The book of Samuel establishes a vital transition in Israelite society with the installment of monarchy, and the political and social implications that result from this critical change are conveyed in the plot through argument, confusion, and violence. By examining the progression of the characterization of Samuel, one may understand the text’s motivations in its narration, diction and structure. As an embodiment of the Israelite community’s condition, Samuel’s strengths and faults depict an implicit criticism of the move into monarchy, while defending God’s blame for the failure of Saul and setting the scene to highlight the soaring success in the start of David’s kingship.
The call on Samuel to be the next Israelite leader illustrates the natural succession of power from Eli to Samuel and introduces the complexities of Samuel’s role of legitimate authority. The narrator demonstrates Samuel’s successful abilities and exhibits the multiplicity of his unique leadership, while underlining the power and responsibility of the people in choosing a leader. In 1 Samuel 3:13, the narrator describes Samuel’s hearing God’s words as hamareh, the vision, even though Samuel only heard and did not see. The root of this word appears again in explaining Samuel’s relationship with God in 1 Samuel 3:21 with l’heraoh, reveal. This emphasis on sight exemplifies Samuel’s unique strength, which defines his legitimacy in ruling the Israelites. Samuel’s successful sight contrasts greatly to the blind Eli, who God demotes as unsuitable for the job.
Verses 1 Samuel 3:19 – 4:1 suddenly transport the reader to years after Samuel’s call from God to his successful status with the Israelite people. After a detailed and slow-moving introduction story of Samuel’s birth and childhood, the narrator chooses to fast forward to the culmination of Samuel’s authority, in order to stress the seamless succession from Eli to Samuel. This quick and easy movement in leadership will highlight and criticize the messy, prolonged process of the transition from Samuel to Saul as a means of exposing the disadvantages of monarchy.
These same verses, 1 Samuel 3:19 – 4:1, present the “perceptual point of view” of the Israelite people (Berlin, 47). If one were to imagine this scene in a film, as Adele Berlin suggests, the camera would focus on Samuel from the viewpoint of his people, exhibiting their reactions to and understanding of his leadership from their eyes. By employing this perceptual point of view, the narrator gives authority to the people. Verse 1 Samuel 3:20 states, “All Israel, from Dan to Beer-sheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet.” Notice that the narrator does not include God in the naming of Samuel as navee, prophet. The narrator stresses that the party with the power to establish Samuel as a trustworthy prophet is kol Yisrael, all the Israelite people, not God. Since Samuel’s authority is verified by the society, one may understand Samuel’s leadership successes as a reflection of the success of all Israel. The narrator will continue to emphasize the authority of the people with the ultimate goal of reconciling God’s apparent mistake in choosing Saul as a failing king. In this section, the narrator uses the people’s point of view to exhibit the successful leadership of Samuel and introduce the unique type of authority he possesses. Here, Samuel is named as a prophet, but elsewhere he is also associated with priestly duties (1 Samuel 2:18), called a shofet (1 Samuel 8:17) and known as a seer (1 Samuel 9:11). Samuel’s duties as a leader extend over all these different realms of society—religion, military, judgment and prophecy. Peter Miscall likens Samuel to Moses as he explains, “Both are legendary figures of authority who play many roles” (46). Presenting Samuel as comparable to Moses characterizes Samuel as a great leader during this time. As the narrator includes the variety in the names of Samuel, he exposes the complexity of Samuel’s authority as an indicator of Israel’s uniqueness and propels the judgment that this special, widespread authority role is effective for the Israelite society.
The next important section that highlights the progression of Samuel’s characterization is from verses 1 Samuel 8:4 – 10. In these lines, the narrator hints at Samuel’s decline and foreshadows the society’s failure in transition to monarchy, while hoping to build amends to the theological challenge of Saul’s inadequacy. After the elders of Israel demand a king, the narrator reports, “The thing was bad in Samuel’s eyes” (1 Samuel 8:6). As was emphasized in the previous verses discussed, Samuel’s strong sight was a symbol for his success as a leader. But in this moment, God instructs Samuel not to use his sight. Despite Samuel’s disapproval of the request for a king as seen b’aynai Shmuel, in Samuel’s eyes, God directs him to use a different sense. The leitworter shema, listen, in verses 1 Samuel 8:7-9, shifts the focus of the narrative away from Samuel’s reliability as a leader with great sight. His strengths are not applicable to this new situation, and God recognizes Samuel’s progressing undependability. The narrator frames Samuel’s struggles as a representative for all of Israel, who begins a dramatic decline with the introduction of monarchy.
The repeated use of the word shema also articulates a role reversal between Samuel and the Israelites. In verse 1 Samuel 8:7, God tells Samuel, “Listen to the demand of the people in everything that they say to you.” Prior to this moment, the people of Israel listened to Samuel, but now Samuel must listen to his people. In effect, Samuel’s leadership is reliant on the desires of the Israelites. The text’s motivation in illustrating this point is to show that the blame for the failure of the transition into monarchy and the kingship of Saul rests upon the people, not God. The introduction of monarchy was not God’s wish, but the people’s. With this prescription of responsibility, the narrator criticizes the people for their demand for a king and relieves God of the blame for the unsuccessful monarchy.
