Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
The narrative of the calling of Samuel is replete with irony and foreshadowing.
The irony is bitter: Samuel thinks the voice calling him in the night belongs to Eli, but the voice belongs to YHWH, and the message is against Eli and his house. The oracle of doom for the house of Eli foreshadows the oracles Samuel delivers over the course of his life. A prophet’s call tends to set the tone for the prophet’s career, and Samuel’s call is no exception.
As the first prophet of ancient Israel in the period of the monarchy, Samuel exposes the threat of monarchs who are concerned with their own security and wealth rather than the well being of their people. He calls out against ruling families throughout his career, foretelling not only the end of the leadership of Eli and his sons but also the end of Saul’s kingship in 1 Samuel 13:13-15. Indeed, even in death he refuses to give any satisfaction to a desperate Saul (1 Samuel 28).
The oracles of Samuel are uncompromising and clear, and yet uncertainty and confusion cloud his first prophetic experience. 1 Samuel 3 begins: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli” and so emphasizes the youth of Samuel as well as the fact that he is under the authority of Eli. Both his youth and his social position relative to Eli would seem to present two serious obstacles to the delivery of this message. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that “the word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (verse 1b) and “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (verse 7).
The narrator then adds a brief description of the state of Eli, noting that his “eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see” (verse 2). As if all of these things were not sufficient impediments to the coming of God to Samuel, the narrator adds one more. All of this happens before “the lamp of God had…gone out” and so establishes that this calling occurred during the night. (The lamp of God burned from evening until morning in the sanctuary, see Exodus 27:20-21.)
It might be tempting to see the description of Eli’s failing eyesight as a metaphor for a lack of vision in the aging priest, but Eli sees through all of the confusion of that night more clearly than does the young Samuel. He realizes that it is God calling Samuel in the night and instructs the boy in the proper response to a divine word (verse 9).
Indeed, he anticipates the content of the message — not surprising in light of 1 Samuel 2:27-36 which describes a similar oracle against Eli’s house by an unnamed prophet — when he urges Samuel not to withhold any part of it from him (verse 17) and then accepts the hard word against his family with the words, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him” (verse 18b). Eli’s eyesight may be failing, but his insight is sharp, and he responds to the oracle of judgment with dignity and humility.
In light of the very positive relationship that Samuel and Eli share, it is interesting that the reason for the judgment of Eli’s house is the relationship between Eli and his own sons. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, are blaspheming by eating the choicest parts of the sacrificial animals, the parts that are to be given to God (1 Samuel 2:12-17), and Eli has failed to restrain them. Even when confronted by those who are offering the sacrifice, the sons of Eli refuse to give the fatty parts of the animal to YHWH. Their appetites lead them to abuse their power, give insult to YHWH and put their own desires above the needs of the people they serve.
The tendency of the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable is a chief concern of Samuel. When the people cry out for a king in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns them against kings, who seek after their own good more than the collective good of their people. A king “will take the best” from his people and use it for his own betterment (1 Samuel 8:11-18). The ideal ruler of the people rules seeks only the good of the people and reflects the concern of YHWH for the poor and powerless.
It is significant that this book depicting the origins of the monarchy in ancient Israel begins with the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Hannah sings of the character of YHWH, a god who breaks “the bows of the mighty” and yet girds “the feeble” with strength (verse 4). This same God fills up the hungry (verse 5) and “raises up the poor from the dust” (verse 8). Just as the call of Samuel sets the tone for his prophetic career and foreshadows the oracles he will deliver against the human leaders of the people, the song of Hannah represents the central focus of YHWH’s leadership of the people: concern for the poor and powerless, and judgment of those who prey on the vulnerable and abuse their power.
While Samuel preached against a form of government that is less common in our day, his message, and the message of his mother, is still, sadly, pertinent. The poor and powerless are still at the mercy of the strong. Human appetite still destroys lives and livelihood. The task of the church is twofold: (1) to cry out against injustice and the abuse of power in the world, and (2) to hear and respond with humility to the message of judgment that challenges our own practices. There are some who would argue that the statement of 1 Samuel 3:1, regarding the rarity of visions in the time of Samuel, applies to our own time.
There are many voices competing for our attention and how many of us can say that we really know God well enough to recognize a word as being from God or someone else? There is one thing we can know, however. The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry. Perhaps the difficulty of this message is how easily it can apply to us. Are we in the position of Eli or, worse, his sons, eating our fill and denying both God and our neighbors their share?