Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.” “I did not call you, ” Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” So he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. “Here I am, ” he said. “You called me.” But Eli answered, “I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.” At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, “Here I am. You called me.” Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
For those of us who were raised on Bible stories, the OT lesson about the calling of young Samuel was and still is a favorite. As children we listened with rapt attention as we heard of God actually talking to this boy. Part of the psychological development of youngsters is that they take things so literally. When we are little we know that Santa actually will come down the chimney, the Easter Bunny does bring those special eggs and so on. We go, “Wow. I would really like to have God speak to me, like he did to Samuel.”
As we get older, more mature in the faith if you will, we come back to this passage of God speaking to Samuel and need to look at it from a more reflective perspective.
When I’m preaching from a specific portion of scripture, I like to break it down into two parts: The “there and then” message and then offer a “here and now” application.
Let’s set the stage as we take a moment and actually look at the central character’s name: Samuel. We break down the Hebrew and we find two parts. For the first part, “Samu” the Hebrew is a little ambiguous, but I like the translation “heard from.” The last syllable, “El,” refers to “Elohim,” one of two words along with “Yahweh” which indicates the presence of God. So the name Samu-el means “heard from God.”
Throughout the Old Testament names that end in “ah” are referring to Yahweh. So Jonah, Hannah, Methuselah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and so on refer to people who have a special connection with Yahweh, referring to the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush, the so-called “Great ‘I am’.”
Names that end in “El” refer to the understanding of God as “Elohim.” So Daniel, Ezekiel, Joel, Nathaniel along with Samuel and others, all refer to those who have a special relationship with the one called “Elohim.”
There’s quite a bit of rather elaborate and sophisticated scholarship about all this, but for our purposes, the names Yahweh and Elohim refer to the one God who is our common creator and sovereign.
In our passage today, we read about the one who “heard from God.” We know the story. The first chapter of Samuel tells of his parents, Elkanah and Hannah (note the “ah” endings to their names? They had a special connection with Yahweh.) Anyway, they were old and had no children together. Elkanah’s younger and prettier second wife, Penniah who had children with Elkanah, was especially venomous toward Hannah.
One day Elkanah decided to make a pilgrimage to a holy place called “Shiloh” where Eli was serving as priest. Elkanah decided to take Hannah his barren wife with him and leave Penniah at home.
Once there, Hannah begged God to give her a son. She vowed that if her request was granted, she would return her son “to the Lord” to serve him “all the days of his (Samuel’s) life.” (I Sam. 1:11) God heard her plea and granted her heart’s desire. A child was born and was named “Samuel” somewhat in anticipation of God speaking to him a bit later in life. True to her word, she dedicated him to the Lord’s service. (I Sam.1:19-2:11) Eli took the child and prepared him for the Temple priesthood. And while at Shiloh, God spoke to Samuel on quite a number of occasions.
There are several layers to this story. First we read of the kindness of God in granting an old woman’s request for a child. Second, we read that although Samuel was dedicated to the Temple priesthood, he also became a prophet. Remember these are two roles. On the one hand, a priest communicates to God for the people. The priest is the one who makes the sacrifices and offers the petitions on behalf of God’s people.
On the other hand, a prophet communicates to the people for God. A prophet is one who says “thus says the Lord” to the people. Usually it’s followed by some dire warning that behavior had better change or there would be significant consequences.
Another layer to this story is that the boy Samuel’s initial prophetic task was to confront Eli about the wretched behavior of his boys. In those days, the Temple priesthood was hereditary, so Eli’s sons were functioning as priests, but they were sexually abusing some of the women and extorting some of the worshippers and God was not pleased. The boys were eventually killed in battle and when Eli heard the news, he fell down and broke his neck and died. (I Sam. 4:1-18) It was pretty grim stuff.
