Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Echoes of Saul in the Samuel Narrative of 1 Samuel

Saul is not identified by name in the book of Samuel until 1 Sam 9:2, but there are echoes of Saul in the Samuel narrative in 1 Sam 1–8. The name שאול Saul looks like a Qal passive participle form of the root שאל, and means asked for. In 1 Sam 1–8 there are seven verbal uses of the root שאל along with effectively three uses of the noun שאלה. This usage of the שאל root in 1 Sam 1–8 seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the narrator to pre-empt the appearance of Saul, who is an important character in the book, and significantly Samuel’s replacement as leader over Israel.

The first appearance of the שאל root in the book of Samuel occurs in 1 Sam 1:17. After understanding the reason for Hannah’s silent prayer, Eli responded by saying to her: “Go in peace, for the God of Israel will grant your request (שלתך) which you have asked (שאלת) him” (1 Sam 1:17). שלתך (which occurs in the Leningrad text) is a form of the noun שלה. This is a variant form of שאלה that emerges because of the quiescing of the alef. However שאלתך can be found in a large number of other Masoretic texts at this point.

This double use of the שאל root in 1 Sam 1:17 would possibly be unremarkable except for the appearance of the same root in 1 Sam 1:20 in connection with Samuel’s name. After giving birth to her son, “she called his name Samuel, ‘because I have asked for him (שאלתיו) from Yahweh.’” Strangely, Samuel’s name is explained in the narrative using the שאל root, even though the word Samuel is not derived from this root. Samuel presumably means something like his name is God. The effect of linking Samuel with the שאל root is to set up an analogy between Hannah’s asking for a son, and Israel’s asking for a king. Perhaps there is also a hint here that Samuel is the true Saul, the kind of leader that Israel should have been seeking all along.

After weaning the child, Hannah brought him to Eli in fulfillment of her vow to the Lord (see 1 Sam 1:11). She re-introduced herself to Eli by saying: “I prayed for this child, and Yahweh granted me my request (שאלתי) which I asked (שאלתי) of him, and so I have loaned (השאלתהו) him to Yahweh. All of the days that he exists, he is loaned (שאול, i.e., Saul) to Yahweh” (1 Sam 1:27). Once again, the narrator (through the language of Hannah) is deliberately toying with the name of Saul. In being loaned or given to Yahweh, Samuel is literally Saul to Yahweh. How can Samuel be as Saul to Yahweh? This not only reflects the fact that Samuel was given to Hannah through her petition, but presumably Samuel is also Saul to Yahweh in the sense that Samuel is a model of the kind of leader that Israel needs, the kind that Israel should have been looking to Yahweh to receive.

The connection between Samuel and שאל is further highlighted in 1 Sam 2:20. Every time Elkanah went to worship Yahweh in Shiloh, Hannah had the opportunity to visit her son; and on each occasion Eli would bless Elkanah, saying: “May Yahweh establish a seed for you from this woman in return for the request (השאלה) that one asked (שאל) of Yahweh” (1 Sam 2:20). In effect, therefore, every time Elkanah went up to Shiloh, the “Saul-like” status of Samuel was proclaimed.

The final use of the שאל root in the Samuel narrative appropriately occurs at the end of the narrative, shortly before the introduction to Saul in 1 Sam 9. The elders of Israel asked Samuel for a king to judge them (1 Sam 8:5–6). This request was both a rejection the kingship of Yahweh over Israel, as well as a rejection of Samuel’s leadership (1 Sam 8:6–7). God asked Samuel to acquiesce in the people’s desire for a king, but there was great danger for the people in having a king like the nations. Samuel’s warning in this regard is introduced in 1 Sam 8:10 with the following words: “Samuel told all the words of Yahweh to the people who had asked (השאלים) him for a king.” In asking for a king like the nations, Israel had rejected the godly Saul (i.e., Samuel) for a Saul of their own imagination.


Brian Small said...

I heard an OT scholar say that this birth story was originally about Saul, but because Saul fell into disgrace, a later redactor changed it to a birth story about Samuel. What do you think of this argument?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Brian,

Thanks for your comment.

The problem with the view that you mentioned is that we have no hard evidence to support that opinion. In the end it is basically speculation. It is also means that if the birth narrative of Saul was changed, then the parents’ names were presumably also changed, and 1 Sam 9:1–2 would either have to have been added in or changed in some way. In other words, a lot of changes are required for this to work, which makes it all the more unlikely, I think.

A much better way to go is to treat 1 and 2 Samuel as a literary whole, then to think about the effect of the final form of the text, which is what we have. If there was a later redactor, then he could have edited out those שאל references, but he didn’t. So they have been “left” there for a reason, and it is legitimate for us to discuss the effect of that.

What are your thoughts on this one?

Brian Small said...

When I first heard the explanation that the story was originally about Saul, I was a bit troubled by it. After all, it would be a bit disingenuous for someone to conceal the true facts behind the birth story. There is certainly, however, a disconnect between Samuel's name and the etymological explanation given by Hannah, and I have not found someone to give an adequate explanation for it.

There is, of course, problems with the theory that the name was changed, as you note. It is a poor redactor who would try to conceal Saul's name but then keep the etymology intact.

So, trying to find an explanation that takes account of the final form of the text is certainly a good way to go.