The Theological Introduction to 1 Samuel
By Joel McDurmon
“There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children” (1 Sam. 1:1–2).
The early Hebrew readers of this text, or listeners, would have gotten only this far into what we consider the introductory, mundane details—the “once upon a time” part—and they would have already been thinking, “Something big is about to happen.” And for good reason: in these first two verses, 1 Samuel contains enough details to make you anticipate the further unfolding—the continuum—of God’s great plan of redemptive history, of the greatest of all His revealed promises.
We don’t see it today, partly because the English translation obscures it for us (almost by virtue of the fact of translation), and partly because we read the historical books in somewhat of an isolated manner. We read them as historical books. That is, we read them as history books containing historical details—important details, nice piecemeal stories, maybe—but not as theological literature. Perhaps we may, when we get to the relevant point, consider the great passages on the Davidic covenant, and the lives of David and Solomon and other things, as typological—containing images and messages that foreshadow the future Kingdom of God and the work of Christ the son of David. But we often read these books unaware that they themselves were written against a very rich background of theological literature, redemptive history, and theological revelation already in place.
We will miss the full import of these introductory verses if we do not consider that rich background. It is revealed here in these seemingly mundane verses in 1) the importance of the names and places given to us, and 2) the theological legacy which this story—this history—inherits and expands. These two aspects are difficult to separate, and thus we will deal with both interchangeably in the following few pages. Once we consider these aspects as a theological introduction, it will greatly illuminate the message of the passage that follows, and in fact, the overall message of the books of Samuel, Kings, and even the prophets.
“God Has Gotten”
We are told of a certain man whose name is Elkanah. Now we don’t immediately see the importance of that name because it’s in Hebrew, but a native Hebrew speaker would have. “El” in Hebrew means “God” in a general sense. Pretty much any time you see “el” in a Hebrew name, you can rest assured it refers to God. Daniel is “my judge is God.” Joel means “Yaweh is God.” Elijah means “my God is Yaweh.” Elimelech, whom we will see in a moment, means “my God is king.” There are dozens more. “El” features here, too; but the really interesting part here is the other half of that name Elkanah. Once you account for the “El,” you are left with “kanah”—which means “possessed” or “gotten.” This has an ancient association in biblical theology with another famous biblical name from around 3000 years earlier.
If we go back to Genesis 4:1, we see that association. It says, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’” The word “gotten” in Eve’s response is the key. The Hebrew word is, “kanah”—“gotten.” It forms something of a wordplay in the Hebrew with the name Cain—kayin and kanah. Some scholars think there is actually a direct connection, but I with most others think it’s just a word-play because of the theology. It seems that Eve was getting a bit ahead of herself. God had just recently given her that great promise of a coming redeemer, a promise which is replayed many times throughout Scripture, the curse of the serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel (Gen 3:15).
Well, here was her very first offspring, Cain. Wasn’t it clear that God had just made good on his promise? It seems Eve may have thought that way; it seems she may have thought this man child was that promised offspring who would destroy the serpent, for she says, literally in the Hebrew, “I have gotten a man from Yaweh.” What would later happen for real to Mary, Eve’s language here suggests had already happened for her. But we know better; we know Cain turns out not to be the Messiah. Just the opposite: he does not destroy the serpent, but his brother. Out of his own envy he murders Abel his brother, and Abel becomes the image of Christ slain for the sins of others. John later informs us that not only was Cain not the chosen seed, but he was of the seed of the serpent, or “was of the evil one” (1 John 3:12).
Bottom of Form
For this reason, I think Cain was not known as “Cain” until after the murder, because the more apparent root of the name is the Hebrew word kayin which means “a spear.” And that takes us theologically from Cain, the seed of the evil one who slays his brother, all the way to the ultimate fulfillment of that murder at the cross, when the spear is thrust into the side of Christ to ensure His death. Notice the text of Genesis 4:1 does not say that Adam or Eve named the child Cain, it just calls him Cain. But since Eve says “kanah,” I think—just a hunch—that that was his original name, and only after his gruesome crime did someone play with that name (probably in ridicule), make a pun between kanah and kayin, and that name is what the Bible and history commemorate him as—the spear of murder, and the seed of the evil one. Even if this name-change is not the case, kanah still holds the theological association because of Eve’s declaration at that point.
Now, that story, that entire history, that entire theology, stands behind that first name of 1 Samuel. With merely that one name, the divine author recalls the entire redemptive history of God’s seminal promise to Eve that a redeemer would come from her seed, that there would be war between her seed and the seed of the evil one, and that her seed would prevail. This story lies behind the entire history of Israel, of God’s people long since, and the author here is highlighting that from the outset. But there’s a new twist. For this phase of that history, we don’t have Eve making the mistake of saying “I have gotten,” but we have the divine author beginning with El kanah—“God has gotten.” In other words, this first sentence is already announcing; “This is the story of the line of God’s great promised seed.” Follow here all ye who seek redemption. This is not the story of Eve’s failure (although this story will include many elements of that story as well), but this is the story of God’s faithfulness, God’s work, God’s success.
