Samuel: Levite or Ephraimite?

Dealing with difficulties in endless genealogies

Painting of Samuel Reading to Eli the Judgments of God Upon Eli’s House, 1780, John Singleton Copley

There are two passages that mention Samuel the Prophet’s ancestry. They are 1 Sa 1:1, and 1 Ch 6:16-29. The latter claims he was a Levite, but the first, at least in all modern translations other than the ESV (and the KJV) states that he was an Ephraimite. What is to be made of this?

1 Sa 1:1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.1

1 Ch 6:16–28 The sons of Levi: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari… 22 The sons of Kohath: … 23 Elkanah his son … 25 The sons of Elkanah: Amasai and Ahimoth, 26 Elkanah his son, Zophai his son, Nahath his son, 27 Eliab his son, Jeroham his son, Elkanah his son. 28 The sons of Samuel: Joel his firstborn, the second Abijah.

The passage in Samuel states that Samuel’s father Elkanah was from the Zuphite subdivision of the tribe of Ephraim, and that he lived in a town called Ramathaim. This appears to be flatly contradicted by the genealogy in 1 Chronicles where Samuel seems to be placed in the line of Levi.

In a recent discussion2 it was claimed that the apparent contradiction can be dealt with by looking to the way 1 Samuel is translated in the ESV (which follows the KJV):

1 Sa 1:1 (ESV) There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite.

The ESV and KJV provide a different story. Now Elkanah is from a town called “Ramathaim-Zophim”, and instead of being an Ephraimite he’s now an Ephrathite (Ephrathah being a reference to Bethlehem, a city in Judah, not Ephraim).

These are quite different renderings of a single Hebrew text. Which one is right? And does it even matter? It turns out that this is a great example for showing the pitfalls of bringing assumptions to the biblical text, so, let’s go through it.

There are two points to deal with in the first verse of Samuel. Was Elkanah an Ephraimite or an Ephrathite? And, was Elkanah from the subdivision of Ephraim called “Zuph” or is “Zuph” better rendered as part of the place name “Ramathaim-Zophim”? Let’s proceed with these slightly esoteric questions…

An Ephramite? Or from Ephrathah?

The proposed solution of following the KJV/ESV reading making Elkanah an Ephrathite instead of an Ephramite was based on translating אֶפְרָתִי, pronounced ‘ephrati’ “as in the Hebrew text.”

There is considerable wisdom in realizing the bounds of our circle of competence. For most of us, including me, knowledge of biblical Hebrew is outside of that circle. We must be careful to not leap to conclusions about a word’s meaning based only on what it sounds like. As any lexicon shows3, the word אֶפְרָתִי – the word translated “Ephraim” or “Ephrathite” – is a homonym, i.e. “two or more words having the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins,”4 and can mean either Ephrathite or Ephraimite, depending, of course, on the context. The same lexicons all file 1 Sa 1:1 under Ephraimite, not Ephrathite.

Through a careful analysis of each instance of אֶפְרָתִי in the Masoretic text (putting 1 Sa 1:1 aside) we will be able to verify what all lexicons and modern translations (other than the ESV) suggest: that the correct translation in 1 Sa 1:1 is Ephraimite.

The following table contains every verse where אֶפְרָתִי appears, and highlights its translation in bold. Any word or phrase that helps establish the context has been italicized.

Jdg 12:5-6 Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
Ruth 1:2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.
1 Sa 17:12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years.
1 Ki 11:26 Jeroboam son of Nebat, an Ephraimite of Zeredah, a servant of Solomon, whose mother’s name was Zeruah, a widow, rebelled against the king.

What the table makes clear is that modern translations translate אֶפְרָתִי as meaning Ephrathite when the context is a description of someone from Bethlehem. When that is not the context, the word is translated Ephraimite.

