The Harshness of a Prophetic Call - Reflections on 1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20

by Dr. John Holbert on Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Harshness of a Prophetic Call

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Year B of the lectionary offers the preacher the opportunity to dig deep into what is in my mind the finest literary piece in the Hebrew Bible, the grand tale of Samuel, Saul, and David, found in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and in I Kings 1-2. From June through August, the enterprising and imaginative pulpiteer has the chance to give her congregation a careful look into a truly great writer’s insights into the dangers of power, the zeal and trouble of single-minded religion, and the dark and dismal actions of politics as they are played out against the backdrop of an emerging Israel, moving to full nationhood out of a scattering of hill country tribes. In addition, any interpreter can begin to explore the many ways God’s role in all of this is described—or not. Indeed, God’s actions play a mysterious and at times hidden part in the complex and peculiar interactions that the text presents.

          Let me be plain as we begin this three-month sojourn through these astonishing narratives: for the most part I find only small pieces of actual history in these texts. I do not doubt that the characters of Samuel, Saul, and David actually lived in the misty past of Israel’s life, but what counts for me is not some attempted recovery of the “real” Saul, Samuel, or David. What is important is to recognize that these characters leap off the pages of a literary genius, writing nearly 3000 years ago, predating by several centuries the work of Homer, that figure who is usually credited with composing the greatest literary works of the ancient world. When I took “Historical Studies” in my Freshman college year, we read Homer, not Samuel. It was my loss, however much I loved the tales of Illiad and Odyssey. As a partial correction to my own education, I wrote a novel on these fabulous texts in 2014, King Saul, published by Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers. My amateur novel hardly holds a candle to the original, but it at least attempts to portray the story as a story with as much imaginative insight as I could provide to help a reader hear the whole story, as it is found in 1 Samuel. (I have written a sequel, King David, but it has not yet been published). My analyses of these texts will be heavily influenced by what I have done in that novel. If you genuinely desire to discover how I hear these stories, get a copy of that novel.

          The tale begins with Samuel’s birth to a sad but faithful wife, Hannah, who is in reality co-wife of husband Elkanah with another woman, Peninnah, who each year produces another child for her husband, while Hannah is barren. (The narrative of course recalls the several stories of Genesis where a formerly barren wife finally produces a son.) After a fervent prayer to YHWH for a child, Hannah is rewarded with a son, but in her prayer she promised to give the child to divine service for his life, if she is able to produce such a child. Hence, she reluctantly gives Samuel, her longed-for child, to life-long service at the temple of Shiloh, whose aging priest is Eli.

          In a justly famous scene, the young boy, Samuel, acting dutifully in the temple, is one night the recipient of a call from YHWH. However, since we have been told earlier that the “word of YHWH was rare in those days” (1 Sam.3:1), Samuel thinks that it is Eli who has called him for another task in the temple. Eli tells him that he did not call, and demands that he go back to bed (1 Sam.3:5). In typical story fashion, this happens three times. Finally, even the slightly addled Eli suspects that the boy may actually be on the receiving end of a divine call, and tells Samuel that if this voice comes to him again, he must respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam.3:9—the name “Samuel” in Hebrew means “God hears” or perhaps “One who hears God”). Sure enough, YHWH calls again, but that call is nothing less than monstrous. YHWH demands that Samuel, the young boy, must tell old Eli that his time has come to be disposed from God’s priesthood, primarily because “his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them” ( 1 Sam.3: 13). In other words, his poor parenting skills must be punished by the loss of his vocation, a harsh judgment indeed!

          Naturally, Samuel is reluctant to relay this terrible divine news to his mentor, but in the end Eli demands that Samuel tell him everything YHWH said to him: “What was it that God told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you, and even more, if you hide anything from me” (1 Sam.3:17)! Clearly, old Eli is convinced that what YHWH shared with Samuel is not good for him, but he demonstrates courage and faithfulness by demanding to know the truth. And that truth is indeed bad news for him, none of which Samuel withholds from him, yet the old and faithful priest responds in a laudatory way: “It is YHWH! May YHWH do what seems good to the God” (1 Sam.3:18).

          Thus the tale of Samuel’s ministry in Israel begins with a full-throated rejection of the man who first mentored him in the Shiloh temple. This suggests that Samuel will never be reluctant to take charge, ever eager to present the word of God, as he understands that word, no matter how harsh and painful the implications of that word may be for anyone or for Israel. In the future, Samuel will more than once thunder rejections at YHWH’s behest, or at least at Samuel’s perception of YHWH’s behest. Much of the story will revolve around that duality: is Samuel speaking what YHWH has bid him to speak, or does Samuel on occasion merely use YHWH for Samuel’s own preconceived notions of what he thinks is best for Israel? In next week’s installment of the tale, 1 Sam.8, we may find reasons to question whether or not Samuel is YHWH’s prophet or is perhaps a prophet concerned only for his own individual purposes. 

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