Then the text informs us that Elkanah lived in a place in the hills of Ephraim, and that he was of a particular lineage that made him an Ephrathite (whether this refers directly to Elkanah, or just to his ancestor Zuph is not clear, but doesn’t really matter since they are a direct line of descendents). This name also has a rich legacy in prior biblical theology.
Before we pursue that theology, however, we must acknowledge that Elkanah (and thus Samuel to come) was not of the tribe of Ephraim by blood. Rather, he was a Levite, and thus had some connection to the priestly and levitical functions. His blood lineage is revealed in 1 Chronicles:
The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. . . . The sons of Kohath: Amminadab his son, Korah his son, Assir his son, Elkanah his son, Ebiasaph his son, Assir his son, Tahath his son, Uriel his son, Uzziah his son, and Shaul his son. The sons of Elkanah: . . . Zophai [Zuph] his son, Nahath his son, Eliab his son, Jeroham his son, Elkanah his son. The sons of Samuel: Joel his firstborn, the second Abijah (1 Chron. 6:16, 22–28).
So Elkanah, and thus Samuel after him, was of the tribe of Levi. So why is he called or related to an “Ephrathite”? The issue is quite simple. Recall that the Levites were the priestly tribe, and that they were not given a portion of the land like the other twelve (Lev. 25:33; Num. 18:20–24; Josh 13:14, 33; 14:3–4). Instead, the Levites were given cities distributed throughout the other tribes. Thus, they have a type of dual citizenship in that they are Levites by blood, but could be referred to also according to their location (compare, for example, Judg. 17:7). We could say for the purposes of the overall account that Elkanah was an Ephrathite-Levite.
Fruitfulness and Sorrow
The fact that he was primarily a Levite should in no way distract us from the importance of the reference to Ephraim, for there is a rich covenantal heritage in the association with that name. And for this reason, likely, he is introduced to us in 1 Samuel not as a Levite but as an Ephrathite of the hill country of Ephraim. Thus we need to consider also the importance of both Ephratah and Ephraim.
“Ephraim” was the name of one of Joseph’s two sons, who together made up two tribes of the people of Israel (Manasseh being the brother). “Ephraim” is named by Joseph while in Egypt, after he had been redeemed from prison, while he was a servant to Pharaoh, and during the seven years of plenty right before the famine. This is the record in Genesis 41:50–2:
Before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph. Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On (Heliopolis), bore them to him. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” The name of the second he called Ephraim, “For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
“Ephraim” apparently comes from the Hebrew para (verb) or periy (noun), which refer to fruitfulness. “Ephraim” has an ending which makes it dual, and thus the meaning seems to be “double-fruitful.” These names are Joseph’s commemoration of God’s faithfulness in delivering him, and making him fruitful in many ways—in the interpretation of dreams, in the seven years of plenty, in his position of authority, and in the bearing of children. Joseph’s birth itself had been an answer to the unfruitfulness of his mother’s womb up to that point (Gen 30:2); so there is a theme developing as early as Rachel. But this is not all.
There are connections in Scriptural history between Ephraim and the land of Ephrath (Gen 35:16; 48:7). The text of 1 Samuel 1:1 puts Elkanah in the mountains of Ephraim—the place in Israel where the tribe of Ephraim settled—and also calls him an “Ephrathite.” Ephrath features in the story of Ephraim’s grandparents, Jacob and Rachel. In Genesis 35:16–19, Rachel and Jacob are traveling from Bethel to Ephrath, and a little way before arriving at Ephrath, Rachel goes into labor. She eventually gives birth to Benjamin, but she dies in child birth. She is then buried in Ephrath. Thus, Joseph’s mother’s tomb is in Ephrath.
It is not necessarily clear whether the name of the region Ephrath also comes from the Hebrew para, or whether it comes from ‘eper which means “ashes.” It may very well be that there is intentional double entendre in both names—“Ephraim” referring to both Joseph’s fruitfulness and a remembrance of his afflictions in Egypt and mourning the loss of his mother (thus “ashes”), and for Ephrath referring to a place in which Rachel is buried but which also will prove to be fruitful in more than one way. Such a double-meaning is fitting in regard to the history of God’s promised seed because He will be both wounded (bruised heel) and yet victorious (Gen. 3:15). Even if the persons involved were not fully conscious of what they were naming and doing, etc., God’s providence in history ensures that the details—every hair of the heads—will stand in relation to His overall plan, eventually leading to Christ.
These two meanings in tension—fruitfulness and sorrow—are recounted together when Joseph visits his father’s deathbed with his two sons. Jacob reminds Joseph of God’s promise to make him fruitful—para—in the land (Gen 48:4), and then presents the two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. These two sons of Joseph, keep in mind, were born to an Egyptian mother, and thus were half Egyptian. Their grandfather Jacob remedied this by literally adopting them as his own sons, giving them the same standing as the other eleven sons of Israel. When Joseph brought them to Jacob for a blessing, Jacob said,
And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours (Gen. 48:5–6).
