Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-21
As First Samuel opens, things could not be worse for Israel. Judges, the previous book, ended with the community in chaos. Micah establishes an alternative worship system (Judges 17). The Danites take over a peaceful town, steal Micah’s gods and priest, and adopt his religion for themselves (Judges 18). The all-night gang rape and abuse of one woman by some Benjaminite men leads to civil war that nearly wipes out the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-20). The community preserves the tribe of Benjamin by abducting and raping two communities of women, six hundred in all (Judges 21). No, things could not get worse.
The nation was falling apart. The system of judgeships had failed miserably. With all of the chaos, how could the community possibly continue? Would it die before it began? Would the promise God made to Abraham go unfulfilled? Who would God send to begin to deal with this mess? Samuel, Israel’s last judge and first prophet since Moses, is God’s answer.
Samuel was born at a pivotal point in Israel’s history. He represents Israel’s transition from a loose system of judges to a unified monarchy. The writer introduces the reader to Samuel by first introducing his mother, Hannah. Hannah’s story is the perfect segue for this transition because her story is diametrically opposed to stories of abuse and sexual objectification of women in Judges.
Since the Bible seldom tells women’s stories, it is noteworthy that 1 Samuel opens with Hannah’s story. With two chapters (1 Samuel 1:1– 2:10) devoted to her story, even before the narrator explains it, the reader instinctively knows that she and her son are significant characters in Israel’s story.
Hannah is barren. Yet, she is the beloved, favorite wife of her husband Elkanah. Hannah handles her barrenness with integrity. Even when taunted by Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife who bears many children, Hannah does not resort to the practice of using surrogate mothers to bear children for her. Sarah, Rachel, and Leah chose that route, creating much trouble in their families. She would not follow their lead. No, instead, Hannah takes her broken heart, her longing for a child to God. Samuel is God’s answer to her prayer. Once she weans him, in a show of gratitude to God, she leaves him with Eli the priest. Eli will help Samuel discern God’s call for his life.
Samuel’s call is fascinating. Unlike Moses who resisted God’s call, Samuel readily embraces his new responsibility. Perhaps living in the house of the Lord since he was three years old made him readily receptive to God’s call.
God’s call to Samuel came as a voice in the middle of the night. Three times Samuel mistook God’s voice for Eli’s voice. Eli helped Samuel realize God was calling and wisely advised him to answer God’s call. Samuel doesn’t object. He doesn’t resist. He simply returns to his resting place in God’s house.
Samuel Answers God’s Call
The difficulty of his prophetic task appears almost immediately. The next morning inquisitive Eli insists that Samuel tell him what God told him. Reluctantly, Samuel confirms what God already told Eli. God would punish Eli, ending his family line, because Eli did not put a stop to his sons’ abuse of power. They raped the women who came to worship and seized the sacrifices people made there.
Samuel fulfilled many roles not only as prophet, but also judge, military leader, seer, and priest. As a judge he travelled the countryside issuing judgments. As military leader, he led the Israelites to a victory over the Philistines at Mizpah.1 As seer, he opposed Israel’s request for a king and warned them of problems inherent in a monarchy. As priest he anointed Israel’s first kings, Saul and David.
As prophet, though he would mourn Saul’s loss of the throne, Samuel confronted him when he abused his power by offering sacrifices. Despite his unwavering support, Samuel warned Saul that disobedience would cause God to take the throne away from his family.
Samuel was faithful even beyond the grave. When Saul, in desperation to hear from God, sought his advice through a medium, Samuel delivered the devastating news that Saul and his sons would die the next day in battle.
The record shows Samuel did his job well. Much like the pastors, preachers, ministers, and other staff who have held churches together during the pandemic, Samuel held Israel together during its transition. I am convinced that God and Samuel would agree.
God Call Us Too!
While Samuel’s call came ages ago, the truth is that God still calls. God equips all of us with gifts and graces, interests and talents to be used to bless one another. Whether in ministry or other vocations, whether in the household, in the community, in the workplace, or in the church, everyone has a job to do. In Phillippians 2:13 Paul explains: “It is God who produces in you the desires and actions that please him” (God’s Word). No matter what desires, dreams, and visions we have, they all come from God.
The question is: what will we do with those desires, those dreams, those visions? What will we do with those gifts and graces, interests and talents that God has given us? Will we make excuses, do nothing about them, and then complain that our lives are unfulfilled? Or will we use what God has given us to bless others and ourselves?
Answering God’s call leads to living one’s best life, to a life that fulfills Jesus’ summary of the great commandments to love God, others, and oneself. The question is: “What will you do, what will I do, what will we do, individually and collectively, to answer God’s call in our lives?”
1. Samuel, First and Second Book of: Samuel the Man, The Revell Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1990), 891.
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