Hannah was the wife of Elkanah, a man from Ephraim. We meet Hannah in the first chapter of Samuel as a distressed woman because she was childless. In a previous post, I called Hannah “the barren mother who bore seven.”
On one occasion, during her family’s yearly visit to the house of the Lord at Shiloh, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was located, Hannah made a vow to God, promising that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to God to serve in the temple as a Nazarite.
Hannah’s prayer was answered. She conceived and gave birth to a son whom she called Samuel. Two or three years later, after Samuel was weaned, Hannah fulfilled her promise to God. Hannah took Samuel to Eli, the priest of God who ministered at Shiloh, offered a sacrifice and dedicated Samuel to serve before the Lord in the temple.
The question is: what kind of sacrifice did Hannah offer in the temple? The versions differ on the amount of bulls Hannah offered to God. Was it one bull or three bulls?
Here is how the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates 1 Samuel 1:24:
“When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine.”
According to the NRSV, Hannah offered one three-year-old bull. This translation is followed by the ESV, the NIV, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and many others.
Here is how the King James Version (KJV) translates 1 Samuel 1:24:
“And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine.”
According to the KJV, Hannah offered three bulls, not one. This translation is followed by the ASV, the JSP Bible (1907), the Tanak, the NET Bible, and several other older translations.
The difference between these two translations of 1 Samuel 1:24 is based on the fact that most modern translations emend the Hebrew text in order to read “a three-year-old bull,” rather than to follow the text as written and read it “three bulls.”
The issue that prompts modern translation to emend the text is grammatical. The Hebrew text reads: bprym šlš, “three bulls.” Most modern translations, following the Septuagint, read bpr mšlš “a three-year-old bull.”
According to the proponents of the emendation, there are several reasons to emend the text. First, 1 Samuel 1:25 says that Hannah sacrifices only one bull. Second, scholars believe that when the Hebrew words were divided, the m was separated from one word and added to another word, thus creating the textual corruption. Third, the grammatical order of the words in Hebrew, the noun before the numeral, “bulls,” and “three,” is unusual.
Scholars give several reasons for sacrificing a “three-year-old bull.” Robinson says that the reason Hannah sacrificed a three-year-old bull was because Samuel was three years old (p. 18). Others say that a three-year-old bull was a valuable animal (see Genesis 15:9). Speiser, in an article published in BASOR said that the Nuzi tablets indicate that at Nuzi, animals offered in religious sacrifices had to meet an economic standard. Speiser wrote:
“Hence Hannah’s choice of a three-year-old bull is in harmony with the general background of her times, and the instructions to Abraham (Gen. 15:9) that he select sacrificial animals of the same age reflect a time-honored tradition” (p. 17).
In his defense of the “three bulls” translation, Ratner, citing Gesenius (GK) cautions against dependence on grammatical construction as a reason for emending the text. He cites several examples in the Hebrew Bible where the noun precedes the numeral (1 Samuel 25:2; 2 Samuel 1:1; 24:24). Ratner concludes, “If the formation in 1 Sam 1,24, pārīm šelōšā [three bulls], was an acceptable alternative for the writer to have selected, there is no necessary reason to emend the text” (p. 100).
In addition, Ratner quotes Genesis 15:10 to support the view that Hannah sacrificed three bulls, not one. In Genesis 15:9, the Lord asked Abraham to sacrifice two birds: a turtledove and a young pigeon. In Genesis 15:10, it is said that Abraham did not cut the birds in two. In the Hebrew text of Genesis 15:10, the word translated “birds” in English is singular, not plural. This means that the Hebrew word for bird, although singular, is used as a collective to designate both birds. Ratner finds a similar use in 2 Samuel 6:17-18.
Thus, Ratner believes that the word “bull” in 1 Samuel 1:25 is used as a collective and it should be understood as meaning the three bulls. Ratner (p. 101) translates 1 Samuel 1:24-25 as follows:
“And she brought him with her when she had weaned him, along with three bulls, one ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. . . . Then they slaughtered the bulls and brought the boy to Eli.”
If Ratner’s proposal is right, then there is no reason to emend the text, and I tend to agree with him.
Hannah’s sacrifice was evidence that she was grateful to have her disgrace removed from her. As a demonstration of her gratitude, Hannah offered her best to God, not a three-year-old bull and not even three bulls. Hannah offered to God her firstborn son. The greatest love a mother can show is to dedicate her children to God (see John 15:13).
Ratner, Robert, “Three Bulls or One?: A Reappraisal of 1 Samuel 1,24,” Biblica 68 (1987): 98-102.
Robinson, Gnana. 1 and 2 Samuel: Let Us Be Like the Nations. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.
Speiser, E. A. “The Nuzi Tablets Solve a Puzzle in the Book o Samuel,” BASOR 72 (1938):15-17.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary