Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
The opening chapters of 1 Samuel provide background for the institution of Israel’s monarchy.
After a narrative on the Hannah’s unlikely pregnancy (1 Samuel 1) and her accompanying prayer (1 Samuel 2), 1 Samuel 3 describes the call narrative for the Israelite leader.
The story is familiar to many of us. Eli is aged, both physically and emotionally from the parenting heartaches at the end of 1 Samuel 2. And as the young Samuel ministers under Eli, he hears God’s voice three times. Upon finally realizing through Eli’s direction that this was, indeed, the voice of God, he gives his stunning answer in verse 10, “Speak for your servant is listening.” The word God to Samuel reveals the next phase of God’s activity and in revealing to Samuel, his prophetic credibility is established.
But within this familiar story, sometimes we can miss certain details in our reading. Those details are exegetically significant, as the Bible tends to be laconic.
- “The word of the Lord was rare/precious; visions were not frequent” (1 Samuel 3:1).
Both of these phrases do not occur anywhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible. In biblical Hebrew, the descriptor of “rare/precious” is typically reserved for an item like jewelry, the idea of something extremely valuable due to pure lack of supply. Certainly, the preceding chapters reveal an anarchic time in Israel from the wider political chaos of Judges (particularly Judges 17-21) or the activities of Eli’s sons with little word from God.
- Eli’s eyes are dim (1 Samuel 3:2).
Eli is already aged in the previous episode. But the statement that his eyes had grown dim ties this passage to a weakened Isaac (Genesis 27:1) and contrasts with the model of Moses who had excellent sight even as he died (Deuteronomy 34:7). Whether the weakened leadership of Eli or the religious debauchery, Eli’s lack of vision reveal a hopeless social state of Israel.
- Samuel is confused, not just average confused, but really confused.
Three times, Samuel responds to a calling. Among those three times, Samuel responds, “Here I am” four times, once to God (1 Samuel 3:4) and three times to Eli (vv. 5, 6, 8). Although Samuel’s obedience and alacrity are admirable, he mistook an ailing Eli for God’s actual voice. The reason is explained that despite Samuel’s anointing, he was still very young in faith. In fact …
- “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:7).
The meaning of this phrase is difficult, but consider this sample of biblical characters who similarly did not know the Lord: Pharaoh (Exodus 5:2), the generation after Joshua (Judges 2:2), the sons of Eli, or as the Bible calls them, “scoundrels” (1 Samuel 2:12), Judeans about to be punished through exile (Jeremiah 8:7).
This is not exactly flattering company!
But there is one key word that separates Samuel from this list in that, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:7, emphasis mine). I don’t mean to open up the narrative on free will, determination, sovereignty. It is there, but it is theologically tangential to the crux of this passage.
I see two overarching themes emerge within these details of Samuel’s call. First, Samuel learns to forego his own agency in favor of God’s agency.
Interestingly, during the primary call (1 Samuel 3:10), Samuel no longer answers, “Here I am.” Why is that? Is Samuel less confused (definitely)? Is Samuel less panicked (probably)?
Verse 11 affirms Samuel’s deference when God responds, “See, I am about to do something.” Structurally, the passage outlines movement from Samuel’s repeated “Here I am” replies to God’s “See, I am.” When Samuel suppresses his own voice to hear God’s, he gets the spectacular proclamation beginning with the word that, “Will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” God then declares that prophetic fulfillment has finally arrived. Remember, the Word of the Lord had been rare and precious.
Samuel’s eagerness is commendable (“he ran” v.5), but an overzealous human spirit needs to take a backseat to God’s sovereignty (cf. 2 Samuel 7:5). Though we should be slow to judge Samuel, as in those times the Word of God had been rare.
Second, Samuel displays his full humanity. This passage informs our understanding of the rest of the life of Samuel. The Lord was with Samuel, but somehow, this divine appointment does not at all diminish the totality of the human experience. In 1 Samuel 3, Samuel undergoes eagerness, confusion, maturity, growth, realization, knowledge, panic, and affirmation.
Eventually, we see Samuel as a successful prophet (1 Samuel 3:20), military leader (1 Samuel 4), and interceder for the people of Israel when they fail (1 Samuel 15). Towards the end of his life, the corruption of his own sons will ironically mirror Eli’s failure (1 Samuel 8:1-3).
Why does the passage unabashedly display the full humanity within one of Israel’s pivotal prophets? I suspect that this helps us relate to the struggles of our own communities as they walk with God. I suspect that this helps us relate the biblical texts to our own lives.
The word of the Lord is precious. But instead of saying “Here I am,” perhaps we can quietly ask God to “Speak, for your servant is listening.”