Was Samuel fit for his job?


People tend to accept what they consider the traditional interpretation of the Bible and they ignore the plain sense of the biblical words. They read the Bible in an unmindful manner, not seeking the meaning, even as they piously read prayers. They ignore the fact that the traditional interpretations were developed by people, frequently rabbis, who had an agenda, a particular view that they not only wanted others to accept and which they tried to persuade their readers that their view is contained in the Bible itself. The first chapter of Samuel is a good example.

Chapter one of Samuel tells the tale of Samuel’s birth. His mother, Hannah, was distraught because she was unable to bear a child. (Midrashim suggest what is not in the Bible: she was married to her husband for ten years and having no child, her husband took a second wife, despite loving her dearly. This second wife constantly taunted her – either viciously or to prompt her to pray for a child, the views in the Midrashim differ.[1] Her husband Elkanah took the family once a year to the temple,[2] which at the time – for some 300 to 400 years – was in the city of Shilo.[3] He would offer sacrifices and would share the meat with his family, giving his beloved wife Hannah a special portion, “mana achat apayim,” which I will discuss below.  

Hannah was not appeased. She left the table leaving the food uneaten and rushed to the temple where she poured out her heart. She beseeched God by making a conditional vow:[4] if you give me a son, I will give the child to you “all the days of his life, and a razor will not come upon his head.”

The priest of the temple, Eli, saw her acting in distress, thought she was drunk, and berated her for her impious behavior. She explained her situation to the priest who, understanding, wished her well.[5]

Soon thereafter, she had a son and called him Samuel, based on Hebrew words meaning “God heard.” She weaned Samuel and brought him to the temple to the priest to be raised by him.

Traditionalists see no problem with this story, but it is not so simple.



  1. What was Hannah’s husband’s tribe?
  2. What was the special gift that he gave to Hannah?
  3. What function did Hannah think her son would have?
  4. What is the meaning of no razor coming upon her son’s head?
  5. Did she act reasonably?
  6. Is it proper or even legal for her to decide the future life behaviors of her son?
  7. Did she act in accordance with what the Torah mandates?
  8. Why didn’t Hannah annul her vow?
  9. Did the author of Samuel know about the Torah?


Torah law regarding functioning in the temple

According to the Torah, only descendants of Aaron may function as priests in the temple and only members of the tribe of Levi may assist them.[6] The service of the Levites began at age 25 and ended at age 50.[7]

This raises the question: What function was Samuel supposed to perform in the temple since the book of Samuel seems to say he was of the tribe of Ephraim and not Levi and since he was a child, below age 25?

Samuel’s tribe and his age

Recognizing this problem, and not wanting to see that a non-Levite functioned in the temple, and despite the failure of the book to say that Samuel was a Levite and calls the family Ephrati, which seems to denote they were from the tribe of Ephraim, many traditional commentators insist Samuel was a Levite. They rely on the biblical book Chronicles,[8] which contains the genealogy of a Samuel who was a Levite. However, there are two such genealogies and the two differ slightly with each other, both name Samuel’s sons and they are not the same as the names of our Samuel’s two sons. Even if he was a Levite, the traditional sources do not explain how Samuel could function in the temple before age 25.[9]

The Jewish Publication Society translates Ephrati as “an Ephraimite”[10] as do Segal, Olam Hatanakh and others.[11] Rashi, Altschuler, Radak and others refer to I Chronicles 6::7-13 and 6:18-23, and insist that Samuel’s father was a Levite. Rashi also cites Midrash Ruth Rabba 2:5 that defines Ephrati as “a distinguished man.” Radak similarly cites Midrash Samuel 1:6 that the word denotes “a distinguished man,” but admits this is only derash, a homiletical interpretation, and not the plain meaning of the word.[12] The Aramaic translation of this book, the Targum, translates it as the “mountain of Ephraim,” with the book describing where the family lived, rather than his tribe.[13]

Visits to the temple

 According to the text, Samuel’s father came to the temple only once a year, probably during the Sukkot festival,[14] contrary to the biblical command to visit the temple three times annually, during the three pilgramidge festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Succoth.[15] The Targum tries to correct the problem by saying the family visited the temple three times annually, but other commentators such as Arnold Ehrlich and Segal, recognize that the text states only once a year.[16] Gersonides tries to resolves the problem by saying the verse means he took his family to the temple once a year, but he himself went three times.