To translate אֶפְרָתִי as Ephrathite uncritically would make Jeroboam, the man responsible for the secession of the 10 tribes from Judah, a man of Judah. It would make the Ephraimite men tested by the Gileadites, Judahites. Clearly, simply translating אֶפְרָתִי as Ephrathite is unworkable. The proposed solution doesn’t solve the contradiction between 1 Samuel 1:1 and 1 Chronicles 6; it only confuses other portions of scripture. Based on this initial assessment it would appear that the correct translation in 1 Sa 1:1 is Ephraimite.

Judges 12:5-6 is particularly pertinent. Just as 1 Sa 1:1 mentions both Ephraim (“from the hill country of Ephraim” [אֶפְרָיִם, pronounced ephrayim]) and Ephraimite (“…an Ephraimite” [אֶפְרָתִי, pronounced ephrati]), so too does the passage in Judges. The use of language is the same in both: אֶפְרָיִם for Ephraim, אֶפְרָתִי for Ephraimite, again demonstrating that Ephraimite is the correct translation in 1 Sa 1:1.

The above investigation may be complemented by a wider textual analysis. The Masoretic text of Samuel is well known to be badly preserved.5 It has been described variously thus: “Scholars have long known that the text of 1 and 2 Samuel printed in Hebrew Bibles is in bad condition, having suffered numerous scribal errors during its written transmission.”6 “The Masoretic Text of 1 Samuel is not in good shape. In particular many letters and words have been accidentally omitted, often because of the phenomenon of homoioteleuton.7 The Masoretic text has “suffered from transmission problems” to the point that it has been described as “a highly corrupted text8 where in some places “the Hebrew is unintelligible.”9

When working with such a text it is worth performing a comparative analysis with the other textual traditions: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint, both reflecting pre-Masoretic readings as shown by the fact that their readings often align.10 After all, translations of the Masoretic text of Samuel have benefited enormously from insights provided by these non-Masoretic traditions;1112 some passages in the two books could not have been made intelligible without referring to and deriving corrections from them.

Sadly, the earliest verses of 4Q51, the Dead Sea Scroll containing the earliest chapters of 1 Samuel, have not survived the harsh desert conditions. Though a few letters of 1:9 have survived it is only from v11 that the text can be reliably discerned. Even then it is patchy.13 This leaves us with the Greek Old Testament.

There is variation between the three traditions but there is also much agreement. However, the agreement that there is may surprise some: “The Hebrew manuscripts of Samuel found at Qumran, however, very often agree with the Septuagint when it differs from the Masoretic Text. This demonstrates that the Septuagint was translated from a Hebrew text form similar to that of the Qumran manuscripts.”14 The Septuagint should therefore be of great interest to us – the readings of the Dead Sea Scrolls are usually closer to the Septuagint than the Masoretic text in Samuel15 so where a text does not exist in the DSS we may look to the Septuagint with a measure of confidence.

The following table lists the 5 passages that answer to those in those in the Masoretic text containing אֶפְרָתִי.

Passage LXX16 DSS
Jdg 12:5-6 Ἐφραθείτης, pronounced “Ephrathetes” Not present
Ruth 1:2 Ἐφραθαῖοι, pronounced “Ephrathaioi” In 4Q104a, “אפרתיֿם”, pronounced “Ephratim”, pl. of Ephrathites, as per Masoretic.
1 Sa 1:117 Ἐφράιμ, pronounced “Ephraim” Not present
1 Sa 17:12 Not present Not present
1 Ki 11:26 Ἐφραθεὶ, pronounced “Ephrati” Not present

The word describing Samuel’s ancestry is not Εφραθαιος as per Elimelech’s family, but Ἐφράιμ, pronounced “Ephraim,” as used of Joseph’s second son in Genesis 41:52 LXX. The claim of the Greek Old Testament is that Elkanah has Ephraimite ancestry.

So, of the textual traditions available to us, one claims that Samuel had Ephraimite ancestry, the other describes Samuel’s ancestry with a homonym, the meaning of which is “Ephraimite” unless in the context of Bethlehem (Judah), which in this case it is not. Thus, the weight of 1 Sa 1:1’s textual evidence, both internally within the Masoretic and across the non-Masoretic traditions, is for Samuel’s Ephraimite, not Levitical, descent.