The narrator’s criticism of this demand for monarchy stresses the negativity in the loss of Israel’s unique leaders, like Samuel and Moses, whose authority spans the various facets of society. The elders demand in verse 1 Samuel 8:5, “Seema lanu melach l’shafetaynu. Appoint a king for us, to govern (shofet) us.” Samuel was previously named shofet over the Israelites, but the new king will take over this role in Samuel’s widespread authority. As Miscall writes, “Samuel deeply resents the people’s demand that he exercise his authority to demote or even remove himself by appointing another leader” (47). While the elders of Israel do recognize Samuel’s authority by asking him to appoint the king, they hope to rid Israel of a ruler like Samuel who plays many roles in his leadership. The narrator exhibits that, if the new king will become a shofet, the resulting ambiguity about Samuel’s roles as seer, prophet and religious leader will surely incite chaos, competition and failure in the society’s transition into monarchy.
With the mention of Samuel’s two sons in this section, the text foreshadows the fall of Samuel and the harmful results of monarchy. Robert Alter understands verse 1 Samuel 8:5 as an allusion to the demise of Eli, writing, “The two sons who betray their trust of office are a nice parallel to Eli’s two corrupt sons” (41). This parallel predicts Samuel’s similar loss of power and illuminates the striking contrast between Eli’s smooth descent from leadership and Samuel’s rough experience with the rise of monarchy. This verse also hints at the sorry fate of David’s two future sons, as a criticism of monarchy’s damaging effects since hereditary succession is repetitively flawed.
Once the kingship of Saul has been established, the narrator demonstrates the culmination of the fall of Samuel as a marker of the regrettable state of the Israelite society under monarchy. This sentiment is found in verses 1 Samuel 16:6-12, when Samuel hopes to anoint a new king. By this point in the story, succession has never been so messy, as three characters, Samuel, Saul and David, now crowd the confusing governing roles. In this scene, the text discredits Samuel’s authority in order to portray Israel’s desperation for good leadership and employs a method of contrast to soon accentuate David’s soaring success at the start of his leadership.
The root of the leitworter yireh, to see, appears five times in these six verses, which again stresses the importance of sight. In opposition to the exhibition of Samuel’s unique strength that occurred earlier, this passage stresses Samuel’s shortcomings. Samuel mistakenly assumes that Eliab must be the next king due to his physical stature, even though Saul’s failure as king (despite his being so tall and strong) obviously disputes this shallow judgment. Alter comments on Samuel’s repeated error, writing, “Nothing could illustrate more vividly Samuel’s persistent unreliability as seer” (96). Even God discredits Samuel’s sight with the words of verse 1 Samuel 16:7, “For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.” At the start of Samuel’s leadership, he possessed a unique sense of sight that surpassed the visual—he saw the invisible, God’s words. But here, God asserts that Samuel’s sight is just as shallow and common as any other man’s. As the authority of the Israelite people fueled Samuel’s power, his successes and failures reflect the strength or weakness of the whole people. When Samuel led the Israelites in his unique authority with various roles like Moses, Israel was strong, happy and connected to God. Samuel’s loss of his special sight ability indicates the downfall of Samuel’s leadership and represents the deteriorating condition of the Israeli society with the start of monarchy.
With this downfall of Samuel as an unreliable seer, the text exhibits Israel’s desperation for good leadership. The narrator’s consistent demonstration of the society’s failures with the transition to monarchy highlights a strong contrast with David’s swift successes as a new leader. This contrast is present in verse 1 Samuel 16:12, when the narrator describes David with “yafeh aynaiim,” beautiful eyes. The narrator emphasizes that David’s eyes are better than Samuel’s, so David possesses the unique leadership strength that Samuel has lost. This judgment implies that the Israelite nation will be healed from the harm of the monarchial transition with the start of David’s kingship. The narrator ensures that God is credited for the correct choice of David as king, restoring the troubling theological issue of Saul’s failure.
Through the progression of Samuel’s characterization, this biblical narrative mourns the loss of unique and inspired leaders and criticizes the Israelite’s failed transition into monarchy. The narration ensures a theological solution to this collapse of Israel’s society by stressing the responsibility of the people in the faults of the first monarchy. The fall of Samuel, as a representative for all Israel, emphasizes the necessity for David’s impressive successes as the new leader.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Introduction to Biblical Literature: Judges, Samuel and Isaiah with Professor Benjamin Sommer at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Berlin, Adele. Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Sheffield: Almond, 1983.
Quinn-Miscall, Peter D. 1 Samuel: A Literary Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986.