Note: Our Associate Pastor’s wife (who was leading some of our church’s ladies in a chronologically based Bible Study) asked if I knew whether or not the Old Testament prophet Samuel was descended from the tribe of Levi, since 1 Samuel 1:1 implies his father was from a different tribe, that of Ephraim.
The answer to this question carries some heavy theological weight, given that Samuel acts as a high priest would in several spots throughout Israel’s Old Testament history, and only people descended from Levi were allowed to serve in the Old Testament priesthood. If Samuel was NOT a Levite, it is a cause for much discussion.
I answered off-handedly that I was certain that Samuel was a Levite (since I had no reason to suspect otherwise) and that the Ephraim reference probably had more to do with the geography of his home than his ancestry, but since I couldn’t name a chapter and verse proof off the top of my head, I told her I’d look into it. Here’s the answer, which I’ve expanded on greatly for the sake of completeness, and because you as my reader were not present at the original conversation.
Subject: Samuel was a Levite
In answering the question regarding 1 Samuel 1:1, it appears that Samuel was, contrary to conclusions easy to reach when reading that particular passage, indeed a Levite.
Samuel’s Levitical heritage comes through his father Elkanah, who was a descendant of Korah (you may remember him from the story of the exodus, demanding that Moses recognize the entire nation as worthy to serve as priests) who was himself a Levite.
Part of Korah’s infamous rebellion against Moses may have been caused because he resented the idea that Aaron was high priest, a job he may have wanted for himself. Perhaps Korah had higher social standing among the Levite tribe – but that is all just speculation, we trust what the Scriptures tell us about the man and his foiled plan.
The story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 clearly states that Korah’s sons were spared his punishment, and we see the “sons of Korah” mentioned in some of the Psalms. It is from one of these sons of Korah that the prophet Samuel is descended.
As for how we link the prophet Samuel to the rebellious Korah’s line, we turn to 1 Chronicles 6:22-27. This passage establishes that Samuel’s father Elkanah was a descendant of Korah, who was in turn a descendant of Kohath, who was in turn a descendant of Levi. Thus, we can say with Scriptural certainty that Samuel is a member of the Kohathite branch of the tribe of Levi.
The names provided for Samuel’s ancestors in 1 Samuel 1 and those in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 do not line up nicely and neatly when placed side-by-side, but we must remember that some OT references to ancestry are less focused on creating a family tree with no skips in the branches and are more focused on giving the names of the more well-known or major personalities. Some OT books’ verses are written as strict geneological records, others are simply establishing tribal (or in the case of 1 Samuel chapter 1, geographic) connections.
So Samuel is a Levite through his father’s line. The use of “Ephraimite” to describe Elkanah should be taken to be a geographic modifier, like calling someone a “Memphian” who lives in my city, but may have come from somewhere else originally. The tribe of Ephraim had an area of land that the tribe was associated with, and perhaps Elkanah came from that area and was well-known and/or respected as coming from there.
For additional comments, I’ve taken a passage from a book on Jewish history:
…Samuel was a descendant of Kohath …The Sidrah tells us how Korah (son of Kohath) made rebellion against Moses, and how Moses modestly defended himself, arguing that he never used his authority for his own benefit; that he never even borrowed someone else’s donkey. The Prophet Samuel uses almost the same words in defending his office against those desiring a king. To be sure, there was no actual rebellion against Samuel, but the very fact that the Jews demanded a king seemed to be a protest against the great judge and prophet, who had served them so truly and faithfully.
Allow me to share an insight here: How ironic/poetic that God would use a descendant of Korah, in Samuel, to defend the covenant relationship between God and people established through God’s servant, Moses!
Whereas Moses was pictured as standing more or less “alone” against Korah’s crowd, which sought change in the time of the exodus to spread the power of the priesthood among all the people; we see in 1 Samuel that Korah’s descendant, Samuel, is seen as standing “alone” against the crowd which sought change in the form of consolidating power in the form of a king in the time after Moses. Continuing from the book:
Samuel, as we have mentioned, was a descendant of Korah, and this shows us the power of repentance. Korah himself did not repent, but his children repented in time to save themselves from the horrible death that befell their father and his followers. “And the sons of Korah did not die.” They merited that the great Prophet Samuel should be one of their descendants. The children of Korah were also outstanding singers and poets among the Levites. They are the authors of a number of Psalms which have remained for ever with the Jewish people, along with those of Moses and King David, and the others who all together have given us the Book of Psalms.
I found the view of Samuel’s father Elkanah living in the land of the Ephraimites is shared by Ronald F. Youngblood’s analysis of 1 & 2 Samuel in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary edited by Frank E. Gaebelein.
Youngblood’s analysis of 1 Samuel 1 states that “The Chronicles genealogies identify Samuel as a member of the Kohathite branch of the tribe of Levi and an ancestor of tabernacle and temple musicians (1 Chron 6:16, 22, 31-33). The reference to Samuel’s father as an Ephraimite, then, relates to the territory where he lived rather than to his tribal origin. Allotted no patrimony of their own, the Levites lived among the other tribes (see Josh 21-20-22, where, however, Ramah is not specifically mentioned as a Levitical town).
That Ramah is not mentioned as a Levitical town earlier supports rather than denies the reasons for mentioning that later Samuel makes his home there. His decision to reside in a town not specified as “Levitical” may have been seen as unusual, and therefore worthy of several mentions by the writer(s) of 1 Samuel.
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