He later promises that he will give an extra (double) portion of land to Joseph (and thus to Ephraim and Manasseh)—in particular, the land he had already taken by defeating Hamon in Shechem (Gen. 48:22; cf. Gen. 34). So he was adopting the two sons to himself for the purpose of extending his inheritance through them. Again, faithfulness to the promise.
At the same time, Jacob recounts the death of Rachel along the way: “As for me, when I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen. 35:19; 48:7). Rachel’s death had occurred on the journey from Bethel, where God had revealed to Jacob the promise of becoming a great and “fruitful” nation, and of kings coming from his progeny (Gen. 35:1–15). God had commanded Jacob to begin this journey (Gen. 35:1); then, continuing beyond Bethel after receiving this promise, Rachel died along the way. God had providentially orchestrated the whole episode. In his own final hours, Jacob passed a blessing to his heirs to be fruitful in the land, and he recalled the place of mourning and burial of Rachel, in Bethlehem, Ephrath (the land of “ashes” and/or “fruitfulness”).
The Blessings of Joseph
Then comes the most important part in regard to Ephraim, and the part most relevant to 1 Samuel 1:1: the actual blessing of Joseph’s two sons. Jacob has Joseph present them to him for a blessing. Joseph positions them so that the older of the two, Manasseh, would receive Jacob’s right hand, and Ephraim the younger his left. But Jacob, who at one time had supplanted his own older brother in order to receive the primary blessing of his father Isaac, now applies the same rule: he crosses his hands, placing his right hand on the younger son. Thus this became another case of “the older will serve the younger.” Joseph tries to correct his father, but gets corrected himself in the process. Jacob says, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations” (Gen. 48:19).
Immediately after blessing the two sons of Joseph, Jacob calls his other sons together to bless them just before his death. He blesses each of the twelve separately. In light of the theme of fruitfulness, as well as the blessing just given to “double-fruitful” Ephraim, Jacob’s prophecy for Joseph in particular is revealing. He said,
“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
a fruitful bough [lit. “son of fruitfulness”] by a spring;
his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
(from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
by the Almighty who will bless you
with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers (Gen. 49:22–28).
This blessing is reaffirmed and expanded generations later when Moses blesses the twelve tribes as well:
Blessed by the Lord be his land,
with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
and of the deep that crouches beneath,
with the choicest fruits of the sun
and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
and they are the thousands of Manasseh (Deut. 33:13–17).
Without engaging a full exegesis of these two very loaded passages, it is easy to see the same themes featured: fruitfulness and dominion. In the Genesis 49 version we are told his great status and victory would come amidst great adversity of war, but in the Deuteronomy 33 version we see that he will have the “horns” to drive the peoples out of the land. In both, he ultimately prevails.
One minor apparent difference in the two accounts of Joseph’s blessings should be cleared up. Genesis 49 refers to Joseph as “him who was set apart from his brothers,” but Deuteronomy translated the same Hebrew phrase as “him who is prince among his brothers.” The Hebrew word in question is nazir and it is extremely important. It fundamentally means “separate.” It sometimes is construed to mean “separate” in the sense of rising above, ruling over, as in “elite.” Thus the ESV translates it “prince” in Deuteronomy 33:16. But this is almost certainly not a proper application, even if it is a possible nuance of the word. Nowhere does Scripture employ the word in a way that it necessarily or even clearly means “prince.” Scripture does, however, use it very often in references to special, holy separation unto God. Such separation is usually temporary and for a specific work of God during that time. Nazir is the idea behind the Nazirite vow explained in Numbers 6. The word is rarely used, but when it is, it almost always has reference to this context. Joseph is said to be nazir from his brethren, which he was physically separated from his brethren (with the background of having been killed, buried, and resurrected, so to speak, from the pit) and for the special redemptive purpose for which God chose (Gen. 50:20). Since the phrase is exactly the same in Genesis 49 as in Deuteronomy 33 in the Hebrew, and since the contexts are identical, there is no reason that they should not be translated the same; and the proper translation is most likely “separated.” Joseph thus becomes a type or an image of all other Nazirites, including the ultimate Nazirite, Jesus (Matt. 2:23). (We will have more to say about the Nazirite when we get further into 1 Samuel 1.) This means that along with the themes of fruitfulness, dominion, and expansion, Joseph’s prophetic inheritance includes the rarely-used theme of the Nazirite—he is someone specially separated for God’ work.
Moses reminds the Israelite children just before they crossed into the Promised Land that this legacy of Joseph’s is going to be realized through his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, of whom Ephraim is going to be ten times greater (“ten thousands” versus “thousands”—v. 17).
In other words, Ephraim was prophesied to play a central role of in the seed line of the Abrahamic covenant, and in the greatness of the Israelite people. It is not without irony that we see all of these themes play out in subsequent history. The successor to Moses, Joshua, who leads the Israelites across the Jordan, and leads the conquest of Canaan, is a son of Ephraim. He literally leads the thrusting out of the Canaanite people with the horns of war (Gen 33:17), although the job is not completed faithfully, including at least one city in Ephraim itself (Judg. 1:29). Then, the tabernacle of God and the congregation of the people are established at Shiloh (Josh. 18:1) which is in the hills of Ephraim, and it remains there until David’s reign. Thus Shiloh in the hills of Ephraim formed a judicial and ecclesiastical center of Israelite culture until the later time when David would move it to Jerusalem.