Elkanah took his entire family with him during each pilgrimage, except when Hannah was weaning Samuel. This is contrary to Exodus 23:17 and 34:12, which states that women are not obligated to attend the pilgrimage.[17]

The gifts

Elkanah gave his wife Hannah manah achat apayim, which literally means “a double portion.” Leviticus 7:15 mandates that people offering sacrifices must eat it on the day of the sacrifice and not leave any of it until morning.[18] If Hannah received so much food, she could not have consumed it in the one day, and, as Ehrlich argues, this would violate Torah law. Accordingly, the Targum, Rashi, Radak, and others explain the words to mean “a choice part of the sacrificial meat.

After yearning for a child would she give him up?

It seems unreasonable that after so many stressful barren years when she yearned for a child and there is no indication that she had another, and even if she did, she would not have known that she would have another when she gave her child away. It is also unreasonable that she would expect the priest to raise her child and that he would agree to do so.

Can one make a vow to commit another to a certain act, especially one that affects how he or she will live?

Jeremiah 16:10-12, Ezekiel 18:20, and Targum Onkelos on Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9 say a child is not punished for a parent’s misdeed. This implies that a child is not affected by the acts of parents unless the child repeats the deed. These later texts aside, it is unreasonable for Hannah to encumber her son by insisting he serve in the temple his entire life. Trying to resolve this problem, Abarbanel contends that since Samuel was a gift from God, she could make an exception in his case.

Segal and Ehrlich note that since Hannah made a vow to give her son to temple service this proves that Samuel was not a Levite. If he was a Levite, he was already obligated to serve in the temple.[19]

Why didn’t Hannah nullify her vow to dedicate her son to the temple?

Hannah’s vow was made under terrible stress and was clearly contrary to her desire to have and raise a child. Why couldn’t she annul her vow? What does the Torah say?

In my books on Joshua and Judges,[20] I pointed out that in ancient times men could not nullify their vows. However, a woman’s father or, if married, her husband could annul it for her.[21] The Torah accepted this ancient non-Israelite idea which was later changed by the rabbis who allowed men to nullify their own vows.[22]

Since the Torah allowed Elkanah to annul his wife’s vow, why didn’t he do so? Did he not know about the Torah law? Did he not do so because Hannah felt so strongly that she should give up her son? If so, why did she act so unreasonably – the Torah allowed her to keep Samuel home?

Torah law regarding a Nazarite and the example of Samson

Besides vowing to give her son “to the Lord all the days of his life,” she added “and no razor will come upon his head.” What did she mean by the second part of her oath? A Nazir is a person who vows for a specified time not to consume intoxicant drinks or cut his or her hair.

The truth is that we do not know.[23] There is no procedure in the Torah allowing parents to make their son a Nazarite.[24] The procedure seems contrary to the spirit of the Torah. This is especially strange according to the view that a Nazir must bring a sacrifice at the conclusion of his time as a Nazarite because he acted improperly by refusing to drink wine and enjoy the things God made available for humans. How could parents cause their child to act contrary to the will of God?

The only other instant where a child was made a Nazir prior to birth is Samson, and the rabbis say that the usual case of Nazir does not apply to one made a Nazir in the womb.[25] Samson, according to the rabbis did not have to abstain from all the Nazarite items, only the cutting of his hair. He could imbibe intoxicating drinks.

There is no hint in the book of Samuel that he was a Nazarite, although an opinion in the Talmud,[26] Altschuler, and others contend he was a Nazir throughout his life. Moreover, when Hannah speaks to Eli about her vow and Samuel’s future life in verse 28, she does not mention Nazir. The Targum understands her saying that human dominion will not control his life, and Rashi accepts this view.  So we have no idea what his mother meant about the razor.


Although many people read Samuel chapter 1 and see no problem, it should be clear that there are two sets of problem. First, there are some incidences that are unclear and seem to be unreasonable. For example: why did Hannah’s co-wife taunt her? Why didn’t her husband stop the taunting when it is clear that he loved Hannah? Did Hannah make her son a Nazarite? How could she give up Samuel after yearning for him for years? How could she expect the priest to raise him from just after being weaned?

Second, there are several acts that seem to be contrary to what is mandated in the Torah. How could Samuel function in the temple when he was not a Levite? Even if he was a Levite, wasn’t he underage, under the threshold age for Levites of 25? Why did Elkanah’s family only visit the temple annually when the Torah demands three visits a year? Did Elkanah give his wife more food than she could consume according to Torah law? Why didn’t Elkanah annul his wife’s oath as allowed in the Torah; did he not know this law? What right did Hannah have to make a decision for Samuel that confined him to “serve the Lord” and to have “no razor come upon his head”?



