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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 1 Samuel

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Samuel ( 1:1–4:1 a)

( 1:1–2:10 ) Samuel's Birth and Dedication

Samuel, the last of the judges and the maker of Israel's first two kings, is presented as a significant person in this account of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. Although his father came from an old, prestigious stock in Ramah (v. 1 ) in the land of Zuph (see 9:5–6 ), Elkanah's first wife was childless and he had decided to take a second wife (cf. Gen 16:1–4 ). There was inevitable tension and rivalry between the two women, with Hannah being constantly provoked and distressed; this provided a perfect scene for a miraculous intervention and the subsequent contrast between her humiliation and ultimate triumph. These events are connected with Shiloh, where Elkanah and his family attended annually for a feast (Judg 21:19–24 ), and where Hannah, whose plight was made more obvious when she received only one portion of the sacrifice (v. 5 ), came into contact with Eli the high priest. Worship at Shiloh, one of the most important sanctuaries and the home of the ark ( 3:3 ), was regulated by Eli and his two unworthy sons. The second main contrast introduced in the narrative is that between the corrupt priesthood of Shiloh and the ideal prophet Samuel. Although the narrator emphasizes the themes suggested by these two contrasts, his account contains obvious legendary elements (as in the accounts of the births of Isaac and Samson).

Another element introduced into the narrative is Hannah's vow to dedicate the son requested as a nazirite (v. 11 ). The MT refers to only one feature of the nazirite vow, leaving the hair uncut, but the longer text of the LXX, to some extent supported by 4QSama, includes an undertaking to abstain from strong drink (Num 6:1–21; Judg 13:5, 7 ). The actual dedication is reported in vv. 21–8 . On his annual visit to Shiloh Elkanah paid his vow, which may have been related to Samuel's birth, but Hannah delayed her visit until the child had been weaned and then took him to Shiloh to ‘abide there forever’. 4QSama makes it quite clear that she was dedicating him as a nazirite. Votive offerings were brought, a ‘three-year old bull’ (with 4QSama and LXX in preference to the MT's ‘three bulls’) accompanied by flour and wine (Num 15:8–10 ). See Willis (1972).

There is a repeated wordplay on š-᾽-l—(to ask, request)—‘what you have asked of him’ (v. 17 REB), ‘I have asked him’ (v. 20 ), ‘what I asked’ (v. 27 REB), ‘he is given’ (v. 28 ). Although such wordplays appear in birth narratives, it is obvious that what occurs here is more appropriate to Saul (cf. šāûl, v. 28 ) than to Samuel, which is taken to suggest that the story about the birth and dedication of a nazirite belonged originally to Saul but was secondarily applied to Samuel. Saul is closer than Samuel to another nazirite, Samson (Judg 16 ). See more fully Dus (1968), and for an opposite view Gordon (1984: 23–4). The account of Samuel's birth is thus a combination of the Shiloh/Eli traditions with the nazirite/Saul traditions.

Embedded in these traditions is Hannah's song ( 2:1–10 ), which, like other Hebrew psalms, celebrates a victory granted by God. As noted from NRSV's footnotes, the MT is not satisfactory and the LXX and 4QSama must be consulted to obtain a better version. The theme is clear: the singer has been exalted by God and exults in this good fortune. To emphasize God's work comes a series of contrasts: the mighty and the feeble (v. 4 ), the full and the hungry (v. 5 ), the barren and the mother of children (v. 6 ), the faithful and the wicked (v. 9 ). God's absolute power is celebrated (vv. 6–8, 10 ). It is appropriate in its context, for the reference to the barren bearing children in v. 5 connects it with Hannah, and the reference to ‘king’ and ‘anointed’ in v. 10 links it with its wider context in which the rise of Samuel was to lead to the anointing of Israel's first king.

The reference to ‘king’ in v. 10 raises the question of date. The song itself betrays a number of affinities with early pre-monarchial Hebrew psalmody (Deut 32; Ex 15; Judg 5; 2 Sam 22; and Ps 113 ). See Albright (1968), Willis (1973), and Wright (1962). Possible ways of dealing with this reference are: to find here an allusion to early rulers, such as Abimelech; to date the song to the late years of Samuel when Israel had a king; to regard v. 10b as a later addition. Whichever solution is accepted, a reference to ‘king’ suits a narrative depicting the decline of Shiloh and the rise of the Samuel-Saul-David regime. Like 2 Sam 22 , it truly represents Israel's royal ideology.

( 2:11–36 ) The Depravity of the House of Eli

After describing the total depravity of Hophni and Phinehas (vv. 11–26 ), this section describes the visit of a man of God to Eli to deliver an oracle of doom (vv. 27–36 ). Like other levitical priests, Eli's sons bore Egyptian names. But the main interest is in depicting their evil ways, which stand in contrast to Samuel's exemplary behaviour. Several short statements about Samuel are introduced (vv. 11, 18, 19, 26 ); he is ministering before YHWH and gaining in maturity and favour. But the sons of Eli are unfaithful ministers. This is a further development of the theme introduced in ch. 1 , the contrast between the corrupt priesthood of Shiloh and the ideal prophet Samuel.

