A Critical Look at Samuel

A Critical Look at Samuel

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Samuel is a well known biblical figure, who played a key role in the establishment of the Davidic kingdom. You could say that Samuel is the root cause for first Saul’s, then David’s kingships, and then in turn the Jerusalem temple and a multitude of messianic prophecies tied to David’s lineage.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all venerate Samuel’s role in Biblical history, and accept without question that he was a true prophet. Let’s take a critical look at the story of Samuel and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

First, it is worth establishing what the Torah indicates the Almighty required from those who had made a covenant with Him. What we find throughout the Torah is that YHWH demands complete obedience from the Israelites, His people. Once they agreed to a covenant with Him, failure to uphold that covenant resulted in swift and serious consequences.

You can see these consequences throughout the Torah: in the story of the golden calf, resulting in around 3,000 deaths (Exodus 32); the deaths of Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” (Leviticus 10); fire consuming a number of grumbling Israelites (Number 11), followed by the plague that ensued after the quail was given to address their complaints about manna and lack of meat; Miriam becoming leprous after complaining about Moses (Numbers 12); the death of an entire generation required before entering the land based on 10 of 12 scouts bearing discouraging/cowardly reports (Number 13/14); 250+ deaths for the rebellion of Korah (Numbers 16, followed by another 14,700 deaths after mumbling and complaining broke out about what happened to Korah (Numbers 17); and 24,000 Israelites perishing by plague in connection to sexual immorality and idolatry with Moabite and and Midianite women (Numbers 25.)

It’s clear that YHWH required complete obedience and nothing short of that was acceptable. In fact, he was clear about what would happen when (not if, but when) his people became disobedient, which he informed Moses would happen not long after his death:

Then YHWH said to Moses, “You are about to die, and then these people will begin to prostitute themselves with the foreign gods of the land into which they are going. They will reject me and break my covenant that I have made with them. At that time my anger will erupt against them and I will abandon them and hide my face from them until they are devoured. Many disasters and distresses will overcome them so that they will say at that time, ‘Have not these disasters overcome us because our God is not among us?’ But I will certainly hide myself at that time because of all the wickedness they will have done by turning to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:16-18)

The above is not presented as something that might happen, if they turn away, but something that WILL definitely happen, so we should expect that it indeed happened.

YHWH also indicates it is up to the nation to make sure that not a single person turns away:

Beware that the heart of no man, woman, clan, or tribe among you turns away from YHWH our God today to pursue and serve the gods of those nations; beware that there is among you no root producing poisonous and bitter fruit. When such a person hears the words of this oath he secretly blesses himself and says, “I will have peace though I continue to walk with a stubborn spirit.” This will destroy the watered ground with the parched. YHWH will be unwilling to forgive him, and his intense anger will rage against that man; all the curses written in this scroll will fall upon him and YHWH will obliterate his name from memory. YHWH will single him out for judgment from all the tribes of Israel according to all the curses of the covenant written in this scroll of the law. (Deuteronomy 29:18-21 NET)

This is quite a mandate, one which at face value seems nearly impossible. Nevertheless, this was what was required of them.

Given this, when one approaches the story of Samuel in the Tanakh, one should keep in mind that somewhere along the line the above prophecy by YHWH himself will have come true, and could influence the reliability of the underlying narrative.

There are two distinct possibilities:

  1. The story of Samuel comes from a time before the falling away, when YHWH was still present among his people, who were entirely obedient, or:
  2. The story comes from a time after the falling away, when YHWH was no longer present among his people, due to their disobedience.

What indicator within a story would help us determine in which of the above time periods it originated? There is only one reliable indicator: obedience to the covenant! Only if the story describes an environment in which the nation is in complete obedience to YHWH’s commands can the story be fully trusted, particularly if it makes claims regarding the continued presence and guidance of YHWH.

By that I mean, if the stories present an environment where the people have fallen away and have gone after false gods, then we know YHWH is no longer among them, advising them, protecting them, etc. He will at that point have cursed them and turned his face away from them. If we find claims in these stories that YHWH is communicating with them, while they are steeped in rebelliousness, those claims must necessarily be treated with skepticism.

By the above criteria it can be shown that the story of Samuel takes place in an environment of disobedience and rebellion to YHWH, rather than the other way around.

Very early in the book of Judges, from well before Samuel’s time, we find this:

The Israelites did evil before YHWH by worshiping the Baals. They abandoned YHWH God of their ancestors who brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other gods – the gods of the nations who lived around them. They worshiped them and made YHWH angry. (Judges 2:11-12 NET)

Similar acknowledgements of Israelites worshiping false gods exist throughout the book of Judges. Already it is clear that what YHWH predicted has come true. At this point, you must believe that YHWH has turned his face away, as he said he would. Otherwise you must assert that YHWH changed his mind.

This is the state of things when Samuel comes into the picture. Samuel was responsible for choosing first Saul, and then David, as king over Israel, supposedly at YHWH’s direction. This requires us to believe that YHWH wasn’t as angry with their rebellion as the Torah said he would be in Deuteronomy, and that he was still present and communicating with Samuel.

This already seems almost too much to believe, but let us further examine the actions attributed to Samuel, to determine whether he himself might have been obedient to the covenant:

First, a bit of background:

There was a man from Ramathaim Zophim, from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. He was the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the first was Hannah and the name of the second was Peninnah. Now Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless. … After some time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, thinking, “I asked YHWH for him. (1 Samuel 1-2, 20)

Samuel was the son of Hannah, wife of Elkanah from Ephraim. Some believe this indicates Samuel was an Ephraimite rather than a Levite, but that is not the case as we’ll see in a more detailed genealogy later. Samuel was indeed a Levite, but his family was apparently living in Ephraim’s territory. (Levites were dispersed throughout the land of Israel.)

Samuel was mentored by Eli the priest. (There are similar problems with Eli, and his story as told by the descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel is quite telling, but Eli is not the primary subject of this piece.)

Let’s get into some of the problems presented by the story of Samuel:

Problem #1: Samuel conducting sacrifices at multiple locations

The Torah requires all sacrifice to be done at a single location:

But you must seek only the place he chooses from all your tribes to establish his name as his place of residence, and you must go there. And there you must take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the personal offerings you have prepared, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. (Deuteronomy 12:5-6 NET)

Samuel, on the other hand, was traveling a circuit:

Year after year he used to travel the circuit of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah; he used to judge Israel in all of these places. Then he would return to Ramah, because his home was there. He also judged Israel there and built an altar to YHWH there. (1 Samuel 7:16-17)

The above passage doesn’t mention sacrificing, but earlier in this chapter (1 Samuel 7:9) he brings a burnt offering to YHWH, and in 1 Samuel 9 we find him sacrificing at another location, then yet another in 1 Samuel 16. Clearly the commandment to sacrifice at only the chosen place was being ignored. None of the locations where Samuel is recorded sacrificing was the actual chosen place!

Compare this to the more ancient history contained in the book of Joshua, chapter 22, where a single unauthorized altar nearly causes a full scale civil war! Clearly something very significant had changed between then and the time of Samuel.

Problem #2: Sacrificing at high places

The Torah demanded the destruction of Canaanite high places:

You must drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images, all their molten images, and demolish their high places. (Numbers 33:52)

You must by all means destroy all the places where the nations you are about to dispossess worship their gods – on the high mountains and hills and under every leafy tree. (Deuteronomy 12:2)

We even find that YHWH foresees that the Israelites will be using high places when they disobey him and go after false gods:

If in spite of this you do not obey me but walk in hostility against me, … I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars, and I will stack your dead bodies on top of the lifeless bodies of your idols. I will abhor you. (Leviticus 26:27, 30)

So where do we find Samuel sacrificing when he encounters Saul in 1 Sam 9?

They replied, “Yes, straight ahead! But hurry now, for he came to the town today, and the people are making a sacrifice at the high place. When you enter the town, you can find him before he goes up to the high place to eat. The people won’t eat until he arrives, for he must bless the sacrifice. Once that happens, those who have been invited will eat. Now go on up, for this is the time when you can find him!” So they went up to the town. As they were heading for the middle of the town, Samuel was coming in their direction to go up to the high place. (1 Samuel 9:12-14)

Yep, Samuel was heading up to a high place for a sacrifice. (See also 1 Samuel 9:12).

