Home » Biblical Studies » 101 Most Misunderstood Verses » Getting out the Pagan Within Part 3: The Sense of Snatching Samuel’s Skirt—A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

Getting out the Pagan Within Part 3: The Sense of Snatching Samuel’s Skirt—A Biblical Theology of I Samuel 15:27-31

1 Samuel 15 3 smallWe are looking at the divine condemnation of Saul’s dynasty in 1 Samuel 15, having already considered the seriousness of the sin which lead directly to it.

In the midst of the exchange between discredited king and holy prophet, 1 Samuel 15:27-31, a strange social ballet of sorts takes place. Its exact nature has befuddled many over the years.

As the prophet departs, having refused Saul’s appeals for forgiveness from YHWH and for accompaniment and a validation from Samuel himself, Saul grasps the hem of Samuel’s garment and it tears. Samuel uses the moment to reiterate YHWH’s condemnation of Saul’s dynasty, but, in the face of Saul’s renewed appeal for accompaniment and validation, Samuel changes his mind and goes with Saul.

Some have envisioned here, a desperate man clinging to the last vestiges of hope, grabbing out to prevent the prophet’s departure, making one last pitiful appeal for mercy from the man. Others, confusing the pronouns, have seen here a prophetic play, in which Samuel acts out the severance of Saul’s hold on the throne. In this version, it is the prophet who grabs Saul’s hem, tearing it like Jeremiah might smash a vase, or Ezekiel might lay siege to a model of Jerusalem. Neither, however, explains the proper relationship between the hem grab and the decision—So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the LORD (1 Samuel 15:31).

The nature and meaning of the hem is, however, easily traced among the various Ancient Near Eastern people groups. The sisiktu, believed to be the immediate ancestor of the garment hem, was a skirt or garment with a hem and tassels which played a role in Babylonian religious practices and extended from there into broader social functions.[1]

The data record the hem as a mystical & symbolic extension of the hem wearer, functioning in three major ways.

Firstly, the hem was used in place of, and at times alongside of, an individual’s seal in business transactions. They pressed it into tablets as a marker.

Secondly, the hem was used vicariously in ceremonial acts such as exorcisms, propitiatory lamentations, the casting of spells, and divorces. What one did over the  hem they did on behalf of the hem owner.

Thirdly, it was clutched when petitioning both men and gods. The one whose hem was clutched, whether a humanly clad god or a man, was under compulsion to respond favorably to a petition if it was within one’s power to do so.

Stephens feels that the relationship of one’s sisiktu to his religion was inseparable, even after expanding into broader functions, being essentially a sign of his worship unto and his union with his god.

To use it between men would be to plead with another in the name of his god. To use it in business would represent an oath before his god. To tear it would separate a man from the protective relationship of his god.

As such, Kalluveettil,[2] and Brauner,[3] demonstrate through various quotations from ancient documents that the act of grabbing the hem is a covenant formula, signifying the submission and binding of the supplicant to the intended benefactor, and a compulsory means of petitioning one’s superior.

If you are familiar with the Scriptures, I assume that the notion of garment hems is not a new concept to you, even if you never quite grasped the significance of their appearance… no pun intended… well, since I wrote it, I guess I did intend it.

David’s severance of Saul’s hem in the cave, takes on new meaning, as does David’s guilt over it. (1 Samuel 24:1ff) It should be noted that David’s conscience does not bother him in a parallel account involving Saul’s spear and jug. (1 Samuel 26:8ff)

After Ruth comes with a proposal of marriage to Boaz, she says, “spread your hem over me,” but Boaz does not comply, for there is yet another who has first rights as redeemer for both property and marriage.

In parallel with this, in Ezekiel’s allegory of YHWH’s care for His people, in Ezekiel 16:8, he says, “…and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My hem over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,”

In Zechariah 8:23 the text says, “and they will seize upon the hem.”  In context, it reads, “In those days ten men from all the nations will seize upon the hem of a Jew saying, “ Let us go up with you, for we have heard that God is with you.””

Matthew 23:5 records, within Jesus’ diatribe against the Pharisees and Scribes, that these leaders’ desire to be exalted before men causes them to widen the borders of their garments.

In Matthew 9:20ff, a woman with an “issue of blood” is convinced that if she can just touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, she will be made well. She reaches her goal, and is immediately healed.

In Matthew 14:36, the crowds move in on Jesus and begin to entreat Him to allow them to “touch the hem of his cloak.” The narrator goes on to note that all who touched it were healed.

For Jesus, the hem may have been more than just an instrument of petition, having with in it, a mystical/symbolic representation of His person in relation to his Father. Some have suggested that it was part of Messianic hope, in keeping with Malachi 4:2, that Messiah would have healing in his hem. It says, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings (the word for wings and hem are the same—kanaph).

And what do we infer from all this? What relationship might the desperate grasping of a prophet’s hem have in relation to that same prophet’s abrupt and compromising change of mind in regard to his public attendance in Saul’s sanctimonious worship?

Samuel was placed under a powerful social and religious covenantal appeal that could not be denied if its meeting was within his power. This does not, however, imply any pressure on YHWH to do the same… more on Saul’s worship and Samuel’s rebuke later.


[1] Ferris J. Stevens,  “The Ancient Significance of sisith.Journal of Biblical Literature. 50 (1931): 63-4.

[2] Paul Kalluveettil, Analecta Biblica – 88 [Declaration and Covenant]. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1982.

 [3] Ronald Brauner, “To Grasp the Hem and 1 Samuel 15:27,” JANES 6 (1974) 35-38.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: