Who was Samuel and Does it Matter?

The book of 1 Samuel opens up by talking about “a certain man of Rammathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah” (1 Sam 1:1). This man is married to two wives, one of whom is Hannah. Although barren, Hannah prays for a child, and the Lord answers her prayer.

After giving birth, Hannah names her son Samuel, and dedicates him to tabernacle service with Eli (1 Sam 1:28). Samuel stays with Eli and serves the Lord (cf. 1 Sam 2:11, 18). Throughout the story, it is obvious that Samuel is ministering in the tabernacle (cf. 1 Sam 3:3). This could be a problem. Numbers 18 seems pretty clear that non-Levites were not allowed in the service of the tabernacle. In fact, Numbers 18:7 says “any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.”

The potential problem is that 1 Samuel 1:1 is clear that Samuel is a descendent of Elkanah, who is from the hill country of Ephraim. If Samuel was from Ephraim, was he a rogue participant in the tabernacle service?

Not at all.

Stories like this is where paying attention to detail is important. The tribe of Levi had no land of their own, so they were allotted cities out of the other tribes. We find in Joshua 21:20, that the Kohathite clan of the Levites was given cities from the land belonging to Ephraim. Later in Joshua 24:33 we read that Phinehas himself (Aaron’s grandson) dwelled in the hill country of Ephraim.

By knowing Israel’s history, and the tribal allotments, it is no surprise that Samuel’s heritage is traceable to the Levites after all – and likely to the Kohathites specifically. Furthermore, this theory is backed up by 1 Chronicles 6:28 which asserts that Samuel was in the line of Levi (cf. Psalm 99:6).

All in all, the Bible’s details seem to match up precisely with what we would expect. Samuel was not some rogue servant in the tabernacle. He belonged there as a Levite. And God would use him in many great ways in the days ahead.

Peter Goeman
Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.
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