Problem #3: Samuel wasn’t even qualified to sacrifice!

In order to be authorized to even perform sacrifice, Samuel had to be a descendant of Aaron, for only the descendants of Aaron, (and then specifically of Aaron’s son Phinehas per Numbers 25), could be priests:

Then the one presenting the offering must slaughter the bull before YHWH, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, must present the blood and splash the blood against the sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent. Next, the one presenting the offering must skin the burnt offering and cut it into parts, and the sons of Aaron, the priest, must put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then the sons of Aaron, the priests, must arrange the parts with the head and the suet on the wood that is in the fire on the altar. Finally, the one presenting the offering must wash its entrails and its legs in water and the priest must offer all of it up in smoke on the altar – it is a burnt offering, a gift of a soothing aroma to YHWH. (Leviticus 1:5-9 NET)

Both Moses and Aaron were descendants of Jacob’s son Levi. Levites were all devoted to the service of YHWH, but only the sons of Aaron could serve as priests. The other Levites served in other tabernacle related duties.

What happens when a non-Aaronite want to assume the role of priest?

Numbers 16 tells the story of a Levite named Korah, not of Aaron’s lineage, but who nevertheless wanted to be a priest. He complained to Moses that he and Aaron were being exalted above the rest of the Levites, and suggested they be allowed to assume priestly duties as well. Moses responded that the following morning YHWH himself would make known who were his priests, and instructed Korah and his followers to bring censers of burning incense (a priestly duty, and one for which even Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu died when they did it wrong!).

The end result?

When he had finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, and all Korah’s men, and all their goods. They and all that they had went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed over them. So they perished from among the community. All the Israelites who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “What if the earth swallows us too?” Then a fire went out from YHWH and devoured the 250 men who offered incense. (Numbers 16:31-35 NET)

Korah and all his men, and everything with them, were destroyed, but Korah’s children survived as Numbers 26:11 informs us. Perhaps they were wise enough to see their father’s folly and kept their distance. The incense censers of the 250 rebels became a memorial to Israel that ONLY the son’s of Aaron were to perform the duties of Priest:

So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers presented by those who had been burned up, and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar. It was a memorial for the Israelites, that no outsider who is not a descendant of Aaron should approach to burn incense before YHWH, that he might not become like Korah and his company – just as YHWH had spoken by the authority of Moses. (Number 16:39-40 NET)

So far I think it’s safe to say that it has been established that only Aaron’s sons can perform those duties reserved for priests, and that the assumption of those duties by a non-Aaronite is strictly forbidden and punishable by a spectacular death.

Samuel clearly performed the duties of priest. Here is one such example:

So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to YHWH. Samuel cried out to YHWH on Israel’s behalf, and YHWH answered him. (1 Samuel 7:9 NET)

For this to be acceptable and true, Particularly in the face of the example of Korah, Samuel must be a descendent of Aaron.

Was he? Luckily, we have his lineage embedded in 1 Chronicles 6 so we can check:

These are the ones who served along with their sons: From the Kohathites: Heman the musician, son of Joel, son of Samuel, son of Elkanah, son of Jeroham, son of Eliel, son of Toah, son of Zuph, son of Elkanah, son of Mahath, son of Amasai, son of Elkanah, son of Joel, son of Azariah, son of Zephaniah, son of Tahath, son of Assir, son of Ebiasaph, son of Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, son of Israel. (1 Chronicles 6:33-38 NET, emphasis mine)

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Samuel was NOT a descendant of Aaron, but WAS a direct descendant of Korah, the man who would be priest but was destroyed for coveting a position he was not qualified to have! Samuel was not a descendant of Aaron, and thus is repeating the same grievous mistakes his ancestor made.

And yet the Tanakh would have you believe that he is in YHWH’s good graces, and that YHWH is communicating with him and advising him, including pointing out YHWH’s choices for king of Israel. There were apparently no consequences for his disobedience.

Some might argue that Samuel was simply a product of his time and environment, that he was born into a nation that was already so far off the path that he didn’t know any better. Perhaps the Torah wasn’t available to him in its entirety? It’s hard to say for sure, but one thing we can know for sure is that 1) YHWH promised to turn his face away from his people when they fell away and worshipped false gods, and 2) Samuel was born after this had happened, and his actions show him to be personally disobedient.

For this reason it is difficult, for me at least, to accept that YHWH truly was in communication with him, choosing through him first Saul as king, then replacing him with David when it was clear Saul was a poor choice. (Does YHWH make bad choices?) It calls into question everything that is rooted in David: the temple, the messianic prophecies, everything.

If you bring in another ancient narrative from the northern kingdom of Israel, things get even more interesting:

Discord had arisen between the descendant of Finahas (`Ozi) and his cousin Ili (Eli), whose name being interpreted means; the insidious. This erring man was of the tribe of Itamar (Ithamar) the brother of el-Azar the priest.

Now the right of administration belonged to the tribe of Finahas, and it was the one which was offering up the sacrifices upon the brazen altar, and stone altar. And this man- the insidious- was fifty years old, and being great in riches had obtained for himself the lordship over the treasure house of the children of Israel; and he had obtained, through the knowledge of magic, what he had acquired of riches, proud rank and wealth.

And his self-importance being great in his own estimation, he gathered to himself a company, and said unto them: “I am one to whom to serve a boy is impossible, and I will not reconcile myself to this, and I hope that ye will not be content to have me do this.” And the company answered him: “We are under thy command, and under obedience to thee: command us in whatsoever thou willest.” And he put them under covenant that they would follow him unto the place where they purposed going on the mourning of the second day (of the week).

And he offered up offering on the altar without salt, as if he was ignorant, and immediately started out on the journey with his outfit and company, and cattle, and every thing that he possessed, and settled in Seilun (Shiloh).

And he gathered the children of Israel into a schismatical sect, and held correspondence with their leaders, and said unto them: “Whoever desires to behold miracles, let him come unto me.” And there was collected to him a multitude in Seilun, and he built for himself a shrine there, and organized matters for himself in it on the model of the temple, and erected in it one altar, on which he might sacrifice and offer up offerings.

And he had two sons, who used to gather the women into the temple in the mourning, and lie with them, and would eat up all that was present of the offerings of wine and other things.

And this man continued diverting the people by magic, for the space of forty years; for God-exalted, exalted be He; glorious be His might- delayed this unto him.

And there was Shamul (Samuel) of the tribe of Harun, the Liwanite, the magican and the infidel; for his father had delivered him over to him (Eli) when he was four years old, saying unto him: “This is a son whom I have received in fulfillment of a desire, and it occurred suddenly to my mind that this boy ought to serve in this temple throughout the days of his life.”

So the erring man received him, and instructed him, and revealed unto him hidden things; and he grew to be as potent in the working of magic as he himself was. And blessed be God who does not punish the rebellious, except after long delay and showing mercy unto them.

The above comes from an English translation of the Samaritan Chronicles. The Samaritans are the descendants of the northern tribe of Israel, and exist to this day. They have always held to the Torah alone, as the Torah itself demands (Deuteronomy 4:2) and have never abandoned the true chosen place.

You might wonder what someone with a Torah Only perspective feels about “salvation”, given the rejection of all other writings as inspired or authoritative? It’s quite simple actually. The Torah does not speak of a “messiah” to come, nor a requirement to “believe” in such in order to be “saved”. The Torah is quite direct about what needs to occur:

“When you have experienced all these things, both the blessings and the curses I have set before you, you will reflect upon them in all the nations where YHWH your God has banished you. Then if you and your descendants turn to YHWH your God and obey him with your whole mind and being just as I am commanding you today, YHWH your God will reverse your captivity and have pity on you. He will turn and gather you from all the peoples among whom he has scattered you. Even if your exiles are in the most distant land, from there YHWH your God will gather you and bring you back. Then he will bring you to the land your ancestors possessed and you also will possess it; he will do better for you and multiply you more than he did your ancestors. YHWH your God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being and so that you may live.  (Deuteronomy 30:1-6 NET)

Obedience has always been, and remains, the key to restoration.

The messianic ideas were born of a disobedient people, well after YHWH had left their midst. The northern kingdom of Israel at least were sensible enough to reject David as king, but it too was rife with error. Still, there have always been those Israelites who have held to the Torah Only, remained in the land and remained true to the original chosen place.