After four centuries of prophecies dating back to the time of Moses, one of Jewish history’s greatest people burst onto the scene: Samuel, the prophet, the last of the Judges.
Like Isaac, Moses and others, the birth of Samuel was miraculous. His mother Hannah was infertile for many years and prayed so much that she became sick over it.
Finally, God granted her request on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, and she conceived. After so many years of barrenness it was a miracle. She named her son Samuel, which means to “ask,” because this was the child she had “asked” God for (I Samuel 1:20).
Like Moses and Aaron
She brought Samuel to the Temple when he was three and gave him into the care of Eli the High Priest, who was in his seventies at the time and the Torah leader of the generation. Eli became, in effect, Samuel’s father and teacher, grooming him to be his successor.
Samuel was not only heir to all the spiritual greatness of the generation’s leader, but also inherited so much material wealth from his father that he never needed to take a salary (I Samuel 12:3). The value of his financial independence cannot be underestimated. He was not be beholden to anyone and was unafraid to criticize even the most powerful.
Samuel became leader during a very tumultuous time. The Philistines had destroyed the Tabernacle and captured the Holy Ark. They regularly committed acts of tyranny, persecution and murder with impunity. They even had a new hero: the giant Goliath. The Jewish people were powerless and demoralized.
Not only did they suffer from external problems but internal ones as well. The two, almost invariably, go hand-in-hand.
Samuel was the consummate leader who fixed it all. He was the judge, warrior, prophet, great educator and more. The verse goes so far as to equate him to Moses and Aaron (Psalms 99:6).
Torah and the Historical Process
Samuel was the first of the great circuit riders, answering questions, setting up courts of justice and educating the next generation. He did not wait for the people to come to him.
Of course, other Jewish leaders before him went to the people, but none like Samuel who was on the road most of the year, year after year, making annual trips throughout Israel before returning to his home in Ramah. He would only stay home a few weeks before hitting the road again.
He not only taught Torah himself but set up school systems.
In the four centuries after Moses, Torah knowledge among the people steadily declined, due in part to the influences of idolatry, lack of central government and continual war. By the time Samuel became Judge it was at its low ebb. He restored Torah knowledge among the masses to a level which equaled that in the time of Moses.
It is almost an historical imperative that there is a cyclical waxing and waning of Torah knowledge over the course of several generations. The pattern is as follows: A strong educational system with people studying Torah is in place. Then for whatever reason it gradually deteriorates to the point that it looks like it is going to totally fall apart. Suddenly, it is revived, restructured and becomes very strong again.
And then historic, cyclical process sets in: There is a period of weakening and drifting… until it is made strong.
Samuel’s efforts strengthened Torah among the people not only in his time but well into the time of Solomon. Then it went into a decline until it was reinstituted at the time of King Hezekiah. Similar rejuvenations took place around the time of Purim, the Hasmoneans, after the destruction of the Second Temple as well as many other times in Jewish history. We are witness to this pattern today. The level of Jewish education today was inconceivable during the dark days of the Holocaust and even during the decades leading up to it.
The core of this historical pattern is the promise God made that the Torah would never depart from the Jewish people (e.g. see Isaiah 59:21). When things reach the nadir and it looks like everything will fall apart, God’s promise kicks in. It is almost like an involuntary fail-safe built into Jewish existence. At the low point, remarkable and unimaginable things happen in a relatively short period of time.
Samuel was able to access that promise and rejuvenate Jewish education in his time.
The Jewish Idea of a King
His third great accomplishment was to unite the tribes again.
The Jewish people tend to be terribly fractious and divisive. After Joshua there was no central government. It was every man for himself, doing whatever seemed best in his own eyes. The Jewish people have an independence and tendency toward non-conformity which can make them very difficult to govern and unite.
Samuel overcame that. He united the people politically, diplomatically and militarily. He was so successful, in fact, that he thought that he – or perhaps his children – would negate the necessity of a king.
We in the Western world today, after centuries of experience with absolute monarchs and concepts like the “Divine right of kings,” do not look upon the idea of monarchy favorably. Very few of the kings in the history of the world were decent people. The saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” did not come about through theoretical studies.
We are, therefore, accustomed to denigrating all ideas relating to monarchy, which we believe to be the antithesis of the democratic ideals we hold to be self-evident. The United States was founded on the principle of government without a king. George Washington was offered kingship, but refused saying that they did not fight the revolution for so many years and suffer so many casualties in order to reinstitute a monarchy. The Founding Fathers equated a king – any king – with tyranny. The mere existence of a king was tyranny.
The Torah, on the other hand, makes provision for a king. In fact, one of the things the Jewish people were commanded to do was establish a king if and when a propitious time arose (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).
Like All the Nations?
The people thought that propitious time was in Samuel’s day and sent representatives to him to appoint a king.
In one of the great moments of biblical history (I Samuel 8), with hundreds of thousands in the audience, Samuel told them that they were entitled to have a king, but painted a sober portrait of what life would be like under a king. He described in graphic detail what the king would do, including raising taxes, drafting men into the army, conscripting their daughters as maids and all of the other tyranny implicit in a royal government.
“You do not need a king,” Samuel told them, “because God is your king.” Furthermore, he had led them to victory in battle (see I Samuel 7:4-14), laid his life on the line for them and made great accomplishments. What did they need a king for?
In the time honored fashion of the masses showing ingratitude to a great leader, the people rejected his arguments. “Appoint us a king,” they demanded.
The reason they gave was to be “like the nations,” which according to all opinions was the wrong reason. We want the pomp and ceremony. We want all the trappings of royalty just like the nations. If they have a king we want a king.
That is what disturbed Samuel more than anything else. If they had said they wanted a king because it said so in the Torah or for some practical political or spiritual reason it would have been one thing. However, they were asking for a king for the wrong reason. At that moment, Samuel knew the monarchy had little chance for success.
Old before his Time
Before he died, the verse says that Samuel “became very old” (I Samuel 8:1, 5). However, he was only 52 when he died. How could he be called “old”? Because, the Talmud says, “old age jumped on him.” Samuel had grown physically old beyond his years. He looked much older than 52.
Tradition attributed his physical decline to a combination of three things. First, he did not have joy from his children. Children can make a person very old. Samuel was incorruptible and never took any gifts. However, his sons – though pious in other ways — misused their position and asked for gifts. Samuel’s awareness that they would never be the leaders he groomed them to be was one of the great disappointments in his life.
The second thing that made him old was that he devoted himself entirely to public service. 50 years serving the Jewish people will make a person old.
The third thing that made him old before his time was his disappointment over the institution of the coming monarchy. In particular, he suffered greatly watching helplessly as his prodigy failed in the role of king. That prodigy, of course, was Saul, the first king of Israel, whose story we will take up next.