“Shiloh,” was the name of the coming ruler whom Jacob had prophesied. He had promised that the civil rulers will come from Judah “until Shiloh comes” (Gen 49:10). It seems the Israelites, having subdued most of the Canaanites, and thus having the appearance of dominion and rest, may have made the same mistake Eve did with Cain. Eve assumed she had “gotten” the promise of a coming seed when Cain was born. Likewise, as soon as the Israelites had a respite in their conquest, they set up their legal and priestly headquarters at “Shiloh”—thus, Shiloh had come. But as we shall see, this establishment is as ill-fated as the thought that Cain would be a messiah.
So the blessing of Joseph passes through Ephraim, particularly in regard to fruitfulness and dominion in the land. This is apparent still in the time of Elkanah, when the center of worship is in Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3). But there is still even more to the biblical theology of Joseph’s family that appears in this story.
Two Wives, Two Seeds
In verse 2, we learn that Elkanah had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. Again, we have illuminating names, and we have illuminating biblical-theological background. In each we see the continuation of the same theme carried in the name “Elkanah”—the concept of a war between two seeds of Genesis 3:15. This, of course, is later combined with the image of two mothers—one chosen, one not—with Sarah and Hagar.
In this instance, we have the first wife, Hannah. The Hebrew “H” in this name is actually the rougher of the possible “h” sounds; the name should more properly be rendered “Channah,” but we will stick with the traditional “Hannah” here. It comes from the Hebrew chen which is the standard word for “grace.” Noah found chen in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8); so did Abraham (Gen. 18:3) and so did Joseph (Gen 39:21). The line of the chosen/promised seed is always beneath and dependent upon God’s grace. Where we see God’s grace, we see God’s chosen seed. So it would likely have been pretty clear to a Hebrew reader already which one of the wives in this story will continue the promise.
The other wife is Peninnah. Her name is more problematic, as it has no obvious derivation or comparative usage in the Hebrew. The word could come from pinna which means “corners,” and can refer to a cut jewel or to coral. Or, it could be distantly related to paniym, which is the standard word for “face,” or “faces.” In either case, it seems the meaning has something to do with many-faceted jewelry, and thus beauty. As a “cut stone,” however, her name would be a symbol of the works of man profaning the worship of God, for God specifically forbade the inclusion of cut stones in Hebrew altars for this very symbolism (Ex. 20:24–5). The Reformed Baptist commentator John Gill—well-known for his expertise in Semitic sources—calls Peninnah a “rough diamond,” probably taken as a second wife due to Hannah’s failure to produce children. She was hardly a jewel in the sense of a trophy wife, and was certainly rough in that she was a provocateur, as we shall see.
The theological background to this setting is deep and fundamental to all of biblical theology. We see the same pattern especially between the two wives Rachel and Leah, and also somewhat between Sarah and Hagar.
The case of Rachel and Leah is the more directly related. What follows is a bit long and seems a bit to the side of the context of Samuel here, but the rehearsal of this history will drive home the point. Rachel was the beauty, while Leah was less fair; thus, Jacob wanted to marry Rachel (Gen. 29:16–17). He made a deal with the girls’ father to serve him seven years in exchange for the hand of Rachel. As we all know, Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah instead of Rachel. Rachel requires another seven years of service, but Jacob favors her so much he endures it. Once married to both, he shows great favor to Rachel over Leah.
God, however, has mercy on the despised Leah. He opens her womb and shuts Rachel’s. Thus Leah bears the firstborn son to Jacob. Leah sees this as a direct act of mercy and reward from God (Gen. 29:32); but she goes a bit far in assuming this will make Jacob now love her: “the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me” (29:32). She repeats this approach with the second son, naming him “Simeon” which means “heard.” She says overtly, “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (29:33). She continues with the next, Levi (“Attached”). She explains, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (29:34).
What results is a rivalry of two wives competing for the heart of their husband. Rachel begins with the upper hand by nature. This breeds a somewhat justified envy in the heart of Leah. She grows so consumed with gaining Jacob’s affection that she names the first three of her four children in reference to her own “affliction” as she sees it.
Leah’s fruitfulness then leads to envy on Rachel’s part (Gen. 30:1). She complains to Jacob who is annoyed with her lack of faith in God’s providence. Rachel remains discontent and devises a scheme: she convinces Jacob to sleep with her handmaid, Bilhah, so that Rachel can midwife the baby “on my knees” and call it hers (30:3). The scheme works, and Rachel, following Leah’s practice from before, names the child Dan (“Judge”) in reference to the rivalry: for “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son” (30:6). She gets even more overt with a second son born to Bilhah, Naphtali (“My Wrestling”): “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed” (30:8).
Leah had ended childbearing (29:35) (this is temporary, but Leah did not know), but she was not to be outdone. Two can play the handmaid game. So Leah convinces Jacob to impregnate her handmade, Zilpah, as well. She bears two successive sons to Jacob, Gad and Asher. The rivalry continues: when Leah’s son Rueben (the oldest) finds “mandrakes,” Rachel desires some. Leah condemns this as more envy on Rachel’s part: “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Mandrakes are dudayim in the Hebrew—literally “beloveds.” Thus Leah was speaking poetically, “You have stolen my beloved; will you steal my son’s love as well?” The flowers are praised in Song of Solomon 7:13 for their fragrance. They were obviously a beautiful, fragrant flower implicated in personal affection. Folklore says they were prized superstitiously to bring fertility. Thus Rachel—who still had no natural children of her own, and was likely desperate—probably not only wanted them for herself, but enviously desired to deprive her rival of them as well. The two make a deal that Leah will get to sleep with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes. The plan backfires on Rachel—the flower fades and the grass withers—for God gave Leah children again. Leah wasted no time in naming the following two children to perpetuate the rivalry: “Issachar” (“hire”), because Leah had to hire her husband at the cost of the mandrakes, and then “Zebulun” (“dwelling”), because she hoped that after six sons Jacob would choose to dwell with her instead of Rachel (30:14–20).
Apparently this did not work, for we find Jacob with Rachel again; and finally, after all the fighting, Rachel conceives her own son. She states that “God has taken away my reproach”—that is, of infertility. She thus names the child Joseph (“Yaweh adds”), because God finally added unto her progeny (30:22–24). Jacob would not have another child until years later, when Rachel gets the last son, Benjamin. As she was dying in child birth, Rachel wanted to name him Benoni (“Son of my sorrow”), but Jacob named him Benjamin (“Son of the right hand”) (Gen 35:17–19).
The whole lives of Rachel and Leah were lived in envious rivalry over the husband’s affection, and this was reflected in their war of childbearing. Each tried to outdo and out-name the other, nearly every time advertising how God had vindicated their personal cause in the names of their children. The result—hardly helped by Jacob—was a family wracked by envy.
The rivalry then continued among the children and led to a very important culmination. Joseph, being the firstborn son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite, was naturally favored by Jacob above the other brothers, despite being much younger than the other ten (baby Benjamin obviously not considered). The narrative of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brethren begins by distinguishing Joseph from “the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah” (Gen. 37:2), and Joseph tattles on them. There is obviously rivalry between them already. This is exacerbated as Jacob gives Joseph a coat of authority—making him a supervisor over the others (37:3). The brethren resent having this seventeen year old big-mouth as their supervisor. Joseph makes the situation worse when he reveals his dream that his brethren will bow down and serve him (37:6–10). The result is the same as what existed between the mothers: envy. The brothers envied Joseph (37:11), and this led to their plot to kill him. After a brief moment of guilt and rationalizations, they decided to sell him into slavery instead.
How this relates to 1 Samuel 1 should be somewhat obvious. The parallel here is the rivalry between the wives, Peninnah, who had children, and Hannah, who had none. Except, there is a difference: Hannah, while provoked and vexed, does not react with envy and scheming. She stays true to her name, grace, and reacts in humility before God. She weeps in humility, but refuses to accept the consolation of men (her husband in 1:8). The source of Hannah’s vexation here is simply referred to as her “rival” or “adversary” (1:6); while we assume from the context this is Peninnah, the generic description leaves us to consider the theological “enmity” behind the scene in general (going, again, all the way back to Genesis and the two seeds). Hannah endures this yearly, and the focus was always the same: “because the LORD had closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:6). But she reacts with supplication to God (1:10–11). We’ll look more closely at the vow she takes in the next chapter. For now, it is enough to see how she reacts in grace. She vows that if God gives her a man child, she will dedicate the child to the work of God. Thus, unlike either Rachel or Leah, she is not filled with envy and does not spend her life trying to vindicate herself. She weeps in sorrow and distress, but ultimately falls at the feet of her God and promises to give up her child to His service. Rather than selfishness, she displays self-sacrifice. Rather than self-vindication, she is interested in the advance of God’s kingdom. This is the outworking of grace. This is the submission and trust in God that we are looking for in the line of His promises.
Indeed, just as Elkanah was “God has gotten,” and was thus a godly advancement in biblical theology over Cain, so Samuel’s name (once he comes) also puts the emphasis on God’s work and not man’s. Leah, as we saw, named her second child “Simeon,” meaning “heard,” a reference to self-vindication: “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated . . .” (Gen. 29:33). Hannah names her son “Samuel” (1:20). While there are differing suggestions based on the Hebrew etymology, the great commentator John Gill finds rabbinical sources that make the most sense of the context. The name most likely means “Asked before God.” Indeed, Hannah had presented herself before God’s very presence in the tabernacle (1:9), and she asked God for the child. She then gives her reason for the name: “I have asked for him from the LORD” (1:20). So Gill’s sources appear to make the most sense. Hannah is thus recognizing that the whole scene has come about by God’s grace, by God’s power, in God’s presence. This is of Him and for Him, not her.
