The first book of Samuel begins with the story of Hannah, a faithful Israelite. She was barren. Her husband, Elkanah, had two wives. The other, Peninnah, had many children, and evidently vexed Hannah, probably because Hannah was favored by Elkanah. Hannah went to the temple and wept and prayed:
“And she vowed a vow, and said, O Lord of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head” (1 Samuel 1:11).
Hannah was offering her son to be a Nazarite, as Samson was, to grow up and serve in the temple. Samuel is a great contrast to Samson, the former keeping his Nazarite vows throughout life, becoming a powerful man of God, and the latter violating all his vows, becoming a wretched example of failure to serve God.
The priest Eli saw Hannah praying, her lips moving but no sound issuing forth, and he assumed that she was drunk. Hannah protested her innocence and told Eli of her petition to the Lord. Eli responded, “Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him” (1 Samuel 1:17). The Lord did indeed hear Hannah’s petition and opened her womb. She bore a son, named him Samuel (“heard of God”), and when he was fully weaned, she took him to the temple to live with Eli and become the Lord’s servant. In chapter 2:1 – 11, Hannah sings praises, and shows herself to be a prophetess — the Messiah is “the anointed one” who will break all adversaries of the Lord in pieces (the Greek word for Messiah, Christos, also means “the anointed one”). He it was, Hannah said, who would be given strength in that his horn (power) would be exalted before men. This passage is a choice Old Testament reference to the future Messiah and shows that Hannah was blessed with the gift of prophecy.
Samuel was a righteous servant to the Lord, and Elkanah and Hannah went on to have sons and daughters. Eli’s family, in contrast, was not in good standing with the Lord. Eli’s sons, priests themselves, not only corrupted the sacrifices brought to them by the people by taking their own portions first and demanding other portions in the midst of the sacrifice, but they used their position to seduce women who came to the temple. Eli failed to discipline them, and so the Lord rejected Eli’s house. “A man of God” (some unnamed prophet) came to Eli and pronounced the Lord’s curse upon Eli’s house because “[thou] honourest thy sons above me” ( vv. 27, 29 ). That is, Eli’s relationship with his sons was of more value to him than his relationship with God.
In 1 Samuel 3:1 it says, “And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision.” This means that the gifts of the spirit, such as visions and revelation, were scarce. The Lord opens the heavens and bestows His gifts upon any who will covenant to keep His commandments. The withdrawal of those gifts is a condemnation on the people of Israel. In the Book of Mormon it says the following:
“And now I speak unto all the ends of the earth—that if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you, it shall be because of unbelief. And wo be unto the children of men if this be the case; for there shall be none that doeth good among you, no not one. For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God (Moroni 10:24, 25).
The Lord called to Samuel while he was still a child, and Samuel, never having heard the voice of the Lord, went to Eli, thinking it was the old priest who had summoned him. By the third time, Eli realized it was the Lord, and prepared Samuel to hear His word. Eli himself had been rejected of the Lord, so he received no such gifts of the spirit. What Samuel received was the Lord’s condemnation of Eli and his sons. Eli was past being able to do anything about his sons, so he accepted the curse from the Lord. Samuel matured, and his prophecies were so exact, that all Israel recognized him as a prophet. In Shiloh, he saw the Lord.
Defeated in battle by the Philistines, the Israelites decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant up to the battlefield from Shiloh. Somehow, they thought the ark could save them, but even this is a form of idolatry, since they made no attempt to repent and bring their behavior in line with the commandments of God. Nor did they humble themselves in prayer. “Great disaster followed the appearance of the ark among the troops because of Israel’s wickedness. Israel suffered a resounding defeat, Hophni and Phinehas (Eli’s sons) were slain, and the ark was captured. News of the capture of the ark and of the death of his sons caused Eli such consternation that he lost his balance on his seat (see Reading 24-4 ), fell over backwards, and died, thus fulfilling the prophecy that his house would come to a tragic end (see 1 Samuel 2:27–36 ).
The Philistines deposited the ark at the feet of their fish-god, Dagon, which idol fell over and broke into pieces. Then the Lord inflicted them with “emerods.” Josephus said,
“‘…that it was “a very destructive disease’ involving dysentery, bleeding, and severe vomiting (see Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 6, chap. 1, par. 1). Josephus also mentioned a great plague of mice that accompanied the disease. Although no direct mention is made of the plague of rodents, when the Philistines sought to placate Jehovah’s wrath upon them by returning the ark, they sent five golden emerods and five golden mice as well (see 1 Samuel 6:4 ).
“The severity of the disease and the fact that rodents were involved lead many scholars to conclude that what smote the Philistines was bubonic plague. Bubonic plague gets its name from the buboes, or tumorous swellings, in the lymph glands. These tumors settle particularly in the area of the groin. This fact would explain the ‘secret parts’ mentioned in 1 Samuel 5:9 . It is well known that rats and mice are the main carriers of this disease, for the fleas that transmit the disease to man live on rodents. The disease is accompanied by great suffering and pain, and the fatality rate may run as high as 70 percent in a week’s time. (See Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, s.v., ‘medicine,’ p. 598; Douglas, New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “emerods,” p. 368.) Small wonder that the Philistines were anxious to return the ark to Israel.”