We are therefore left with the contradiction between 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles that the proposed solution failed to solve. Before we look into that problem we will first figure out where Elkanah lived.

Ramathaim Zophim? Or a Zuphite in Ramathaim?

Again, knowing that the Masoretic text of Samuel is badly preserved we should take nothing for granted and analyze the text. This is how the Septuagint renders the phrase: “There was a man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite of Sipha from Mount Ephraim,” distinguishing “Ramathaim” from its Zuphite link.

This reading helped to identify the first of the many textual errors in the Masoretic text of the books of Samuel: a dittography.18 A copyist after writing out “Zuphi” accidentally added to it the first letter of the next word, the Hebrew letter mem. From this we get “Ramathaim-Zophim” as per the AV, ESV, NASB, NET19, RSV, etc. The NRSV, NCV, NLT, and the REB have corrected this mistake and have “There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim…

What this shows us is that the town’s name was Ramathaim, not Ramathaim-Zophim.20 The text is saying that Elkanah was a Zuphite and that he lived in Ramathaim, thus severing the link between the town and Elkanah’s ancestor Zuph. The proposed solution fails again.

Does Samuel even act like a Levite?

At first glance Samuel does appear to perform various activities that look to be those of a priest or Levite. However, a little digging in the text will show that there is nothing that Samuel did that marks him out as a Levite.

Firstly, we are told in 1 Samuel 2:18 that Samuel “was ministering before Yahweh, a boy wearing a linen ephod.” A superficial reading of this passage may lead us to conclude that Samuel had to be a Levite. However, the text tells us that Samuel was “a boy.” Samuel began his service in the Tabernacle “when he was weaned” (1 Sa 1:24-28). According to Levitical law:

Nu 8:23–25 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: this applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they shall begin to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting; and from the age of fifty years they shall retire from the duty of the service and serve no more.

Whatever service Samuel was performing it was not Levitical – the law forbade him from working as a priest or Levite until he was at least 25 years old. It is very likely that the “ministering” that Samuel performed was similar to that of Joshua for Moses: an assistant (Ex 29:30). The linen ephod worn by Samuel was also not exclusively Levitical; as we are told in 2 Sa 6:14, David wore one.

Secondly, Samuel offered sacrifices. But, he appears to have sacrificed in a number of locations where the Tabernacle was not said to be standing. He is recorded as having sacrificed in Mizpah (1 Sa 7:7–11), Bethlehem, (1 Samuel 16:1–5), and though it didn’t happen he had arranged with Saul that he’d offer sacrifices at Gilgal (1 Sa 10:8). Even the act of sacrificing was not reserved exclusively for the Levites. Elijah, a Tishbite from Gilead (1 Ki 17:1) is recorded as having offered burnt offerings, and that on Mt Carmel – far from the Temple in Jerusalem, the place Yahweh had chosen (1 Ki 18:30–39).

Thirdly, service for the tabernacle was not restricted to Levites; there wasn’t even a requirement to be an Israelite. We are told in Joshua 9:27 that the Gibeonites were made hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation and for the altar of Yahweh. Service for the Tabernacle was not restricted to the Levites.

There is then nothing about Samuel’s behavior that marks him out as a Levite. Again we are left with the question: was Samuel an Ephraimite or a Levite? He was born in the area of Ephraim, and according to both the Masoretic and LXX traditions he had Ephraimite ancestry. We have seen that nothing he did marked him out as a Levite; in fact, his actions were very often contrary to Levitical law. Other than 1 Ch 6 everything points to Samuel being an Ephraimite. We now turn to that passage.

Reading 1 Chronicles 6 again

We may be surprised to find that a careful reading of 1 Chronicles 6:16-29 demonstrates that Samuel is not actually described as being in the line of Levi at all!

Every person mentioned in those verses is explained as being either the son of someone, or as having children with their names listed. The ancestry of everyone in the genealogy can be traced back to Levi… with one exception: Samuel.

He is not listed as being the son of anyone in the genealogy, nor is anyone in the genealogy listed as being Samuel’s father. It looks very much like Samuel has been slotted into a genealogy he does not belong in.21 We may think it is “obvious” that he “must” be the son of one of the Elkanahs mentioned in verses 25, 26, or 27, however that’s not what the text says.

Here’s a video that illustrates the point, following the order of the passage (340 KB):

So, why has Samuel been slotted in to this Levitical genealogy?

There are a number of possible solutions, none of which do away with the contradiction; they only provide an explanation of what motivation the chronicler may have had for placing Samuel in this Levitical genealogy.

The first possible explanation is textual corruption; a mistake made by the Chronicler. It is thought that when putting the genealogy together from biblical and extra-biblical sources the chronicler confused the two Elkanahs found in the final form of 1 Ch 6:26 & 27 with the result that “the genealogy of Samuel was linked via Elkanah to the Kohathite line because Elkanah was also the name of Samuel’s own father.”22 This suggestion does have merit; the genealogies in Chronicles are well known to contain significant differences from the same genealogies elsewhere in scripture; some of those differences being mistakes, others being theologically driven. An example of corruption can be seen in the very next verse, v28: Joel, Samuel’s firstborn (1 Sa 8:2) is not mentioned in the Masoretic text (and is therefore not present in the AV either) most likely “due to homoioteleuton23 but he does in the LXX and Syriac. The original text has been reconstructed and modern versions now have “The sons of Samuel: Joel his firstborn, the second Abijah.”

The second explanation is that the Chronicler was trying to do away with the perceived problem of a non-Levite serving in the Tabernacle. This suggestion is popular in a number of commentaries, for example, “By giving Samuel a Levitical lineage the genealogy in Chronicles exonerates him from the possibility of inappropriate cultic activity.”24 By ‘adopting’ him into Levi his service in the Tabernacle would no longer be problematic.25

The third explanation is that by including Samuel in the tribe of Levi the chronicler was giving him great honour. By ‘raising’ Samuel to the level of a Levite, and that a Kohathite, Samuel was given great distinction and importance. This suggestion is made in a number of commentaries, e.g. “This may be the Chronicler’s way of bestowing a very high honor on an Ephraimite who made it into the priestly ranks.”26

We cannot be dogmatic about the reason the chronicler assigned Samuel to the tribe of Levi as we quite plainly are not told why. However, the above explanations seem to varying degrees to be reasonable.

Finally, we must recognize that genealogies did not serve the same purpose they do today. It is a mistake to think that the genealogies we find in scripture are interested only in establishing linear descent. “Anthropological studies show that these genealogies do not normally have a historical intention, but rather serve social, judicial, or religious purposes, legitimating certain claims concerning these spheres of society.27 This certainly seems to be a possible explanation for Samuel’s inclusion into the tribe of Levi and strengthens the case for the second and third explanations mentioned above. As an example part of our hope is to be counted as citizens of Zion who are accounted as born in Zion as described in Psalm 87:

Ps 87:4–6 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia— “This one was born there,” they say. And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it”; for the Most High himself will establish it. The LORD records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”

It is God to who decides who goes in what genealogy, and he does it according to his rules.

In conclusion, there exists a contradiction between 1 Samuel 1:1 that claims Samuel was an Ephraimite, and 1 Chronicles 6 that places him in a Levitical genealogy. We have seen that the textual evidence of 1 Sa 1:1 is that he was indeed an Ephraimite, not an Ephrathite. We’ve seen that the priest-like activities performed by Samuel are at variance with the laws pertaining to Levitical worship and that those same priest-like activities were also performed by others without Levitical ancestry. Finally we’ve seen how there are a number of good explanations for the claim made for Samuel’s purported Levitical ancestry in 1 Chronicles 6.

This exercise has been useful in that it has highlighted a number of pitfalls common in the study of scripture. Firstly, we ought to be aware of the world-view and expectations we bring to a text. The proposed solution to the contradiction is certainly one of the best ways to harmonize God’s writings, though in the end these brave explanations may be unnecessary if we accept the text as God chose to present it. We ought to be wary of going against every lexicon and practically every modern translation when performing a word study. We should familiarize ourselves with the various textual traditions of the Old Testament. Finally, contrary to some loud voices in our community we should not be scared of biblical scholarship; most of it is very helpful in the interpretation of the inspired word of God.


  1. Unless otherwise noted all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)
  2. “Samuel’s tribe,” The Testimony, April 2016, p. 131
  3. See for example Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), p 81, James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p 68, Robert L. Thomas, New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998), and Strong’s
  4. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  5. It is worth noting that God is more than capable of arranging for the perfect preservation of every word of original written scripture. That he chose not to do so ought to factor into any discussion around the nature of the text, the mechanism of inspiration, and interpretative methodologies based thereon.
  6. Roger L. Omanson and John Ellington, A Handbook on the First Book of Samuel (UBS Handbook Series; New York: United Bible Societies, 2001).
  7. Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel (vol. 10; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), xxvi.
  8. Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 30.
  9. Mary J. Evans, 1 & 2 Samuel (ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston; Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 3.
  10. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English (New York: HarperOne, 1999), 1 Sa.
  11. Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel (vol. 10; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), xxvi–xxviii.
  12. Sadly, not all the problems have yet been solved – the notorious example being Saul’s age when he began and the length of his reign which the NRSV translates honestly: “Saul was … years old when he began to reign; and he reigned … and two years over Israel.” – 1 Sa 13:1
  13. 4Q51 Samuel a (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010), Col. I Frg. a & b
  14. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English (New York: HarperOne, 1999), 1 Sa.
  15. The unease with the witness of the Septuagint voiced in certain quarters of our community is unfortunate.
  16. Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012)
  17. The Septuagint has different names for the books of Samuel and Kings: 1 Samuel = 1 Kingdoms, 2 Samuel = 2 Kingdoms, 1 Kings = 3 Kingdoms, 2 Kings = 4 kingdoms
  18. For further details see P. Kyle McCarter Jr., I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (vol. 8; Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 51.
  19. Though the NET perpetuates the mistranslation, the notes demonstrate an awareness of the problem: “tc The translation follows the MT. The LXX reads “a man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite”; this is followed by a number of recent English translations. It is possible the MT reading צוֹפִים (tsofim) arose from dittography of the mem (ם) at the beginning of the following word.” Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2005). 1 Sa 1:1
  20. See Patrick M. Arnold, “Ramah (Place),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 613.
  21. “The genealogy of Kohath in section II is more complicated and more difficult both because it has been secondarily expanded to give the lineage of Samuel and because of uncertainties regarding Amminadab, Assir, Elkanah, Ebiasaph, and Assir that will be discussed in the commentary.25 The secondary expansion that includes Samuel, perhaps found by the Chronicler in some genealogical source, since Samuel does not play a significant role in his work,26 provides a genealogical pedigree for Samuel and his two sons. While this extends the genealogy provided for Samuel in 1 Sam 1:1* for many generations and changes him from an Ephraimite to a Levite, this genealogy has not been fully integrated into Kohath’s genealogy and forms a kind of sidebar to it.” Ralph W. Klein, 1 Chronicles: A Commentary (ed. Thomas Krüger; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 182.
  22. As suggested in Ralph W. Klein, 1 Chronicles: A Commentary (ed. Thomas Krüger; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 201.
  23. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), 1 Ch 6:28.
  24. Ralph W. Klein, 1 Chronicles: A Commentary (ed. Thomas Krüger; Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 201.
  25. This explanation is developed further in J. A. Thompson, 1, 2 Chronicles (vol. 9; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 86.
  26. Louis C. Jonker, 1 & 2 Chronicles (ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston; Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 64.
  27. Ibid., 30.

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.