 ecstatic prophets as somewhat independent from Samuel (1 Samuel 9:1ff) rather than having been led by him (1 Samuel 19:18ff).
The passage 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 foreshadowed by Deborah, who used to render judgments from a place beneath a palm between Ramah and Bethel. Source-critical scholarship often considers it to be a redaction aimed at harmonizing the two portrayals of Samuel.
The Book(s) of Samuel variously describe Samuel as having carried out sacrifices at sanctuaries, and having constructed and sanctified altars. According to the Priestly Code/Deuteronomic Code only Aaronic priests/Levites (depending on the underling tradition) 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 critical scholars look elsewhere seeking a harmonization of the issues. In the Book of Chronicles, Samuel is described as a Levite, rectifying this situation; however critical scholarship widely sees 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 Biblical law codes themselves are thought to postdate the Book(s) of Samuel (according to the Documentary Hypothesis), this would suggest Chronicles is making its claim based on religious motivations. The Levitical genealogy of 1 Chronicles 4 is not historical, according to most modern scholarship.
According to the documentary hypothesis of Biblical source criticism, which postulates that "Deuteronomistic historians" redacted the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings), the Deuteronomists idealized Samuel as a figure larger than life, like Joshua. For example, Samuel's father Elkanah is described as having originated from Zuph, specifically Ramathaim-Zophim, which was part of the tribal lands of Ephraim, while 1 Chronicles states that he was a Levite. Samuel is portrayed as a judge who leads the military, as the judges in the Book of Judges, and also who exercises judicial functions. In 1 Sam 12:6-17, a speech of Samuel that portrays him as the judge sent by God to save Israel may have been composed by the Deuteronomists. In 1 Samuel 9:6-20, Samuel is seen as a local "seer". According to documentary scholarship, the Deuteronomistic historians preserved this view of Samuel while contributing him as "the first of prophets to articulate the failure of Israel to live up to its covenant with God." For the Deuteronomistic historians, Samuel would have been an extension of Moses and continuing Moses' function as a prophet, judge, and priest, which makes the nature of the historical Samuel uncertain.
According to the Book of Jeremiah  and one of the Psalms , Samuel had a high devotion to God. 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. 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, Zebahim 32a). 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.
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.
For Christians, Samuel is considered to be a prophet, judge, and wise leader of Israel, and treated as an example of fulfilled commitments to God. On the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar, as well as the Lutheran 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 the Coptic Orthodox Church, the commemoration of the departure of Samuel the Prophet is celebrated on 9 Paoni.
Samuel is seen as a nabi (Arabic: , lit. 'prophet') and seer in the Islamic faith. The narrative of Samuel in Muslims' literature focuses specifically on his birth and the anointing of Talut. Other elements from his narrative are in accordance with the narratives of other Prophets of Israel, as exegesis recounts Samuel's preaching against idolatry. Although he is mentioned in the Qur'an, his name is not given, but he is instead referred to as "a Prophet." According to Islamic history, the Israelites, after the time of the prophet Moses, wanted a king to rule over their country. Thus, God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king for the Israelites. The Qur'an states:
Have you thought of the elders of Israel after Moses, and how they said to their apostle: "Set up a King for us, then we shall fight in the way of God?" He replied: "This too is possible that when commanded to fight you may not fight at all." They said: "How is it we should not fight in the way of God when we have been driven from our homes and deprived of our Sons?" But when they were ordered to fight they turned away, except for a few; yet God knows the sinners.
The Qur'an goes on to state that a Malik (Arabic: ?, King) was anointed by the prophet, whose name was Talut (Saul or Gideon in the Hebrew Bible). However, it states that the Israelites mocked and reviled the newly appointed king, as he was not wealthy from birth. But, assuming Talut to be Saul, in sharp contrast to the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an praises Saul greatly, and mentions that he was gifted with great spiritual and physical strength. In the Qur'anic account, Samuel prophesies to the children of Israel, telling them that the sign of Talut's Kingship will be that the Ark of the Covenant will come back to the Israelites:
And when their prophet said to them: "God has raised Talut as a King over you," they said: "How can he be King over us when we have greater right to Kingship than he, for he does not even possess abundant wealth?" "God has chosen him in preference to you," said the prophet "and gifted him abundantly in wisdom and stature; and God gives authority to whomsoever He will: God is infinite and all-wise."
Their prophet said to them: "The sign of his Kingship will be that you will come to have a chest (tabu't) full of peace and tranquility (Sakina) from your Lord and remainder of the legacy of the children of Moses and the children of Aaron, carried over by the angels. In this certainly shall be a sign for you if you really believe."
Actors who have portrayed Samuel include Leonard Nimoy in the 1997 TV-film David,Eamonn Walker in the 2009 TV-series Kings and Mohammad Bakri in the 2016 TV-series Of Kings and Prophets.