The biblical portrait of Samuel comes almost exclusively from the book of 1 Samuel. Despite being the eponymous hero, Samuel recedes from the narrative after 1Sam 16 and dies in 1Sam 25:1, although he does appear when summoned from the grave by the woman of Endor in 1Sam 28. He is not mentioned by name in 2 Samuel, and he is mentioned only in passing in parallel accounts of the early monarchy in the book of Chronicles.
Prophet, priest or judge?
Samuel is never explicitly called a priest in the book of 1 Samuel. However, his mother, Hannah, brings Samuel as a child to “minister to the Lord” (1Sam 2:11) before Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Samuel wears a linen ephod (1Sam 2:18), a typical priestly garment worn also by the Eli and his sons (1Sam 2:28). And Samuel’s model behavior (e.g., 1Sam 2:26) is juxtaposed throughout 1 Samuel 2-3 with the corruption of Eli’s sons as priests (e.g., 1Sam 2:22-25; 1Sam 2:27-36).
When God tells Eli, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest” to replace Eli’s house in 1Sam 2:35, the immediate context suggests that Samuel will be that priest. In the role of judge, in 1Sam 7, Samuel leads the people during a threat from the Philistines. In the pattern of judges in the book of Judges, Samuel continues to judge Israel during a time of peace “all the days of his life” according to 1Sam 7:15.
Samuel is named as a prophet explicitly in 1Sam 3:20, after receiving a message from God announcing the end of the house of Eli. Samuel will also be the bearer of news from God when Saul is rejected as king in 1Sam 13 and 1Sam 15.
Although attempts have been made to attribute Samuel’s roles of prophet, priest, and judge to different traditions underlying the composition of the book of 1 Samuel, in the present form of the text, each of the roles interweaves and interlocks with one another.
Similar to the biblical portrayal of Moses (who also holds multiple roles), Samuel is unafraid to question, complain, and even challenge God’s decisions. In 1Sam 8, Samuel is told by God to “listen to the voice of the people” three times (1Sam 8:7, 1Sam 8:9, 1Sam 8:22) before he obediently departs to anoint a king for Israel. In 1Sam 15:11, Samuel is angry and pleads with God regarding the decision to reject Saul as king. In each of these examples, Samuel is conspicuously unsuccessful at intercession. In contrast, Samuel’s intercessory role is affirmed in 1Sam 12:17-18, when he calls upon God for a sign, and God sends thunder and rain. In 1Sam 7:5-6, Samuel’s intercession brings about success in the face of a Philistine threat.
Kingmaker or king-breaker?
Samuel is sent by God to make, and break, Israel’s leaders, with much of the narrative attention directed towards Samuel’s relationship to King Saul. There are a number of reasons for suspicion regarding Samuel’s motives and reliability when he announces (or orchestrates?) the rejection of Saul.
In 1Sam 8, Samuel is hesitant to obey God and anoint a king, a response that can be traced to Samuel’s own role as judge; in particular, he is a judge who has appointed his own sons as judges after him (1Sam 8:1-3). Judges and kings share many of the same functions, and a key distinction is that only kingship is hereditary. Therefore, when Samuel appoints his sons as judges, he is acting in a king-like manner. It is no wonder that God must remind Samuel in 1Sam 8:7, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Is Samuel against the idea of monarchy because the people have abandoned God or because his own powerful position as judge is threatened?
Hints of Samuel’s antipathy towards the monarchy continue throughout the story of Saul. In 1Sam 12, Samuel effectively sidelines the king before the people, offering his own services as teacher and intercessor (1Sam 12:23). Crucially, in 1Sam 13, Samuel indicts Saul for not waiting until Samuel’s arrival to make a sacrifice prior to battle with the Philistines. However, Samuel is pointedly late for his appointment, due to arrive within seven days but conveniently turning up only moments after Saul has made the sacrifice himself, ready to condemn Saul for his actions (1Sam 13:10).
Some scholars have suggested that Samuel’s grief at the second rejection of Saul (1Sam 15:11) is a result of the realization that the king will no longer be under his control. Certainly, Samuel does not enjoy the same influence over David during his reign that he exercises over Saul, and during the rise of David, Samuel recedes from the story.
- Middleton, J. Richard. “Samuel Agonistes: A Conflicted Prophet’s Resistance to God and Contribution to the Failure of Israel’s First King.” Pages 69-91 in Prophets, Prophecy, and Ancient Israelite Historiography. Edited by Mark J. Boda and Lissa M. Wray Beal. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2013.
- Steussy, Marti J. Samuel and His God. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.