His status, as viewed by rabbinical literature, is that he was the last of the Hebrew Judges and the first of the major prophets who began to prophesy inside the Land of Israel. He was thus at the cusp between two eras.
According to , Hannah was the mother of Samuel and named him in memory of her requesting a child from God and God listening. However, this position is disputed by some textual scholars who consider that the passage originally referred to Saul, and was later doctored. For the suggested etymology of the passage to work for the name Samuel requires it to be translated as Heard of God ('Shama', heard; 'El', god/El (a god)), or possibly as a sentence "God has heard", with "Shama" as the verb and "El" as the subject. Saul on the other hand means asked, and so certain scholars think an anti-monarchial editor changed the narrative so that Saul would no longer appear to have a divinely appointed birth.
Another conceivable translation of Hebrew (Shmu'el in Hebrew) is Name of God (from Shem, meaning name), a reference to the Tetragrammaton. However, in some contexts, Shem can also mean son, and hence Samuel might mean son of El or son of God (translating El). While son of El (or Name of God) could imply that Samuel is a cipher for Yahweh (considered by some Biblical scholars to have been a son of El, in the Canaanite pantheon), the term son of God was simply a generic term for someone who was seen as particularly holy (in particular a senior priest), and hence may only have been a description not his name.
Another possible translation is "His name is El".
According to the text, during Samuel's youth at Shiloh, decades before the nation began to be ruled by a king, the Philistines had inflicted a heavy defeat against the Israelites at Eben-Ezer and placed the land under Philistine oppression. In the process taken the sanctuary's Ark for themselves. Some modern scholars consider that the Song of Moses, which textual scholars believe was originally distinct from the surrounding text of Deuteronomy (and not written by Moses), may in reality have been written in response to the theological implications of this particular disastrous defeat, possibly by Samuel himself.
Seemingly, after 20 years of such oppression, Samuel, who had gained national prominence as a prophet, summoned the people to Mizpah (one of the highest hills in the land), where he organized them into an army, and led them against the Philistines. The Philistines, having marched to Mizpah to attack the newly amassed Israelite army, were utterly defeated, fleeing in terror. The fleeing Philistines were slaughtered by the Israelites, which the Biblical text portrays positively. The text goes on to state that Samuel erected a large stone at the battle site, named Eben-Ezer, as a memorial, and there was a long period of peace thereafter.
However, according to textual scholars, this latter battle in which Samuel led the Israelites to victory, is actually a redaction dating from the 7th century. It was probably added by the Deuteronomist to conform to a theocratical worldview in which religious figures have greater prominence, and Israel only loses to its enemies when it is being punished by God; the passage essentially acting as a counterbalance to the earlier Israelite defeat. In reality it is considered more likely that, if there is any historical basis for the Israelite victory, it was one of those due to military leadership by Saul.
Textual scholars suggest that these two roles come from different sources, which later were spliced together to form the Book(s) of Samuel. The oldest is considered to be that which marks Samuel as the local seer of Ramah, who willingly anoints Saul as King in secret, while the latter is that which presents Samuel as a national figure, who begrudgingly anoints Saul as King in front of a national assembly. This later source is generally known as the republican source, since here, and elsewhere, it denigrates the actions and role of the monarchy (particularly those of Saul) and favours religious figures, in contrast to the other main source - the monarchial source - which treats the monarchy favourably. Theoretically if we had the monarchial source we would see Saul appointed king by public acclamation, due to his military victories, and not by cleromancy involving Samuel. Another difference between the sources is that the republican source treats the shouters as somewhat independent from Samuel rather than having been led by him (). The passage in which Samuel is described as having exercised the functions of a (biblical) judge, during an annual circuit from Ramah to Bethel to Gilgal (the Gilgal between Ebal and Gerizim) to Mizpah and back to Ramah, is thought by textual scholars to be a redaction aimed at harmonising the two portrayals of Samuel.
