1 Samuel 3:1-21
Since Samuel is a child when God calls him and his work as a prophet begins immediately, this story usually focuses on that fact alone. We use that information to underline the fact that God calls and works through all kinds of people- regardless of age, experience, or even knowledge of the Lord (see: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”). Many of us have heard this part of the story lifted up so many times; we begin to miss the other details in the story.
Pretend you never heard this story before. This is entirely fresh to you- as an adult. You have not been hearing about Samuel for 20, 30, 40, 70 years. Instead, you’re hearing this for the first time.
What might stand out to you?
- Eli knows who is talking to Samuel.
- Eli is punished for his sons’ misdeeds (or for ignoring them).
- Eli’s call is undone so that Samuel can be called.
- Samuel’s first experience as a prophet is to retire his predecessor.
How is God’s character portrayed in this story? Is this a God you want to serve? A God who calls and speaks through children, that sounds hopeful and promising. A God who withdraws favor without warning… less hopeful. If this were the first Bible story you ever heard as an adult, what would you think about God?
It’s important to remember that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are written down for the preservation of the life and lineage of David. Everyone else is a footnote in that story. The recorders are not interested in what happened to Samuel, Saul, Eli, or anyone else beyond their role in the story of David.
Eli is a temple priest in the time of the Judges. The book of Judges closes with the acknowledgment that there was no king in Israel, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Part of this statement is technically untrue. There was always a king in Israel. Who was the king? God. With God as a king, the leaders of the people were ones who pointed to God and to God’s expectations. This would have been Eli’s call and work. At some point, he wasn’t able to do that work. He apparently fell short in training his sons correctly or in sufficiently correcting them when they “did what was right in their own eyes”.
This passage opens with the note that the “word of the Lord was rare in those days”. Does that mean that the Lord wasn’t speaking or that people weren’t listening? I know for a fact that I can tell my son to four or five times to put on his shoes before it finally happens. Is the word of his mother rare, unheard, or unheeded (or some combination thereof)? So Eli has given his life to the service of God. Maybe that service interfered with his ability to be a good parent. Nevertheless, Eli is released from service, which has the distinct look of falling out of favor with God.
We’ve already discussed how God comes across in this story (uncaring, cold, capricious). Is that your experience of God? Is that the scope of God’s character as revealed elsewhere in Scripture? If you think about the Bible as a whole, how does God come across?
Part of reading this story is pulling away from its narrow understanding of vocation. When we do that in the story, we also have to do it in our daily lives. We have a tendency to judge our own worth and the value of those around us based on the work they do for pay or on the “success” of their relationships. Paid work has more value than unpaid work. Parenthood has more value than being an uncle or an aunt. Being a widow or widower has a higher perceived rating than being divorced. The CEO has more value than the kindergarten teacher who has more value than the garbage collector.
Our culture has a ranking system based on perceived contributions to society and status therein. We study people for how they fit into the categories we’ve been taught. Occasionally, we’re able to move things around, when a child receives a clear call from God- for example, but otherwise, we keep things the same. Furthermore, as society works to uphold that framework, God’s favor is subtly (or not) attached to the status of higher value. Surely a better position, family success, material wealth… etc. are all signs of God’s favor. And which comes first- God’s favor, then success? Or success, and then God’s favor?
When the writers of 1 Samuel begin to write for the main purpose of recording the life of David, it seemed obvious to them that Eli had lost God’s favor. How could God call Samuel, if God doesn’t first “uncall” Eli? And once Eli is no longer the chief priest, who cares what happens to him?
Except that his priesthood is not the only way God could use him. It may well not be the only way God did use him. Eli is still a father, perhaps still a husband, a father-in-law, maybe a grandfather, a neighbor, a Jew, a child of God. While he might no longer have paid work, he is not outside of God’s plans or God’s ability to use him.
So we too have multiple vocations… paid worker, volunteer, spouse or partner, sibling, child, parent, friend, neighbor, citizen, library card holder, sandwich maker,… etc. The end of any one of these roles does not indicate a withdrawal of God’s favor. It does not signify the end of that relationship. It does not put you or me or Eli or anyone else beyond the ability of God to use or to bring about God’s kingdom through us.
When Peter and Andrew stopped fishing, they started following Jesus. They became disciples. However, they were still husbands, children, friends, and Jews. They still had other defining characteristics. Each of those vocations was now shaped by following Jesus. Their other relationships changed, didn’t end, but were changed by their new understanding of what it meant to be a child of God.
That same meaning is part of our lives. All that we do is shaped by what it means to be a child of God- as we have seen God revealed in Jesus. When we hear the Scriptures, we are called to always listen with new ears. Each of us is also a Bible interpreter- not for ourselves or to make things easier, but for the sake of the people around us and for God’s sake.
Despite how the story is recorded, God wasn’t done with Eli. Neither is God done with any of us when one chapter ends and another begins. God’s favor is not revealed through success or failure, but through grace and the ever-present promise of renewal and abundant life. That’s good news that we are to take to heart. And, more specifically, that’s the good news we are to take into the world.