Old Testament

Was Samuel a Levite?

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). This man 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)?

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, he is likely related to the Kohathites specifically. Furthermore, this theory is backed up by 1 Chronicles 6:28 which asserts that Samuel was in 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.

When we understand these details, we have a sensitivity to Hannah’s knowledge of God’s plan for Israel. Hannah didn’t just dedicate Samuel to tabernacle service because that would be most pious for Samuel, or because she wanted that for her child. Rather, it seems she understood what Samuel could do best in God’s plan given his family lineage.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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