Tag: 1 Samuel

Growing Up in a Temple? – Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C (1 Samuel 2)

Samuel in the Temple – David Wilkie (1839)
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
18 Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the Lord repay you with children by this woman for the gift that she made to the Lord”; and then they would return to their home.
                Christmas has come, and in the minds of many, it’s time to move on to the next holiday. The stores will be clearing out extra merchandise, and unwelcome presents will be returned. Next up are the parades and games of New Year’s Day (and a new Dr. Who special). Liturgically, however, the Christmas season is not yet over. There is still time to sing some carols and hear Christmas related messages. The first Sunday after Christmas is usually low attendance, and my preachers (myself included) will be taking the week off. Nevertheless, liturgically we’re still in the midst of the Christmas season. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year C is Luke 2:41-52, which tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple when he was twelve, so we’ve moved well beyond infancy. This is, however, the only reference to Jesus’ childhood to be found in the New Testament. There’s nothing spectacular going on here. Jesus’ doesn’t make clay pigeons fly, or anything like that. He does, however, pay a visit to the Temple, where he engages the religious teachers in deep theological discussions. You might say he’s a rather precocious lad! He also causes his parents a few worries, because he got separated from the family when their caravan headed back to Nazareth. I’ve always liked that story, not just the part about the theological discussions, but the troubles he caused his parents. Whatever moral perfection we grant Jesus, let’s remember he had to grow and mature. That he did!  As the Lukan story concludes we hear: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, he had stuff to learn along the way!
                The reading from 1 Samuel 2 offers a parallel of sorts to that of Jesus. In the reading from the Hebrew Bible for this Sunday, we might picture Samuel as a boy of about twelve. He’s ministering in the Temple in Shiloh, as an apprentice to Eli the priest. If we turn back to chapter 1, we will find Samuel’s mother, Hannah, pleading with God to take away the shame of being unable to conceive and bear a child, in the course of her prayers, she promised that if God provided her with a son, she would return the child to the Temple to serve God there. Lo and behold, she conceives and bears a child, whom she names Samuel. As she promised, at the appropriate time, she brought Samuel to the Temple to live with Eli and serve with him in the Temple. We might use this story as an opportunity on what it means to dedicate children to God. Whether we practice infant baptism or infant dedication, the ritual invites parents to commit themselves to raising children in the faith, and congregations pledge to assist. I’m not sure we always do a great job at this, but in both the story of Jesus and Samuel, children are dedicated to the Lord’s service.
In chapter 2 we find Hannah and her husband Elkanah making an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Each time they make this trip, Hannah brings her son a new robe to wear in service in the Temple. After all, he’s a growing boy and will need new clothes on occasion. It also suggests that Hannah kept in contact with her son. Each time they visited the Temple, Eli would bless the couple, asking that God would bless them with more children.   
The lectionary omits verses 21-25, which tells us that Hannah had three more children, while Samuel grew up on the presence of the Lord,as well as about Eli’s own less-than-honorable sons. While it is understandable, the author of the story seemed to want to make the contrast between Samuel and the priest’s sons, all of whom would have been in line to succeed their father. You might even see in Eli’s blessing of Elkanah and Hannah a ruefulness, recognizing that their son was more committed to God than his own sons. In fact, as Melissa Browning notes: “These weren’t just preacher’s kids being mischievous at church; it was far worse. They were stealing the offering, sleeping around, and threatening violence—all within the sacred space of the Temple” (Connections, p. 114). You could understand if Eli didn’t wish that his own sons would be more like Samuel.  
The stories of Samuel and Jesus intersect in the Temples, where both demonstrate their faithfulness to God, and their wisdom. Samuel wears a linen ephod, a priestly vestment. Having served as an acolyte in the Episcopal church as a child, I can get a sense of what this might look like. I wore a black cassock with a white surplice. Properly dressed, I could assist the priest in consecrating the eucharistic elements. I would assume that Samuel had a similar responsibility, assisting Eli with the sacrifices, including those brought by his own parents. Jesus didn’t have the same responsibilities. He wasn’t an apprentice priest. Instead, he engaged in theological conversation with religious teachers, astounding his conversation partners with his understanding of deep topics (I wasn’t yet ready to do such things at age 12, believe me!).
There is another connector, and that is the description of their maturation process.  Of Samuel it is said that he “continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people” 1 Sam. 2:26). Witness the similar appellation given to Jesus in Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” What more could any parent desire than to receive report cards like these?
Not all children grow up to be prophets and messiahs. Many children will be more like Eli’s sons than either of these two. Parents love to brag about their kids. Facebook seems to be a common space for doting parents to tell stories of their precocious children, who can do know wrong, and who at age 5 seem to have the wisdom and knowledge of a PhD candidate. Other parents, reading such reports of wondrous children, may feel like Eli, wishing their children could be wiser and looked upon with divine and human favor. It’s easy to feel a bit like a failure as a parent, when you discover that other children are better behaved and smarter than your own.
Whatever our status as parents, we can recognize in these two parallel stories, very special children, who grow up to fulfill important callings. We should celebrate their faithfulness, and call their parents are blessed.  We should also recognize that in both cases the children grew in faith and wisdom. They were not born with the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. They were given the opportunity to develop their faith, either under the guidance of a religious leader in the case of Samuel or, we can presume, under the tutelage of parents (Jesus).
With these stories in mind, may we continue the Christmas journey toward Epiphany, and the full manifestation of God’s presence in Jesus.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


