Bible Study on Life and Times of Samuel: Background & Introduction to Main Characters

I believe that most Bible studies on the era of the Judges lack.  Most stick strictly to the Book of Judges, but that is a mistake, as it focuses in only on the general view.  It misses a lot.  Some realize this and include the Book of Ruth, and that is commendable.  However, the era of the judges does not actually end until Saul is made king!  That means no study on this era could possibly be complete without digging into the life of Samuel, the last of the great judges.  Worse, the message gets lost when his life is cut out, and it is in one sense prophetic.

Notice, I said “great judges”, as the elders and judges in the land still existed, but now installed at the top of this pyramid was installed a king.  If God’s government is always one man at the top, then where was “God’s government” for these hundreds of years?

According to Biblical Archeology, the era of the judges started around 1367 BC with Othniel, and Saul would have been made king around 1050 BC, for a total of 317 years.  So, for 300 years, longer than the United States has been a nation thus far, there was no king.  Why would God set it up this way if the “one man rule” really is God’s form of government?  Did God sin by failing to set up His form of government?  Is God that sloppy?  Is He the author of confusion?

The fact is that the period of the judges was one of total failure, and the era of the kings was only slightly better, and only because then it took longer for society to decline into chaos and captivity.  What we see in reality is the complete and utter inability of mankind to rule himself.  The individuals failed to rule themselves, the civil authorities failed to keep righteous rule, and, and this is the crux of the beginning portion of 1 Samuel, even the priesthood failed!

The story opens with a family from Ramathaimzophim of Ephraim.  It is sometimes shortened to “Ramatha” or even simply “Ramah”.  It is frequently mentioned in regards to Samuel and David.  Samuel was buried there.  Supposedly, Samuel’s bones were found there in 1173.  The name literally means “double height of the watchers”, according to Strong’s H07436, which could either refer to two different watchtowers or a watchtower that is twice the height of normal ones.


Elkanah is the head of this particular family.  His name means “God has purchased”.  He lived in Ephraim, but it is important to remember that he was a Levite, which is apparent only if you compare genealogies.  It is important also to realize Elkanah was evidently a popular name, making it somewhat confusing.

33 And these are they that waited with their children. Of the sons of the Kohathites: Heman a singer, the son of Joel, the son of Shemuel,

34 The son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Eliel, the son of Toah,

35 The son of Zuph, the son of Elkanah, the son of Mahath, the son of Amasai,

36 The son of Elkanah, the son of Joel, the son of Azariah, the son of Zephaniah,

37 The son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah,

38 The son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel.

~ 1Ch 6:33-38

1 Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite:

~ 1Sa 1:1

So, the designation “an Ephrathite” means he lived there rather than his genealogy.

2 And 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.

~ 1Sa 1:2


Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah.  Since Hannah is named first, she was obviously the first wife.  This is more obvious when you are told that she was barren.  In Jewish thought down through time, they believed that God commanded married couples to have children.

28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

~ Ge 1:28

By the time Jesus came on the scene, the Jews not only believed that this was a command but that barrenness was grounds for divorce.  Jesus had many radical teachings, at least in comparison to what the Pharisees taught, and one of the major ones was that couples could remain childless.  In fact, if someone was a “spiritual eunuch”, that was perfectly acceptable as well, whereas the culture of the day demanded that a man be married by the time he was thirty or he would be viewed with suspicion.  For more information, see “Book Review: Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible by David Instone-Brewer” on this blog, which illuminates much of the why behind the teachings on divorce and remarriage that perhaps no one has taken the time to explain to you.

The Mishnah ordains that when a couple has been married for ten years without bringing any children into the world, the husband is required to take a second (or additional) wife in order to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply (M Yevamot 6:6). The midrash explains that Elkanah was compelled to marry Peninnah because of Hannah’s barrenness, which explains his preference for Hannah, his first wife.

~ Tamar Kadari, “PENINNAH: MIDRASH AND AGGADAH”, Jewish Women’s Archive

There is no doubt that having heirs was very important, and it was sometimes more important to the wife than the husband.  For example, I point to Sarah, who was willing to allow Abraham to sleep with her servant in order to have children vicariously through her (and since she was a servant, who belonged to her, her children would also belong to her, at least in theory).  So, if the first wife was unable to conceive, it was not unusual for the man to take a second wife at the urging of the first wife.

However, as we see here and also with Hagar, not being able to conceive was shameful, and the wife or concubine who could conceive sometimes felt superior and would act in a mean spirited manner towards the first wife who could not conceive.  Sarah didn’t take it lying down, however.  It seems, though, that Hannah was unwilling or unable to stand up to her spousal adversary.

“Hannah” could mean “grace” or “God has favored me”.  Alternatively, it could mean “beauty” or “passion”, but those seem to be less common translations.  Given that she was barren, her name must have seemed exceedingly cruel.


“Peninnah” has an unknown meaning.  Some possible translations include: “precious stone”, “pearl” or “coral”.  Consider the latter.  It is sharp, and it has twists and turns, and that sounds a lot like her role as a bully in the story.

“Pearls” comes from “peninim”, which is always plural in the Bible.  This makes “pearl” questionable as a translation, although it cannot be totally ruled out.  Since there are other more appropriate derivatives, I question it as a valid translation.

The name Peninnah comes from the unused Hebrew root pnn (pnn). Since it is unused we can’t check the context and we’re at a loss for a meaning. BDB Theological Dictionary reports that this root is “apparently a parallel form of pnh (pnh), meaning to turn. The latter is also the source of the word panim(panim), the common Hebrew word for face.

The unused root pnn does yield a few derivatives: pnh (pinna) meaning a corner (1 Kings 7:34). This noun is also used to figuratively indicate a firm foundation for society, usually translated with chief (Judges 20:2 – the “cornerstones” of all the people; Isaiah 19:13 – the “cornerstones” of their tribes). The famous line of Psalm 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” uses this same word pinna.

~ “Peninnah”, Abarim Publications (bolding mine)

Notice: sharp, corner, turn, and let’s not forget that it was also promised that The Cornerstone would break those opposing It/Him.

Other than her bullying, not much information is given about Peninnah.

Belial, Famine of the Word and Discernment

We are also early on introduced to the high priest and his sons.  Such an early introduction should not be overlooked.  It is not a break or an aside to the story, but it shows the overarching purpose of what God is doing.

3 And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there.

~ v 3

We aren’t immediately told this, but Eli’s sons were sons of Belial.  However, I’m mentioning it here because it is critical to either understand this point or to circle back and compare it to Hannah’s story.

12 Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the LORD.

~ 2:12

If you really think about this, it should amaze you!  Who, if not a priest, should “know” “the LORD”?

Was God being slack here?  Why didn’t they know God?  Was God being aloof?  Uncaring?

59 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear:

2 But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

3 For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.

~ Isa 59:1-3

Belial was the personification of evil in the OT.  It comes from the word “worthless”, lit. a compound word meaning “without value”.  It is a broad category, but it can include idolaters.

12 If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying,

13 Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known;

~ Dt 13:12-13

It also describes the men of Gibeah of Benjamin who wanted to rape the Levite who was returning from Bethlehem after wooing back his concubine (although, the way the story reads, one has to wonder who else was being a worthless person here!).

22 Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him.

23 And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, and said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly.

~ Jdg 19:22-23

From these descriptions, it should be evident why they did not know the LORD!

Another puzzle piece that illuminates the early exchange between Hannah and Eli is that there was a famine of God’s word in those days.

3 And the child Samuel ministered unto the Lord before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision.

~ 1Sa 3:1

Brethren, this is a description of our time!  Why didn’t they have the “word of the LORD”?  They had the Pentateuch!  Moses’ writings were there, and it is certain that the history of the judges that came before, not to mention Joshua, were readily available.

9 And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the LORD God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day:

~ Am 8:9

What “day” is God referring to?  The heavenly signs alone should make it clear that He is referring to the “Day of the LORD”, the prophesied time leading up to Christ’s return.  It will be the time when God’s vengeance will be poured out upon the unrighteous on the earth.

10 And I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day.

11 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD:

12 And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it.

~ vv 10-12

Again, won’t people have Bibles?  I remember some have speculated that the “famine of the word” was due to the Bible being restricted, but I disagree.  Like the days of Eli, the written word will be readily available!  However, who will read it, who will follow it and who will be there to listen if and when divine revelation is to be given?

Again, with the priests being sons of Belial, God will only sparingly give revelation!

Since it is doubtful that people actually read or followed God’s Law in the time of the judges, including the priests, who was there to listen to God Himself?  Apparently, only a prophet that appeared here and there, and Samuel would have been included in this select group.

In the time of the end, it will seem that the only ones who will be receiving divine revelation will the the Two Witnesses.  They will be given great power in order to gain the attention of a world on the brink of literal disaster.  Their message will be to repent and turn to God, but the Beast will instead try to kill them (and eventually succeed).

Eli, who as high priest should be setting the example, seems to be devoid of discernment.  With all the sin going on, the lack of respect for God’s Law, this should not be surprising.  It leads to other sins, and he is punished as well as his sons.

The Priests

As far as the priests themselves go, they have some interesting names.  “Eli” means “high”, “ascended” or may even be short for “God Most High”.  While he himself seems to be a “good guy”, he definitely has some judgment issues.  Instead of living up to his name, he replaces God in his heart with idolatrous respect towards his two sons.

27 And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Did I plainly appear unto the house of thy father, when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh’s house?

28 And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to offer upon mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? and did I give unto the house of thy father all the offerings made by fire of the children of Israel?

29 Wherefore kick ye at my sacrifice and at mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above me, to make yourselves fat with the chiefest of all the offerings of Israel my people?

~ 1Sa 2:27-29

Some things should be pointed out here.  For one, Eli’s sons’ names are derived from Egyptian words, which causes some to claim that Eli had Egyptian relatives.  They then try to use the above as “proof” of this.  However, the “house of thy father” would mean Aaron!  Over and over, God points back to the Exodus as proof of His might and of His dealings with Israel.  To claim otherwise is to take the verse completely out of context to the story of the Bible.

Hophni was, however, an unusual name, and it means “fighter” or more exactly “boxer”.  It comes from chophen, which means “handfuls, hollow of the hand”.  Given this, it hardly seems to relate to a similar Egyptian word that means “tadpole”.

Phinehas, however, was a rather common name.  One of Aaron’s sons was named Phinehas, and he later became high priest.  Perhaps this Phinehas was named after him.  It means “mouth of brass”, although it is also very similar to “serpent’s mouth”.  This could be a reference to being an “oracle”.

If you believe the Egyptian origin, though, it would mean “bronze-colored one”, i.e., “dark-skinned one”.  That translation is questionable, at best.

However, Abrim Publications in “Phinehas” has an interesting tie-in to something we’ve already discussed.  Pana means “to turn”, remember?  Perhaps he is a male version of Peninnah, except in this case he is an adversary to God!  The derivative penim means “inner”, from the idea that one turns inward.  Hasa means “seek refuge” or “flee for protection”.  Therefore, it is possible that Phinehas was intended to mean “trust your gut” or even “trust your heart”.

9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

~ Jer 17:9

If one son was a scrapper and fighter (and bully according to the narrative), the other was busy trusting his heart, but neither were trusting God, then it sounds like a recipe for disaster.  The Egyptian connection, IMO, is simply an attempt to distance their evil behavior from ethnic Jewry.  It seems to be defeated by the fact that Phinehas was such a common name.

Josephus actually claimed that Phinehas became high priest and that Eli retired from his duties.  It appears to me that the prophet coming to Eli to confront him and God’s later reiteration of this message through Samuel make it clear that priests don’t retire, at least not in the way normal people do.

Some have tried to claim that Phinehas was innocent, while Hophni committed all the crimes against God.  Again, that is not treating the text with its due respect.  God clearly outlines that all three priests bear part of the responsibility.  Eli in particular is called out because he is their father, the spiritual leader of the household as well as the nation.


  1. John from Australia

    Hi John,

    In an earlier post you wrote:

    “Even Samuel, who was both judge and prophet, was a Benjamite. He was not a Levite…” (“Just What Is a Prophet, Anyhow? What Is an Apostle?, January 6, 2013).

    In reply to my post concerning that statement you wrote:

    “@John from Australia: There probably was more than one Ephrath, which is why I concentrated upon Ramah for the location. Samuel was likely either a Benjamite, given the location, or an Ephraimite, which would have been near Ramah. The translation you chose identifies him as an Ephraimite, while the KJV says Ephrathite. Even then, that is referring to his great, great grandfather!

    “So, if this was the same Samuel as the list in 1Chr 6, then it begs the question why wasn’t he identified as a Levite in 1Samuel?”

    Now you write:

    “He lived in Ephraim, but it is important to remember that he was a Levite”.

    If you can change your position on Samuel’s heritage – not a Levite, now a Levite – then there may yet be a hope that you can change your position on premillennialism, even answering your own doubting questions on the alternative’s validity. Smile.

    Regards from Kiwi John – who emigrated to Australia from New Zealand over 30 years ago.

    PS: Another example of the telescopic concept – two horns:

    1Sa 2:1 And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the LORD, mine horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.
    1Sa 2:10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.

    “2:9-10… We are told at the conclusion of the song (v.10) that the rule of Yahweh is in the strength of the king. How odd! At the very beginning of the book of Samuel, long before Saul or David or any kings appears in Israel, the poetry has Hannah assert that the coming king will be an agent for the poor, needy, hungry barren (cf. Ps. 72:1-4, 12-14). This poem anticipates the hope placed in kingship for time to come. The poem, moreover, articulates the criteria by which subsequent kings are to be evaluated. “All this is placed on the grateful, expectant lips of Hannah.

    “We had thought this was Hannah’s song about her son. It is. It concerns her “horn.” The song, however, breaks out beyond Hannah. It now trusts in and anticipates the “horn of David,” who is the true horn of Israel. It anticipates that Yahweh will reorder social reality, precisely in the interest of those too poor and too weak to make their own way.

    “In the first instance this poem is indeed Hannah’s song. It is the voice of a joyous woman stunningly rescued from barrenness. It is at the same time, however, a powerful poem that has futures well beyond Hannah. Childs has observed (pp.272-273) that his song provides an “interpretive key” for the books of Samuel. That is, the power and willingness of Yahweh to intrude, intervene, and invert is the main theme of the narrative. We watch while the despised ones (Israel, David) become the great ones. At the center of this one startling inversion is the eighth son (16:11-12), who sits with princes and inherits a seat of honor (2:8).

    “This song becomes the song of Mary and the song of the church (Luke 1:45-55), as the faithful community finds in Jesus the means through which Yahweh will turn and right the world. The Song of Mary, derived from Hannah, becomes the source for Luke’s portrayal of Jesus. This song becomes a source of deep and dangerous hope in the world wherever the prospect and possibility of human arrangements have been exhausted. When people can no longer believe the promises of the rulers of this age, when the gifts of well-being are no longer given through established channels, this song voices an alterative to which the desperate faithful cling” (Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, IABC, pp.20-21).

    • John from Australia wrote: “If you can change your position on Samuel’s heritage – not a Levite, now a Levite – …”

      And why not? If my understanding were perfect, there would be no need for a study, and if anyone else’s understanding is perfect, there would be no need for them to read it or study on their own.

      Both idolaters and critics of HWA alike have one thing in common: They miss the most important aspects of his legacy. If he were in it for the money, he would have not changed the doctrine of a Monday Pentecost. At the same time was WCG blessed because HWA had every jot and tittle down pat at some arbitrary point in time, or could it simply be his attitude of “blow the dust off your Bibles”?

      We must not just repent at baptism but be willing to do so wherever and whenever we are wrong.

      At any rate, there does seem to be agreement that there is more than one Ephrath. In addition, Elkanah wasn’t an uncommon name, so I don’t feel bad for missing the other lineage.

      “then there may yet be a hope that you can change your position on premillennialism, even answering your own doubting questions on the alternative’s validity. Smile.”

      Smiling is good. Holding your breath would not be advisable. 🙂

Comments are closed