THE CHURCH COMMEMORATES on its calendar holy men and women throughout the ages: from the first days of the Old Testament, from the New Testament and from the era of the Church. We honor the saints of today, rejoicing that God is still bestowing His Spirit in our own time. We revere the Old Testament saints, who illustrate that there have always been people who responded to God’s love, even in times and places far different from our own. One such holy figure from the Old Testament is the holy prophet Samuel, whom our Church remembers on August 20.
Samuel is revered as the last of the Judges, the tribal chiefs who ruled the Hebrew people between the time of Moses and Joshua (c. 1250 bc) and the naming of Saul as the first king of Israel in c. 1050 bc. His story is told in the Old Testament’s first book of Samuel. Four books in our Bibles, called 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings (called 1 – 4 Kingdoms in the LXX) tell the story of the rise of the unified Jewish kingdom in the tenth and ninth centuries bc.
The Birth of Samuel
Samuel’s family was of the tribe of Ephraim and lived in a town called Ramathaim- Zophim (or Rama) some 4 or 5 miles northwest of the later city of Jerusalem. His father, Elkanah, had two wives Peninnah, who had several sons and daughters, and Hannah, who was reproached by Perinnah for being childless.
One time, on the family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, Hannah vowed that, were God to give her a son, she would dedicate him to God’s service. Many of the Fathers, pointing to Hannah’s silent prayer, saw it as a model of heartfelt, if unspoken prayer. Although her prayer could not be heard by those nearby, it was heard by God.
A while after returning home, Hannah conceived and bore a son whom she called Samuel (“asked of God”) because the Lord had listened to her prayer. When the child was older. Hannah returned with him to Shiloh to give thanks and offer him to the Lord with the prayer we know as the Canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10):
“My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies,
because I rejoice in Your salvation. No one is holy like the Lord, for there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God…The bows of the mighty are broken, and those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, and she who has many children has become feeble. … The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them
among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and He has set the world upon them. He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness. … The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king,And exalt the horn of His anointed.
We chant Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving as the third biblical canticle at Orthros during the Great Fast.
Samuel Is Called by God
The infant Samuel remained at Shiloh and grew to assist Eli the priest of the shrine. This is why he is often depicted in icons holding a censer. There is a touching story describing Samuel’s first experience of God, when, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Bk 5)., he was twelve years old. It happened “… while Samuel was lying down, that the Lord called Samuel. And he answered, “Here I am!” So he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” And he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” And he went and lay down. Then the Lord called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” He answered, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” (Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him.)
“ And the Lord called Samuel again the third time, so he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you did call me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord had called the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and it shall be, if He calls you, that you must say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel answered, “Speak, for Your servant hears”… And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:4-10, 20). In Jewish tradition Samuel is described as being equal to Moses, since God spoke directly to him.
Samuel Becomes Judge
Eli the priest had become the most righteous judge among the Hebrews, but his sons did not take after their father and were known as corrupt. With Eli’s death the unity of the Hebrew tribes began fragmenting until Samuel took Eli’s place as principal judge of the nation, traveling on a circuit from Ramah to the shrines of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah to administer justice.
During Samuel’s time as judge the Philistines became the most significant power in the region and, therefore the greatest threat to the independence of the Hebrews. At one point the Philistines even captured the Ark, with its relics of the Exodus, the very symbol of the Israelites’ identity as the people of God and held it for ransom. Finally the Hebrew chieftains’ united under Samuel and defeated the Philistines.
In old age Samuel made his sons judges, but they “turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). As a result the elders pressured Samuel, “make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). With God’s guidance Samuel reluctantly agreed to their request but warned them that God was their king – if they wanted an earthly king they would be rejecting Him and inviting tyranny. The chieftains prevailed and Saul was chosen to be their king. Samuel secretly anointed Saul as king, as he would anoint the next king, David indicating their choice by God as ruler of His people. Icons of Samuel often depict him holding a vessel of oil with which he anointed both Saul and his successor, David.
Samuel lived to see God reject Saul as an unrighteous king and select David to replace him. He saw Saul try to have David killed, then finally accept David as God’s choice to inherit the kingdom. In 1 Sm 25:1 we are told that Samuel died and was buried at Rama, his home town. Rabbinic tradition says that Samuel lived to be 52 years old.
The traditional site of Samuel’s tomb is the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil, which overlooks Jerusalem. A succession of churches – the last of which became a mosque in the eighteenth century – was built over the tomb which itself houses a synagogue. In the fifth century ad St Jerome wrote that Samuel’s remains had been moved to Chalcedon by Emperor Arcadius and the Byzantine monastery in Nabi Samwil was simply a memorial.
Priest, Prophet, Ruler
The prophet Samuel has been seen as a type of Christ, because his ministry included a priestly and a prophetic dimension as well as being a judge and ruler in Israel. Thus he foreshadowed Christ, who offers Himself in sacrifice as priest, teaches prophetically what He hears from the Father (see John 15:15), and is glorified on the cross as King of the Jews.