Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-21
The story of God’s people continues, and again time has passed.
The wilderness lessons are over, and the people have settled into the land God promised Abraham (Genesis 12:1, 15:7, 17:8). After Joshua, the Israelites are led by a series of judges who rise up in difficult times. As the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. The promised land is not easy and without conflict.
This book opens not in the halls of power, but in the house of a man who is remembered only here. Elkanah is married to two women, and Hannah, his favorite, is barren. Hannah begs God for a child and during her prayer encounters the priest, Eli, who is less than comforting, accusing the praying woman of being drunk! Despite this initial encounter, Eli tells Hannah that her prayer will be answered. Hannah has her long-awaited child, does as she promised, and gives the child to the Lord; so the boy, Samuel, remains with Eli at the holy place in Shiloh. This is how Samuel comes to be with Eli.
This family structure may appear strange or even immoral to us, but it was common for the time. Also, Hannah’s promise to God may appear rash, but the dedication of her son to the Lord is akin to the sacrament of baptism or the dedication of an infant. In this sacrament, we confirm God’s blessing and God’s call upon the life of a child. We affirm, just as Hannah does, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God. All children develop their own relationship with God, and it is our responsibility to nurture that relationship so that it grows as the child does.
In the focus text, Samuel lives in a precarious time when “the word of the LORD was rare” (verse 1). This is a continuation of the problem at the end of book of Judges where “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Indeed, 1 Samuel 2 speaks of how Eli’s own sons did what was right in their own eyes in their work as priests (1 Samuel 2:11-17). The times are as dark as the night that falls at the beginning of the story.
The boy, Samuel, is bedded down in the temple with the Ark of the Covenant while Eli slept in another room. The boy hears a voice calling and three times arises and goes to Samuel to ask what he wants. We know that it is God who is calling the boy, but he does not. Even Eli does not understand what is happening right away. Eventually however, Eli tells the boy to speak to the Lord.
There are several lessons in this story. The first is the ease with which we may miss God’s call or attribute it to someone else. Most people who speak of their call do not describe a major disruption in their lives. There are few Damascus Road experiences. Instead, they speak of a quiet, slow awakening to something, be that a life of a particular office in the church, an injustice that needs to be addressed, or a task that needs attention. Like Samuel, they often tell of a period of uncertainty about exactly what and why God is calling them. In addition, Samuel needed Eli to help him understand his call. It often takes others in our lives to aid us in understanding the call that God places before us. Part of our community of faith is to aid each other to see and live out our individual callings from God.
A second lesson concerns Samuel as the outsider. Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple. Yet, they have not acted justly and have used their position for gain instead of service to the Lord. Throughout the Bible, God does not always choose the expected ones. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David were all unlikely choices. Jesus calls fishermen and laborers to serve as disciples instead of the priests and prophets of Jerusalem. Position in the church or community is not a guarantee in God’s world. All, even outsiders, can and are given tasks in God’s kingdom.
Just as in the text from last week, God has no interest in the ways we humans order the world. The prophet Joel notes, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your old men shall dream dreams; and your young men shall see visions; even on your male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 3:28-29). God calls all, even the unexpected.
The third point continues one of the themes from the wilderness. Just as moving into the promised land did not guarantee a perfect life, neither does God’s call to serve. God’s words to Samuel were hard to hear and even harder to tell to his mentor. Samuel’s first act of his call is to tell God’s word to Eli and that word involved judgment against Eli’s own children. Like Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God’s call often involves working to change human systems that are broken, and this can lead down difficult paths.
God’s call comes when we least expect it and often to those we least expect. God is always the God of surprises. We as the church need to be like Eli, encouraging all to hear the voice that calls them forth into all that they were created to be. At the same time, we help each other to tell the truth even when the truth is hard to hear. And as with last week’s lesson, we need to remember we follow one who is always turning our human systems upside down!
PRAYER OF THE DAY
In the stillness of the night you called Samuel into your service. Call us into service with a voice we are able to hear, and give us hearts to come when we are called. Amen.
Here I am, Lord ELW 574
I will call upon the Lord (trad.)
Come, thou fount of every blessing ELW 807, H82 686, UMH 400, NCH 459
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, Henry Purcell