Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
The story of the calling of Samuel is a familiar one for veterans of Sunday school.
What is discussed less, however, is how the calling of Samuel signals tectonic shifts in Israelite society and religion, and inaugurates a period of prophetic critique of Israelite leaders. Samuel and Eli both witness God’s removal of Eli’s family from power and the transfer of that power to Samuel.
The spiritual context of this passage is immediately clear in Scripture: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1). The Israelites are no longer witnessing God lead them, and they no longer hear God’s laws or prophesies. The blame for that, at least in 1 Samuel, is largely laid at the feet of one man: Eli the priest.
Eli is a terrible leader. He mistakes Hannah’s silent prayer of deep devotion for drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:13). Nowhere in Scripture is Eli, the leading priestly and prophetic figure of his time, said to hear from God. Rather, we are reminded continually, as a rhetorical device, that Eli’s senses have grown dull (1 Samuel 3:2).
The worst crime of Eli was that he did not control his sons, who were also his subordinate priests. Hophni and Phinehas stole the best portions of sacrifices from God for themselves (2:12-17). And if that was not enough, they also raped the women who were serving/guarding the entrance to the tent of meeting (1 Samuel 2:22). Instead of controlling his sons and protecting the people of Israel from their abuse, Eli seems to have spent much of his time sitting on a throne (1 Samuel 4:13, 16). For Eli’s ineffective parenting and failure to effectively judge even his own priestly sons, God had already pronounced judgment on the house of Eli—through an unnamed man of God, rather than speaking to Eli directly (1 Samuel 2:27-36).
Samuel’s first act as a rising prophet would be to prophesy judgment to Eli, who sat on a throne but did not prevent abuse of God’s people or perversion of ritual worship. Much as his mother’s song in 1 Samuel 2 set the scene for the overturning of rulers and raising up of the lowly, the first words of God that Samuel received (1 Samuel 3:11-14) set the tone of prophetic judgement on callous, abusive, unfaithful rulers in the rest of the books of Samuel and Kings.
Before Samuel could speak God’s words to those in power, however, he had to realize who was speaking to him. As Samuel lay by the ark of the covenant, he heard a voice crying out his name. His response immediately was “hineni” which the NRSV translates as “here I am.”
The term usually reflects a willingness to respond with action to one’s master. Scripture is full of instances of God’s servants responding this way. After Abraham said hineni in Genesis 22:1, God called him to the mountaintop with Isaac. When Jacob said hineni in Genesis 31:11, God called him to return home to face Esau. Moses said hineni in Exodus 3:4 and God called him back to Egypt. Isaiah said hineni and God called him to prophesy judgement in Isaiah 6:8. Ananias said hineni (idou ego in Greek) in Acts 9:10 before God commanded him to heal Saul, the arch-persecutor of the Church. When one says hineni to God in Scripture, one is about to be called to a journey of difficult service.
Even when he thought it was just Eli calling him, Samuel was ready for service. Eventually Samuel and Eli both realized that God was speaking to the boy. Eli seemed to know that the message would not be a good one for him (1 Samuel 3:17). The message that the unnamed man of God delivered to Eli before was confirmed through Samuel: Eli’s family would be removed from service because of their terrible abuses of power.
In the place of Eli’s family, Samuel now began his rise to power. Unlike Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas, Samuel was not a priest (though he offered sacrifices, see 1 Samuel 7:9). Instead of spending his time confined in the tabernacle offering sacrifices, Samuel traveled the countryside in a circuit, prophesying and judging Israel (1 Samuel 7:16). Samuel’s prophetic tenure represents an intentional departure from the tent of meeting/tabernacle/temple as the center of the biblical story.
Instead, prophets will speak to kings and people wherever they find them. The tabernacle/temple compound will, of course, continue to be profoundly important throughout Scripture. But after Samuel’s rise was precipitated by a crisis of corruption of priests, concerns about purity in the earthly temple ritual continued as a source of suspicion and disappointment for the rest of Scripture.
In Samuel’s travels around Israel, it became apparent to all who observed his ministry that he was profoundly careful to serve God well. Even if the Hebrew of verse 19 is not clear about whose words were prevented from falling to the ground, the effect was that all Israel knew Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:20).
In 1 Samuel, even before the first king was anointed, those who sat on thrones allowed abuse and stole for themselves that which was meant for God. It was Samuel’s thankless task from the very beginning to announce to his supervisor that the words of his mother, Hannah, were already coming true:
The LORD kills and brings to life;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
He brings low, he also exalts (1 Samuel 2:6-7).
Samuel revealed that Eli’s deeply problematic leadership was over, and Samuel’s tenure as judge was about to begin. God’s passionate disgust at abusive leadership and raising up young prophets to undo the abuses of their elders who ignored God and failed to protect innocent people will be a theme that returns through much of the rest of Scripture.