Narrative Lectionary Reflection
October 15, 2017
We like to use the word prophet enough that we might have lost its true meaning. We love hearing someone who spouts judgements against your political opponents and the first thing someone will say is that this person is prophetic.
But the problem with that definition of prophetic is that it is hearing things that the listeners agree with. If you read the Bible, you get a very different impression of a prophet. Most of the time we learn that prophets say things that people don’t like, sometimes even among the prophets themselves. Prophets say hard words that can be difficult to hear. No one likes hearing words that tell you how bad you are. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.
In today’s text, we see young Samuel hearing the voice of God and Samuel ready to take on his first assignment as a prophet. It is a message he didn’t want to talk about with his mentor, Eli.
What does it mean to be called by God? What does it mean to act in a prophetic way?
Today, we look at the call of Samuel.
Engaging the Text
3 Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. (1 Samuel 3:3)
A little background here. Samuel is the son of Hannah. Hannah was a woman who was barren and wasn’t able to give her husband Elkanah, a son. She prays to God and God answers, giving her and Elkanah a son named Samuel. (You can read about Samuel in the October 16, 2016 edition of the Story of God.)
Samuel is now a teen or young adults working as an apprentice for the chief priest, Eli. Eli is an interesting character that is both sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. Eli is described in verse 2 as being blind or with impaired vision, but it can also describe the state of his soul as well. He was blind to the problems around him, problems that would lead to his downfall. Eli has a problem with his sons, who were also priests. The story of the sons of Eli is found in chapter 2 and when they are first described, they viewed as “despicable” men. What made them so despicable? It was simple greed. Priests were not paid in money, because there was no money. They couldn’t work in the fields, but the law made it possible for the priest and his family to live: they were allowed to take a part of the sacrificial animals. After God’s portion was burnt up, then what was left over could be given to the priest.
The problem with Eli’s sons is that they took more of the meat than was allowed. Here is is how the Bible depicts their theft:
12 Now Eli’s sons were despicable men who didn’t know the Lord. 13 This was how the priest was supposed to act with the people: Whenever anyone made a sacrifice, while the meat was boiling, the priest’s assistant would come with a three-pronged fork in hand. 14 He would thrust it into the cauldron or the pot.[c] Whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take for himself. This is how it was done for all the Israelites who came to Shiloh.
15 But with Eli’s sons,[d] even before the fat was burned, the priest’s assistant would come and say to the person offering the sacrifice, “Give the priest some meat to roast. He won’t accept boiled meat from you.”[e] 16 If anyone said, “Let the fat be burned off first, as usual, then take whatever you like for yourself,” the assistant would reply, “No, hand it over now. If not, I’ll take it by force.” 17 The sin of these priestly assistants was very serious in the Lord’s sight because they were disrespecting the Lord’s own offering.
(1 Samuel 2:12-17)
The sons weren’t just guilty of gluttony. They had sex with the women who worked at the temple. The two men were drunk with power and used it in ways that hurt others and robbed God.
Eli is aware of his son’s dealings and pleads for them to stop, which they do not. In the end, Eli and his sons will be punished. So, why was Eli punished? It doesn’t seem that Eli was turning a blind eye or didn’t care. He did urge his sons to stop their abuses, but it seems that simply saying something wasn’t enough. It could be that Eli was passive in his life and not open to listening to God. Eli’s weakness allowed his sons to continue their corruption and the end is that they will be judged harshly by God.
When we start chapter 3, Samuel is sleeping in the temple, with Eli nearby. He is basically an intern, learning the ropes. As he is trying to sleep, he hears a voice calling him. Each time he comes to Eli thinking this is who was calling him.
Eli didn’t realize at first that this might be God. Maybe this is why we learn in verse one that the Lord’s words were rare. Was this for a reason? Was it because of Eli and his sons? We don’t know. What we do know is that God’s word was not familiar to the people, including Samuel. This explains why Samuel didn’t recognized God’s voice. When God calls again, Samuel then is able to say that he is open to receive God’s word.
It’s then that Samuel hears the word of God and what a word it is. He gets the message of Eli and his sons’ sin and their upcoming downfall. After hearing God, he wasn’t able to sleep. He got up the next morning and attended to his morning duties in order to avoid Eli. How could he tell his boss that he was going to be punished by God which meant his death?
Finally, Eli asks that Samuel tell him what God said to Samuel and he obliged. Eli understood what God was saying and accepted it. It is at this moment that the center of gravity shifts. Eli and his sons still are in power on paper. But God had chosen Samuel and people would now pay attention to him.
What does it mean to be called? There is a temptation to see it only in the context of the church; being asked to serve as as an usher or something within the walls of the church (this is confusing “call” with “gifts”). The other misunderstanding is to see it as something that gives you meaning and fulfillment, but call is about something deeper:
there is something odd that has happened over the years to the way we talk in terms of calling and vocation in connection with ministry. Speaking with students often suggests to me that we think of ministry as something that enables us to find fulfillment, as it makes it possible for us to give expression to the gifts God has given us. Discernment thus begins as our seeking to perceive what our gifts are and how we may express them. There’s none of this way of thinking in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Samuel is not called because this will be the way he finds fulfillment (neither is Paul). Given that the connotations of the word “call” have changed, we might do better to use the word “summons” rather than “call” to describe what happens to Samuel or Paul.1
The summoning of Samuel is not about what will give Samuel meaning, it is about God. Does that mean our own desires never filter in? Probably not. But God’s call is not conducive to what we desire, but what will fulfill God’s will in the world.
Another thought is about listening for God. Today, we can hear folk saying God spoke to them about something as if it were a best friend. But how are we sure that God is calling? When can we realize when God is speaking? Eli comes into this by helping Samuel realize that it was God calling. We listen to God’s voice through a community of faith. Samuel needed help in discerning God’s voice and Eli stepped in an helped him.
How do we listen to God’s voice today? How do our churches help us to hear God today?
- Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 31). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
2. Kruse, Michael. Economic Fallacies: “No Scarcity”, krusekronicle.com, February 26, 2008.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.