The malpractices at Shiloh are noted in vv. 13–17 . The priests took more than their share of the offering. Although receiving only what was forked from the pot suggests trust in providence, it is clear that they took more than their due. A reconstructed text based on 4QSama suggests that they took meat in addition to ‘the breast for wave-offering and the right thigh’, which belonged to them by right (Lev 7:31, 32 ). Another malpractice was their insistence, on taking by force if necessary, a piece of meat before the fat was burnt off, for the fat belonged to the Lord (Lev 7:22–5 ).

Whereas his sons were corrupt, Eli himself was old and unable to check them. They were guilty of prostitution with female sanctuary assistants, and were possibly resorting to a Canaanite practice of cultic prostitution (Num 25:6–15 ). It is interesting that the reference to prostitution is absent from the LXX and 4QSama, which may suggest that it was a later addition. They did not respond to the pleading of their aged father, who accepted that they were beyond human intercession.

Samuel in contrast was gaining in favour and maturity, for his ministry was acceptable to God (vv. 11, 18 ). According to priestly custom he wore a linen ephod (1 Sam 22:18 ), and his mother used to make him an outer garment. Hannah was rewarded for her faithfulness with a family of five children. Although the narrative brings out clearly the contrast between the Elides and Samuel, it may not have been originally intended to describe Samuel's rise. Possibly it was an introduction to the ark narrative and showed why YHWH rejected Shiloh and departed from Israel (Willis 1971 ).

An oracle against the house of Eli was spoken by ‘a man of God’ (vv. 27–36 ), an anonymous figure (1 Kings 13:1–13 ), who took the role of a prophet and pronounced words of doom. It may be that the introduction of an anonymous spokesman was a literary device whereby the Deuteronomistic historian gave his own judgement. The Aaronide house of Eli is about to fall, despite the self-revelation of God in Egypt to his family (Moses) and the election of this house to perform all priestly duties, such as offering incense, wearing the ephod, and accepting gift-offerings. It is rejected on the basis of the charges brought in vv. 15–16 ; the choicest parts of the sacrifices, belonging to the Lord, had been taken and Eli had shown himself unable to prevent this. God's promise of a perpetual priesthood to the house of Eli is now rescinded because the conditions had not been met. Although Eli himself will be spared the ultimate downfall, the death of his two sons will give him a sure sign of what is coming (v. 34 ). Allusions to the fate of the priesthood are seen in vv. 33–5 : the slaughter of the house of Eli refers to the massacre of the priests of Nob; the one spared was Abiathar (1 Sam 22:20 ); the faithful priest given a sure house is Zadok (1 Kings 2:35 ); the impoverished priests were the non-Zadokites living outside Jerusalem and playing only a minor role after the Josianic reform (2 Kings 23:9 ). See McCarter (1980).

Although the narrative in 1 Sam 1–2 presents a contrast between Samuel and the house of Eli, the oracle in vv. 27–36 introduces another major theme belonging to the Deuteronomistic History, namely that the true priesthood was the Zadokite one of Jerusalem.

( 3:1–4:1a ) Samuel is Called

Samuel is now set within the tradition of the great prophets, for this narrative, despite some formal variations, belongs to the genre of prophetic-call narratives (Isa 6; Jer 1:4–10; Ezek 1:1–3:16 ). Samuel will now be acting as God's mouthpiece (see Newman 1962 ). Dream theophanies were not uncommon in the ancient Near East, and elements from that genre have been preserved here (Gnuse 1982 ).

However, the narrative in its present context elaborates the contrast between Samuel and the house of Eli and brings it to a climax. It was in a period when divine oracles were infrequent and visions out of the ordinary that Samuel received his call-vision. Thus is introduced the theme of the whole chapter, namely the difference between the old regime and the new (Fishbane 1982 ). Under the former, Samuel was a boy assistant in the temple, where he lived night and day in order to perform his duties; he was under Eli's supervision, for despite his failing physical condition he was still in charge. But these respective positions were changed dramatically with the call-vision, which shifted the seat of power. Even then Eli was presiding for a limited period, for Samuel ‘did not yet know the LORD’ and mistook his voice for that of Eli. It was Eli who instructed Samuel and gave him the right words of response (vv. 9–10 ). But once God had spoken and given Samuel the oracle of vv. 11–14 , Samuel became more powerful than Eli and spoke the oracle of doom over his house. It is an oracle that confirms the words of the man of God in 2:27–36 : the house of Eli will fall because of the iniquity of his sons and his own inability to check them. Eli accepted God's verdict (v. 18 ). Samuel was no longer a boy, but a powerful person whose words were fulfilled and whose position as a prophet was acclaimed. For a time Samuel was associated with Shiloh, but before long that centre was to be stripped of its preeminence.

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