Second Sunday after Pentecost

YHWH will find ways to humble those who abuse power


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June 2, 2024

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Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

The Samuel narrative continues in this account of his prophetic call from YHWH. While this story is one of the few that may make it into Old Testament Sunday school lessons, the depth and complexity is rich and rewarding.

Textual horizons

First, the broader context is a key to unlock the message in this text. I align with the scholars, such as Mark Thronveit, who uphold that Hannah’s “Magnificat” (1 Samuel 2:1–10) is a “theological prologue” that sets out the red thread or central motif for the four books of 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings.1 Hannah’s song has a core theme of “reversal of fortune,” where the poor and lowly who exalt in YHWH—including barren women—are lifted up, while those who are the adversaries of YHWH and the wicked will be cut off and shattered.

This reversal-of-fortune motif is repeated throughout these four books, which are included in what the scholars call the Deuteronomistic History (including also Joshua and Judges).2 In these books, the Deuteronomist/author(s) lays out a theology that demonstrates the reason for the destruction of Israel (722/721 BCE), then Judah and Jerusalem (587/586 BCE), as well as the many decades of exile in Babylon. The reason for these calamities, according to the Deuteronomist, is directly due to disobedience to the covenant with YHWH.

Thus, the central theological concern is faithfulness to YHWH. Therefore, obedience results in blessings, and—be warned in hopeful deterrence—disobedience results in curses or consequences aimed at provoking the disobedient to repent and return! The “evidence” in support of this Deuteronomistic worldview was demonstrated in the dramatic turns of events in these biblical books, where the humble faithful were lifted up and the prideful abusers of power were brought down.

Now, enter Samuel.

In this narrative with bits of delight (“Here I am!” in verses 4, 5, 6, 8) and dubiousness (“Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD” in verse 7), there is an important word, shomea’, that gets translated as “is listening” or as “[he] hears.”3 The Hebrew sense of the word is not only about listening or hearing, as the meaning includes a sense of obeying or heeding.4 Thus, Samuel’s response is inherently declaring obedience. The extended lectionary reading reveals his first test in his prophetic calling. Despite being afraid, Samuel is faithful to the vision from YHWH and does not withhold anything from Eli (verse 18).

In verse 19, Samuel’s faithful obedience to his prophetic calling is confirmed in a weird-sounding phrase that states that Samuel did not let any of YWHW’s words “fall to the ground.” Here, this carries a meaning of Samuel’s faithful prophetic proclamation of all the words given to him by YHWH.

Homiletic horizons

The Deuteronomist is making it clear: Be like Samuel! Obedience is central to covenant faithfulness. In the broader context of this pericope, the negative example of Eli’s worthless (1 Samuel 2:12–17) and blaspheming (1 Samuel 3:13) sons, Hophni and Phinehas, also reinforces the call to be trustworthy to God (1 Samuel 3:20). Yes, YHWH will find ways to humble those who abuse power.

So, preaching obedience is not vogue in most contexts today. Perhaps that is why many do not like the Deuteronomist.5 While the flattened “obedience brings blessings and disobedience brings curses” is fodder for prosperity gospel, these texts are indeed Scripture. Yet, we hold them in tension with a broader, careful reading of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

The concept of obedience is also made more complex with follow-up questions such as: Obedience to what, or according to whom? But we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater or dismiss the question because it is challenging. Also, be careful to avoid an unhelpful reductionist understanding that the Old Testament is “law” and the New Testament is “gospel”; there are both normative texts and texts overflowing with grace in both testaments!

The Jewish scholar, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, writes, “The greatest act of benevolence God can do for us is to give us a sense that there is justice in the world.”6 So, I encourage a recognition of the benevolent, gracious God who provides both instruction to guide our walking and the Holy Spirit to empower walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).

In the Old Testament, obedience is grounded in trusting the loving and blessing nature of YHWH and walking faithfully in the loving instructions (torah, unfortunately commonly translated as “law”) that keep us on the path of blessing.

What is the core of the torah? Loving YHWH and loving others. So, obedience is loving YHWH and others, according to Jesus’ example.

What is the manifestation of this gracious blessing? Not power, possessions, and pleasures! Again, Samuel makes it clear in verse 19: “YHWH was with him.”


  1. Mark Throntveit, “Enter the Bible – Books: 1 Samuel,” n.d.,, (accessed February 1, 2020).
  2. Sandra L. Richter, “Deuteronomistic History,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 219–30.
  3. Samuel’s words in verse 10 are translated in the New Revised Standard Version and New International Version as “Speak, for your servant is listening,” which grammatically represents the participle form. In the English Standard Version and New King James Version, it is translated as “your servant hears,” closer to the gravitas of the King James Version. This Hebrew word’s root is shama’.
  4. The Hebrew root, shama’, is the word referenced in the Jewish confession and prayer, the Shema Israel, which is often rendered, “Hear, O Israel.” Again, the meaning is more complex than simply “hear,” but also “listen,” “heed/obey,” and “hear.” (accessed 2 Mar 2024). In addition, the name, Samuel “can be understood as a combination of the root ‘to hear’ (…shm’) and ‘God’ (…el). Taken this way, it would mean something like ‘heard by God.’” Daniel S. Diffey and Miles Custis, “Samuel the Prophet,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016).
  5. I admit, that while I have big questions, I still appreciate the Deuteronomist’s Scriptures that represent many important aspects of God’s relationship with the people of God.
  6. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth, Bilingual edition (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2011), xxvi.