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Who Judged After Samson? Eli or Samuel?

A friend just asked a question about the upcoming Sunday School lesson (Christian Light Publications). The topic is rather technical and not obviously important, but I’m posting it here for those want SS input.

[First: I edited my last post about Romans 14:22 and the topic of keeping our convictions secret. A closer look at commentaries and textual details revealed my thinking was incomplete. My conclusions didn’t change much, but a few of you might find the exegetical trail educational, as I did.]


 The Question

Who was the judge that succeeded Samson? Was it Samuel or Eli? …Some say Eli was a High Priest and never filled roles that the Judge did. Some day Samuel was possibly placed in the judge position within days of Samson’s death….others say no, that was Eli. Samuel only served as judge for approx 10 years of his life. I suppose these things don’t really matter….. but I am interested in the setting historically and politically.

And a follow-up:

The Bible says Samuel judged all of his life. Some say the Bible can’t mean that literally… That he could only have judged 10 years. [But] if Eli was only the high priest then Samuel could have judged all his life.

My Answer

Introductory comments:

  • I think both Eli and Samuel should be considered as judges. You already mentioned that Samuel is called this. Eli is, too: “As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.” (1 Sam. 4:18). I suppose we could debate about what is meant by the word “judge(d),” and it seems like it didn’t mean exactly the same thing for everyone who bore that title. But both Eli and Samuel are called that, and at minimum I think it means that they were recognized as important leaders.
  • The question of whether it was Eli or Samuel who succeeded Samson is complicated by questions about the chronology of the judges in the book of Judges, and by whether the events of that book ended before the events of 1 Samuel, or whether there was overlap.

A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library) Buy on Amazon So, based on the research of Robert B. Chisholm Jr., as presented in his big 2013 commentary on Judges and Ruth, here are some possible chronologies:

  • Philistines oppress Israel 40 yrs (Jg 13:1) — 1110-1070
  • Samson judges Israel 20 yrs (Jg 15:20) — Sometime between 1110-1070
  • Eli judges Israel 40 yrs (1 Sam 4:18) — 1130-1090
  • Philistines capture the ark (1 Sam 4:11) — 1090
  • Ark is at Kiriath-Jearim 20 yrs (1 Sam 7:2) — 1090-1070
  • Samuel defeats Philistines and judges Israel (1 Sam 7) — 1070-1050
  • Samuel anoints Saul, continuing as prophet (1 Sam 10) — 1050

That chronology assumes overlap between Judges and 1 Samuel, as you can see. I won’t try to explain why, because it’s super technical and I haven’t tried to understand it!

Another scheme (preferred by Chisholm) does not assume overlap between Judges and 1 Samuel. (It has the judges of Judges overlapping instead.) It goes like this:

  • Philistines oppress Israel 40 yrs (Jg 13:1) — 1190-1150
  • Samson judges Israel 20 yrs (Jg 15:20) — 1150-1130
  • The rest is the same, with Eli taking over from Samson at 1130.

So, to answer your question, the first scheme has Samson judging until the time of Samuel, and the second has Eli taking over from Samson. Good scholars argue both ways. Take your pick!

A quote from Chisholm:

Eli served as a judge for forty years (1 Sam. 4:18), but it is possible that this period was concurrent with one (Samson) or more of the final judges. Earlier we argued against overlapping periods for the judges because the expressions ‘again did evil’ and ‘after him’ most naturally indicate chronological succession. However, the notation about the length of Eli’s tenure is not part of this chronological sequence. (pg. 41)

Then, in a footnote:

In the overall structure of the history, 1 Samuel follows the epilogue of Judges (chapters 17-21), which is not in chronological sequence with the central section of the book… So, it is possible the incidents recorded in the early chapters of 1 Samuel, like those recorded in Judges 17-21, occurred during the judges period. 1 Samuel begins with an introductory formula that is similar to the introductory formula in Judges 17:1 [“Now there was a man from X whose name was Y”], suggesting they are linked at the macrostructural or discourse level. (pg. 41)

For reasons that have to do with the chronology within Judges itself, however, Chisholm prefers the scheme where Judges and 1 Samuel do not overlap.

One more comment: I would understand the statement that Samuel judged “all the days of his life” (1 Sam. 7:15) to mean that he judged from that point onward, not from birth. Even after the arrival of the kings, Samuel remained an important and recognized national leader. After all, he was the one who anointed both Saul and David. At his death “all Israel assembled and mourned for him” (1 Sam. 25:1).


A few of us will find it fascinating to puzzle over historical details like this, and I’m glad some of us do. Hopefully we can all agree, however, that both Judges and 1 Samuel clearly show that God is the one controlling the timetables of history, raising up and removing leaders. The lives of Samson, Eli, and Samuel all make this abundantly clear. Perhaps that is something you want to ponder in your SS classes?

Post your comments below!

 


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