A Soul Poured Out -Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 26B (1 Samuel 1)

1 Samuel 1:4-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” 
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”


12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

                The Revised Common Lectionary takes us from the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who would be ancestor to King David (and by Christian extension ancestor of Jesus) to the story of Samuel, who would anoint Saul and then David as kings of Israel, after serving a lifetime as priest and judge in Israel. One story line that runs through Scripture is that God has a special concern for the one who is for whatever reason marginalized. That includes women who are unable to conceive in cultures that prize a woman’s ability to bear children. To be barren was considered cursed, or at very least a subject of shame. We see this with Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Moving into the New Testament there is Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In each of these stories, God intervenes, and takes away a woman’s “shame” as a child is born who will be used by God to further the biblical story.  But what about those women who do not share in this relief?
                Here in 1 Samuel 1, we encounter Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah (remember that there is no one biblical marriage pattern and that polygamy was common), who is beloved of her husband, but who suffers the ignominy of experiencing the reality that in the words of Scripture, “the Lord closed her womb.” Despite her husband providing her a double portion of his Temple offerings during their annual pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh, because he loved her, that doesn’t seem enough. This is due in part to the fact that Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, would constantly provoke her, causing Hannah great irritation, and no doubt deep pain, reminding her of her shame as one who was considered barren. While Hannah’s story might differ from many modern versions of infertility, it might resonate with those who struggle with difficulties conceiving. As Rich Voelz notes in his book Tending the Tree of Life, a book on preaching emerging out of the struggles he and his wife had at conceiving a child, the church often struggles to provide words of comfort and encouragement in the face of infertility and reproductive loss. In his book he seeks to break up “the silences and unhelpful practices that make people like me feel as if we are the shadows of faith communities, and to begin moving individuals, families, and communities of faith toward better understanding, healing, wholeness, and faithfulness” [Voelz, p. 8.].  
                In our day, a couple might go to stead of going to a fertility specialist, but Hannah goes to the Temple at Shiloh to pray. We’re told that “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.” Note that she not only cried out to God in prayer, but her prayers were accompanied by bitterness. There is frustration inherent in this prayer. There is a feeling of injustice. She wants vindication. That vindication, in her mind, involves conceiving and bearing a son who would redeem her in the eyes of her rival and perhaps her husband (even though he professes his deepest love, she is not ready to accept this reassurance). Here is her prayer:

“O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Sam. 1:11).

