UCLA Tanakh Study Group notes: 1 Samuel 19-28

In which we finish Chapter 1, and adjourn for the summer.

Due to my negligence, this set of notes covers two meetings rather than one. We more or less finished Chapter 1, and decided to adjourn for the summer.

We also concluded, based on our four discussions so far, that Samuel as a text differs so greatly from Deuteronomy that our one-verse-at-a-time approach to reading needs to be modified. Samuel seems to be far more unified and less palimpsestic than Deuteronomy; it seems far more plasusibly to be the work — at least originally — of a single hand. It is also more like a novel than it is like a law code; already we have found ourselves leaping ahead in the text to make sense of the beginning. So we agreed to read all of 1 and 2 Samuel on our own over the summer, and then to return to our sequential reading with the entire text present to our minds.

One question carried over from our previous discussions concerned the character of Eli. In our text, he seems unimpressive: weak and without insight. But the tradition treats him more kindly than the author of Samuel did, or children would not be named “Eli.” Various authoritative sources call him an elder (the last of the elders who, according to Avot, received the oral Torah from Moses), a judge, a prophet, and a Kohan Gadol (chief priest). No one else is said to have combined all those roles.

The tension among the various claims to authority — the tribal elder, the military/civil judge, the insightful and inspired prophet, the hereditary priest who carries out the established ritual, and finally the anointed king — is perhaps the central theme of our text. Samuel, a prophet and not a priest, is described as anointing King Saul only under protest.

(This is made more poignant by the claim of some commenters, based on the similarity of the names and the words used by Hannah about Samuel, that Samuel and Saul were originally a single character, and that their division is a later invention.)

When we left our story, Hannah had finished praying for a son and promising that if she had one he would be devoted to HaShem, and Eli, having at first rebuked her for what he thought was drunken mumbling, had sent her off with a wish that her prayer be fulfilled.

For this passage, the King James Version is closer than the old JPS version to the Alter translation the group is using:

19: And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.

20: Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD.

21: And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow.

22: But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever.

23: And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish his word. So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him.

24: And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child was young.

25: And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli.

26: And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD.

27: For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him:

28: Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.

This passage raises several questions:

Why did Hannah not go up to worship with her husband? The natural reading seems to be that, having dedicated her son to lifetime service to HaShem, she felt that once he appeared at Shiloh he should remain there, and therefore did not want to take him up until he was capable of surviving without her.

How old was Samuel when his mother finally took him to Shiloh? How long, that is, were Israelite children breast-fed? The Talmud says about three years.

What “word” does Elkannah hope will be fulfilled? The midrashic answer is that a prophecy was extant about a child named Samuel who would do great things in the name of HaShem, and that many hopeful women named their sons “Samuel,” only to be disappointed. So Elkannah prayed that his son should be the true Samuel.

Why three bullocks? This may be a mistranslation of a phrase used elsewhere in the Tanakh to refer to sacrificial animals. Perhaps “three” refers to a size or grade of animal rather than a number of animals: “a class-three bullock,” not “three bullocks.”

Who bowed down? The last sentence is obscure. The Alter translation the group is using has “prostrated” in place of “worshipped.” The verb literally means “bowed,” but that might be a metaphor. The KJV quoted above suggests one coherent interpretation we didn’t consider: that, having been dedicated by his mother, Samuel remained at Shiloh and worshipped HaShem there from then on.

If we read “bowed” literally, as referring to an action taken when Hannah finished speaking, it might still refer to Samuel, of whom she has been speaking, though that would be an extraordinary action for a three-year-old. Or perhaps it is Eli who bows, in recognition of the fulfillment of a prayer he had himself observed being offered, or even Elkannah, in gratitude for the divine favor conferred on his favorite wife.

Variant texts have the verb in the feminine or the plural; perhaps Hannah bowed down after dedicating her son, or perhaps they all bowed down. But it seems to me that the KJV makes the most narrative sense: Samuel, having been dedicated, stayed to worship.

More to come — including the idea of tikkun ha-shofrim, or scribal emendation of the text for doctrinal reasons — when the group reconvenes next fall.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com