Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
What does it mean to be called by God?
Is it something that happens only to a few, or is it part of our lives as Christians? Both the Old Testament and New Testament texts for this week focus on the call of God and help us understand God’s call on our own lives.
The Old Testament lesson from 1 Samuel is set early in the life of the nation. Israel had known strong leaders in Moses and Joshua. Then, after settlement in the land, the Israelites are led by a series of judges who rise up in difficult times. At this point, Israel is not an organized nation. In fact, as the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. The books of Joshua and Judges demonstrate that things are far from perfect, even though the people are in the promised land.
1 Samuel opens not in the halls of power, but in the house of a man remembered only here. Elkanah is married to two women, and Hannah, his favorite, is barren. This theme is familiar, and reflects another time when barrenness put God’s promise in question with the matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel. We are reminded that what seem to be personal domestic decisions also have world-wide consequences when seen across the whole span of history. Hannah begs God for a child, and during her prayer, she encounters the priest Eli who is less than comforting. accusing the praying woman of being drunk! Despite this initial encounter, Eli tells Hannah that her prayer will be answered. Hannah has her long awaited child and does as she promised. She gives the child to the LORD. The boy, Samuel, remains with Eli at the holy place in Shiloh.
This family may seem odd to us, but it was common for the time. Also, Hannah’s promise may appear rash, but the dedication of her son to the Lord is akin to the sacrament of baptism or the dedication of an infant. In baptism, we confirm God’s blessing and call upon the life of a child. We affirm, just as Hannah does, that our children do not belong to us, but are given to us by God. All children develop their own relationship with God, and it is our responsibility to nurture that relationship so that it grows as the child does.
In the focus text, Samuel lives in a precarious time when “the word of the LORD was rare” (verse 1). This situation continues the problem from the end of Judges, where “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Indeed, 1 Samuel 2 speaks of how Eli’s sons did what was right in their own eyes in their work as priests (1 Samuel 2:11-17). The times are as dark as the night that falls at the beginning of the story.
The boy, Samuel, is bedded down in the temple with the ark of the covenant while Eli slept in another room. The boy hears a voice calling and three times arises and goes to Samuel to ask what he wants. Meanwhile, we know that it is God calling the boy, but he does not. Even Eli does not understand what is happening right away. Eventually, however, Eli tells the boy to speak to the Lord. The lectionary reading ends at verse ten with Samuel doing as Eli told him.
There are several trajectories in this story. First is the ease with which we may miss God’s call, or attribute it to a human instead. In speaking of their call, most people do not describe a major disruption in their lives. Instead they speak of a quiet, slow awakening−perhaps to a life of service or an injustice that needs to be addressed. Like Samuel, they often tell about a period of uncertainty regarding what they are being called to do or be. Also, Samuel needed Eli to explain to him what these stirrings mean. It often takes others in our lives to aid us in understanding the call God places before us.
A second direction is to focus on Samuel as the outsider in the narrative. Eli’s sons are from the priestly line, and it is their birthright to serve in the Temple. Yet, they have not acted justly. They have used their position for personal gain instead of service to the Lord. Throughout the Bible, God does not always choose the expected ones. Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David were all unlikely choices. Jesus calls fishermen and laborers to serve as disciples instead of the priests and prophets of Jerusalem. Power and position in the church or community do not guarantee a similar place in God’s world. All, even outsiders, are given tasks in God’s kingdom.
The third point of this narrative requires the text to extend to the end of the chapter. Ending at verse 10 misses the most important point of this chapter! Just as moving into the promised land did not guarantee a perfect life, neither does God’s call to serve. God’s words to Samuel were hard to hear and even harder to speak to others, for they involved judgment against Eli’s own children. Like Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God’s call often involves working to change human systems that are broken, leading one down difficult paths.
God’s call comes when we least expect it and often to those we least expect. God is always the God of surprises. We, as the church, need to be like Eli, encouraging everyone to hear the voice that calls them forth into all they are created to be. At the same time, we help each other to tell the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear.