Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


Moshe Reiss

Samuel is an enigma. According to his mother’s song (I Sam. 2:10), he was to be an anointed king; instead, he anoints a king who is a failure. In I Samuel, he also anoints David (but not in David's story in I Chronicles, where Samuel scarcely appears at all). Even then, he almost errs again, by meaning to anoint David's oldest brother (16:6-7). He is a prophet who first tries to make his own worthless sons his successors (8:1-3), then picks a king who to turns out to be a failure, and then almost picks the wrong brother to be the next king.

Besides being both judge and prophet, he also acts as priest at the shrine of Shiloh. Yet he is not frm the priestly tribe of Levi, but presumably from Ephraim, since his own father is called an "ephrati" and comes from Mount Ephraim. This makes him at judge-prophet-priest combined; the only one in Israelite history. He even compares himself to Moses (I Sam 12:6; see also Ps. 99:6).

Hannah, his mother, had been barren and at the shrine of Shiloh she prayed for a son. Eli, the priest, assured her that her prayer would be granted, and Hannah vows :`I will give him to You God for all the days of his life’ (1:11). The mother who had so grieved at her childlessness and prayed so for a son, gave him up as soon as he had been weaned.

She named this son "Samuel" [Shmu'el), because `I asked the Lord for him’  (1:20). The word sha'ul means "asked for" or "borrowed," and is actually the Hebrew name that is anglicized as "Saul." When she brings Samuel to Eli to consecrate  him to God she says: `For this child I prayed and the Lord has granted me what I asked of Him what I asked [or: borrowed] from Him. And I too give him back to the Lord for all his life, lent to the Lord’ (1:27-28).  (1) Hannah could be construed to say ‘I am this child’s surrogate mother for God and I now return him to God for he is God’s special son’. The text suggests a dual ownership of the `gift’ child by God and Hannah. Did Hannah remain in Shiloh to protect her ownership? And Elkanah went to Ramah to his house (2:11) -- Elkanah is named here, but not Hannah.

The word sha'ul appears four times, in grammatical variations, with an interesting play on the word. Why, then, was the son named "Samuel" and not "Sha’ul"? Later, when the people ask him to choose a king (Ch. 8), he anoints Saul [Sha'ul], and paradoxically the two become antagonists. Are the people asking for a king to lead them instead of a prophet? And, if Saul fails as king, is it because Samuel had  failed as a prophet  in anointing him?

Who was the anointed one to whom Hannah refers to in the last verse of her song of thanksgiving (2:10 - - an apparent prefiguring of the anointed king?


Saul is introduced as the tallest and handsomest man in Israel. His father Kish, a rich man, tells Saul to take a  servant and go find asses that had gone astray. Saul is not then a youth; his son Jonathan is an adult or close to it. Kish might have sent the servant alone, but Saul obeys his father and goes after the asses. After a time, Saul tells the servant they should return home, lest Kish worry about them. Could he not have sent a message to his father? The servant then suggests that they consult a "man of God" in the town. We had been told that Samuel traveled all Israel and judged (7:16) and spoke to the whole House of Israel (7:3), yet while the servant knows about him and his whereabouts Saul does not. Apparently one needed a fee for the seer, for Saul says he has nothing to give him. The servant, however, has a quarter of a shekel. It is the servant who seems knowledgeable and decisive (and carries the silver), while Saul seems passive, servile even to his own servant.

Nearing the town. the two ask some young girls whether the seer is there, and they tell them where to find him. Even young girls know about the seer.

The previous day, God had told Samuel I will send you a king tomorrow. As soon as Samuel saw Saul, God tells him this is the one. Saul approaches and asks: Where is the seer? He does not recognize the seer, and the seer does not recognize the future king without God’s direct statement.

Saul is anointed as nagid [ruler] (10:1) not as melech [king] as God instructed (8:22). While the difference between nagid and melech in ancient Israel is unclear, God's instructions were clear. Samuel tells Saul that he will meet a band of Prophets and he should prophesy with them. (This will make him the only king of Israel or Judah who will also be a prophet.) Did Samuel, as the foremost prophet of the time, seek to enroll Saul among the lesser prophets to keep him subservient?  Given what we can discern of their characters, it would be difficult for Samuel, a Majestic Man, not to feel superior to the submissive Saul.

