Having chosen only one of Israel’s kings—though Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah were all faithful royals—the writer now turned to the prophets, who represented God to the people. But there was one prophet in particular who stood out among the rest, the prophet who guided the Bronze Age heterarchy of tribes into the Iron Age United Kingdom under one king.
And what more should I say?
For time would fail me to tell . . . of . . . Samuel . . .Hebrews 11:32 (NRSV)
Samuel’s beginnings start with his mother Hannah’s story.
“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.
He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.”1Samuel 1:1-2, (NRSV)
She had married a man named Elkanah, described as a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim. But, we know from other records Elkanah was also from the tribe of Levi, descended from Levi’s middle son, Kohath. This is a very important point concerning the future of Elkanah’s famous son, for Samuel would grow up to become Israel’s prophet, judge, and priest.
(To trace Samuel’s lineage through his father, go to 1 Chronicles 6:16-30, and pay particular note to verse 27, which names Elkanah as the father of Samuel; and again, Elkanah’s lineage in verses 33-37. Josephus also named Elkanah as a Levite.)
Hannah was listed first, so she was probably the first wife, and we know from later in the text this was a love match.
Peninnah was listed second, so she was probably a wife taken on after a number of years to produce heirs, as Hannah was childless.
By being both wealthy and a Kohathite, we are to understand Elkanah was blessed by God, had God’s favor, and everyone would have respected that about him.
But such was apparently not the case for Hannah. In Iron Age Israel—and really most everywhere in the ancient world—bearing and raising children was the calling of most women. Becoming a mother established a woman’s place in the household with such honor, one commentator claimed a mother became a symbol of Israel itself.
Hannah had no children, and to rub that wound of her heart with salt, Peninnah was abundantly fertile, had many, and took every chance to hang that over Hannah’s head.
Peninnah’s blessing was celebrated ever more richly each year during their family’s annual trek to Shiloh to keep the Lord’s feast. Elkanah would place plate after plate stacked with food on Peninnah’s side of the table to feed her ever-growing crowd of children, then pass Hannah’s one plate to his beloved first wife. Even heaping a double portion could not hide the pain of her lack.
Finally, after years of public humiliation, and the taunts and barbs of Peninnah, Hannah could no longer bear it and cried out to God.
Hannah’s famous prophetic song, found in the second chapter of 1 Samuel, and the dedication of her firstborn son to God became a living witness and foreshadowing of the virgin Mary and her own firstborn, Messiah Jesus.
Samuel’s account as the last judge of Israel, and the anointer of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David, are found in his own chronicle, 1 Samuel.
As Jochebed had done with Moses, once weaned, Hannah brought her son Samuel to the high priest Eli to raise at Shiloh.
Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.1 Samuel 2:26 (NRSV)
Eli’s own grown sons were wicked men, so it seems odd that God would entrust Samuel to him. It was a time of spiritual paucity in Israel, which made it even more remarkable that God would speak audibly to the young boy, and that Samuel heard. Yet, from that time forward, Samuel was marked as God’s own.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
. . . Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
. . . As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.
And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.1 Samuel 3:1, 10-11, 19-21 (NRSV)
Decades later, Samuel’s sons also turned out wicked, so when it came time for Samuel to pass his mantle on, the people clamored for a king instead, and God agreed. Though personally hurt by the people’s request, Samuel remained faithful to God’s instruction and command, and anointed Saul as Israel’s first king.
When the Lord removed God’s Spirit from Saul, Samuel mourned. He had worked hard to keep Saul faithful, to bring him to repentance, to draw his eyes and heart upwards toward the Lord.
But eventually, at God’s prompting, the prophet anointed Israel’s second, and most celebrated king, David.
Samuel’s Final Prophecy
Sadly, Samuel did not live long enough to see David crowned.
Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah.1 Samuel 25:1 (NRSV)
But in a strange epilogue, God permitted the specter of Samuel to be raised up, as it were, from his grave (or perhaps, as some theologians aver, it was not Samuel, but some other spirit) in order to forewarn Saul of his coming defeat and death.
Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy?
“The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David.
Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you today.
Moreover the Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”1 Samuel 28:16-19 (NRSV)
He may not be remembered as Israel’s greatest leader (Moses), most powerful prophet (Elijah) or highest priest (Aaron). But prophetically and significantly, Samuel filled all three of those roles.
No one else would be called prophet, priest, and king until Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.