First Sunday of Christmas

At first glance this text about Samuel’s early years seems not to provide many resources for preaching and teaching.

December 27, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

At first glance this text about Samuel’s early years seems not to provide many resources for preaching and teaching.

But it has been chosen for the lectionary because of its parallels with the gospel text for the day regarding Jesus’ boyhood (Luke 2:41-52). It should also be noted that the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 has many parallels to Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. So it is clear that 1 Samuel 2 has been a major resource in the writing of the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and in early reflection about the significance of Jesus.

The book of I Samuel begins with the story of the birth and consecration of Samuel. Hannah had been barren and, upon Samuel’s birth late in her life, she understood that he was a gift from God in response to her prayer. She made a vow to offer him to the service of the temple when he had been weaned (1:22). In fulfillment of her vow, she “lent him to the LORD” (1:28), that is, she gave him to Eli to assist in the care of the temple and its worship (2:11). It was a permanent loan.

The Song of Hannah in 2:1-10 was her response upon the occasion of the gift of her son Samuel to the service of God. Its genre is to be identified as a song of thanksgiving. It celebrates God’s role in the reversal of the fortunes of his people–from barrenness to fertility, from poor to rich, from lowliness to being given a place of honor, from death to life. She speaks of the reversal both in her own life and that of the people to whom she belonged, and so it moves from the singular to the plural.

One can understand why this song with these themes was used by Luke 1:46-55 to give form and content to Mary’s Magnificat upon the announcement that she, a lowly one, would become a mother of the one promised by God. The similarities between Hannah and Mary are worth pondering.

1 Samuel 2 moves from this strong note of thanksgiving to the depiction of a contrast between the life of Samuel (and his family) and the life of the sons of Eli. This contrast is stated, not in parallel columns, but in interweaving stanzas. On the one hand, the life of Samuel is presented (2:11, 18-21, 26; continuing in 3:1-21) as moving increasingly toward maturity and in favor with the people and God. The lectionary draws only from these verses and then not fully (it will also use 3:1-10 for another time).

The life of Eli’s sons, on the other hand, is portrayed (2:12-17, 22-25, 27-36) in increasingly scandalous terms, leading to the sharpest judgment of God imaginable. So the text moves between the poles of decline and increasing favor, the poles of evil perpetrated against the people and increasing favor with the people, and the poles of God’s judgment and divine mercy.

In the language of 2:12-17, the sons of Eli were “scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord” and “treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.” The text that comes between the verses assigned for the lectionary (and eliminated from the reading; 2:21-25) develops the negative image of the sons of Eli even further. They were not only guilty of greed and theft but also sexual immorality. Indeed, they were so evil that it “was the will of the Lord to kill them” (2:25). This is to say that their behaviors were so contemptible and incorrigible that they would suffer the consequences of their sins according to the moral order created and mediated by God. Your sins will find you out!

This negative story is continued in 2:27-36 with the condemnation of the line of Eli. Strikingly, in that text a promise that God had made to this family is taken back (2:30), a rare event in the Bible. It suggests the difficult idea that God honors this family’s unfaithfulness. That is, in the face of such a massive rejection of divine grace, God’s promises do not entail immunity from judgment, even final judgment.

Woven into the fabric of this negative image of the sons of Eli are contrasting words about Samuel and his family and their faithfulness to God (2:18-21, 26; verse 21 is not included in the lectionary). Verses 18-20 speak of Samuel’s service “before the Lord”; he even wears an ephod (or apron) that suggests a role comparable to that of a priest. Also noted is the continued contact (including gifts) of his devout parents with him and with the sanctuary at which he served.

On their regular visits to the sanctuary Eli would bless them and pray that they would continue to bear children. The NRSV translation of Eli’s blessing is something of a problem (see the NRSV footnotes); the word translated “repay” would more naturally be translated “give;” moreover, the translation “for the gift” is more naturally translated “for the petition.” The issue here has to do with God’s response to their prayers, not some kind of repeated recompense for the gift she gave in the past. This blessing is followed by the announcement (verse 21) that in response to prayer God “took note” (it is not clear what kind of divine agency this entails) and Hannah gave birth to three sons and two daughters.

It is noted in verse 21 that “Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.” This theme of growing is continued in verse 26: Samuel grew “in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” Samuel’s maturity is witnessed at two levels: stature in the human community of which he was a part and growth in his relationship with God. Similar language is used of Jesus in Luke 2:52 (cf. 2:40). Jesus experiences growth at two levels as well. He increases in human wisdom (he is not gifted with all knowledge from the beginning) and his relationship with God advances in its maturity.