Next, Samuel tells Saul 'When these signs will come to you, do for yourself what your hand will find’ (10:7), but it is not clear just what Saul is to do. Was it something with the prophets? In a crucial statement Samuel instructs Saul: Go to Gilgal and wait for me for seven days `until I come and to instruct you what you are to do next’ (10:8). The connection between these commands in Verses 7 and 8 is not defined.

Saul takes his leave of Samuel, and indeed meets a band of prophets and prophesizes with them. A man asks 'Is Saul too among the prophets? And who are their fathers?' -- this could be a query whether Saul's father is now the authoritative Kish or the commanding Samuel. In Samuel's Delphic-like statement informing Saul of his elevation to kingship, he uses the term it belongs to the `house of your father’.  Who indeed is the father?


At the start of his reign, King Saul had been able to muster 330,000 men to fight the Ammonites (11:8). Later on, however, he has only 3,000 against a Philistine force as numerous as the sand on the seashore (13:5). (While the 330,000 is an impossible figure, the narrator chooses to use that figure and then use 3,000 in the next battle.) His men are frightened and deserting their commander and King. The judge/savior now seems unable to raise a sufficient force to fight the Philistines.

Saul waits at Gilgal for Samuel to bring the sacrifice and pray for God’s help.  He lingers for seven days as his men desert him until he his left with only 600. Finally, he prepares the sacrifice himself. As soon as he has completed the offering, Samuel arrives and demands: 'What have you been doing’?.(13:11). Saul explains that while he waited in vain for Samuel his force was dwindling; he had to have God's help, and therefore had to perform the sacrifice. Samuel retorts that 'You have acted foolishly in not keeping the commandments that the Lord your God laid upon you. Otherwise the Lord would have established your dynasty over Israel forever . . . The Lord will seek a man after His own heart' (13:13-14).

It is difficult to understand this development. What indeed has Saul done to incur Samuel’s wrath and -- according to Samuel -- God’s wrath? He did not wait for the priest to make the sacrifice. In the past, before Saul had been crowned, Samuel had told him to wait in Gilgal for seven days for a sacrifice. But could that old request still be valid now, at a desperate stage of a war against the nation's enemy? If Samuel still held it valid, then more questions arise: Why al so critical a point did he wait until the last possible minute to arrive -- and after the sacrifice had been completed? Saul had waited the seven days, and Samuel had failed to come. When Saul, therefore, went on with the sacrifice, just which of "God's commands" did he break?  Did not David and Solomon prepare sacrifices? (11 Sam. 6:17; 8:18; 1 kgs. 3:3) We have noted earlier that Samuel does not appear to from the tribe of Levi – did he usurp the priestly position? God does not speak in this chapter -- it is only Samuel who is issuing commands. Is he according Divine status to his own orders? Did Samuel, perhaps, deliberately delay his arrival until he was given an excuse to condemn Saul?

Samuel admonishes Saul that you have lost the dynasty that `the Lord would have established’ (13:13) Does this suggest that he meant to be only a savior/judge and not really a king, whose position would descend to his heirs? (Samuel had already tried to appoint his own sons as his heirs. 8:1-3) Were certain conditions imposed on Saul, and if so what were they? And, how does Samuel know God has rejected Saul and has decided to choose another king? (Later, in 15:1, that rejection seems to have been forgotten.) Is it Samuel, not God, who has disowned Saul? If so, he does it at the moment when Saul, by acting in a priestly role, seems to have diminished the status of Samuel. Saul, who came to the throne as the diffident son of Kish, cannot even reply to this attack by Samuel; an attack demeaning to the King of Israel. Such is the unbefitting conduct of Samuel, the judge/prophet/priest who compares himself to Moses (12:6).

Chapter 15 begins `I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king of His people Israel’ (15:1). This is a very odd introduction, given that according to Samuel, God disowned Saul’s dynasty. Samuel tells Saul of God’s request. We do not hear God himself and therefore do not know His exact words. Let us review Samuel’s prophetic relationship with God.:In 3:10 Samuel omits the use of the Lord’s  name as Eli had instructed him. In Chapter 8, God has to tell Samuel three times (vv. 7, 9, 22) to listen to the voice of the people and accept a king. Samuel, however, does not listen, tries to dissuade them from their desire for a king and sends them home. When God tells Samuel to speak about the rules of kingship, he is very selective and again attempts to dissuade the people. Nor does Samuel inform the people that God has given consent for them to have a King (8:22). In Chapter 10, Samuel anoints Saul as nagid, not as king (v. 1). He tries to intimidate the people into not accepting a king (vv. 17-19). In Chapter 12, he again tries to dissuade the people from accepting a monarchy. In Chapter 13, he speaks in the name of God, and dismisses Saul’s dynasty. We do not hear God’s word; by Chapter 15 the declaration of Saul's deposition appears to be forgotten. Thus, when Samuel declares "God’s words" we have a right and an obligation to be careful.