If God will remember her, she will offer her son up to God as a nazirite; as one who is wholly committed to God. He will not drink intoxicating beverages and he won’t cut his hair. Paul once took a vow like this, but only for a time, not for a life. Hannah promises that her son would take such a vow over a lifetime. I know parents like to live out their dreams through their children, but this might be taking things a bit too far, but her prayers are heard and affirmed.
                As she prays in the temple, Eli the priest overhears her prayers, but he thinks she’s drunk. Remember she’s crying out to God bitterly. So, what’s he to do with this hysterical woman. But she’s not hysterical, she’s in the midst of negotiating with God. She wants to make a deal with God. If God will answer her prayer, she’ll bring her son to the temple to be raised (I expect she made this promise before checking with Eli). It is a great sacrifice on her part, but in her mind her shame would be removed. As we see, her prayer is answered. Eli assures her, once he understands the situation, that she has been heard and that she will receive what she has asked for. The narrator tells us: “Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” Yes, she went home, had a party with her husband, and she moved from sadness and bitterness to joy.
Once she returns home, we’re told that Elkanah knew his wife, which means they had sex. One thing leads to another, and she conceives. Why? Because God remembered. Yes, God kept God’s side of the bargain. As for Hannah, she names her child Samuel, which means “I have asked him of the Lord.”  The lectionary reading ends there, but the lectionary writers have assumed that we know that if God kept God’s side of the bargain, Hannah would do the same, and she does.  
As to what happens next, Rich Voelz notes:

The relationship between Hannah, Samuel, and Eli might be called a type of “open adoption.” Hannah is never fully out of contact with Samuel, bringing him a handmade robe every year when she returned to Shiloh to offer her yearly sacrifice (1 Samuel 2: 19). Samuel becomes the one who is the mouthpiece of God for Israel and the one who oversees the establishment of Israel’s monarchy.  [Richard Voelz, Tending the Tree of Life, p. 80.]

Samuel will prove to be an important figure in the life of the people of Israel, thus the prayer of Hannah was fortuitous. While this birth will prove to be a blessing to Israel, we should not forget the challenge in life faced by Hannah, whose infertility placed a stigma on her. Having that stigma removed was important.
                As we ponder this passage, it is worth noting that the stigma can still be present in our day.  How might we as church break the hold of silence, so that persons, couples, families, who face infertility or reproductive loss know that God hears and responds? Eli was insensitive at first, and might not have been the greatest parent, but he does ultimately provide true pastoral care for Hannah.

Picture attribution: Malnazar and Aghap’ir. Hannah before Eli the High Priest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56672 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Malnazar_-_Hannah_before_Eli_the_High_Priest_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg. 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


Do-Over Anointing — Lectionary Reflection (1 Samuel)

