Samuel and the first Israelite king

It is against this background that one should read the story of the establishment of kingship or the monarchy in Israel. It is a story which is full of interest. It is a story which is full of interest. It begins with an account of one Israelite called Elkanah who, we are told, had two wives. The practice of marrying more than one wife (i.e. polygamy) was known in ancient Israel, as it is indeed known in Africa and other parts of the world; nevertheless, the most common form of marriage in Israel was monogamy. The presence of more than one wife did not always make for peace in the home. If one of the wives happened to be childless, she would be despised by the other wife. Peninnah, one of Elkanah’s wives had children while Hannah had none. However, Elkanah considered Hannah his favourite wife, and this, or course, made Peninnah jealous.

Now, Elkanah used to go up year by year from his city to Shiloh. Just as Moslems go to Mecca on what is called a pilgrimage, so it was the custom in those days for the Israelites to go on a pilgrimage to Shiloh which was at that time the most important centre of worship in Israel. There was in this town a special worshiping place which contained the ancient Ark. To go to Shiloh Elkanah and his family had to journey for fifteen miles from their home town Ramah. The pilgrimage was an occasion for rejoicing; thus, young girls would dance by the vineyards (see Judg. 21:19 – 21). But the main purpose was to worship and sacrifice to the Lord. To sacrifice means to make sacred or to delicate something to God. Sometimes this dedication took the form of the slaying of an animal. On such occasions the blood of the animal was poured out and the fat of the animal was burnt as an offering to God. If it was the peace offering, the commonest in ancient Israel, then the rest of the animal was boiled and eaten by the priest, as well as by the worshipper and his friends and kinsmen. This is why it is said that Elkanah gave portions of the sacrifice to his wives, sons and daughters to eat. Moreover, Elkanah’s children, like all children who attended the feast with their parents, would on such occasions learn something about the history of their nation and also receive instruction in religious matters.

At Shiloh, the two sons of Eli were the priests of the Lord. Israelite centres of worship had priests (usually the descendants of Levi). At this time Eli was probably the Chief Priest, with his two sons working under him.

We do not quite know the origin of the sanctuary at Shiloh; all we know is that during the period when Israel was ruled by the Judges (before the birth of Samuel), it came to be the most important centre of worship in Israel. In Shiloh was what appears to have been the first Temple of Yahweh; in this Temple the Ark was kept in a special room guarded by a priest, and a lamp was kept burning in the temple (see 1 Sam. 3:3). It was in the House of God that the sacrifice was performed, usually by the head of family who would serve the sacrificial meal, though we do not know whether or not the meal was eaten in the Temple.

It was at this centre of worship in Shiloh then that Elkanah and his family arrived, probably in the company of many other pilgrims. The atmosphere must have been gay, with people coming and going. All the same, all was not peaceful in Elkanah’s family. Hannah was sorrowing in her heart because she had no child; it almost looked as if the Lord had closed her womb. This is not meant to suggest that God deliberately made it impossible for Hannah to have children. The Israelites believed God was the giver of all things, including children (see Gen. 30:2). It is the knowledge that everything comes from God that is given expression here in this way (see comment on 1 Sam. 18:10).

It must be remembered that in Israel childlessness or sterility was considered a disgrace. Abraham’s wife Sarai tried to remove the disgrace of her barrenness, and to provide a son to inherit the family property, by adopting a child which her own maidservant bore to her husband Abraham (see Gen. 16:2). There was no need for Hannah to adopt children for the sake of family inheritance, seeing that Elkanah had children by Peninnah, his other wife, Hannah wanted her own child.

It was an anxious Hannah who entered the House of God and vowed a vow, that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God. Vowing was part of Israel’s religious life. It was a promise to give something to God or to do something for him if he granted a request. In this instance, if God granted Hannah a son, she would dedicate her son to the service of God in his house. A further sign of the dedication of Hannah’s son was that no razor shall touch his head. This is meant to indicate that he was to be a Nazirite (see Num. 6:5). A Nazirite abstained from wine or strong drink, and allowed his hair to grow long (Judg. 13:5). He also avoided contact with corpses since this would bring ceremonial uncleanness. But above all, a Nazirite gave himself entirely to God’s service.

Eli, seeing Hannah busily moving her lips in prayer, said to her, How long will you be drunken? Put away your wine from you. Eli thought Hannah was drunk; the pilgrimage was a joyful feast at which a great deal of new wine was available to drink. When Hannah denied that she was drunk and explained the reason for her actions, Eli told her, go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him. Eli, in these words, added a prayer to Hannah’s, making her confident that her prayer would be answered. Her newly gained confidence is shown by what is said about her: she went away and ate, and her countenance was no longer sad.