Samuel instructs Saul, as the word of God: `Now go, attack Amalek, and put under herem, all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike  men and women, infants  and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!’ (15:3). (2) The Hebrew word herem is ambiguous. A Hebrew- English dictionary defines it as "to confiscate, to excommunicate, to dedicate, to destroy,  or to dry up." (3) Philip Stern in his book Biblical Herem  defines it as "consecration to or through destruction." (4) Jacob Milgrom, the translator of the JPS commentary of the Book of Numbers, says herem means a "devoted thing." (5) Samuel mandates a sequence: first put the Amalekites in herem, then kill them. If herem here connotes destruction, then the two orders are merely repetition. Otherwise, there are two different commands here; first consecrate the Amalekites and then kill them. We will see the importance of this shortly. Whether the command(s) indeed originate from God, or this is a "mishearing" by Samuel, will never be known.

Saul makes war on Amalek and crushes it. Agag, King of Amalek, is captured and brought to Gilgal. The best of the sheep and cattle are reserved for sacrifice; the rest are slaughtered, as are the asses and camels. Now we have the direct word of God: `I regret that I made Saul King, for he has turned away from Me and has not carried out My commands. Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night’ (15:10). We are told that Samuel cried -- yet we are not told what he cried about. Did he implore God to forgive the offender, as Moses always did?

Presumably, God’s intented Saul to kill Agag, and the cattle, immediately, rather than bring them to Gilgal. If this indeed is a valid interpretation, then either Samuel misrepresented God in using the word herem or God was intentionally being ambiguous. The use of two words suggests two different commands, distinguishing between "herem" and "kill." When God told Joshua to put the people of Ai under `herem’, the people were destroyed, the king of Ai was brought to Joshua and Joshua hung him and built an altar. (6)  

Samuel comes to Gilgal and Saul greets him: `Blessed are you of the Lord, I have fulfilled the Lord’s commandments’. Samuel sarcastically replies 'Then what is this bleating of sheep in my ears?' (15:13-14). Samuel accuses him of disobeying the Lord, and Saul rejects the accusation: `But I did obey the Lord   . . .  [I] have captured  Agag of Amalek, and I proscribed  Amalek, and the troops took from the spoil some  sheep and oxen  . . .  to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal’ (15:20-21). He argues that he obeyed the command by putting those not killed into herem. Samuel retorts that it is better to obey than to sacrifice, for rebellion is idolatry. Saul, bested once again by Samuel, says: 'I have sinned. I pray you to pardon my sin'. Samuel responds: 'The Glory [God] of Israel does not deceive or change His mind, for He is not human that He should change His mind’ (15:29).

Saul assumed that he had carried out the command of the Lord. He had not yet killed King Agag, or slaughtered all of the cattle, because he meant to slay Agag in front of the altar. Some of the beasts, he noted, had been taken by the people, who perhaps wanted them for themselves. He was strong enough a leader to to command them to sacrifice these beasts placed under herem. His inadequacy in leadership may have derived in part from some lack of core identity, and in part from Samuel's undermining his position since the start of his reign. Nevertheless, he got the cattle to the altar and devised a plan to sacrifice them.

Samuel may have created Saul's problem by suggesting there were two separate commands in "herem" and "kill." Now the prophet does not give the King any benefit of the doubt. He indicts him for rebellion and idolatry. Even if Saul had disobeyed God (which given the ambiguity of the situation he made not have done) he had not committed idolatry.

Samuel at this time avers that `God does not deceive or change His mind’ Yet God has just said (according to Samuel) that He had changed his mind about bestowing the kingship on Saul. Moses had often persuaded God to withdraw decrees of punishment. Samuel, who compared himself to Moses. Does not appeal to God o forgive Saul. It seems as though Samuel himself cannot forgive the people for rejecting him, and Saul is the embodiment of that rejection.

