Samuel was born into a Levite family who lived at Ramah, in the tribal territory of Ephraim (1 Sam 1:19-20; 1 Chron 6:33-38). In accordance with a promise made before Samuel’s birth, his mother took him as a young child to the tabernacle at Shiloh, where she dedicated him to God for life-long service. When his parents returned home, Samuel remained at Shiloh, to be brought up by the priest Eli (1 Sam 1:24,28; 2:11). He grew up to become Eli’s helper in the duties of the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:18). By bringing God’s message of judgment to Eli, he showed that God was preparing him to be a prophet (1 Sam 3:10-18). When Eli died, Samuel succeeded him as chief administrator in Israel (1 Sam 4:18; 7:15). People everywhere acknowledged him as a prophet from God and the religious leader of the nation (1 Sam 3:20; 7:3-6; Acts 3:24; 13:20).
A national leader
There was an early indication of Samuel’s leadership role after the capture and subsequent return of the ark by the Philistines. Samuel showed his authority among his people by demanding that they get rid of their foreign gods and by leading them in prayer and confession to God (1 Sam 7:3-6). The religious life of Israel now centred on Samuel, who set up an altar of sacrifice in Ramah (for the Philistines had destroyed the tabernacle; Ps 78:60-61; Jer 7:14). The priesthood had become so corrupt that God appointed Samuel to carry out priestly duties, even though he was not from a priestly family (1 Sam 2:27- 36; 7:9; 10:8). Israel’s civil administration also centred on Samuel. He moved in an annual circuit around four major towns where he held district courts to settle disputes (1 Sam 7:15-17). As Samuel grew old, his sons took over much of the administration.
But instead of resisting the social corruption that had become widespread through the people’s disobedience to God, they contributed to it (1 Sam 8:1-3). In search for improved conditions, the people asked Samuel to bring the old system to an end and give them a king after the pattern that existed in other nations. This was not so much a rejection of Samuel as a rejection of God. The people’s troubles had come not from the system of government, but from their sins. The answer to their problems was to turn to God in a new attitude of faith and repentance, which they refused to do. Samuel warned that just as God had punished them for disobedience when they were under the judges, so he would punish them under the kings (1 Sam 8:4-22; 12:8-15). Subsequently, the people got their king, and Samuel was no longer their civil leader. But he was still their spiritual leader, and he continued to teach them and pray for them (1 Sam 12:23-25). With the corruption of the priesthood, God made increasing use of prophets, rather than priests, to speak to his people. The emotionalism of some of these prophets led to unusual behaviour at times (1 Sam 10:9-12; 19:20-24), but rather than silence the prophets, Samuel tried to redirect their spiritual zeal for the benefit of the nation. He established a school for prophets at Ramah, and others were established later at Bethel, Jericho and Gilgal (1 Sam 19:18-20; 2 Kings 2:3,5; 4:38).
Samuel and other national leaders
God revealed to Samuel that he would send to him the man whom God had chosen to be Israel’s first king. That man was Saul, whom Samuel anointed in a brief private ceremony (1 Sam 9:15-16; 10:1). Some time later, Samuel called a meeting of the family and tribal leaders of Israel for a public selection of Israel’s first king. Saul was chosen (1 Sam 10:17-25) and, after leading Israel to victory in his first battle, was crowned king in a national ceremony at Gilgal (1 Sam 11:12-15). In time of approaching war, Saul was given one week during which Israel’s leaders could gather the army together, and he himself could go to Gilgal to consult Samuel. There Samuel would offer sacrifices and pass on God’s instructions (1 Sam 10:8).
Saul was impatient and wanted complete power, religious as well as political. He therefore did not wait for Samuel but offered the sacrifices himself. Samuel announced that in judgment God would take the kingdom from Saul (1 Sam 13:8-14). He confirmed this judgment on a later occasion when Saul again disobeyed God (1 Sam 15:1-3,13-28). God then sent Samuel to choose a person who would one day replace Saul as king. The person he chose was David (1 Sam 16:1-13). When, some years later, Saul became jealous of David and tried to kill him, David took refuge with Samuel. When Saul’s messengers, and then Saul himself, tried to capture David, all of them were overcome by the power of God’s Spirit, which still worked through Samuel and his followers (1 Sam 19:18-24). To the day of his death and throughout the centuries that followed, Samuel was highly respected by the people of Israel (1 Sam 25:1; Jer 15:1). Saul so respected Samuel’s power and wisdom that, after Samuel’s death, he went to a woman who consulted the spirits of the dead in order to seek Samuel’s help. But Samuel simply confirmed that God had rejected Saul and that the next day Saul would be dead (1 Sam 28:3-19).