שאל in 1 Samuel 1

It’s clear to anyone who reads the Bible in Hebrew (and see my next post for more on this subject) that the key word of 1 Samuel 1 is שאל, “ask”—and in the chapter’s context as the beginning of the story of David, this root can only refer to Saul, Israel’s temporary 1st king, who paved the way for David. If you’re interested in learning more about this, see the commentaries to 1 Samuel 1.

But it seems that this story was indeed originally that of Samuel. His family is from Ramah, and his ancestry is Ephraimite. But Saul is from Benjamin. The theme verb שאל, however, is woven throughout the story. Was it added, throughout, by the writer who made this tale the beginning of the story of David? The expression “he is lent to the LORD” of 1 Sam 1:28 must certainly have been added at this stage, since “he is lent” translates the Hebrew expression הוא שאול, which also simply means, “He is Saul.” It would seem that the explanation of Samuel’s name in v. 20 as meaning, “I asked the LORD for him,” must also be new, since “asked” is another reflection of שאל, which does not point to Samuel, but to Saul.

What about the other שאל references? There are two possibilities:

• All of them were added to enable the literary trick that writes Saul’s name into this story.
• They were a part of the original story, where Hannah was “asking” for a child (who turned out to be Samuel).

I would like to suggest that שאל in possibility #2 was not just a natural aspect of the story of a woman who wanted a child, but that it already bore a meaning at that earlier literary stage. Perhaps “Shiloh” was the place where you went to make a she’elah, a request, of God. It’s true that in Hebrew “Shiloh” is not spelled with a א, but don’t forget that “your request” in 1 Sam 17 is also spelled without the א.

If this is correct, the fact that Shiloh had already prompted an association with שאל might be what gave the writer who created 1 Samuel 1 as we have it now the idea to associate Samuel’s birth story with Saul, whose name is linked to that root.

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