After the festivities, Elkanah and his family returned to Ramah. Much to everyone’s surprise Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son who was named Samuel, because, as Hannah put it, I have asked him of the Lord. This name gives expression to Hannah’s belief that it was God who had given her the son. Among the Israelites, it was the custom to name a child immediately after birth; the name was usually chosen by the mother. It is when we come to the New Testament Times (see Luke 1:59, 2:21) that we hear of the naming postponed till the eighth day, as it is done in various parts of West Africa.

Now the time came for Hannah to fulfill the promise she had made to God in Shiloh. Thus it happened that when she had weaned Samuel, she took him to Shiloh. The period for weaning in Israel was between two and three years; during that period the child was fed from the mother’s breasts. So Samuel must have been very young when he was committed to the care of Eli. As part of the dedication ceremony Hannah planned to make a sacrifice. She accordingly took along a three year old bull, an ephah of floor, and a skin of wine. This sacrifice was probably the type called thankoffering, a variety of the peace offering, which was made to thank God for his Kindness. An ephah is what we would call a bushel, and a skin of wine refers to the practice of carrying wine in bottles made from animal skin. The bull would be killed, its blood poured out and its flesh eaten; the flour would be burnt as part of the offering, and the wine used for pouring a libation at the foot of the altar. This would complete Hannah’s sacrifice of thanksgiving. The sacrifice over, Samuel was given to Eli to live with him in the house of God and to serve God.

As already indicated, Eli had two sons who were priests. Now, these were, unlike Samuel, worthless men; they had no regard for the Lord. This was indeed a serious charge. How could one be a priest and refuse to acknowledge God? Eli’s sons did just that, by disregarding, among other things, the law in connection with the priest’s portion of the sacrifice. Their servants used to say to worshippers, who had just made an offering in the Temple, Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but raw. Israelite law laid it down that priests were to obtain their means of living from the gifts which worshippers brought to God. Certain portions of a sacrifice were the priests’ by right. The only sacrifice from which the priests derived nothing was what the Jews called ‘burnt offering’ – this offering was completely burnt upon the altar. This law on the priests’ rights was interpreted by the priests’ servants would come and dip a fork in the pot in which the meat was cooking, and take some of the meat for the priests. Moreover, if the worshippers protested against the servants’ haste by saying, Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish, they would go ahead anyway and take the meat; this meant they were serving themselves before God’s portion of the sacrifice, the fat, had been given to him. Thus the sin of Eli’s sons was double; in the first place, they took any part of the meat instead of those parts described in the law; secondly, by demanding their portion before the burning of the fat, they showed great disrespect for God. The sin of the young men was very great in thr sight of the Lord; for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt.

In contrast to the sinful sons of Eli, Samuel ministered before the Lord, a boy girded with a linen ephod. The linen ephod was a distinctive dress for the priests. It was a kind of short skirt worn round the waist. Samuel was thus a boy-priest.

It was not until Samuel was about twelve years of age, however, that God called him while he was in the temple, supposing it was Eli calling, he presented himself before Eli: Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. Indeed, the true mark of one who serves God is that he should have been called by God. Thus God called Samuel, not only to be a priest, but also a prophet – to tell his word to Eli.

When God called Samuel for the fourth time, Samuel answered as Eli had instructed him. God then said to Samuel, Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle. What God did was to bring about the defeat of Israel, the death of Eli’s sons (Eli himself died at the news of his sons’ death), the capture of the Ark, and the destruction of the house of worship. All this was because of the sins of Eli’s sons (see Sam. 2:12 – 17). And lest Eli think that those sins could be removed by sacrifice, God further told Samuel, the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever. The Israelites believed that sins men committed could be wiped out by certain kinds ob sacrifice, such as the type they called ‘sin offering’. However, the sins of Eli’s sons were such that God was not going to accept sacrifices for their removal. This emphasises the seriousness of the offence.

It is quite likely that Samuel debated with himself whether or not to tell Eli what action God was planning against him. Eli, however, must have suspected what was to come; for he inquired from Samuel what God had told him. In his determination to know the worst, Eli said to Samuel, May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he (God) told you. Eli’s Statement was a form of oath which he invoked in order to put pressure on Samuel to reveal what God told him. It shows how anxious Eli was to know the truth. It does certainly appear as if Eli expected that God would not let the evil deeds of his sons go unpunished. When Samuel told him the truth he said, it is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him. Eli resigned himself to God’s will against which he knew man was powerless. One is reminded of the words of David when he said, Behold, here I am, let him (God) do to me what seems good to him (2 Sam. 15:26).

Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground; that is, the prophecies of Samuel were always fulfilled or confirmed by God. In those days, a prophet was proved to be such if whatever he said came to pass. The whole land of Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew him to be a prophet. With Samuel established in Shiloh as the true priest and prophet, the Lord appeared again at Shiloh. Probable the house of God had been deserted because of the evil doings of Eli’s sons, but now the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

A further word must be said about Samuel’s call. It is to be noted that Samuel is said to have heard God’s call. Indeed, we are told that the Lord never came and stood forth, calling as at other times. Are we to understand this literally? The answer to this question seems to be that we should not take literally the language of religious experience in the Bible. It is not as if God appeared to Samuel in some physical shape or other, as one would speak to one’s friend or mother. On the other hand, the experience could not have been a dream since Samuel was able to run and speak to Eli and return to listen to God’s voice. It would be unheard of for a person who was dreaming in bed to get up, go on an errand, and come back into the bed to dream from the point where he left off! Maybe men of God have witnessed to the fact that God does speak to – in the quietness of our bedrooms, in the death of a loved one, and in various other situations. The important thing about Samuel’s call is that he responded – Speak Lord, for thy servant hears. He put himself in God’s hands as his instrument.

The point was made in my last post that the Philistines, those warlike people who had settled on the Mediterranean coast soon after the arrival of the Israelites from Egypt, were bent on bringing the whole country under their rule. In striving to achieve mastery of the land, a clash with the Israelites was unavoidable. By the time of Samuel several hostile moves had been made by these two peoples, one against the other. Now, anxious to drive back these Philistine invaders because they were a menace, the Israelites engaged them to battle, but, though they took the Ark with them to battle, it did not prevent their defeat. Many of them were killed, including the sons of Eli, and the Ark was captured by the Philistines. Eli himself died at the news of the disaster. The Ark, however, was finally returned to the Israelites.

All this time, the various Israelite tribes continued to live in isolation from one another, more or less, without any central organisation. But now, the threat they were faced with because of the Philistine advance was such that common action was called for. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Israelites began to look around for someone who would be an effective leader in battle, and under whom they would fight as on people.

There are two accounts of how the monarchy came to be instituted. We are told in Chapters 8 and 10 (vv. 17-27) that the people of Israel themselves requested Samuel to give them a king; to this Samuel was opposed. Then in Charters 9:1-10:16, and 11 (all this is one account) it is made clear that the prophet was not opposed to the institution of the monarchy. These two accounts are presented without any indication that they form one story; they show different emphases. Quite clearly, the accounts have come from different emphases. Quite clearly, the accounts have come from different sources, though both affirm that Samuel took an active role in the institution of the monarchy, and that Saul was the first king of Israel.

By the time Saul became king, Samuel had undisputed authority over Israel. Indeed, by that time he was fairly advanced in age and could no longer work without help. He accordingly made his sons judges over Israel. This shows that the administration of the laws of the country was in Samuel’s hands. Unfortunately, his sons were more interested in bribes than in good administration (compare Amos 5:12). It was partly because of this that the Israelites sent a deputation to Samuel with the request, Appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations. The Canaanites among whom the Israelites lived, had many kings, each with his own territory, much as we, in West Africa, have chiefs, each with his own area of jurisdiction. It was not this that the Israelites wanted to imitate; they wanted one king who would be their leader, if necessary in battle (see V.20). Thus, there were two reasons why they wanted a king: firstly, Samuel’s sons were wicked; secondly, they wanted a leader in battle – the Philistine advance made this very necessary.

On receiving the request, however, Samuel was displeased. He put the matter before God in prayer, and was told by God, Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. God was displeased because Israel was a nation with himself as their king, and he ruled them through his representative the priest or judge; thus to have a human king meant rejecting God’s authority. As God further pointed out, this ingratitude was not surprising since from the beginning of their special association with God they had been disobedient. God then asked Samuel to show the ways of the king who shall reign over them. Their king would have certain constitutional rights, and Samuel proceeded to describe these rights in detail for them. The king would make them work for him. Some would run before his chariot, in accordance with ancient custom, and as Elijah ran before Ahab’s chariot; others would be forced to plough and reap for the king. This description of the king’s actions was not invented by Samuel in other to put off the Israelites. The kings of some Israel’s neighbours were known to make such demands of their subjects. Nevertheless, despite the gloomy picture painted by Samuel, the people would not change their mind; they were determined to have a king.

Samuel therefore called a national Assembly, and after an inspection of the people tribe by tribe, Saul was chosen king. And all the people shouted, ‘Long live the king!’ This is one story of how monarchy was established.

Now for the other story. There was in the land of Israel a man called Kish whose son was Saul. Saul was once sent by his father in search of some lost asses. Together with a household servant Saul was once sent by his father in search of some lost asses. Together with a household servant Saul searched extensively till they came to the land of Zuph. At this point Saul wanted to return home; the servant, however, pointed out that in a near-by village was a man who had the ability to make forecasts; he might be able to tell them the outcome of their search. Saul was doubtful because they had no money with which to pay their fee to the man for his forecast; as Saul put it, The bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. It was then that the servant revealed he had one-quarter of a silver shekel, a small piece of silver.

The man they were going to see Samuel, who is described as a seer. A seer was one who had the ability to tell the events of the future. Of course, Samuel had this ability, as he demonstrated when Saul and his servant inquired from him about the lost asses. However, Samuel was more than a seer. As we have already noticed, he was also a great priest and a prophet, though as a prophet he differed from the other kind of prophet, as will be seen, worked together with prophets of his type – they went about in groups, often lived together, and were sometimes referred to as the ‘sons of the prophets’.

Saul and the servant entered the village to look for Samuel who had meanwhile been told in a vision by God that he was to anoint Saul King. Samuel, then on his way to attend a sacrificial feast (see 1 Sam. 1:3), at the high place or shrine met Saul, invited him to the feast, offered him a bed for the night and said to him, (I) will tell you all that is on your mind. It is quite possible that Saul had other things on his mind besides the lost asses. Probably he was secretly worried about the Philistine threat and how it could be brought to an end. At any rate, after disclosing that the asses had been found, Samuel further said to Saul, And for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father’s house? What Samuel meant was that Saul’s secret ambition – to lead his people – was capable of being achieved. Saul indeed may have thus understood Samuel’s words; for he pointed out modestly that he was not a member of the most important of families in Israel.

Samuel led Saul to the sacrificial feast, and lodged him for the night. On the following morning Samuel secretly anointed Saul King and gave him three signs to show that it was God who had chosen him. In the first two signs, he would meet certain people who would tell him the asses had been found; then some pilgrims on their way to Bethel (another centre of worship) would share with him their bread which they were taking along for sacrificial meal. The third sign was that he would meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. The band of prophets refers to the second group of prophets mentioned earlier. Members of this group lived in bands or societies. They remind us of the priests of the traditional African religions in their short grass skirts who often dance to music as they wave their whisks about. Like them the prophets used music, played repeatedly, to induce a state of extreme excitement or frenzy which was considered to be evidence of the presence of God’s spirit; while in this state they prophesied. Moreover, this group excitement was infectious. Samuel had said that Saul would be infected with the excitement of the band of prophets, and this did happen, to the astonishment of Saul’s friends who asked, is Saul also among the prophets? Indeed, it is quite probable that people had a low opinion of these prophets because of their strange ways; this is probably why someone asked the question, and who is their father? – the kind of question which is sometimes asked today with reference to the one who has misbehaved. The question is Saul also among the prophets? became a proverb, used probably in connection with any sudden change in a man’s behaviour or character.

Saul finally went home, but he kept to himself what Samuel had revealed about his personal ambitions. Things were brought into the open, however, when Israel’s neighbours on the other side of the Jordan, the Ammonites, besieged Jabesh-gilead, and refused to accept their pleas for mercy. The news of the Ammonite threat had soon spread to Saul’s home-town, Gibeah-of-Saul; Saul was working on the farm when he heard the news. The spirit of God came mightily upon (him). What struck the people was the efficiency and determination with which Saul handled the situation. It was such that it could only be described as the spirit of God; and the zeal it inspired in the people could only be described as the dread of the Lord – they were inwardly compelled to follow Saul. In the end, Israel, under Saul’s leadership, defeated the Ammonites. Having proved himself a worthy leader, Saul was crowned at Gilgal, amid great rejoicing. They sacrificed peace offerings, as Elkanah had done in Shiloh, and feasted.

Now, which of these two accounts is the true one? It used to be said that the account which represents Samuel as being opposed to the monarchy is without any foundation in fact. However, it is now believed that Samuel could have opposed the institution on religious grounds. Right from the time when God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai, the people acknowledged God as their king. This is not to suggest, however, that the other account which sees Samuel in favour of the institution is therefore entirely incorrect. It may be very well be that after his initial opposition Samuel saw that for political reasons, Israel needed a leader. Hence, though the two accounts are different, and come from different periods, yet both contain elements of truth.

Updated: November 15, 2020 — 3:04 pm

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