Samuel or God? - Reflections on 1 Samuel 3:1-10

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, January 8, 2024

Samuel or God?

1 Samuel 3:1-10

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          The long and astonishing tale of Samuel, Saul, and David, takes up the whole of 1 and 2 Samuel, and the first two chapters of 1 Kings, fully 53 chapters of sparkling narrative prose. It is a story, in my judgment, unmatched in the ancient world, and that includes the far more famous poetic tales of Homer, the Illiad, and the Odyssey. For roundness of character, for the complexity of the plot, for the interplay of scenes, for the mystery of theology, the long narrative of these infamous men of ancient Israel is plainly a superior story in every way. I, he said with little modesty, have attempted to retell the tale in my 2014 novel, King Saul (Wipf & Stock). However, no recreation can begin to emulate the fabulous original whose rereading conjures riches over and over again.

          This judgment is particularly true when it comes to the character of Samuel. It has long been assumed that the prophet Samuel is the divine hero of the story, called by YHWH in the unforgettable narrative of 1 Sam.3, and subsequently representing YHWH’s will and way on the earth, “never allowing a word of YHWH to fall to the ground,” as the storyteller claims. Hence, Samuel is regularly seen as the fully trustworthy model of the divine prophet; when he upbraids and finally deposes Saul as the king of Israel, his actions have been praised and lauded by countless readers and preachers over the 2 1/2 millennia, or so, since the story was first composed.

          I have simply never heard the story in that way, but have long heard a far more negative portrayal of the prophet, as my novel makes plain. And I think that this more angry, more restrictive, more bigoted Samuel begins right here in his initial calling by YHWH in the temple at Shiloh. “Now the young boy Samuel was serving YHWH in Eli’s presence; YHWH’s word was in those days rare, with no spreading visions” (1 Sam.3:1). The narrator states plainly that due to the incapacity of Eli, and the worthlessness of his two sons (1 Sam.2:22-26), that YHWH’s word, YHWH’s direction and calling, are rare and that the prophetic visions that announce the desires of YHWH are not made available to the people. Israel is in need of a new mediator, and the calling of Samuel is proof that such a mediator is at hand. 

          The famous three-times divine call to then boy is couched in ancient storyteller language. Eli, of course, has no clue that YHWH is in fact calling the boy to special service; he is dull toward the actions of his God, but finally the boy himself, through the slow and amazed prompting of his blind mentor, realizes that it is in fact YHWH who is summoning him. At the third reiteration of the divine voice, Samuel replies, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam.3:10). YHWH now reveals to Samuel the content of what God is about to do, and that content is both portentous and terrifying. “I am about to do such a thing in Israel that whoever hears of it, both of his ears will ring” (1 Sam.3:11). YHWH goes on to announce to Samuel that his task is to tell Eli that the old man’s time of service for YHWH has ended, because he has completely failed as a father to his wastrel sons, and that this “sin of the house of Eli will not be atoned by sacrifice or offering for all time” (1 Sam.3:14). It is a fearsome demand that a young boy must both confront his mentor but must also tell him in no uncertain terms that his day as YHWH’s priest has come to a terrible close. Samuel delays, lying all night in the temple, “afraid to tell the vision to Eli” (1 Sam.3:15). 

          But Eli, blind and generally unaware of his God’s actions, confronts Samuel in the morning and commands him to tell him “all that YHWH spoke to you; do not hide it from me! Thus and more may God do to you if you conceal from me anything of all the things God spoke to you!” (1 Sam.3:17). Samuel does just that, telling Eli the terrible things YHWH had said to him. Eli’s response is telling: “It is YHWH. What is good in God’s eyes, God will do (or “let God do”). And there is the lesson that Samuel learns from Eli. A prophet must tell all, and that prophet is YHWH’s conduit because YHWH will do whatever YHWH wishes. That is Samuel’s calling, and the prophet for the next decades will act exactly as he did in the temple of Shiloh; he will relay what he has heard YHWH say without fear that what he says is nothing less than YHWH’s demands.

          However, there is great danger in this for anyone who claims to be speaking for YHWH. Is one always so certain that the words pouring out of the prophet’s mouth are strictly divine words or are they on occasion clouded and mixed with the prophet’s own words? Throughout history, persons who claim the call of God on their lives have spoken what they insist are words straight from the Almighty, when in reality some of those words are as much their own words, or are completely their own words, more than they are divine words. Unfortunately, later in Samuel’s life, it appears that he has fallen into this same dangerous trap. In 1 Sam.8, the people demand a king to govern them, instead of the inconstant group of judges, who continually come and go from leadership, supposedly at the whims of YHWH. Of course, Samuel is the latest of these judges, and is shocked and horrified that the people are now rejecting him from leading them. Thus, he flat refuses to make them a king, and shouts that they should all simply go home and wait for him to decide what will next happen to them (1 Sam.8). Is his decision not to make them a king the result of God’s demand or the result of Samuel’s own anger at their rejection? In 1 Sam.9, he chooses Saul, however reluctantly, but proceeds to find multiple ways to depose the king, finally accomplishing that in 1 Sam.15, ironically rejecting Saul’s sacrifice at Gilgal. Remember that Samuel was told at his calling at Shiloh that no sacrifice can ever atone for sin. According to Samuel, Saul has sinned, and his sacrifice, no matter how grand, is useless in Samuel’s eyes. 

          But is this YHWH’s problem or in the end Samuel’s? How are we to adjudicate between what God wants and what Samuel wants? This wonderful tale asks us this question forcefully, and warns us that not all prophets of God are to be trusted; we are to weigh their words with great care, including our own words from our pulpits. Are we truly speaking the word of God— or only our own words?   

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