Hostile pressure of the surrounding peoples in Palestine soon taught the Hebrew sheiks they could not hope to survive unless they confederated their tribal organizations into a centralized government. And this centralization of administrative authority afforded a better opportunity for Samuel to function as a teacher and reformer.
Samuel sprang from a long line of the Salem teachers who had persisted in maintaining the truths of Melchizedek as a part of their worship forms. This teacher was a virile and resolute man. Only his great devotion, coupled with his extraordinary determination, enabled him to withstand the almost universal opposition which he encountered when he started out to turn all Israel back to the worship of the supreme Yahweh of Mosaic times. And even then he was only partially successful; he won back to the service of the higher concept of Yahweh only the more intelligent half of the Hebrews; the other half continued in the worship of the tribal gods of the country and in the baser conception of Yahweh.
Samuel was a rough-and-ready type of man, a practical reformer who could go out in one day with his associates and overthrow a score of Baal sites. The progress he made was by sheer force of compulsion; he did little preaching, less teaching, but he did act. One day he was mocking the priest of Baal; the next, chopping in pieces a captive king. He devotedly believed in the one God, and he had a clear concept of that one God as creator of heaven and earth: “The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he has set the world upon them.”
But the great contribution which Samuel made to the development of the concept of Deity was his ringing pronouncement that Yahweh was changeless, forever the same embodiment of unerring perfection and divinity. In these times Yahweh was conceived to be a fitful God of jealous whims, always regretting that he had done thus and so; but now, for the first time since the Hebrews sallied forth from Egypt, they heard these startling words, “The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for he is not a man, that he should repent.” Stability in dealing with Divinity was proclaimed. Samuel reiterated the Melchizedek covenant with Abraham and declared that the Lord God of Israel was the source of all truth, stability, and constancy. Always had the Hebrews looked upon their God as a man, a superman, an exalted spirit of unknown origin; but now they heard the onetime spirit of Horeb exalted as an unchanging God of creator perfection. Samuel was aiding the evolving God concept to ascend to heights above the changing state of men’s minds and the vicissitudes of mortal existence. Under his teaching, the God of the Hebrews was beginning the ascent from an idea on the order of the tribal gods to the ideal of an all-powerful and changeless Creator and Supervisor of all creation.
And he preached anew the story of God’s sincerity, his covenant-keeping reliability. Said Samuel: “The Lord will not forsake his people.” “He has made with us an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure.” And so, throughout all Palestine there sounded the call back to the worship of the supreme Yahweh. Ever this energetic teacher proclaimed, “You are great, O Lord God, for there is none like you, neither is there any God beside you.”
Theretofore the Hebrews had regarded the favor of Yahweh mainly in terms of material prosperity. It was a great shock to Israel, and almost cost Samuel his life, when he dared to proclaim: “The Lord enriches and impoverishes; he debases and exalts. He raises the poor out of the dust and lifts up the beggars to set them among princes to make them inherit the throne of glory.” Not since Moses had such comforting promises for the humble and the less fortunate been proclaimed, and thousands of despairing among the poor began to take hope that they could improve their spiritual status.
But Samuel did not progress very far beyond the concept of a tribal god. He proclaimed a Yahweh who made all men but was occupied chiefly with the Hebrews, his chosen people. Even so, as in the days of Moses, once more the God concept portrayed a Deity who is holy and upright. “There is none as holy as the Lord. Who can be compared to this holy Lord God?”
As the years passed, the grizzled old leader progressed in the understanding of God, for he declared: “The Lord is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by him. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth, showing mercy to the merciful, and with the upright man he will also be upright.” Even here is the dawn of mercy, albeit it is limited to those who are merciful. Later he went one step further when, in their adversity, he exhorted his people: “Let us fall now into the hands of the Lord, for his mercies are great.” “There is no restraint upon the Lord to save many or few.”
And this gradual development of the concept of the character of Yahweh continued under the ministry of Samuel’s successors. They attempted to present Yahweh as a covenant-keeping God but hardly maintained the pace set by Samuel; they failed to develop the idea of the mercy of God as Samuel had later conceived it. There was a steady drift back toward the recognition of other gods, despite the maintenance that Yahweh was above all. “Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”
The keynote of this era was divine power; the prophets of this age preached a religion designed to foster the king upon the Hebrew throne. “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. In your hand is power and might, and you are able to make great and to give strength to all.” And this was the status of the God concept during the time of Samuel and his immediate successors.