Old Testament

Was Samuel a Levite?

How is it that Samuel was able to work in the Tabernacle? Wasn’t the Tabernacle work reserved for Levites? Samuel was born in Ephraim, so wouldn’t that disqualify him from service? These are some significant questions that readers of 1 Samuel often think about.

The book of 1 Samuel opens up by talking about “a certain man of Rammathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah” (1 Sam 1:1). Elkanah is married to two wives, one of whom is Hannah. Although barren, Hannah prays for a child, and the Lord answers her prayer. This child is Samuel!

Photo of tabernacle replica where Samuel would have served
Tabernacle Replica at Timna

After giving birth, Hannah names her son Samuel, and dedicates him to tabernacle service with Eli (1 Sam 1:28). Samuel stays with Eli and serves the Lord (cf. 1 Sam 2:11, 18). Throughout the story, it is obvious that Samuel is ministering in the tabernacle (cf. 1 Sam 3:3).

This could be a problem. According to Numbers 4, only the Levites have the privilege of serving in the tabernacle. Specifically, the sons of Kohath were tasked with doing the work in the tabernacle (Num 4:2-4). Numbers 18 also seems pretty clear that non-Levites were not allowed in the service of the tabernacle. In fact, Numbers 18:7 says “any outsider who comes near shall be put to death.” How is it that Samuel has the opportunity to work in the tabernacle with Eli the priest, though he is apparently from Ephraim and a descendant of Elkanah (1 Sam 1:1)?

Tracing the Lineage of Samuel

As always, paying attention to detail is important and helps us think through the issue. The tribe of Levi had no land of their own, so they were allotted cities out of the other tribes. We find in Joshua 21:20, that the Kohathite clan of the Levites was given cities from the land belonging to Ephraim (cf. Josh 21:5). Later in Joshua 24:33 we read that Phinehas himself (Aaron’s grandson) dwelled in the hill country of Ephraim.

By knowing Israel’s history, and the tribal allotments, it is no surprise that Samuel’s heritage is traceable to the Levites after all. In fact, according to Joshua 21, he is likely related to the Kohathites specifically. Furthermore, this theory is backed up by 1 Chronicles 6:28 which tells us that Samuel was from the line of Levi (cf. Psalm 99:6).

All in all, the Bible’s details match up precisely with what we would expect. Samuel was not some rogue servant in the tabernacle. He belonged there as a Levite. And God would use him in many great ways in the days ahead.

The Intelligence of Hannah’s Vow

When we understand these details, we are sensitive to Hannah’s knowledge of God’s plan for Israel. Hannah didn’t just dedicate Samuel to tabernacle service on a whim. She was not compelled by personal desire alone. Rather, it seems she understood what Samuel could do best in God’s plan given his family lineage. She understood that she could dedicate Samuel to God in service of the Tabernacle. She was not only driven by emotions, but she intelligently understood what role her son could play in service of the God of Israel.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

2 Comments

  • Greg Smith

    I am going to suggest a different possibility. That which opens the womb was dedicated to the Lord, whether animal or human. In the case of animals, they were sacrificed. In the case of humans, they were redeemed with silver. Is it possible that Elkanah and Hannah never paid this price of redemption and instead literally dedicated Samuel to the Lord and gave him up at the tabernacle? He became the Lord’s and thus was incorporated into the tribe of Levi, the tribe the Lord had reserved for himself.

    • Peter Goeman

      That’s an interesting take–thanks for sharing! I don’t see evidence of that in the text. Plus, Samuel wasn’t the firstborn of the family, just the firstborn of Hannah. Plus, 1 Chron 6:28 seems to seal the deal that Samuel was a Levite.

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