Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli c. 1665

I have been fascinated for quite some time with puns and wordplays in the Hebrew Bible, including puns on names. Often the purpose seems to me to ridicule someone, such as in the story of Nabal in Samuel 25:25 where his wife puns on his name (which, in Hebrew, sounds similar to the word ‘fool’) to say something like “He’s a fool by name, and a fool by nature.” Sometimes the pun is linked with satire, and I’ve written already about satirical puns on Solomon’s name in the book of Kings. While Solomon’s name is similar to the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ the writer of Kings is careful to point out how his reign began with a series of bloody campaigns against his opponents and enemies. It’s as good as saying “so much for the so-called ‘man of peace’!”

It seems to me that the writer of Samuel-Kings was inclined to use name-puns quite frequently, often in satirical contexts. I noticed some time ago a puzzling wordplay or pun on Samuel and Saul’s names at the beginning of the book. In Hebrew their names are שְׁמוּאֵל (pronounced Sh’mu’el, for Samuel) and שָׁאוּל (pronounced Sha’ul, for Saul). The name Sh’mu’el was probably derived from the root שׁמע shema meaning “to hear” and means “God heard” or similar. Sha’ul was probably derived from the root שׁאל sha’al meaning “to ask” and means something like “asked for”. It’s not surprising that the writer of Samuel uses puns or wordplays when introducing these characters into the story. So, when Samuel is born, his mother Hannah named him Samuel, “for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD'” (1 Samuel 1:20). Later, when she brought him to the Temple to be dedicated, she said “For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted me the request (שְׁאֵלָתִי) that I asked (שָׁאַלְתִּי) him. Therefore I have lent (הִשְׁאִלְתִּהוּ֙) him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given (שָׁאוּל) to the LORD” (vv.27-28). Four times in two verses she used variations of the word שׁאל sha’al, to ask. In the last case the word translated “he is given” is the passive participle שָׁאוּל and is identical to Saul’s name. The really surprising thing here is that the pun is on the name of Saul Sha’ul, not Samuel!

Several scholars have noticed this strange pun. It would have been easy enough to have made a pun on Samuel’s name. In fact, earlier in the story there is a possible pun in the sentence “Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard” (יִשָּׁמֵעַ – from the same root as Samuel’s name, 1:13). Later in the story there is another likely pun on Samuel’s name: “Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening‘ (שֹׁמֵעַ) … Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening (שֹׁמֵעַ)” Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears (שֹׁמְע) of it tingle.” Three times across these three verses the writer uses the verb “to hear” – almost certainly a pun on Samuel’s name “heard of God.” The verb “to hear” is quite common in Hebrew and occurs several times throughout the story of Samuel, so it’s unlikely that all of them are puns, but some almost certainly are. Given that this pun is easy enough, it’s particularly odd that the story of Samuel’s birth has puns on Saul’s name, not Samuel’s!

So what is happening? Why the mix-up with the name puns? One possible explanation is that the story of Samuel’s birth was originally about the birth of Saul but the name was later changed so that it became a story of Samuel’s birth instead, although the puns on Saul’s name remained. It could have been a mistake by a scribe, or it may have been the deliberate choice of an editor or redactor, in much the same way as the names in the story of Elhanan killing Goliath were switched in another version so that David became Goliath’s slayer instead.

Either way, whether accidental or deliberate, it is clear enough that the writers of biblical books such as Samuel and Kings weren’t trying to write an accurate historical record. Their purpose was to tell a story about kingship and whether monarchy was good for Israel and Judah or not. Their account is part-political and part-theological, but not intended to be historical. Puns and wordplays aren’t necessary when writing accurate history, but they are very effective when telling a good story, especially if the writer wants to ridicule a character or make a joke of some kind about their name. The writer(s) of Samuel-Kings does this very effectively.