Welcome to 1st Samuel. This is the first part of a mammoth work, comprising the four books of Samuel and Kings. They’re divvied up in various ways in different traditions; you probably know them as 1st Samuel, 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, and 2nd Kings.
First off, you should know “Samuel” is a dumb title for these books. Samuel is an important character, but this story is really about David. (“Kings” remains pretty accurate for the later half of the work.) It’s probably called Samuel because it starts with the birth of
The first chapter of 1st Samuel is the birth story of Samuel. Or Saul. Waitwhathuh? The text was apparently originally about Saul, but somebody did an ancient find-and-replace to apply it to Samuel. (Saul, father of Jonathan, was Israel’s first king, and not well liked by most of the Bible’s sources.)
The story goes like this. An Ephraimite named Elkanah and his two wives (Hannah and Peninnah) go on pilgrimage to Shiloh. (A practice referenced in the last chapter of Judges.) Like all famous Bible moms, Hannah is barren. She prays to God for help; a priest (Eli) sees her talking to herself and assumes she’s drunk! When this comic misunderstanding is resolved, the priest promises her God will answer her prayer. So she goes home and Biblically knows her husband and has a kid. Later she brings the kid back up and shows him to Eli.
So, why do they say this was originally about Saul? Puns!
1:20 She conceived, and in due time bore a son, whom she named Samuel, ‘because’, she said, ‘I asked (שאלתי) the LORD for him.’
The OSE points out that Samuel (שמואל) actually means “name of God.” (אל + שמו) This passage actually explains the name of Saul, who’s name (שאול) shares the root structure of the verb “to ask”, שאל.
1:28 What I asked I have received; and now I lend him (השאלתהו) to the LORD; for his whole life he is lent (שאול) to the LORD.’ And they prostrated themselves there before the LORD.
Again, this is a pun on the verb “ask”, here used in some sort of dative construction with “him”, which is translated as “lent”.
Isn’t this outrageous? Somebody took a birth legend for Saul, and simply changed the details to make it about Samuel. Interestingly, Saul was from a different tribe (Benjamin) and was never a priest. Samuel’s relationship with Eli continues in the next chapter, and eventually he meets Saul, so I’m not really sure how this all fits together. (It’s entirely possible other details were changed, such as the location and the identity of the priest, to match established stories about Samuel and Eli.)
Chapter 2 consists of two parts: an olde timey poem, and then a continuation of the narrative.
The “Song of Hannah” really has no connection to the current plot, besides being attributed to Hannah and containing a reference to barren women. Of particular interest is a reference to Sheol, the second in the Bible. (This word apparently just means “grave” or “death”, but Christians like to pretend it’s a reference to Hell.)
2:6 The LORD kills and he gives life, he sends down to Sheol, he can bring the dead up again.
The poem is worth a read, but I’ll move on.
The rest of the chapter is a series of four related episodes regarding Eli’s sons and Samuel. It begins with a verse explaining that Elkanah leaves Samuel with Eli at Shiloh to be trained as a priest. (Worth nothing that both the E and D sources are possibly related to the Mushite Priests of Shiloh.)
Episode 1. Eli had some kids, Hophni and Phinehas (possibly of the lineage of the Phinehas from Numbers 25.) They are bad dudes. For instance, they did this… whatever this is:
2:13 The custom of the priests in their dealings with the people was this: when a man offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come while the flesh was stewing and would thrust a three-pronged fork into the cauldron or pan or kettle or pot; and the priest would take whatever the fork brought out. This should have been their practice whenever Israelites came to sacrifice at Shiloh, but now under Eli’s sons, even before the fat was burnt, the priest’s servant came and said to the man who was sacrificing, ‘Give me meat to roast for the priest; he will not accept what has been already stewed, only raw meat.’ And if the man answered ‘Let them burn the fat first, and then take what you want’, he said, ‘No, give it to me now, or I will take it by force.’
I’m including all that because it’s a fascinatingly specific detail about the worship at Shiloh. I really don’t know what to make of it, though.
Episode 2 is an adorable picture of junior priest Samuel:
2:18 Samuel continued in the service of the LORD, a mere boy with a linen ephod fastened round him. Every year his mother made him a little cloak and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice.
Awww I bet he looked so cute in his little cloak.
Episode 3 gives us “Eli, now a very old man.” His sons have become very naughty, sleeping with the women who served at the Tent of the Presence (the tabernacle.) He gives them what-for. This passage is anachronistic in that it refers to the Tabernacle, whilst the worship at Shiloh was done in a Temple. (This is from a separate tradition: Joshua 18:1 does refer to the Tent of the Presence being established in Shiloh!)
Episode 4 is again about Eli and it’s a continuation of Episode 1. (“why do you honour your sons more than me by letting them batten on the choicest offerings of my people Israel?”) Here an anonymous “man of God” visits Eli and does some prophecising. And he’s a purty good prophet, because everything he says comes true!
2:34 The fate of your two sons shall be a sign to you: Hophni and Phinehas shall both die on the same day. I will appoint for myself a priest who will be faithful, who will do what I have in my mind and in my heart. I will establish his family to serve in perpetual succession before my anointed king.
He’s talking about David here.
This chapter begins quite comedically, and ends in more prophecy.
3:2 But one night Eli, whose eyes were dim and his sight failing, was lying down in his usual place, while Samuel slept in the temple of the LORD where the Ark of God was.
The Ark is of course a hallmark of J, but let’s not be hasty.
3:3 Before the lamp of God had gone out, the LORD called him, and Samuel answered, ‘Here I am!’, and ran to Eli saying, ‘You called me: here I am.’ ‘No, I did not call you,’ said Eli; ‘lie down again.’
This repeats on about 35 times, until the LORD stops dicking around and gives Samuel his first dose of heavenly gossip. The prophecy here does not quite match that in Episode 4 above. And it expressly contradicts the content of Episode 3, more evidence that that was an insert.
3:11 The LORD said, ‘Soon I shall do something in Israel which will ring in the ears of all who hear it. When that day comes I will make good every word I have spoken against Eli and his family from begining to end. You are to (or: I will) tell him that my judgement on his house shall stand for ever because he knew of his sons’ blasphemies against God and did not rebuke them.
The sons very clearly *were* rebuked in that passage. A linear reading of the text would make this a contradiction. But obviously, we just have multiple sources.
I have suspicions that this section of the text is JE. Why? The exclamation “Here I am!” (הִנֵּנִי) is common to JE texts, and completely absent from P and D.
Interestingly, “Here I am” exists in two forms: twice as הִנֵּנִי (vv. 4 and 16), the other times as הִנְנִי. What’s the difference? I won’t get into the details, but the former could be transliterated (very roughly) as hin-ne-ni. The later example would be hin-ni.
I don’t know the exact difference in meaning between these two words, but they are translated differently. In my Bible, הִנֵּנִי is translated consistently as an exclamation: “Here I am!” הִנְנִי is a more general term, often translated as “behold”.
It turns out that the exclamation הִנֵּנִי is exclusive to JE texts. Someone calls out a name, and that person replies “הִנֵּנִי”. Check it: God to Abraham (Gen 22:1, E); Isaac to Esau (27:1, J), an angel of God to Jacob (31:11, E), Israel to Joseph (37:13, E), God to Jacob (46:2, E), God to Moses (Ex. 3:4, E). And finally here in Samuel.
I think this is very strong evidence for this Samuel text being JE, probably E. The thematic build-up is too strong to dismiss. I will be keeping this in mind as I go further.
Samuels story doesn’t resume until Chapter 7. Stay tuned The Amazing Adventures of the Animated Ark!