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Oh look, it's the dude whose name is the title of this book. He must be important, right?
We'll be honest with you, Shmoopers. Whereas a lot of the beginning of this book has to do with Samuel, he's really not the central figure to the story.
Let's start with a brief rundown:
Not enough for you? Okay, let's take a closer look.
Samuel was left under the care of the priest Eli at a very early age. His mother, Hannah, promised God if she had a son, she would deliver him to God's service (1:1-27). And thus, our Sammy.
Samuel became a prophet, or a person who speaks to God, and with God's guidance, speaks out against injustice. Samuel discovered this special gift in the middle of the night when God kept waking him up, much to poor Sam's annoyance. Because Samuel is, you know, sane, it takes three times for him to understand what's actually going on (3:1-21). But soon enough, he's on the prophet train, next stop: anointing the new king of Israel.
Right from the get-go, we know Samuel's a special kid. His early beginnings as a prophet tell us that while he may not be the star of the show (that accolade goes to David), he's still going to be a major player in the book. It's his guiding hand and longstanding relationship with God that move along the central events of this book.
Which brings us to the One Big Role Samuel plays in 1 Samuel: anointing the king of Israel (okay, so that really turns out to be two big things).
During this time, Israel was still not a united nation, which wasn't exactly awesome. So the people demanded that Samuel—their resident prophet—anoint them a king (8:1-22). Our good Samuel, of course, takes the matter up with God. The two chat it over, and finally, a man named Saul was chosen (9:1-27).
From there, things go down pretty quickly. Samuel sneak-attack anoints Saul, before the man even had a chance to accept the position. Maybe Samuel was afraid he'd say no? Whatever the case, it's clear a bit more deliberation was in order because Samuel's choice of Saul winds up being, well, a total disaster.
After some time of Saul mucking things up, Samuel and God realize that they've made a whopper of a mistake. So Samuel pulls the plug on the whole operation, calls out Saul out for doing a poor job, and caps the whole conversation by telling Saul that God's blessing was no longer upon him. Boom. Saul, you've just been propheted. Hmm, that's not a real word (13:1-23, 14:24-52, 15:1-35).
Luckily, Samuel can call a mulligan on this one. He's been poking around, looking for a suitable replacement for Saul so he can have another chance at getting it right. After some searching, Samuel settles on a shepherd boy by the name of David, a little rapscallion if there ever was one. David's rapscallion-ness (not a word) would follow him the rest of his life. More on that in David's Character Analysis.
So what's up with this whole Saul-then-David-as-king thing? Well, choosing Saul first, and then watching Saul mess up over and over and over again gives us a chance to see what makes a bad king. Saul's weakness makes David's decisive strength all the more appealing by comparison. Plus, we can learn a bit from Samuel's mistake, too. After all, maybe if he hadn't rushed to anoint Saul, desperate to fulfill the wishes of the Israelites, it's possible that they would have landed on a more suitable pick. Some choices require careful deliberation, after all.
Well, he's done his job, right? Twice over, for that matter. Samuel's picked his kings of Israel, and now he can retire to a condo in Boca.
More or less. When Samuel finally passes on after a very full life, he can't seem to go once and for all. Nope, he's gotta come back for one last prophecy. So when Saul visits the witch of Endor, Samuel makes his final appearance to tell Saul that his time on the throne is over, for realsies. Oh, and Saul and his sons are headed for a swift death on the battlefield… the next day. Hey, we never said prophecies were happy occasions.
What this final prophecy tells us is that Samuel can finally retire for good. He's set Israel up with its first great King, and everyone can now pretend that whole Saul debacle never happened. All good things lie ahead, right? (Well, maybe we should wait until the sequel before we count our chickens.)
Whatever the case, it's clear that Samuel's role as a prophet has lasting impacts on the rest of the Israelite nation. It's because of the actions of Samuel that the nation of Israel finally has a successful king to govern them. Without Samuel, there really is no telling what the state biblical and modern-day Israel would be in. He's the one who got this whole thing started.