Samuel’s final mission before his death is to find a future king among the children of Jesse. God tells him: `I have decided on one of his sons to be king’ (16:1), and `I will make known to you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I point out to you’ (v. 3). The use of the pronoun ‘I’ in these two verses may imply that neither Samuel nor the people but only God will choose the next king. Samuel goes to Jesse and interviews his sons in the order of their birth. The eldest, Eliab, is tall and handsome, and Samuel supposes `Surely  the Lord’s anointed stands before me’ (16:6). (7)

Once again, Samuel is impatient for the Lord’s voice, and jumps to his own conclusion. Eliab is tall and handsome as was Saul, selected for outward appearance rather than inner qualities. One might expect that a seer might have learned from his experience with Saul not to repeat his earlier error. The Lord says to Samuel `Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him.  For not as man sees does the Lord see, man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart’ (16:7). Is God stating that Samuel or the people were unduly impressed by Saul's presence" The words "see" is repeated six times in this chapter before God finally tells Samuel `This is the one’ (16:12).

This is the last encounter between God and Samuel, and it might be seen as a damning indictment of Samuel, after he had been a `seer’ for decades. What kind of `seer’ has Samuel indeed been?


The question of Saul is best posed by Peter Gunn ‘Does Saul fail as king because of his own inner inadequacy as a human being, or because he is brought low essentially by external forces or circumstances?’ (8)  Gunn’s conclusion is that Saul is ‘an innocent victim of God’. Edwin Good puts it Saul is  ‘a man not fitted for a job that should not have been opened’. (9) Saul is inadequate as a king (and also as a father). Samuel has his own self-interest in the king's failure.

The King of Israel was to be a vassal king under God. A relationship of God, king, priest and prophet had to be developed, and that required a very strong ruler. Saul, who lacked self-esteem, was not that leader. Samuel might have been a father figure who encouraged him, but instead he meant to destroy Saul and the very idea of monarchy. Saul needed his help, but got only his antagonism.

Saul ‘remains elusive, a politically and psychologically persuasive conjunction of suggestive contradictions: inept, foolishly impulsive, self-doubting, pathetically unfit for kingship and also a heroic and poignant figure, especially maligned by Samuel and by circumstances, sustained by a kind of lumbering integrity even as he entangles himself is a net of foolhardy and self-destructive acts’. (10) He could not compete with Samuel, and when the time came he could not compete with David.

Saul’s kingship was thrust upon him; he never sought it and tried to evade it. Had he been chosen by God? Or by Samuel? Or, since the people demanded a king, did God allow them to choose one by lot? The reward for their demand was a flawed king, installed by a prophet who felt rejected by the people. Saul as king is his own worst enemy; Samuel, like a jilted lover, orchestrates his tragedy.   David Gunn stated a hostile God said ‘let us see what we shall see’. (11) It is clear that Saul is fated to fail.

(1) Translated by the author.

(2) JPS translates cherem as "proscribe."

(3) Chaim Shachter, The New Universal English-Hebrew Dictionary, (Yavneh Publishing House, Tel Aviv, 1987) volume 1, 264.

(4) Philip Stern, The Biblical Herem (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1991) p. 1

(5) The JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers, translated and commented on by Jacob Milgrom, (JPS, Philadelphia, 1990) p. 428.

(6) In Josh. 8:2 God tells Joshua to do to the people of Ai what I commanded you to do to the people of Jericho. When we go back to the story of Jericho we find Rahab, the harlot, who hid Joshua’s spies telling them that God decided to put the people of Jericho into `herem’ (Josh. 2:10). She, of course, is saved from that fate as are the Kenites in our story. The fact that Saul saves the Kenites and is not criticized tells us he was intended to use his own reason.

(7) Given the sibling rivalry found in the Bible should we be surprised that David will displace Saul who looks like David’s brother Eliab?

(8) David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul, (JSOT 14, Sheffield, 1980)  pg. 115, 123.

(9) E.M., Good , Irony In The Old Testament (SPCK, London, 1965) pg. 58.

(10) Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature, (Basic Books, N.Y., 1992) p. 151.

(11) B.O. Long, "The Story of King Saul," in Images Of Man And God, (Almond Press, Sheffield, 1981) p. 110.