Rule of Faith: 1 Samuel 3

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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“In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Sam. 3:1b).  This is the context for the story of Samuel’s training under Eli.  In fact, the Book of Judges assesses Israel’s spiritual life by saying, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Jdgs 21:25).  The moral landscape was bleak, dark, and desolate.

This problem was no isolated incident but saturated and infiltrated every part of Israel’s life including its religious life.  Eli, a priest and the moral leader of Israel, lives no differently than his contemporaries.  Although he should be one who continuously helps Israel navigate the moral and ethical hazards of life, we find him to be quite an inept leader.

Eli’s two sons, Phineas and Hophni, serve as priests.  Yet, they use their role as priests in order to manipulate, control, and overpower others.  They sleep with the young women at the Tent of Meeting.  They also take the choicest of meat from those who come to offer sacrifices.  The religious office has become a means by which they might line their pockets, enjoy the high life, and satiate their lust.

Eli knows all too well what is going on with his two sons.  Others have told him about their evil deeds.  Despite these warnings, Eli turns a blind eye to their abuses of power and allows it to continue rather than calling them to repentance.  Eli is becoming blind and deaf.  He lacks understanding.  Is the Word of the Lord exceedingly rare or are the people of God just hard of hearing?

In the midst of this spiritual havoc and mayhem, there are some who remain faithful.  Hannah, a woman who is barren, comes before the Lord seeking God’s life-giving blessing.  She desires to have a child and promises to dedicate her child to God’s service.  The Word of the Lord comes to Hannah and opens up the womb that could not give life.  Elkanah, her husband, and Hannah remain faithful to Hannah’s promise and return Samuel to God’s service under the tutelage of Eli.

Thus, 1 Samuel 3 begins with Samuel serving before the Lord under Eli.  This particular pericope locates Samuel staying where the ark of God, the tangible symbol of God’s presence, was kept.  Eli, however, lies outside of that chamber in the darkness, his eyes becoming increasingly darkened.  One can sense that this is more than just a physical ailment, but indicates the deeper underlying spiritual issues which plague all of Israel.

As Samuel is lying there, God calls to him.  Samuel gets up and runs to Eli, exclaiming, “Here I am; you called me.”  Eli responds by sending Samuel back to bed, explaining he did not summon Samuel.  This cycle of God calling, Samuel going to Eli, and Eli sending Samuel back to bed occurs two more times before Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel.  Samuel did not realize God was calling him because “The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7b).

Eli then instructs Samuel to respond, saying “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9a).  Samuel obeys and follows Eli’s instructions.  The word of the Lord is then revealed to Samuel.  This word brings about the promise of judgment upon Eli and his household for their wickedness.  The word of the Lord also brings a shift in the story.  Samuel is no longer dependent upon Eli’s instruction; Eli becomes dependent upon Samuel for God’s word (1 Sam. 3:17-18).

First Samuel 3 is a birthing narrative.  “Birthing” language is employed throughout the narrative.  The word of the Lord, as it did for Hannah, becomes the same word that gives birth to new life for Samuel and the community.  In fact, after Samuel receives the word of the Lord, he opens the doors of the house of Yahweh.  In similar fashion, it is the word of the Lord that opens up the barren womb, enabling Hannah to conceive.  This “bursting forth” defines the nature of God’s word.  It inevitably flows out into the community.  It does not remain an isolated blessing.

Yet, not everyone seemingly benefits from this word.  Eli and his family have come under judgment and have been replaced.  Yahweh will no longer stand for the injustice of Eli’s house.  God will open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  Yet, those who remain unrepentant and opposed to God’s way of life find themselves increasingly blind and deaf, unable to hear and receive the life-giving word of the Lord.  However, through the creative and life-giving word of the Lord, Eli’s tomb becomes Samuel’s womb.

The story concludes: “The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.  And Samuel’s word came to all Israel” (1 Sam. 3:21).  This generative word cannot be silenced.  Rather, where there are those willing to “hear” and “see” Yahweh makes himself known.

God’s self-revelation culminates in the Word made flesh.  This Word “is life, and that life [is] the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Yet, despite this revelation, not everyone recognizes the Word.  In fact, those that should be able to “see” and “hear” are often those that are found “blind” and “deaf.”  In juxtaposition, God’s revelation gives sight to the blind and unstops the ears of the deaf.

We, too often, are like the Pharisees, asking, “What? Are we blind too?”  The Word of Life calls out to us, but we have become blind by our own greed, lust, and contempt.  We assume positions of power without any reference to God’s claim upon such authority.  In the process, we lose all recognition of who is truly the Lord and Giver of Life.  Yet, the Word enters into the darkness and conquers it, birthing new life in those that hear and obey.  The Light shatters our darkness, calling us to respond.  Like Samuel we cry, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  In that moment of surrender, the Creator breathes new life into us and through us to God’s world!


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