The Philistines arrived in Ekron with the ark, and the superstitious pagans there were overwrought. They were sure the ark would slay every citizen, and indeed, the disease spread, probably carried by the Philistine messengers along with the ark. Finally, after months, the Philistines determined to get the ark back into Israelite hands. When the ark arrived in Bet Shemesh, seventy men who looked upon it covetously were slain by its power. (This number was determined by reviewing ancient Hebrew texts; translations sometimes add 50,000 to the total.) The ark resided in Kiryat Ye’arim for twenty years. In order to gain power over the Philistines, Samuel chose a different tactic than did Samson. He held a fast, urged the people to repent, commanded them to destroy their idols, make sacrifices, offer libations. The Israelites triumphed, as the Lord discomfitted the Philistines with thunder. Peace was restored. Samuel judged Israel righteously, making circuits of the major towns to judge the people, and he remained righteous all his life.
However, Samuel’s sons, whom he called to the priesthood, perverted the ways of the Lord, and “turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Samuel 8:3). Complaints came up to Samuel where he resided in Ramah. The people were fed up with unrighteous judges and desired a king. Samuel took the issue to the Lord. The Lord replied that the people had rejected Him, not Samuel. He commanded Samuel to warn the people about how onerous having an unrighteous king could be, but then to grant their wish. The Lord inspired Samuel to anoint Saul, a Benjaminite, described thus, “a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” At this time, Saul was humble: “Amnot I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? wherefore then speakest thou so to me” (1 Samuel 9:21)? Triumphs in battle helped to unite the people behind Saul as their king.
Samuel judged a wayward people, and it was a constant effort to try to keep them on the Lord’s side. Said Samuel, “Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king” (1 Samuel 12:24, 25). Saul’s pride increased, and before a battle he awaited Samuel to present a sacrifice according to the order of the priesthood. When Samuel was delayed, Saul offered the sacrifice himself, a great travesty. Samuel chided and cursed him: “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee (1 Samuel 13:13, 14).
Saul and his son Jonathan went up against the Philistines with their armies. Jonathan was a righteous and humble servant of God, and his seemingly foolhardy ventures against the Philistine camp met with success.
In the heat of the battle, Saul had compelled his men to swear with an oath that they would fast all that day. This restriction put the men in distress, for their fasting added the weakness of hunger to the fatigue of battle. (See v. 24 .)
“This command of Saul did not proceed from a proper attitude towards the Lord, but was an act of false zeal, in which Saul had more regard to himself and his own kingly power than to the cause of the kingdom of Jehovah, as we may see at once from the expression . . . ‘till I have avenged myself upon mine enemies.’” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 2:2:142.)
Two unfortunate incidents resulted from Saul’s command to fast. First, Jonathan, who had been in the camp of the Philistines at the time Saul made his army swear not to eat, violated the oath by partaking of some wild honey (see vv. 25–27 ). When told about the oath, Jonathan frankly said that his father had done a foolish thing. Since his own strength had been revived by the food, he wondered aloud how much greater the victory would have been if the people had been allowed to eat instead of fighting in a state of physical exhaustion (see vv. 28–30 ).
The second unfortunate incident occurred later that same day when the people, faint with hunger, fell upon the animals captured from the Philistines and “did eat them with the blood” ( v. 32 ). The animals were not properly killed to drain out their blood, which violated the Mosaic law (see Leviticus 17:10–14 ).
Saul immediately sought to make atonement for this violation by offering sacrifices to the Lord (see vv. 33–35 ). But when he sought revelation from the Lord about whether to go against the Philistines, no answer came (see vv. 36–37 ). Saul concluded that some other sin of the people was the cause of the lack of response from the Lord. He then directed that all the people be gathered together to meet him and Jonathan, swearing with an oath that the guilty party would be put to death. To dramatize his determination to carry through with his threat, Saul indicated he would even put his own son to death if he were proven guilty (see v. 39 ), quite unaware that it was indeed Jonathan who would be facing death.
“What Jonathan had done was not wrong in itself, but became so simply on account of the oath with which Saul had forbidden it. But Jonathan did not hear the oath, and therefore had not even consciously transgressed. . . . In the present instance, Saul had issued the prohibition without divine authority, and had made it obligatory upon the people by a solemn oath. The people had conscientiously obeyed the command, but Jonathan had transgressed it without being aware of it. For this Saul was about to punish him with death, in order to keep his oath. But the people opposed it. They not only pronounced Jonathan innocent, because he had broken the king’s command unconsciously, but they also exclaimed that he had gained the victory for Israel ‘with God.’ In this fact (Jonathan’s victory) there was a divine verdict. And Saul could not fail to recognise now, that it was not Jonathan, but he himself, who had sinned, and through his arbitrary and despotic command had brought guilt upon Israel, on account of which God had given him no reply.” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 2:2:146–47.)
Encouraged by Samuel, Saul then determined to go up against the Amalekites. Again, he broke Mosaic law by offering sacrifices improperly, saving the animals of the Amalekites as offerings. This sealed his fate. “And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22, 23) . “And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel” (v. 35).
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.
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