Samuel’s childhood and his calling by God.
The beginning of the Book of Samuel is quite interesting, especially for the time that it was written. It begins by telling the story of a woman, Hannah. This is quite unusual as most of the major characters of the Bible, and other writings of the time, were men. But Hannah plays a major part in the beginning of the story, because it is her “affliction,” and her faith, that set everything into motion.
Hannah is married to Elkanah, and of his two wives, she is the only one who has not had a child. Quite often in the scriptures, this is a precursor to some great actions. Think of Sarah, who waited until she was in her 90s to bear Isaac. Ruth never had a child with her first husband. Women who could not conceive a child were considered to be cursed and worthless by others and by themselves. In her sadness, Hannah goes to the prophet Eli and makes a commitment to him that, if she is allowed to have a son, she will “loan” him to the Lord. In other words, the child will be dedicated to become either a priest or a prophet from the moment of his birth.
Because of this commitment, Hannah is blessed with a son. Shortly after he is weaned, she takes him to Eli to be raised in the house of God, so that for his entire life he will know nothing but the life of serving his Lord. You can imagine the difficulties of this action both for Hannah and for Eli. Hannah is giving up the child she has waited for. Eli now has the obligations of caring for an infant. Hannah walks away from Eli trusting that the Lord will remember her gift and will bless her in the future.
Eli now has the task of not only incorporating a new child into his family, but of raising a special child, a gift from the Lord himself, in a troubled household. He already has two sons. No mention is made of how many wives he has, and they could have well seen Samuel as competition and made his life miserable. We have no information on the relationship that may have existed between the sons of Eli and Samuel. We can only guess and, with the picture that is created of them later in the story, I can only imagine it must have been tough on the little guy.
Hannah’s song is reputed to be the basis of the “Magnificat” found in Luke 1:46-55. If we look at that, piece we will find many similarities to the prayer of thanksgiving that Hannah utters in chapter two. This song of praise encompasses many of the aspects of daily life and the corporate life of Israel at the same time.
She recounts with glowing praise how God has not only cared for her in her particular problem, but how he has cared for Israel by protecting her from her enemies and inspiring people to do things that were beyond their imagination. Such inspiring work would have been common knowledge among the Hebrews, learned at an early age, then repeated often throughout their lives.
It is easy to see how something like this, as familiar to them as The Star-Spangled Banner would be to any of us, could inspire later poetry such as that Luke shares with us. It is a powerful prayer of praise that gives life to people who are troubled and beset by many problems. It is one of my favorite parts of the Bible, one which I turn to often when I’m in need of a spiritual boost.
We get a preview here of the picture of Eli’s sons, apples who evidently fell quite far from the tree. You might note that this picture of his sons is interrupted by a brief vignette of Hannah coming for a visit with Samuel. This might seem a rather chaotic way to tell a story, first hitting one topic then switching to another. But it is indicative of the fact that the Bible that we have is really a compilation of many sources combined into one narrative. Sometimes the joining together of the stories has not been as seamless as we might prefer. Sometimes a chunk of the story of one author is just flopped into the middle of the story of another author. This may seem chaotic to us, but to those who were putting the book together it made a lot of sense.
You see, there were four major sources for the Old Testament: J, D, E, and P.
These were the Jawheist, The Deuteronomist, The Elohimist, and the Priestly sources. The Jawheist and the Elohimist were two different schools of theological thought that had very different perceptions on the person and the function of God. The Jawheist thought that God was very ethereal, speaking out of the void, while the Elohimist felt that God was very anthropomorphic. These are easily seen as we read the scriptures. When God speaks out of a cloud or a burning bush, that is probably a “J” source. When we have a picture of God walking in the Garden of Eden, that is probably the “E” source.
The Deuteronomist is the law giver, and when you start to see lots of history and lots of rules and regulations, like you’ll find in the book of Deuteronomy, you can bet it is the Deuteronomist who is speaking. The Priestly source is the one that recounts the worship aspects of the collective story. For those who were putting this story together, it was important to give everybody “equal time,” as much as they could.
This passage is a great example of that. In the middle of the “D” source telling us the historical tale, the “P” source comes in with a little story of how the prophet Eli was dealing with Samuel and his family. Then the story returns to the “D” account of how corrupt Eli’s sons were. This is an important point to know if you are going to understand the Biblical story. It is not written as we would write it. It is written with the intention of keeping the different points of view equally valid as the story unfolds.
At any rate, we now have the story turning to the point of Eli coming to understand that his sons were not going to be succeeding him as the next prophet of Israel. This would have caused him a lot of consternation, not only because he sees that his own sons were failures in God’s eyes, but because there is – at this point – no clear path towards the future for Israel. How can they continue without someone of the Prophetic class to guide them into the future? God lays out no clear answer to this, and yet Eli seems willing to follow the lead that God proposes to him.
Chapter Three is one of the most important chapters of the whole book. For in it comes the story of the calling of Samuel. You may well have heard the story before. The boy is sleeping and hears a voice calling his name. He goes to Eli three times and responds to his supposed call. Finally, the old prophet realizes it is the Lord calling the boy and instructs him how to respond.
It is a profound experience for Samuel, and for Eli as well, for this is the final incident that seals the fate of his sons. Now Eli knows that it is to be Samuel who will be the next prophet of Israel, not his sons. The old prophet has had enough experience hearing the voice of the Lord both to know how to instruct Samuel in his response and to hear the condemnation of the Lord. Furthermore, he submits to the direction that the Lord has given him – and acknowledges that the authority has been passed to Samuel.
I know you’ve heard of the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, this is the ark they were talking about in that movie. The Ark of the Covenant is an elaborately decorated box that contains the tablets that held the 10 Commandments. This Ark was a very precious thing to Israel and supposedly had magical and mystical powers. We see here that when times of trouble came, the Hebrews ran for the Ark to give them that extra “boost” they knew would come from having such a holy relic in their midst. They felt that just having it there was like having God in their midst, and would give them supernatural powers over their enemies.
Unfortunately for Israel, it didn’t seem to work this time. Perhaps it is a function of having the unworthy priests, the sons of Eli, in attendance. Hophni and Phinehas were killed in the battle, and the Ark was captured. This would have been a significant loss for Israel, and a seemingly stunning upset for the Philistines. When Eli heard of this loss, he fell and died. When Phinehas’ wife heard about the loss and the death of her husband, she went into labor and died in childbirth. It was a very sad day for Israel.
But God is not finished with the people of Israel. And he is not about to let their most precious artifact stay in the hands of the Philistines. Evil things start to happen to the Philistines, and eventually they come to the conclusion that this great trophy has become a curse upon them. Their priest set up a scenario that will confirm it is a curse and gives them a method to get rid of it without destroying it. They were probably aware of the fact that if this much bad stuff was happening to them just for having the thing, untold calamities would follow if they destroyed the Ark.
So they send it back to the Hebrews, and it is a mixed blessing for them too. As glad as they are to have it back, the first people who received it evidentially tried to take advantage of the situation by looking into the Ark-a big NO NO. God rained down punishment on them, and the Ark was quickly passed on to others for safe keeping.