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. 
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
                Israel wanted a king, just like all the other nations. They got their wish in the person of Saul. Apparently, Saul looked like a king, but ultimately the job was too big for him, and he was rejected by God. When God decided to start fresh, with a new king, God sent Samuel on a trek to find the right person to fill the job. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
Before we move on to the next king, whom Samuel will anoint, we need to address God’s rejection of Saul. There were a couple of occasions where God, speaking through Samuel, was not happy with Saul’s leadership of the people. In the verses just prior to this week’s reading, God rejects Saul, because Saul spared the king of the Amalekites (and some sheep), even though God told Saul to exterminate them all (Samuel finishes the job by hewing Agag into pieces). Because Saul didn’t do as he was told, though he told Samuel he saved the sheep for a sacrifice, he was rejected, for God desires obedience not sacrifice! (1 Samuel 15).
I must confess, first, that the story of the Amalekite genocide has always bothered me, and it should bother all Christians and Jews. This is not representative of my theology. I must also confess that I have always felt sorry for Saul. Yeah, he made mistakes, but he’s human. He was also put into tricky situations. He seems to have been a successful general, especially with the help of his son Jonathan leading the troops. I don’t think that God was fair with him, especially after God abandons him, leaving him open to his own demons (as the story reveals going forward). Perhaps Saul wasn’t up to the job, but on whose shoulders does responsibility fall? After all, Samuel anointed him—at God’s direction. In any case, God regrets the choice, and wants to start fresh.
With this expression of regret, God sends Samuel out to look for a replacement. In fact, God reprimands Samuel for grieving over Saul. The deed is done, so move on. God has moved on, so Samuel needs to get moving. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse. There he is supposed to find the person with the right stuff, someone different from Saul. Since Samuel was afraid that Saul might find out and kill him, God suggested a ruse. Take a heifer and go to Bethlehem, pretending you’re on your way to offer sacrifice, and invite Jesse and his sons to join you. Who knew that Yahweh was so good at deception. So, with that cover, Samuel headed to Bethlehem to find Jesse.
Samuel must have had a bad reputation with the people, because when he arrived in Bethlehem the people were not happy. In fact, they were afraid of him.   The word here is: “The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’” (1 Sam. 16:4, emphasis mine). Samuel assures them that he comes peaceably, and with that approaches Jesse.
The story that follows is well known. Samuel asks Jesse to gather his sons, so he can bless them. He goes down the line, blessing each one, but none of the seven sons of Jesse gets God’s approval. Samuel was impressed with Eliab, the oldest, but Yahweh simply told Samuel not to look on the outside appearance, for “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Might Samuel wonder why God didn’t use this criterion the first time with Saul? After all, Saul looked like a king, but didn’t have a heart from God (or so it seemed). With seven sons rejected, Samuel must have been getting a bit concerned. So, he asks Jesse if he has any other sons not present. Jesse responds that there is one more, the youngest, who is out taking care of the sheep. One must assume that Jesse hadn’t thought about sending for the youngest son, when he had seven older sons who should have filled the bill. Why the youngest? Yes, we know, God often worked that way—think Jacob and Esau. God’s criteria might be different from ours.
When David arrives from the fields, smelling like sheep (I’m assuming), God reveals that this is the one. I find it interesting that while God told Samuel not to look on the outside, Samuel is impressed with his externals! We’re told that David was “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” He’s a good-looking kid, and he will grow up into a handsome man, whom women and men are attracted to. When God gives the okay, Samuel takes out the oil and anoints David the future king. We’re told that “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” As for Saul, in verse 14 of chapter 16, we’re told that the Spirit left Saul. Stephen Chapman notes that these two verses suggest that the Spirit can “rest upon one leader at a time, that God’s investment of the spirit in David cannot occur without the removal of that spirit from Saul, an action resulting in bitter consequences” [Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture, pp. 145-146].
This is a complicated story, because it raises uncomfortable questions about God. It is no help to simply chock this up to its being part of the Old Testament. As we’re often told, the New Testament vision is different. That is a Marcionite view of God and the two testaments, for it breaks Jesus from his context. There aren’t two Gods, one in the Old Testament and another in the New. There is but one God, who is understood in diverse ways—including within the first testament. So, it raises questions that need to be addressed regarding God’s character.
It also raises questions about how we look at leadership. I think we still look on the outside. Good looks. Charisma. They’re still important. Even if David has good looks, it’s not the reason for his being chosen. There is something inside him that makes him an appropriate choice. David seems to have the inherent capacity to be king, unlike his predecessor. I appreciate this word from Carolynne Hitter Brown regarding God’s way of raising up leaders:

God raises leaders from unexpected places. What better example is there than the quiet, middle-aged seamstress named Rosa Parks? Parks’s refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a Eurocentric person was the spark that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. Later she was deemed the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Her resolve to maintain dignity and resist unjust treatment set off a chain of events that altered race relations permanently. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 283]

