Call to Ministry Series #12: Call of Samuel
October 16, 2012
Weaving in the stories of Eli the high priest (1 Sam 1-4) are the beginning days of the prophet Samuel, from his conception and birth to service to Eli and Yhwh and God’s call in chapter 3. Samuel becomes one of the most important people in the Bible, taking on priestly and prophetic roles, exercising similar feats as the judges, and providing transition to the period of the earthly kings of Israel through anointing her first two kings, Saul and David.
How did he become such an important figure? His birth was an answer to prayer when his mother, Hannah, could not conceive (1 Sam 1). He became a gift to Yhwh by his mother, in thanks for the Lord answering her prayer. She brought him to serve the Lord in the needs of the worship place in Shiloh and its high priest, Eli (1 Sam 2).
It was supposed at that time that Eli’s sons would follow their father in spiritual leadership of Israel. But they were corrupt. They abused their status. A man of God, an unnamed prophet, steps forward and pronounces an oracle of destruction against the lineage of Eli because of the corruption. Into this setting a boy hears the word of Yhwh speaking in the night with confirmation of the unnamed prophet’s words against Eli’s line. Samuel becomes a channel for the message of God for the first time.
1 Samuel 3 opens with a scene-setting introduction (v. 1). We are told that Samuel was ministering to Yhwh under Eli, that the word of Yhwh was rare and visions were not widespread (1 Sam 3:1). The story will unfold with the boy Samuel hearing the word of Yhwh and receiving a vision.
The start of Samuel’s ministry as a prophet displays the first break in the pattern we have observed with Moses and Gideon. Many elements that we have observed with Moses and Gideon are left out. We begin with Yhwh speaking to Samuel.
1 Samuel 3:2-9
2. On that day Eli whose was lying down in his place. His eyes had begun to grow dim; he was not able to see. 3. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of Yhwh, where the ark of God was.
4. Then Yhwh called, "Samuel! Samuel!"
He said, "Here I am!" 5. and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
But he said, "I did not call. Return; lie down." So he went and lay down.
6. Yhwh called again, "Samuel!"
Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
But he said, "I did not call, my son. Return; lie down."
7. Now Samuel did not yet know Yhwh. The word of Yhwh had not yet been revealed to him.
8. Yhwh called Samuel again, a third time. He got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me."
Then Eli understood that Yhwh was calling the boy. 9. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Yhwh, for your servant is listening.'"
So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Samuel was young when Yhwh called him. We do not know when Hannah brought him to serve Eli at the tabernacle. She nursed the boy until he was weaned (1 Sam 1:23), then brought him to Eli to “lend him to Yhwh” (1:28). In our culture we wean a child around one year old, give or take a few months. A one year old seems a little too young to leave with an aging high priest and his ruffian sons. In some cultures a child is not weaned until three or so. Hannah does skip several annual trips during the usual pilgrimages to the central worship place so we can suppose the boy is older than one. Some African cultures do not officially stop nursing until a child is nine or ten, although the child does not nurse often at that age.
Samuel as a boy ministered to Yhwh wearing a linen ephod (2:18). His mother came every year with a new garment for her growing son. The narrator even notes that Samuel continued growing in stature, both with Yhwh and with the people (2:26). So a few years have transpired, but we do not how many. Eli still identifies him as a boy or lad (3:8).
His service required waiting in the holy place for the lamp to go out. If it did, then commentators assume his job was to relight it. We are not told this in the context. Samuel is in his “place,” perhaps suggesting this is his normal duty, and Eli is in his “place.” Now Yhwh calls the boy.
John Goldingay notes that the “call” is more like a “summons” (1 & 2 Samuel for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011, 31). Samuel responds to his boss as though he has summoned him, not realizing that he is being summoned by a new boss.
Yhwh calls out first with Samuel’s name used twice. Urgency may be noted by the repetition. The second time he calls Samuel’s name once. Yhwh has his attention, but his understanding is clouded by what he knows under normal circumstances. The third time the story teller simply notes that Yhwh called him. Samuel goes to Eli again, and finally Eli understands what is happening. He perceives what Samuel does not and gives him specific instructions. Samuel returns to his place.
I wonder what Samuel thought while waiting in the dark and quiet holy place. He has served Yhwh in his youth without knowing Yhwh in a personal way. Now he is supposed to tell the one calling to speak for he is listening. We gain no insight into his psyche at this crucial, exciting time. He is simply obedient to Eli’s word to him.
If Yhwh spoke so you heard him, would you be ready to respond to the real boss or would you look for the speaker in all the normal places of your life experiences. Samuel is helped by a mentor who understands who is calling out to him. Eli gives perhaps the best instruction possible – speak, Yhwh, for your servant is listening.
Listening – really listening – requires the whole person. In this case “wholly” listening will become “holy” listening.