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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 1

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10


Samuel’s Early Years (1:1-3:21)

The Birth of Samuel (1:1-2:10)

Samuel’s parentage indicates that he was of Ephraimite stock and that his mother was one of two wives. The practice of bigamy seems to have been widespread in these early days, chiefly because of fear that there would be no offspring (see the comment on Judges 11:34-40).

The family of Samuel was deeply religious, and attended annually the sanctuary at Shiloh, probably immediately after harvest, to offer thanks in the form of sacrifice for the Lord’s blessing. Although the visit may have been associated with some annual festival, it was apparently a private one and was linked with a vow (vs. 21). The sacrifice was a corporate family act, with the wives and family participating with Elkanah in the presentation of gifts. In verse 3 the title "the Lord of hosts" is used of God for the first time in Old Testament literature. It is usually assumed to be a reference to the armies of Israel rather than to the host of heavenly bodies, since the noun "host" when used for the latter is only in the singular. The title is indeed in keeping with the concept of the "holy war" which dominated this period, and in which the Lord was regarded as the war leader of his people. In 1 Samuel 17:45, we have an actual definition in these terms: "the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel." Later usage simply took over the title as a proper name for God with little or no remembrance of the original significance.

Eli the priest, with his two sons, is introduced somewhat abruptly. We know little about this priestly family and it soon dropped out of religious history, but the distinction of ministering at the important shrine of Shiloh is indicative of Eli’s standing. Hannah, the favorite wife of Elkanah, had no children. Taunted by her rival, Hannah seized the opportunity of the visit to Shiloh to express to the Lord her own private needs. She prayed for a child and made her vows. Her agitated behavior conveyed to Eli the impression of drunkenness, a condition not unknown in those early shrines, when naturalistic ideas and fertility-rite practices were often present in the religious consciousness of the ordinary worshiper. She apparently added to this impression by the fact that she prayed in her heart, that is, prayed silently; normally prayer was made aloud, and the movement of her lips was misinterpreted. Rebuked by the old priest, Hannah laid bare her problem and received his sympathy and encouragement. The vow she made was that the child should be dedicated wholly to the service of God, and that he should go with head unshaven all of his life. The law that everything which first opens the womb belongs to God and has to be redeemed appears to make this vow unnecessary, although it has been suggested that Hannah’s vow implies that she did not intend to exercise the right of redemption. In due time the promise was fulfilled. Hannah bore a son whom she named Samuel, which means "name of God." The relation of this name to the explanation "asked ... of the Lord" (vs. 20), actually descriptive of the name Saul, has caused considerable perplexity and remains a matter of speculation.

Once more the time for the annual visit arrived, but Hannah refrained from participation until the child had been weaned. At that time the vow was fulfilled, and Samuel was returned permanently to God who had given him. With him, Samuel’s parents presented provisions for his sustenance, bullocks, meal, and wine. His mother also kept him in clothing (1 Samuel 2:19).

A break in the narrative comes in 2:1-10, indicating the multiplicity of sources and traditions on which the Hebrew historians drew. The song of Hannah in these verses is manifestly quite early, but in its present form it seems to be a national song celebrating the triumph of a king in battle (vs. 10). The reference to a "king" dates it later than Hannah since it was not until after her time that a king came to the throne of Israel. It celebrates God’s providence and speaks of God as the special friend of the poor, the humble, and the needy. The reference to the barren who bears seven (vs. 5) may well have been the occasion for the association of Hannah with the psalm, although it has a different setting from her special need. The exaltation of the meek and the striking down of the mighty find a worthy echo in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), whose author seems consciously to have had this psalm as a model.

Certain phrases need to be noted. First, there are expressions like "my strength is exalted," literally, "my horn is exalted," and "my mouth derides," literally, "my mouth is enlarged" (1 Samuel 2:1). The first expression is a poetic reference to the animal which lifts up its horned head in triumph, sure of its power. The second expression carries the memory that a gaping mouth was, for the Hebrew, a sign of contempt. Secondly, the emphasis on God’s holiness carries with it the sense of his uniqueness and otherness. There is none beside him, and he is especially marked by his rocklike stability. For the Hebrew this holiness of God signifies God’s character, and since he is the living God, his holiness is a dynamic quality. It does not mean a withdrawn otherness. Holiness is an otherness of God that is also manifested in his action within Israel’s history. He is a source of strength to his people, and the psalmist sees this as the exaltation of the weak and the bringing down of the mighty in battle (vs. 4). Because of his utter dependence on God’s holy power, a man may not boast of his exploits (vs. 3), an insight which in the New Testament is brought out in Paul’s condemnation of justification by works.

Thirdly, the primitive view of the world appears in the suggestion that God has set the world on "the pillars of the earth" (vs. 8). This is a reference to the Hebrew picture of the universe as set upon pillars in the midst of the deep, the primordial sea which embraces the disclike earth and domelike heaven.

Fourthly, we find an emphasis on the deliverance of God’s people. The adversaries of God will be broken in pieces, but "his faithful ones," the saints, will be delivered (vs. 9). The word is derived from the same root as the word translated "loving kindness," or "covenant love." It is a covenant word, emphasizing the steadfast loyalty to one another to which the parties of a covenant are mutually bound. So God is bound to his Covenant people, and his faithful ones are those who respond to his steadfast loyalty with a corresponding faithfulness in the Covenant. True piety is manifested in loyalty and steadfastness, and for such as manifest it, God’s Covenant love never fails. It is interesting to note that in the Book of Psalms, the same term has become a technical description of the pious Jew, who is often identified with the poor, the oppressed, and the humble, an idea also present in this poem.

Fifthly, the reference to the king as the "anointed" (vs. 10), the Messiah, may point to the ideal king yet to come. Yet every Davidic king was regarded as "anointed," and the psalm may refer to the actual monarchy. This certainly dates the psalm in the time of the monarchy, and thus much later than Hannah.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Samuel 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-samuel-1.html.
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