The fact that Rosa Parks was an activist doesn’t change the fact that her courage to take on the powers. She was raised up for this purpose, even as David unexpectedly was lifted up for this calling, and like Rosa Parks changed history.
   As for Samuel, having completed his work, he heads off to Ramah, while David goes back to his chores. It’s not time for the revelation of David’s anointing. Only the family knows—if that.  We will have to wait to see David take up the mantle of monarchy. He has the spirit, just not the throne. He has to be patient and wise, good qualities to have if one wishes to be a good leader. So, he bides his time, until he can take his place as the “do-over anointed” king of Israel. David makes his share of mistakes, but is remembered as one whose heart was close to God, and thus the right person for the job.


Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

So, you want a King! – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3B

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 

  19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”  

                The prophetic call came to Samuel when he was a child. It was during the priesthood of Eli, and according to the narrative, Eli was old, ineffective, and his sons were untrustworthy (1 Samuel 3). Now, we move decades into the future. Samuel is now the one who is old. He’s still considered wise and trustworthy, but the same cannot be said for his sons.  Facing the prospect of the instability of an unknown future, to people decide it’s time for a change in political systems. What existed was the leadership of Judges, those charismatic leaders who emerged during times of trouble to lead the people. Samuel is but the most recent of these figures. That system which waits for God to provide a leader at the right time didn’t provide the stability that the people craved. The world around them was dangerous. They felt the need for a stronger leader; a military leader who could defend them and their lands against the encroachments of neighboring peoples. Since their neighbors had kings, why couldn’t they have a king? After all, the neighbors seemed to be in a better position militarily than was true for them. Why get beat up, when you could have a king to fight your battles for you.
The request made of Samuel, that he provide them with a king, didn’t sit well with him. Perhaps there was a bit of sour grapes here, but he felt the need to bring his concerns to God. He seems to feel as if his leadership was being rejected, but then maybe he should have seen it coming. After all, his predecessor was rejected because own sons weren’t prepared to lead the nation. The same seems to be true of Samuel. The question raised here, however, concerns whether monarchy is the course of action? More specifically, what does this request say about the people’s view of the covenant relationship that Yahweh had established with them?
                When Samuel takes his concerns to God, Yahweh tells Samuel that the people aren’t really rejecting Samuel as their leader, what they’re rejecting is God’s kingship. This doesn’t mean they were opting for a separation of church and state. The ancient peoples didn’t separate secular from sacred. Kingship was just as sacred as priesthood. Often these ancient monarchs were understood to have their own sense of divinity. Asking for a king could be seen as a transfer of loyalty from one God to another, with the king being a rival deity. Thus, by rejecting Samuel, the people were perhaps looking for a new deity. While Samuel isn’t happy, nor apparently God either, God tells Samuel to do as the people request. They want a king, then give them a king. However, let them know what this means. Warn them and witness against them. They think this will make things better, but it’s not true. The people will essentially place themselves in a position of slavery, something that Yahweh had rescued them from. In other words, by asking for a king, they were asking for Pharaoh.
                God sends Samuel to the people with a lengthy warning. It is clear that the point of having a king is to have a military form of government. Watch out, Samuel informs the people. The king will build a standing army by drafting your young men to drive the king’s chariots and horses. There will be commanders of troops established. Not only will there be soldiers in the service of the king, but the king will need people to tend his fields and make instruments of war. Not only will the king require the services of the young men, but the women as well who will serve as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. As Mel Brooks’ character declares in History of the World Part One, “it’s good to be the king.” You can also hear echoes of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the “military industrial complex.” As we know, the “Defense” budget is the largest component of our nation’s governmental expenditures.
                Turning back to 1 Samuel, it is good to remember that it was written after the Exile. It was written from the perspective of a people who had experienced monarchy. While some of the kings were good, like Hezekiah and Josiah, but most were not wise or good. While we often think of Solomon as a great and wise king, it’s good to remember that the kingdom broke into two parts after his death, in large part due to the excesses of his rule. Perhaps he was not as wise as has been advertised. Stephen Chapman makes this point:

