Samuel: Prophet, Priest, and Judge

This blog post is an excerpt from the Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament

Samuel the Priest 

Samuel has always been a difficult figure to classify, but that probably answers to his position on the threshold of one of the major transitions in Israel’s political and theological history, namely from theocracy to monarchy. In many ways he is the last and greatest of the “judges,” and even his venal sons, Joel and Abijah (1Sm 8:2), are so described.

Presumably Samuel was also a priest, because he was Eli’s successor, and his conflict with Saul (1Sm 13:13) implies that he alone had the right to sacrifice. Conversely, Saul’s behavior may foreshadow much later interference in worship affairs by the monarchy.

Samuel the Prophet

In many respects, Samuel must also be understood as the first of the great prophets (cf Ac 13:20), and from here on we meet many of them also in the historical books. First Samuel 9:9 indicates that he was a “seer,” yet his “prophecy” towers head and shoulders above other prophets and leaders in that day. As the great prophets of later times spearheaded a “back to Moses” reformation after the devastations of Baalism, so Samuel can be understood as leading Israel’s first great religious revival after her “first love” had failed in the period of the judges (cf esp 1Sm 7). His famous “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice” oracle against Saul (15:22–23) is in many respects the essence of the prophetic message.

Thus, Samuel is a veritable “second Moses,” representing virtually all offices in Israel as no one had since Moses. It is no accident that Jer 15:1 views Moses and Samuel together as great mediators and intercessors for Israel. In this, as in other respects, Samuel anticipates both Elijah and Christ. Typologically, not as much is usually made of Samuel as many other figures, but there appears to be no good reason for that neglect.

Samuel the Judge

In many respects, Moses had functioned as a “king,” as Samuel likewise functioned as a “judge.” (Note the reaction of the Bethlehemites at his coming in 1Sm 16:4.) Samuel strenuously resists the people’s request for a king, but then accedes to it (1Sm 8–9). He anoints Saul but is also Saul’s undoing. Samuel’s attitude is typical of Dt 17:14–15—kingship is recognized as one of God’s great gifts to His people, alongside of a realistic awareness of the extent to which it could also be a magnet for syncretism and a focus of apostasy.

Much is often made of the fact (and apparently rightly so) that Samuel does not anoint Saul (or David) as “king” (melek in the proper sense), but only as nagid, usually translated “prince” (1Sm 9:16; 10:1, 13:14, though melek is used in other passages in the context, apparently in a more popular sense). Apparently, Samuel hoped to satisfy the people’s demand for centralized authority without opening the floodgates to the pagan, Canaanite ideology that almost necessarily came with melek. Samuel did not really succeed, and Saul’s failure, too, can probably be laid in part to his inability to synthesize the ways of the Lord with lordly rule. First with David (and Nathan) is kingship grafted successfully into native Israelite stock, and nagid and melek come to be virtual synonyms, as we often meet them in later literature.

Samuel's Legacy 

Finally, it should be stressed, as Samuel clearly illustrates, that “prophecy,” humanly speaking, arises in Israel largely as a counterpoise to kingship. One of prophecy’s major and standing tasks is to call the throne to account, especially to remind it that the absolutist, mythological, and “divine right” models of paganism are inappropriate for the covenant society of Israel. And when kings fade after the exile, prophets soon disappear from the scene too.

Samuel died before David became king over Israel (1Sm 25:1), but his anointing of this shepherd of Bethlehem was an act of faith that was not put to shame.

Samuel’s stature in God’s drama of salvation is reflected in the Magnificat of Mary (Lk 1:46–55). At the prospect of the birth of the Savior, Mary is constrained to praise the mercy of God in words similar to those in which Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had rejoiced in God’s deliverance of His people (1Sm 2:1–10).

Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Learn more about the kings of Israel and David’s legacy by clicking the link below. 

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