In 1 Sam. 1:20, why does Hannah apparently make a pun on her son's name that makes no sense if his name was Samuel, but makes perfect sense if his name was Saul?

The bible if full of puns made by mothers when naming the sons:

  • Genesis 17:19 - Rebekah, who laughed when told she would bear a son in her old age, called her son "Isaac," which in Hebrew sounds like אֶצְחַק (etzchak) - I will laugh.

  • Genesis 29:33 - Leah called here son Simeon (based on שָׁמַע - to hear) “Because the Lord has heard..."

  • Genesis 30:6 - Rachel named her son Dan (דִּין - judge) because "God has judged me."

  • Genesis 30:8 Rachel calls her adopted son Naphtali (פָּתַל wrestle) because: “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.”

But when it comes time for Samuel to be born, something strange happens. His mother, Hannah, named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” The key Hebrew word here is שָׁאַל (šā'al), which means "asked, borrowed, enquired" etc. One would expect a pun on Samuel, which is a combination of the words for "name" and "god." But instead we get a word that sounds nearly like Saul. If Hannah had intended make a pun on "name" or "God" she might have said "because God has restored my name" of something similar. But instead she rather clearly puns on Saul's name, not Samuel's.

One theory to explain this enigma is that the story of Samuel's birth was originally a story about Saul, but it was changed so as not to give Saul too much prominence. The scribes did not want to preserve a miraculous birth story about David's enemy. A similar explanation, provided by the web site of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops says:

The author may have lifted the s’l wordplay from a narrative about Saul to portray Samuel as God’s gracious answer to Hannah’s request.

Others have suggested that the actual word that Hannah was punning on is "hear" (שָׁמַע - šāma) not "ask." This indeed fits better with Samuel's name than Saul's, but it begs the question as to why the Hebrew Bible would get the word so wrong. Matthew Henry offers:

Some make the etymology of this name to be much the same with that of Ishmael—-heard of God, because the mother's prayers were remarkably heard, and he was an answer to them. Others, because of the reason she gives for the name, make it to signify asked of God. It comes nearly to the same; she designed by it to perpetuate the remembrance of God's favour to her in answering her prayers.

Which of the above explanations makes the most sense? Are there others?


2 Answers 2


I Samuel 1:20 can be more easily understood if you read according as שאלתיו as "I borrowed him" rather than "I asked for him". Since the child is already "given to God all the days of his life" (verse 11), he is, at the time of his naming, borrowed by Hannah. Since she accepts, as her part of the vow, that this is God's child, she names him shmu-el, "the name of God [is his name]".

Although in most midrashei shem the meaning of the name is in the name itself, there is no rule that requires this to always be the case. In some cases the name is related to the circumstance of birth, either of the child or of the nation, particularly in the later prophets.


The problem with the redaction hypothesis is

  1. why didn't the redactor also change the rest of Hannah's quote instead of just the name? Things are not made more difficult with redactions, they are made simpler, so redactions are almost never explanations for interpretive difficulties, because whether the text was redacted or not, it still apparently made sense to the author/redactor, and so we are back to trying to understand authorial intent. In other words, even if you believe this was originally about Saul, assume both the name and the quote was changed to make it about Samuel.

  2. Saul is Shaul -> the u sound precedes the l. Whereas "ask him" is "Shiltiv", which does not sound like a pun on "Shaul".

So how to understand the pun? I suggest rather than searching for a pun on a word, to look at the entire phrase:

mēyəhwâ šəʾiltîw - "from YHWH ask him"

and then this can be turned around to read

"ask him from God" or "sh'iltiw min el" -> sh-mi-el -> shemuel -> where we are making a pun from the first sounds of each word in the phrase.

Of course this is just a theory -- you will not get a definitive answer as these etymologies are intended to be wordplay.

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