Here again it is likely that Samuel’s speech reflects Israel’s experience in later history. Not only were the excesses described by Samuel typical of subsequent Israelite kings, the same royal offenses were later viewed as responsible for the eventual downfall of both the monarchy and the Israelite nation. After the Exile, even after they had returned to their land, the Israelites continued to perceive themselves as “slaves” (Ezra 9:8-9; Neh. 9:36), a situation attributed to the errant leadership of the kings and other leaders within pre-exilic, society: “Even when they were in their own kingdom . . . they did not serve you” (Neh. 9:34-35). [Stephen Chapman, 1Samuel as Christian Scripture, 99].

The message to the returning Exiles is simple. Having a king isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. In exchange for protection you gave up your freedom. Was it worth it?
                Ultimately, as Chapman notes, Scripture doesn’t demonize monarchy, but it does point out the challenges. There are always trade offs when it comes to government. The charismatic leadership of the period of the Judges was not without its challenges. At least with the monarchy there was a sense of stability. Yet, there is also the reminder that this arrangement is not God’s best. It is simply the reality we live with.
                Living as we do in a time of political instability in the United States and elsewhere; at a time when authoritarianism is raising its head in our midst, what lesson do we glean? There are those in our midst—religious folk—who have put their hopes in the hands of a man who has demonstrated few qualities one would deem Christian. In the past, a person like the current President would have been rejected by those who now hail him as their protector. As we consider this passage, what might 1 Samuel tell us about putting our hopes in authoritarian leaders?
                A passage like this could serve as a reminder that as the people of God we are called upon to put our allegiance not in a human leader, whether monarch or president, but in God. The request for a king will lead to the call of Saul, a man who looks good on the outside, but who ultimately fails to fulfill his potential. While not demonizing the monarchy, or any governmental system, the passage does remind us that privilege often comes with office, and that privilege often comes at a cost, even in a democracy. Nonetheless, after Samuel bears witness to the dangers of monarchy, the people remain unswayed. They’re quite clear as to what they want, and they let Samuel what it is they want: “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” People want to get on with their lives. They want a ruler to tell them what to do and then go out and fight their battles. It would seem to me that little has changed over the millennia.
                As we consider this reading, what might it say to us about our current situation and the realm of God. What does it say about allegiance?

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey

A Prophetic Calling — Reflection on 1 Samuel 3

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 

                In a few weeks I will celebrate the thirty-third anniversary of my ordination to ministry in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I have an ordination certificate to remind me of the time and place at which the event occurred. I do remember that day, which followed a day after I received my M.Div. degree at Fuller Seminary. What I can’t remember is the exact moment or time at which I sensed a call to ministry. I can’t say that I had an extraordinary experience of God speaking directly to me, issuing a call to ministry. But, at some point along my life path I found myself moving toward that Sunday afternoon in June of 1985, when a gathering of elders from Temple City Christian Church and other clergy, both Disciples and non-Disciples, laid their hands on me and offered a prayer of consecration, setting me apart for ministry in the church. I will admit that at the time, I didn’t expect to spend my future years as an actual pastor. I assumed I would be a professor of some type. I would go on from there to pursue further education to support that dream. Here I am, some thirty-three years later, having spent the past twenty years serving as pastor of three different congregations.
When did the call really come? Could seeds have been planted back when I was a child, serving as an acolyte at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Dunsmuir, California (now in Mount Shasta)? Was it when I was asked to become a lay-reader as a teenager, because Fr. Green felt that I had the voice to lead portions of the liturgy?  Whenever the call came, I find myself in this position of service in the church. My story is probably like many others, including the possibility that seeds were planted in childhood.
                The prophetic call stories in the Hebrew Bible are intriguing. They are all somewhat different. In many of them, the one being called is reticent to say yes. As we saw in the reading from Isaiah 6 for Trinity Sunday, Isaiah confessed that he was “a man of unclean lips,” and therefore unworthy of being able to face God, let alone hear a call from God. In the end, however, his lips were purified when a seraph touched his lips with a live coal taken from the altar in the Temple. After this act of purification, Isaiah answered “here am I, send me.” Jeremiah responded to God’s call, including God’s declaration that God had formed him in the womb for this purpose, by telling God that he was a mere a child and didn’t know how to speak. God responded to Jeremiah’s resistance by touching his mouth and putting words in Jeremiah’s mouth so that God’s word might be proclaimed (Jer.1:4-10). This leads us to the story of the call of the prophet/judge Samuel. Samuel is living with the aged priest Eli. He’s helping to serve in the Temple at Shiloh. It was there that the Ark of the Covenant was being kept. It is in this context that Samuel receives his call from God.
                The background story to Samuel’s call to prophetic ministry parallels that of John the Baptist. Both prophets were born to older mothers who were considered barren, and therefore felt the shame of the community, but then by divine intervention their mothers conceived and bore sons who would grow up to be prophets. It is worth noting that in the ancient world, as well as some parts of our contemporary world, to not bear a child was considered a sign of divine judgment. Thus, the prayer of Hannah was for a child to be born, not so she could fulfill some maternal dream, but so her shame might be removed. This might not be our cultural dynamic, but it was true in the days of yore. So, when the desired child was old enough, Hannah brought her child to the Temple in fulfillment of a promise made to God. Again, this might not be our way of thinking, but it was the way things were. That is how Samuel came to live with an elderly priest whose sons were less than honorable. It is the reason why Samuel is in this position to hear the call of God while sleeping in the Temple.
                The call of Samuel is set up by the declaration that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” What might this mean? Could it be that the people were not in a frame of mind to hear that word? Could the reference to Eli’s eyesight—perhaps blindness—have a spiritual reference point? Could this be due to spiritual complacency? Could it be that there is no word, because no one is ready to hear it? That leads to the question: Is Samuel different? Is he, as the miracle child, the one person who is in a position to hear God’s voice?  

                As we ponder these questions we find Samuel asleep in the temple at Shiloh. As he sleeps, he hears a voice calling his name. Considering his job description, he is likely sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant. For those of us who have been influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s probably easier to envision a voice speaking from the Ark. But, this isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is the Bible. When Samuel hears this voice, he goes to Eli and asks the priest what he wanted, at which time he’s sent back to bed. Just a child’s vivid imagination! After all, the word of God was rare in those days. This will happen two more times before Eli decides that something is up. Eli may not be the most faithful priest, but he knew that God could speak. So, after the third time, Eli tells Samuel to answer the voice with the words: “Speak, for your servant is listening.” As one reads further along in the story, we discover that Samuel has heard God’s voice and Samuel will speak for God to the people. He will even anoint kings.
                That Samuel could respond to this calling, serves as a reminder that God is not without witnesses, even when things look difficult. After all, the “lamp of God had not yet gone out.” There was hope that the flame of God would be carried on to the next generation through the call of Samuel.
                So, what might this say to us? Could it be that we should help young people, including small children listen for God’s voice? If so, how might we do this? For me, it might have been serving as an acolyte and then as a lay reader. For who knows when a call will come?

Bob Cornwall is a Disciples of Christ pastor, church historian, and author. He currently serves as Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, along with an M.Div. from Fuller and a B.S. degree from Northwest Christian University in Eugene, OR. Bob has authored several books, as well as numerous articles and book reviews. He currently edits Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy) and among the books already published, he has a number of books that have appeared with Energion Publications — Marriage in Interesting Times: A Participatory Study Guide, Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for a New Great Awakening, Worshiping with Charles Darwin, Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord’s Prayer and Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, and Faith in the Public Square (2012). He’s also the author of Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015). For more on my books, see my Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/robertcornwall.