Eventually, Samuel became the greatest of the so called “judges” who ruled over Israel. Each year he made a circuit of the cities to “judge” the inhabitants. He also built an altar to the Lord in Ramah, his home town, to reinforce his priestly function (I Sam.7:15-17). In later years his sons became judges, but not unlike Eli’s son, they were a rapacious and unworthy lot, taking bribes and perverting justice. (I Sam. 8:3)
Eventually the people decided to do away with the whole system of judges and have a king instead like most of the surrounding countries. At the Lord’s direction, Samuel anointed Saul the first king of Israel. (I Sam. 10:1).
During the reign of King Saul, Samuel continued to exercise both priestly and prophetic functions, speaking to God for the people and speaking to the people for God.
In his prophetic role in particular, Samuel was directed by God to chastise Saul, especially for his failings as king to keep the commandments of the Lord. Eventually, God had enough, and directed Samuel to find and anoint David to be Saul’s replacement. This eventually happened, but it was not fully accomplished until a rather long and violent struggle between the forces of each man. This is a shorthand version of the “there and then” message.
So we move to a “here and now” application. The standard interpretation of today’s text usually focuses on what’s thought to be a simple story about how God calls us and we are often either unable, or more frequently unwilling to recognize it.
Although there is this element in the story, it ignores the fact that God’s call did not come to Samuel back then, nor to us today, in general circumstances. This is not a story of religious awakening. It is not simply another experience on the road to spiritual maturity.
Rather Samuel is specifically called by God in a time of spiritual desolation, religious corruption, political danger and social upheaval. We are told in the text that at that time the “word of the Lord” was rare and the sons of Eli were corrupt, the Philistines were threatening Israel’s survival and Eli in particular was ducking his responsibilities as priest. Somebody needed to tell him about his dissolute, crooked sons and God has selected the boy Samuel to be that person. It was neither an easy nor enviable task.
Today, we often celebrate so called “mountain top experiences” of God as ends unto themselves. We can dwell on something mysterious and perhaps both frightening and sweet as the penultimate religious experience. But more often than not God wants us to do something with these experiences because we too are living in politically dangerous times of social upheaval and corruption. If we receive God’s word in a special way, he generally is calling us to do something specific and we frequently want to back away.
Who wants to deliver difficult, confrontive, prophetic and demanding news to someone else? But I think that we would all agree that the process of discerning the call of God includes our response to it. A duty is not faced as a duty until it is responded to as a duty.
An example for all of us is God’s call and our response to this call, specifically to confront and prayerfully challenge all those who would abort babies.
I’ll lay it out for you. Groups such as Planned Parenthood, RCRC (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), NOW (the National Organization for Women) and the Democratic Party like to claim that the fetus or conceptus is an unviable tissue mass and not a baby. It is simply extra tissue in the mother’s body that can be disposed whenever desired. However, any medical textbook on fetal development clearly shows that the little one she is carrying is a distinct person from the mother:
The baby has unique DNA, different from the mother’s, at the moment of conception.
The baby has a heartbeat 18 days after conception, which is usually before the woman even knows she’s pregnant.
The baby often has a different blood type than the mother.
The baby has measurable brain activity less than 45 days after conception, well before most abortions in America.
The baby has a soul from the time of conception.
So what’s to be done? Pray, especially for the conversion of pregnant mothers who are considering an abortion. Pray for a change of heart of abortion providers, bear witness gently and peacefully to this great evil. Support legislation that protects unborn babies. Pray some more.
I look at the figure of Hannah. She knew at some level that the baby she so longed for was not that different than any other baby. But she did affirm that the life in her womb was precious to God and she acted on that by dedicating that child to God. We can say that all babies in their mothers’ wombs are precious in the sight of God.
This is the prophetic word to all of us. God is clear. Each little one is a child, not a choice. And I’m conveying this once again to all of you because of God’s direct challenge to me. I’m just doing what I am called to do.
It would be wonderful if these little ones in their mothers’ wombs could grow up hearing Bible stories too, like so many of us did.