The Book(s) of Samuel variously describe Samuel as having carried out sacrifices at sanctuaries, and having constructed and sanctified altars. According to the Mitzvot only Aaronic priests and/or Levites (depending on the Mitzvah) were permitted to perform these actions, and simply being a nazarite or prophet was insufficient. The books of Samuel and Kings offer numerous examples where this rule is not followed by kings and prophets, but some textual scholars look elsewhere seeking a harmonization of the issues. In the Book of Chronicles, Samuel is described as a Levite, rectifying this situation; however textual scholars widely see the Book of Chronicles as an attempt to redact the Book(s) of Samuel and of Kings to conform to later religious sensibilities. Since many of the Mitzvot themselves are thought to postdate the Book(s) of Samuel (according to the documentary hypothesis), Chronicles is probably making its claim based on religious bias. The Levitical genealogy of is not historical, according to modern scholarship.
In , just before his retirement, Samuel gathers the people to an assembly at Gilgal, and gives them a farewell speech, in which he emphasises how prophets and judges were more important than kings, how kings should be held to account, and how the people should not fall into idol worship, or worship of Asherah or of Baal; Samuel threatens that God would subject the people to foreign invaders should they disobey. This, however, is seen by textual scholars as a deuteronomic redaction; archaeologically it is clear that Asherah was still worshipped in Israelite households well into the 6th century, which was obviously likely to have been a concern in regard to the deuteronomist's view of correct religion.
Samuel then went into retirement, though he reappears briefly in the two accounts of why Saul's dynasty lost divine favour (parts of and ), essentially acting, according to scholars, as the narrator's mouthpiece. Apart from being the individual who anoints David as king, a role Samuel is abruptly summoned to take, he does not appear any further in the text until his own death at his hometown Ramah where he is buried (cf. , , and ). According to classical rabbinical sources, this was at the age of fifty-two.
Samuel's death, however, is not completely the end of his appearance in the narrative. In the passage concerning Saul's visit to the Witch of Endor, ascribed by textual scholars to the republican source, Samuel is temporarily raised from the dead so that he can tell Saul his future. Although Christian interpretations of this event portray the Witch and Saul as having been frightened by his appearance, and Samuel as having been composed, classical rabbinical sources argue that Samuel was terrified by the ordeal, having expected to be appearing to face God's judgement, and had therefore brought Moses with him (to the land of the living) as a witness to his adherence to the mitzvot.
Some archeological sources claim that Samuel's tomb is located in Iran about 30 KM outside Saveh City.
According to the Book of Jeremiah, and one of the Psalms Samuel had a high devotion to God, which was mutual. Classical Rabbinical literature adds that he was more than an equal to Moses, God speaking directly to Samuel, rather than Samuel having to attend the tabernacle to hear God. Samuel is also described by the Rabbis as having been extremely intelligent; he argued that it was legitimate for laymen to slaughter sacrifices, since the Halakha only insisted that the priests bring the blood (cf , Zebediah 32a). Eli, who was viewed negatively by many Classical Rabbis, is said to have reacted to this logic of Samuel by arguing that it was technically true, but Samuel should be put to death for making legal statements while Eli (his mentor) was present.
Samuel is also treated by the Classical Rabbis as a much more sympathetic character than he appears at face value in the Bible; his annual circuit is explained as being due to his wish to spare people the task of having to journey to him; Samuel is said to have been very rich, taking his entire household with him on the circuit so that he didn't need to impose himself on anyone's hospitality; when Saul fell out of God's favour, Samuel is described as having grieved copiously and having prematurely aged.
For Evangelical Christians he is considered to be a Prophet, Judge, and wise Leader of Israel. He is a great example of how commitments to the Lord are fulfilled.
In Islam, Samuel is regarded as a revered prophet who is mentioned in the Quran at Chapter 2 Verse 246: "Hast thou not turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? They said to a prophet (That was) among them: 'Appoint for us a King, that we May fight in the cause of God.' He said: 'Is it not possible, if ye were commanded to fight, that that ye will not fight?' They said: 'How could we refuse to fight in the cause of God, seeing that we were turned out of our homes and our families?' But when they were commanded to fight, they turned back, except a small band among them. But God has full knowledge of those who do wrong." The Quran refers to him as a knowledgeable prophet (as mentioned in the above verse) who holds an argument with the Israelites, who asked of him to appoint a king for them for they would otherwise fail to fight in the cause of God.