The book of 1 Samuel begins in the days when the judges still ruled Israel. Samuel was Israel’s last judge and the first priest and prophet to serve during the time of a king.
Israel is not a unified nation at the time of Samuel; in fact, we can only speak of Israel as an entity in a very general sense, certainly not as a unified body.
Rather Israel is now merely a loose conglomeration of tribes and their many clans, and warfare among these Israelite tribes and clans has become all too regular and ordinary as they vie for territorial dominance, which is the norm for tribal societies but ought not to be for God’s set-apart people.
Such instability means that neighboring nations have a much easier time in attacking various areas of the Promised Land because it is unlikely that unless a tribe that is currently at peace would see any self-interest in coming to the aid of a brother tribe that was under attack, why would they take the risk?
Many of the Canaanite peoples and nations (that were there when Joshua first led Israel into Canaan) are still there and as entrenched as ever.
The Philistines are quite powerful at this time, but their influence is mostly in the southern and central regions of Canaan, and primarily concentrated along the Mediterranean Coast and the narrow coastal plain known as the Shefelah.
Open warfare is not the norm between the southern Hebrew tribes and the Philistines, although skirmishes do break out from time to time; rather the political situation is that the Philistines are anything but brutish barbarians. They are quite sophisticated and use their power wisely. They prefer a kind of peaceful co-existence with the 3 or 4 southern/central Israelite tribes PROVIDED these Israelite tribes kowtow to Philistia and don’t do things that they see as provocative or threatening.
It is not at all that Israel was to declare absolute allegiance to Philistia, only that they remained docile and accepted the Philistines’ dominance of the region and that Israel didn’t defame the Philistines gods, but rather showed respect.
On the other hand, Philistia certainly had in mind that within probably another generation or two, if they played their cards right, they would be the de-facto government over all of southern and central Canaan (including the Israelite tribes that lived there, of course. And the question of who was in charge would become a settled matter rather naturally and with limited bloodshed.
So while the Lord had in the past sent many deliverers (called Shofetim, Judges) to the various tribes of Israel to save them from the outright attacks and vicious oppressions of different foreigners. Israel was even more fragmented and vulnerable now than when God gave them their first Judge, Othniel, some 300 years or so earlier.
Even the special priesthood that God had established with Moses’ tribe, Levi, was entirely dysfunctional and barely operating.
So into these dark circumstances, God would send a new kind of savior to usher Israel into a new form (at least for them) of the rule. As always Yehoveh’s purpose would be to demonstrate His marvelous mercy by rescuing His people from a predicament of their making.
Let’s read the opening chapter of the book of 1st Samuel.
The story opens with identifying the region where our tale unfolds and of course names the family it would center on. The family is from a place called Ramathaim-Zophim, described as being located in the Hills of Ephraim.
Ramathaim is a common place-name, and it means “two hills.” Thus it is further identified as Zophim, which denotes a clan name, essentially giving us, “the place of two hills in the territory of Zuph.”
Later we will see that this same man is said to be from “Ramah,” which is just a shortened version of Ramathaim-Zophim. Ramah is a known place today, and in fact, you can go there and visit the tomb of the namesake of this book of the Bible Samuel (it’s not far from Jerusalem).
The man from Ramah is the first character identified in this narrative, and his name is Elkanah (“God created”). A short genealogy is given to help define his family, but at the same time, it also confuses the situation a bit because it says that the clan leader of Elkanah’s family is an Ephrathite.
This term “Ephrathite” can denote a couple of different things depending on the context; it can be synonymous with Ephraimite (being of the tribe of Ephraim), or it can mean the person is from a village called Ephrath that is located just outside of Bethlehem.
Or it can also mean an individual who is from a clan of abundance (because Ephrath means fruitful). Or there is a 4th option in our case, which Elkanah was some combination of all the possibilities mentioned above.
And this is why depending on the translator or teacher, you will hear that Samuel is a Levite, or he was from the tribe of Ephraim, or he might have been from the tribe of Benjamin (since the village of Ephrath was located in Benjamite territory).
The genealogy given to us pretty well cements that Elkanah’s father’s family line was from the tribe of Levi so from that sense Samuel was for sure a Levite.
In fact, we can go to 1st Chronicles 6 and there we’ll get a complete family genealogy that connects Elkanah all the way back to Kohath, one of the sons of Levi.
Also, we see that Elkanah was a common name used within the Kohathite clan. But, there is no denying that there is some additional family attachment to the tribes of Ephraim or Benjamin.
It is possible that it is NOT a family attachment per se that is being communicated. But rather merely that this family of Levites resided in the territory of Benjamin or Ephraim because, after all, the Levites inherited no land for their own but rather given cities to live in scattered throughout the 12 Israelite tribal territories.
In my next blog post, we are going to read about Elkanah and his family.