In the end, therefore, Hannah’s prayer is granted. She is given that man child who will become a type of Christ, just as Rachel ultimately bore Joseph who became a type of Christ. Joseph was hated by his brethren and thus rejected by Israel, yet in God’s providence he eventually saves Israel. Likewise, Samuel’s counsel will be rejected by Israel, and the people will institute a king “like other nations”—Saul. But Samuel will, behind the scenes, anoint David (Hebrew for “beloved”), the king after God’s own heart, who will be the father of the Messiah, ultimately Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1). Thus, through the work of Samuel, God saves Israel.
1. The God of Details
The intense amount of detail loaded into just a few names and relationships within just a few verses is part of the power of the message here. God is a God of minute details. As mentioned earlier, this is the God who numbers every hair of the head and every sparrow of the air. This is the God who knows every single one of His own, and not a single one of them shall be lost out of His hand (John 10:28–29). This fact recalls both God’s omniscience and omnipresence, as He is everywhere and knows everything, and forgets nothing.
These truths become tremendous sources of comfort to God’s people. He is able to communicate to us a whole history of His dealings with man through something so simple as a name. We immediately recall that He is the same God that was in the Garden, the same God who made that seminal promise to Eve. Despite all of man’s presumptions, sins, failures, and maladministration of God’s promises and God’s laws, God remains faithful and dedicated to His Word. It will not fail. And God is able cause us to remember entire books full of history, as well as the laws and promises that drive that history, by simply uttering a name like Elkanah, or through a simple theme of rival wives.
In such we are reminded that God is provident in every single fact of history, and we should therefore not neglect to consider His sovereignty over every aspect of life, no matter how tiny we consider it. This challenges us then, first of all, to pay attention. Pay attention to every single detail of God’s Word. Even if in some cases we do not understand every single minute detail, rest assured that God put them there for a reason. We can and do understand the vast majority of them, and even those few obscure places which befuddle us today, God may eventually open to us in due time. In either case, it is a duty of ours to pay attention.
From there we should understand such alertness and attentiveness as a duty for Christians in general. God is not only so provident over every syllable of Scripture, but also over every nanosecond and atom of existence as well. We must consciously consider that every breath, every move, every act, every refocusing of the eye occurs in Him within whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Let us not take a single one of those facts for granted save but by the rest and grace given to us by our Savior.
Let us especially not take for granted such moments when they involve our relationships with others. You have no idea when your slightest faithful actions may be used of God to change someone for a lifetime, even unbeknownst to you. Likewise on the side of slack or unfaithful actions. Paul applies similar thinking to hospitality—“thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2). We must be even more vigilant, however, when we do know those we entertain: our spouses, our children, employees, etc. Children especially are a strange mixture of resilience, stubbornness, and hyper-impressionability. You have no idea at what point your actions may make a lasting impression upon them, for good or ill. Therefore it becomes us to cherish every moment, acting at all times in a way that honors and glorifies the God of moments.
2. The God of the Big Picture
At the same time, however, we see here that this God of details is also a God of the big picture. He does not count the hairs and watch the sparrows merely for the sake of being thorough, or out of boredom. God demonstrates to us that He knows all so that His omniscience and omnipotence in general may be impressed upon us further. By this we are reminded He is the same Almighty God, and that His message is the same message of redemption from beginning to end.
This lesson of recalling all the details of history via a single name is given that we may know that God keeps His promises. He knows what He revealed, He is in control of every minute details of history in the meantime, and He shall bring to pass exactly what He promised.
This brings implications for us as well. Seeing God’s patience in bringing His promises to pass over so long a period of time teaches us that God works over long eras. A thousand years is as a day. This challenges us to remain content with His providence in the meantime. In times of social decline or uncertainty, we do not despair. This lesson calls us to refocus and acknowledge that social change is a long-term endeavor. Short time-frame schemes usually meet with frustration or end in tyranny. Thus is longsuffering a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
Consequently, we learn that no true social change, or advance of God’s kingdom, occurs apart from the work of the Lord. Man’s works are ultimately the work of envy and wrath, and as such, again, result in enslavement, vice, hatred, coercion, tyranny. We’ll address this further when we discuss the Nazirite vow. A theme that shall run throughout this book, and is seen in the actions of the faithful—Hannah, Samuel, David, Jonathan—is the conviction that “the battle is the Lord’s.” These members, including Hannah, will all be convinced that this is indeed a battle, but they will also all act on the belief that it can only be won by the Lord, not by man’s works. We must begin, endure, and end with those same convictions, lest we face ruin, spiritually and physically.
Finally, under this head, we are reminded that God’s promise is the same promise from beginning to end. A seed of the woman should come and crush the head of the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Between these two seeds there shall be rivalry and hatred until that time. That promise and the themes pretaining to it are repeated throughout Scripture, and we see types and shadows of that promised seed and his adversary during momentous epochs in God’s redemptive history. 1 Samuel introduces us to one of those momentous revolutions of history.
