Friday, March 15, 2024

The name Samuel comes to us from Hebrew, where it is the name of the last judge and first prophet שׁמואל (shemūʾēl, pronounced sh-moo-EL). It is a theophoric name (containing either the name of the deity, ʾEl, or the Hebrew word for "God"), but its meaning is disputed. The first part, שם (shem), could be a reference to the Hebrew word for "name," giving us "His name is God" or "His name is ʾEl," but this would be an odd name for a person. It is more likely that the word שם (shem) is a reference to a deity named Shem or Shumu attested in both Ugaritic and Amorite, and perhaps identified with the Babylonian sun god Shamash. One of the kings of the ancient Sumerian city-state of Larsa was named Sumu-El. If this is the case, the name שׁמואל (shemūʾēl) most likely means "Shem/Sumu is God."

However, one can see how this name might cause problems for readers of the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, at his birth in 1 Samuel 1:20, Samuel's mother, Hannah, offers an etymological interpretation that makes use of a similar sounding, but different word (the Hebrew verb שׁאל, shaʾal, meaning "to ask") to explain the name: "I have asked (שׁאל) him of the LORD." Others suggest that because God "heard" Hannah's prayer and answered it, the name Samuel is from the Hebrew verb שׁמע (shemaʿ), meaning "to hear," rendering "God has heard." Unfortunately, both of these latter explanations utilize words that include letters (a lamed in שׁאל, and an ʿayin in שמע) that do not appear in the correct place in the name of שׁמואל (shemūʾēl).