Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-21
The story of Samuel’s call is full of important details that are pregnant with meaning, right from the opening verses which set the stage (verses 1-3).
Here is where we learn that “Samuel was serving the LORD under Eli” (verse 1a; CEB), even though, quite unexpectedly, we hear just a few verses later that “Samuel didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him” (verse 7; CEB). The latter half of verse 7 makes perfect sense in context, but the first half doesn’t make sense, especially given verse 1a (see also 2:18). Perhaps it is a kind of narrative interruption or parenthetical aside added to explain the oddity of verse 1’s service to God which is then followed by the three “misses” where Samuel mistakes God’s voice for Eli’s (verses 4-8a).
But then again Samuel’s service is not entirely single-minded in verse 1. It is “under Eli” and the following account repeatedly demonstrates that Samuel is indeed under Eli — dependent on his voice and, ultimately, his insight — even as it also demonstrates that, after God’s call, Samuel will no longer be subservient to Eli. Instead, Eli will be dependent on Samuel for the word of the Lord (verse 17), and the same holds true for all of Israel (3:21-4:1).
Eli may be the most interesting character in this chapter, despite the attention paid to Samuel and the inauguration of his prophetic ministry.1 This is the same Eli who, in chapter 1, initially thought Hannah was drunk as she prayed (1:12-14). He was clearly mistaken, and, once he is corrected by Hannah, he blesses her (1:15-17; cf. 2:20). This pattern of initial misperception followed by improved priestly practice is repeated in chapter 3, where it takes Eli, no less than Samuel, three times before he realizes it is God who has been calling the boy. The narrative detail that Eli’s eyes had begun to grow dim (3:2) may thus be a kind of clue about Eli’s ways — a clue that is not a complete surprise given the account in chapter 1. Here, in chapter 3, as in chapter 1, once he perceives the matter, Eli responds aright: instructing Samuel what to do (3:9).
This is also the same Eli, whose sons, Hophni and Phineas, were scoundrels who had no regard for God or the priestly duties (2:12-18). The narrative delay between the initial report of their wrongdoing and Eli’s confronting them (verses 22-25a) may reflect the pattern seen in chapters 1 and 3. He is very old (verse 22) but, eventually — and rightly — confronts his sons about their wrongdoing, but to no avail (verse 25b). Already in chapter 2, therefore, we know that Eli’s priesthood will end with him (verse 25c). The contrast of the house of Eli with the boy Samuel, and his increased favor with God and the people, could not be more marked (2:26).
Eli hears an extended and explicit report of the demise of his family and his sons from an unnamed “man of God” in 2:27-36, but once again there seems to be a delay of some sort, perhaps because of his “dim eyes” (3:2), since we move directly from that prophetic report to the call of Samuel in 3:1-21. After the third call, and only then, do we learn that Eli discerned (byn) that God was calling the boy (verse 8b).
This is a crucial moment. It is thinkable that, despite his accurate discernment, Eli might not have told Samuel what was happening, or might have given him improper instructions about what to do next. But Eli, who is often slow on the uptake and whose priestly dynasty will die with him, can still discern matters and can still chose rightly. His house and his priesthood may well be tainted, but there is still insight and goodness in him and in the tradition that precedes and, further, facilitates the new thing God does with Samuel.2 Instead of blocking Samuel’s encounter with God or somehow thwarting it, Eli enables it to go forward. Perhaps, then, 3:8b is Eli’s typically-slow-but-ultimately-insightful response to 2:27-36, paralleling how he eventually, and correctly, responded to Hannah’s prayer and to his sons’ misdeeds.
If so, Eli’s priestly work may not yet be finished, though Samuel’s call in 3:10-14 has virtually nothing to do with Samuel, but everything to do with Eli and the end of his house. What God tells Samuel here is largely a compressed version of 2:27-36, though there is a new detail: namely, that, from God’s perspective, Eli didn’t do enough to restrain his sons from their blasphemous ways (3:13; see also 2:29). Samuel’s inaugural call, therefore, is not to the prophetic office writ large, but to the specific task of playing the prophet — one with a stunningly brutal word of judgment — to Eli.
That is exactly what Samuel does, but, again, not without Eli’s priestly intervention. Samuel, we hear, “was afraid to tell the vision to Eli” (verse 15) and for obvious reasons. But Eli calls Samuel, not unlike the Lord did, and Samuel responds, just as always has (verse 16; cf. verses 4-5, 6, 8). Eli asks Samuel what God has said, then adjures him to not withhold any of it, and then goes so far as to use a curse formula if Samuel does. This three-fold approach seems a bit much — perhaps it says something negative about Eli’s character. But, in light of other instances where Eli eventually does things right, the three-fold request — especially the last part that invokes a divine curse — may be exactly the kind of pressure young Samuel needs to tell the whole truth to the one who is the brunt of that word. “So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him” (verse 18a).
Eli’s response is brief and poignant, after hearing that ear-tingling news (cf. verse 11): “He is YHWH. He will do that which is good in his eyes” (verse 18b; my translation). Some English versions of this verse make Eli sound apathetic, maybe even bitter — and perhaps that is correct. But it seems equally possible that, here too, Eli proves himself to be a profound priest. Priests know, after all, that despite all the priestly apparatus, sometimes sacrifice and intervention will simply not avail (2:25a; 3:14). Priests also know their proper standing vis-à-vis God. They know that God’s eyes may see things differently (compare 3:13 with 2:22-25a). And priests know that God has the power to do as God pleases, though it is noteworthy that Eli specifically identifies that which God will do as “the good” (ha-tov; see also, Psalms 115:3; 135:6; Ecclesiastes 8:3). If that good is immediately qualified as what is good in the Lord’s eyes, so be it: priests know they serve God, not vice versa. In the end, therefore, Eli’s sentiment in 1 Samuel 3:18 may not be too different in tone from Mary’s remarkable response to Gabriel: “Let it be with me just as you have said” (Luke 1:38; CEB). If there is resignation in Eli, there is also obedience and submission to God’s will — even though that will is presently dead set against him. Eli’s remarkable acceptance of that judgment is exemplary. It is thus not entirely surprising, but still noteworthy, that when we next hear of Eli, his heart is trembling for the ark of God (4:13) and he dies immediately upon hearing that the ark had been captured (4:18).
1. See the insightful remarks by Stephen B. Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 87-89, to which I am indebted.
2. For the new initiative with Samuel, see especially Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Lousville: John Knox, 1990), 27-28.
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.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, Henry Purcell