Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
The Christmas season is easily equated with children.
Children abound — from the surprising and unsettling birth of God-as-child in a manger to this childhood story of Samuel. Hannah, a barren, older woman prays in the temple for a child. Eli hears her, thinking first that she may be drunk, then realizing that she is earnestly praying. He blesses her. Hannah makes promises, vowing to give the child to God. She does then give birth to a son, Samuel, whom she brings and entrusts to Eli. She dedicated this child to the Lord.
The scene described in today’s reading is particularly touching (but also foreign to our sensitivity with regards to children today). A mother willingly surrenders her child to the Lord, entrusting him to others, to serve the Lord. Once a year (we are told), Hannah and Elkanah go up to the temple to perform the yearly sacrifice and as they do, she brings a new robe, new clothing for her young and growing son. Each year anew, Eli would bless them.
The boy is already well versed in his service, wearing a linen ephod (a liturgical/priestly garment). The mention of a linen ephod may or may not be surprising. It is unclear to what extent young boys, serving in the sanctuary, would wear one. (The young king David danced a wild dance in front of the Arc of the Covenant apparently wearing only a linen ephod scandalizing Michal, the daughter of Saul! See 2 Samuel 6).
The story of Samuel’s origins is perhaps not surprising. It represents a pattern within the scriptural narrative: God choses the marginalized or the downtrodden to break-in upon history. Sarah, like Hannah, was older and barren. Rachel, too, was barren and jealous of her sister Leah. All three women were dealing with “competitors” — either co-wives or servants.
Hannah was taunted by Peninnah, the other wife of Elkanah. These stories finally parallel that of Elizabeth, also old and barren, who then conceives and gives birth to John, the baptizer, the last and greatest of the prophets. Through these surprising and unexpected births, a child is set apart as truly “of God,” dedicated to and willing to serve God.
The dedication to God of this child is complex. Eli and his household are corrupt. Eli’s inability to curb the wickedness of his own sons is continually revealed in these chapters. This blindness is highlighted in the preceding chapter when the prophet Eli does not recognize Hannah’s fervent as prayer but as drunkenness. (Eventually, Eli himself becomes physically blind.) The reader is left to wonder what the young boy Samuel might have suffered in his role as servant to Eli and as the one to prophecy against Eli and his household.
The child Samuel assumes multiple roles. In our short excerpt from chapter 2, we read that he ministers before the Lord and, as noted, wears a linen ephod. He is designated already to be priest and, as we know from the surrounding verses, also judge and prophet. Samuel is the child of transition, transition from the time of judges to the time of kings. This powerless child signifies a radical shift in power and political structure in Israel.
The mention of Samuel’s clothing is noteworthy here on yet another level. The ephod (and perhaps the little robe as well) points towards his ever-increasing role and growing prominence. Samuel will soon carry the people of Israel towards a new identity. In the Epistle reading for this Sunday (Colossians 3:12-21), we are reminded of another type of clothing that the baptized take on: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We too are called to bear one another, to care for each other in community and the world now not with powerful means but with love.
The lectionary is making a comparison on this First Sunday of Christmas but it is not between the birth of Samuel and the birth of Jesus. Rather it is between the childhood of Samuel and Jesus’s own life as a child. Luke gives us the only story of the twelve-year old boy who stays behind in the Temple, asking questions and astonishing those present with his wisdom.
Mary, unlike, Hannah is not willing to leave her child there and expresses her anxiety to him! There are pronounced dissimilarities highlighted in these stories. The child Samuel, though gift, is still given by his parent to God whereas the child Jesus, as total gift, is entrusted to Mary for care and nurture. One child is “of God.” The other child “is God.”
Reflecting again upon the place of this reading in the Christmas season, we realize that the “child,” as a central theme for these twelve days, is not such a blissful image. The manger scene — already a scene of marginality though this aspect is lost to us through our Christmas folklore — gives way to more violent scenes. On the day after Christmas, the liturgical calendar remembers the young man Stephen, probably not much more than a child at the time, who is stoned to death for his witness to Christ, the incarnate, crucified and resurrection God.
On December 28, the calendar remembers the Holy Innocents – all the children under two who were martyred by Herod in his attempt to thwart God’s plan in Jesus. We hear the wailing, the lament of Rachel. On this Sunday, with the text from 1 Samuel, we remember another child who will become a prophet and the maker and breaker of kings in God’s name.
The season is one of tension and a confrontation with the stark reality of what it means when God enters upon the scene. What does this image of a child contain? How will we grapple with it as preachers and in our prayers? Not the cute, loveable, adorable image we usually conjure up. In the ancient world, being a child was being without rights, a non-entity, subject to death at any whim. Today, millions of children remain equally vulnerable.
The Christmas season reminds us of the precarious form God takes on and the powerless means God uses to accomplish God’s design. A child surrendered to the Temple, serving God in a little ephod, receiving new clothes once a year from his parents. Finally, God assumes those powerless means and becomes himself a child, born in a manger, on the outskirts, dwelling in the Temple — present yet unrecognized.