3. The School of God
Finally, consider the powerful and yet gracious way in which God instructs us. His lessons are simple and yet profound. While there is a vast array of detail involved, this is mainly due to God repeating His lessons over and again throughout the centuries.
One need not be a deep theologian to understand the lessons themselves. Man sins, but God is gracious. Man rebels, but God restrains. Man fails, but God is faithful forever. Man presents hurdles and schemes and rivalries to tear down and triumph over his fellow man, God gifts His people such that in their very weaknesses, God prevails. For the battle is the Lord’s, and it will not be won by man’s skill and cunning. Indeed, by these devices, man is frustrated. In grace, submission, humility, patience, God preserves His people and brings destruction to His enemies. Nothing here is complicated. All is simple. Yet all is so profound.
God teaches us these simple lessons over and over again. This meets the needs of our infirmity, both in our dullness to get the point to begin with, and in our forgetfulness over time. For even after we have embraced Him, we have a tendency to depart from what we have learned. We need to be reminded of His plan for man every day.
In his Sermon on Deuteronomy 1:1–3, John Calvin pointed out that when God repeats His lessons to us over and over again, we should not be disturbed or annoyed by it, but rather benefit from it. For He intends, both through His own repetition and that of His faithful preachers, to instill the simple yet profound lessons of His faithfulness and power in our very souls. Calvin said,
Seeing then that God has declared such great majesty in the Gospel, and his preaching of it to us has not been only for one day, but we have our ears battered every day, let us see if we be good disciples, if we retain what is shown, so that God is honored by us. . . .
Therefore let us think how well we have it whenever it is told us that there is a God to whom we belong, and that he is not only our maker but also our father, and has adopted us to be his children, and that after we have been redeemed by the precious blood of his Son, we are drawn to him by an even tighter bond. Whenever we are reminded of these things, although we have heard of them before, do not say, “These things have already been preached!”; but let everyone enter into himself, examine himself, and see whether the things that we have heard before have been imprinted in our hearts. . . . And therefore it is good that our memory is refreshed, and that God returns to us and declares, “You wretched folk, what mean you? When I have once taught you, you were all immersed and preserved in the doctrine that is contained in my word, and yet you are still like little children.” This is what we have to do, even to take the flavor from the word of God and be nourished therewith as with our ordinary food. We must assure ourselves that it is not in vain that this order is constituted—that we should be preached to all the time of our life, and that we should have our ears battered continually with the things which we ought to understand in a month or two.
That God reveals Himself to us at all is underserved on our part to begin with. That He does so on multiple occasions is all the more grace to us. That He continues to do so even when we fail to learn is evidence of His sure mercies. This should help us rest content with the fact that God will bring His plan of redemption to pass, for He has done so up until now even though all men fail Him.
4. The Gospel
As we have hinted several times now, all that is behind this passage and all to which it is building up, will find its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He will be the true seed of the woman who crushes the adversary. He is the true Prophet-Priest-King who will save His people. He is the true fruitful bough of Joseph, the true ruler of Israel, the true Nazirite, the true humble servant of God, etc.
All that appears in this theological tradition and history may have been profound and world-changing moves of God in their day—and make no mistake that they certainly were—but they were all temporary and ultimately subject to the frailty and failures of sinful man. Their only success derived from God’s grace infusing them. Their only true fulfillment, therefore, could come from God Himself fulfilling them. This He did with His incarnation, teaching, healings, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension and session at God’s right hand. From these themes we shall draw in future lessons of 1 Samuel as well.
In these few opening verses, God is saying something big is about to happen. It will involve the ancient promise going all the way back to the garden. It will involve the coming of that promised seed through the line of the patriarchs. It will involve God’s response to the provocations of Israel, the provocateur wife. It is about God’s plan of redemption for His people, and it will take place in His providence and by His grace, not the works of man. Indeed, as we shall learn, God will be sending a new prophet-priest-king figure in Samuel (and then David), to replace the corrupt priesthood, corrupt rulers, and dearth of God’s word in the land. All of this will ultimately prefigure Jesus Christ.
The lessons to draw for this passage are simple: God is always in control. He is always faithful to His promises no matter how ancient. He is also gracious in the repetition of His Word: it is not complicated, He teaches his people through the same simple themes and types over and over throughout Scripture. He makes it clear to us to trust His Word, trust His providence, and bring our most vexing problems to His feet. Indeed, we must seek solutions to human evils humbly at His feet and for His vindication, not our own. The works and efforts of man are envy and provocation at best, and they cannot attain the righteousness of God. God must take the prerogative in redemption. All else will lead to social decline and corruption. Thus, we must seek God’s grace before we expect successful social change. All these lessons are taught here.
Oh yeah, and one more: polygamy is probably not a good idea.
 Note here two additional matters: first, Elkanah, Samuel’s father, himself had an ancestor named Elkanah, so it was a family name, and these two must be kept separate in the list. Second, note that Samuel just appears in the list: he is not said to be a son of Elkanah. It is not clear why. Since Elkanah is clearly said to have known (“knew”) his wife in 1 Sam. 1:19, there is no theological hint of anything like a virgin birth, though it was certainly an especially providential opening of the womb. It is likely that Elkanah’s fatherhood of Samuel was so well known it was assumed.
 There were 13 tribes altogether since Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh represented him separately. But since Levi was given no allotment of land, there were only 12 tribes geographically speaking.
 This is related also to the later dispute between Samaritans and Jews. The Samaritans take this back even one step beyond the move to Jerusalem and argue that the tabernacle in Shiloh was illegitimate. The original holy place was the mount of blessing, Mt. Gerizim, according to a commandment of God (Deut. 11:29; 27:12; Josh. 8:33). Thus the Samaritan woman at the well disputes with Jesus over which mountain is the correct place to worship: “this mountain,” or the place David later established, Jerusalem (John 4:19–20).
 How could Jacob fall for such an obvious switch? It was done in the evening (Gen. 29:23) and thus in darkness. Jacob probably had only candle or lamp light at best by which to see the woman. The bride probably also wore a veil or face covering. The episode followed a feast (29:22), so it is likely Jacob’s senses were a bit lightened with wine. And once the touching started there was probably little talk, so voice recognition played no part. In short, considering the culture and times, the event is entirely plausible.
 This is not a “coat of many colors” unfortunately for all the thousands of Sunday School materials, teachers, and sermons over the ages. The Hebrew kethoneth passim literally translates “tunic of the palms”—passim referring to both the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. In other words, it was a long and full tunic. This was a robe of authority. Such a garment (being both practically cumbersome and also stately) symbolized that this person does not labor, he supervises.
 Other attempts are 1) from Shem and el, meaning “the name of God,” or “his name is God,” and also 2) from Shama and el, meaning “God heard.”
. Calvin’s phrase “vous deviez estre tout confit” is a metaphor of preserved or pickled food: it refers to preservation by immersion and infusion of the Word (and apt metaphor also for baptism). Thus, perhaps, the reference in the following sentence to us acquiring the flavor of God’s word.
. John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 53 (Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, vol. 25), eds. Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke and Son, 1882), 608–9, 610; author’s translation.
- Note here two additional matters: first, Elkanah, Samuel’s father, himself had an ancestor named Elkanah, so it was a family name, and these two must be kept separate in the list. Second, note that Samuel just appears in the list: he is not said to be a son of Elkanah. It is not clear why. Since Elkanah is clearly said to have known (“knew”) his wife in 1 Sam. 1:19, there is no theological hint of anything like a virgin birth, though it was certainly an especially providential opening of the womb. It is likely that Elkanah’s fatherhood of Samuel was so well known it was assumed. [↩]
- There were 13 tribes altogether since Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh represented him separately. But since Levi was given no allotment of land, there were only 12 tribes geographically speaking. [↩]
- This is related also to the later dispute between Samaritans and Jews. The Samaritans take this back even one step beyond the move to Jerusalem and argue that the tabernacle in Shiloh was illegitimate. The original holy place was the mount of blessing, Mt. Gerizim, according to a commandment of God (Deut. 11:29; 27:12; Josh. 8:33). Thus the Samaritan woman at the well disputes with Jesus over which mountain is the correct place to worship: “this mountain,” or the place David later established, Jerusalem (John 4:19–20). [↩]
- How could Jacob fall for such an obvious switch? It was done in the evening (Gen. 29:23) and thus in darkness. Jacob probably had only candle or lamp light at best by which to see the woman. The bride probably also wore a veil or face covering. The episode followed a feast (29:22), so it is likely Jacob’s senses were a bit lightened with wine. And once the touching started there was probably little talk, so voice recognition played no part. In short, considering the culture and times, the event is entirely plausible. [↩]
- This is not a “coat of many colors” unfortunately for all the thousands of Sunday School materials, teachers, and sermons over the ages. The Hebrew kethoneth passim literally translates “tunic of the palms”—passim referring to both the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. In other words, it was a long and full tunic. This was a robe of authority. Such a garment (being both practically cumbersome and also stately) symbolized that this person does not labor, he supervises. [↩]
- Other attempts are 1) from Shem and el, meaning “the name of God,” or “his name is God,” and also 2) from Shama and el, meaning “God heard.” [↩]
- Calvin’s phrase “vous deviez estre tout confit” is a metaphor of preserved or pickled food: it refers to preservation by immersion and infusion of the Word (and apt metaphor also for baptism). Thus, perhaps, the reference in the following sentence to us acquiring the flavor of God’s word. [↩]
- John Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 53 (Ioannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, vol. 25), eds. Guilielmus Baum, Eduardus Cunitz, and Eduardus Reuss (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke and Son, 1882), 608–9, 610; author’s translation. [↩]
[This is] the beginning of a worldview preaching series I have been working on intermittently for the past year or so, preaching through the book of 1 Samuel. This is sermon 1, “Something big is about to happen: The theological introduction to 1 Samuel.” Joel McDurmon.
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