Fribble Friday: Everybody knows the secret, everybody knows the score (1 Samuel 1–3)

Some of you might have expected me to do Ruth next. If you’re Christian, that’s probably what’s next in your Bible, since the various Christian canonical orders try for chronological continuity (and, also, the book of Ruth is biblically motivated by the appearance of David in 1 Samuel, so it needs to come first to set the stage). But the Tanakh, whose ordering I follow, considers the books as belonging to three major categories: the תורה or law, the נביאים or prophets, and the כתובים or writings. Ruth’s in the third section, so we don’t see her until much, much later.

Short, snarky summary: Another barren woman miraculously conceives, but gives her son away. Meanwhile, priests behave really badly because it is the lawless pre-monarchial times.


The first part of the story is a reading at Rosh Hashanah, so it’s a pretty familiar one for most Jews, which we’ve heard a lot. In addition, the underlying conceit is a pretty familiar one: woman is barren and sad, God intervenes, child born therefrom is special. That’s the origin story for Samson, for a start. It’s also the basic origin of Isaac (although Isaac is awfully boring and bland for someone whose birth was announced by God). Hell, tweak this recurring myth a bit and you’ve basically got the Annunciation.

So the underlying framework is a mythic motif we’ve seen before. Like in the case of Isaac’s birth, there’s some complicated familial politics too: like Abraham, Elkanah has two mistresses of his household, but unlike Abraham, there’s no clear subordination of one of his wives to the other, which is why Hannah’s barrenness is not only a personal misfortune but also a weakness exploited by her rival.

Now, we’re not given much of a character for this family circle beyond the bare essentials. Elkanah contributes annually to the sacrifices at the temple, so he’s clearly supposed to be basically virtuous and worthy. Not that the story really needs it: we never got any good reason why Samson was born to the parents he was. But in this story there’s greater causality: Samuel’s birth is the direct result of Hannah’s entreaties to God, bolstered by the high priest’s support. That support comes at the end of what I guess is supposed to be a comic interlude: Hannah is praying by mumbling and rocking (I guess she was the first Jew to daven), and Eli thinks that she’s drunk and castigates her to go home and sober up. Hey, we don’t get much humor in these stories, we gotta take what we get.

So, anyways, Samuel is born thanks to Eli’s and God’s intercession, and Hannah stays home to wean him. After he’s weaned there’s a call for a big thanksgiving sacrifice (I figure that in the ages of terrifyingly high infant mortality, weaning was probably the age when you figured you might get to keep this one and could properly recognize them as an augmentation to the family). That much is pretty much par for the course: we’ve seen Elkanah is devout, and presumably he’s prosperous, so providing a sacrifice in dedication of his son is probably what’s socially expected, but the next step—which seems to be taken by Hannah without any sort of input from her husband—is not: she claims that Samuel belongs to God and leaves him to serve in the temple.

I must admit this kind of bugs me. If there’d been an annunciation, like Samson got, giving specific instructions, I could go along with it, but it feels a lot like Hannah taking an action on her own initiative which neither God nor Eli instructed or even wanted her to do. Maybe the temple doesn’t want, need, or have a place for kids around. In fact, in a different kind of story, I would assume the whole child-left-at-a-temple would be an abandonment, but in this case, Hannah clearly wanted a son to solidify household power. It’s just very weird that she’d up and give him away and end up back where she started family-power-structure-wise, I guess. We’re told that sometime later she has five more children, so I guess that more than establishes her position in the household.

But apparently having a child, even one she doesn’t keep, somehow elevates Hannah in the domestic sphere, because Chapter 2 kicks off with a song of triumph by Hannah. We’ve seen similar poetic works before, and, intriguingly, they’re almost always attributed to women: there’s Miriam’s song by the sea, celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians, and Deborah’s song, celebrating the defeat of Sisera. THis song isn’t celebrating a military victory, but it does seem to have similar martial qualities, talking about triumph and defeat of the enemy. And then there are the aspects of this some which are rather more poetic: after this martial beginning, the song devolves more into a consideration of the vicissitudes of life, how mighty fall and weak rise, &c. Except inasmuch as she attributes all this flux and flow to God, it’s thematically closer to Ecclesiastes than to the usual praise to God. The ending is triumphant again, so this song is sort of a poetic sandwich, with lazy boosterism flanking some halfway decent philosophy.

The remainder of Chapter 2 describes the household of Eli into which Samuel has been inducted. Eli himself we already saw was a nice old man, but this chapter focuses on his sons and careens back into being an object lesson about the wickedness of pre-monarchical Israel. So the sons of Eli, who are themselves Levites and priests, are here being shown to be bad people, by the abuses of their power: taking sacrifices for their own benefits, sleeping with female temple servitors, and so forth. While they carry on like this, Samuel grows up, and Eli attempts (rather half-heartedly) to correct his sons.

We are now told that an actual prophet (who is not given a name) reproves Eli for his sons’ iniquity, prophesying that his two sons will die and that the remainder of his descendants will be displaced from the priesthood. This character creates more problems than he solves, since apparently true prophets of God are walking around, even before Samuel makes his proper prophetic debut, and they’re sufficiently uninteresting that this one neither gets a name nor is seen again.

But on the other hand, Chapter 3 wants us to forget all about J. Random Prophet and take at face value the assertion that prophecy was rare in Israel, so that it will indeed be a special and exciting thing when Samuel proves to be a prophet. This is one of the well-known stories from Samuel’s life, probably because it’s easy to tell to children (in most renditions Samuel himself is depicted as a child, although presumably he’s a teenager or even a grown man at this point). Samuel keeps hearing someone calling him, and responding as if it were Eli, until Eli tells him that it must be God calling. When Samuel answers, God tells him that he’s going to destroy the house of Eli. That prophecy would have had a lot more impact if it hadn’t already been divulged to a different prophet last chapter, methinks. Samuel is understandably reticent about delivering this news, although I don’t know why, seeing as how Eli already got it (I’m starting to think maybe the authors of these two chapters didn’t compare notes). Eli presses him and he tells all, which Eli receives with equanimity (maybe he doesn’t like his sons either).

But when we pick up the story, Samuel’s fame has spread, as he delivers prophecies which are fulfilled. We aren’t told any of these prophecies, but we’re told they are fulfilled. This is going to produce a mild chronological blip in the next chapter, so remember that part.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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