[1] See Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 16a. The Targum states that her intention was to make her jealous.

[2] Called “house of God” in verse 7.

[3] Joshua 18:1 states that the “tent of meeting” was set in Shilo during the days of Joshua. Shilo is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 14:6-8, 112b, 118a, Yoma 39b, and elsewhere. In the latter source, a Talmudic sage visited Shilo centuries after its destruction and said he could still smell the fumes of the sacrifices offered there. The Talmud states that this house of God had stone walls, but only a cloth ceiling.

[4] Just as the patriarch Jacob did when he was distraught. He was trying to escape the wrath of his elder brother Esau from whom he had stolen their father Isaac’s blessing. He made a condition in his plea to God: if you do the following, you will be my God (Genesis 28:10-22).

[5] Hannah told Eli in verse 16 that she is not a bat belial, which is generally translated “a base woman.” Actually, we no longer know the meaning of belial.  The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 111b suggests it is a composite of beli ol, a person “without the burden of Torah.” This is most likely a homiletical interpretation. See Jewish Encyclopedia, Ktav Publishing House, 1901, for more ideas. I suggest that originally the word was beli’el, “without God,” but the people did not feel it appropriate to use the divine name in a manner that suggested that people had the audacity to ignore God, so they altered the word somewhat, exchanging the letter ayin for the original aleph, and after a while the Jews forgot what they had done.

Samuel’s author’s use of belial is ironic: Hannah says to the priest Eli that she is not belial, while in 2:12 Eli’s sons are belial. 

[6] Numbers 1:50-53; 3:6-9; 4:1-33; 18:21-24 and elsewhere. It is true that non-Levites, such as the Gibeonites of Joshua 9 performed menial acts for the temple, such as bringing water, but it is clear that Samuel was not sent to the temple to perform such acts.

[7] Numbers 4:3, 8:24-28.

[8] See sources below.

[9] While the age of our Samuel’s death is not mentioned in this book, traditional sources such as Rashi state Samuel died at age 52 since his mother stated that he would serve in the temple forever and a Levite could only serve until age 50. They say that Samuel’s mother brought him to the temple at age 2 after he was weaned, and he served for fifty years. It seems that they missed three critical points. First, Levites did not serve for 50 years, but 25, from age 25 to 50. Second, they only served until age 50, not beyond this age to make up for lost time. Three, Samuel did not serve in the temple in Shilo until he died; the temple was destroyed before he died.

[10] JPS, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960.

[11] M. T. Segal, “Sifrei Shmuel,” Kiryat Sepher, 1976. “Olam Hatanakh,” Keter, 2002.

[12] The word is used with this meaning in Ruth 1:2, Judges 12:5, and I Kings 11:26.

[13] The Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14a, see Rashi there, states that Samuel’s father was one of the forty-eight male prophets and he is the unnamed prophet who comes to the priest Eli in 2:27-36 and reports to him about the misdeeds of his two sons.

[14] According to Segal.

[15] Exodus 23:14, 17; 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16; 31:11.

[16] “Mikra ki-Pheschuto,” Ktav Publishing House, 1969.

[17] Does this indicate that Elkanah did not know the Bible? An exception is once in seven years when women and children should attend when the law is read (Deuteronomy 31:11-12).

[18] According to the Bible, the day began at day break and ended when the sun arose the next day. See Rashbam to Genesis 1:5.

[19] A possible answer to this is that she vowed to give up Samuel to service before age 25.

[20] “Unusual Bible Interpretations Joshua,” Gefen Publishing House, 2014, chapter 16 and “Unusual Bible Interpretations Judges,” Gefen Publishing House, 2015, chapter 12.

[21] Numbers 30:3-17.

[22] See also Mishnah chapter 4 which describes some situations where a husband can nullify his wife’s vow to be a Nazir.

[23] Some sources such as Ben Sira 46:3 state that Samuel was a Nazarite. However, Ben Sira may have used the word in the sense of dedicated: Samuel “was a Nazir of God for prophecy.” Ben Sira, also spelt be Sirach (c. 180 BCE) was the author of “Wisdom of Sirach.” The Greek translation, the Septuagint, adds that Hannah vowed her son would not imbibe alcoholic beverages.

[24] The Nazarite laws are in Numbers 6:1-21.

[25] Babylonian Talmud Nazir 4a and 4b, 8b, Taanit 11a, and other sections.

[26] Mishnah Nazir 9:5, BT Nazir 66a.