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(Sunday between January 14 and January 20)
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

We have already had one reading from the Books of Samuel this liturgical year (2 Samuel 7, Advent 4). Later in the season of Pentecost we will read further passages from Samuel, especially ones about King David. These texts early in the year not only fit into the seasons of Advent and Epiphany but prepare us for the later story of Israel’s great kings.

The beginning of 1 Samuel introduces the figure of Samuel, one of the great figures of Israel’s faith. He will fill many roles in his life: prophet, priest, and community leader. After Samuel, such roles and powers will no longer be vested in one person in Israel.

1 Samuel continues the story of Israel begun in the Book of Judges. They are settling in the promised land. Since the time of Joshua’s death the leadership of the tribes of Israel has been largely occasional and charismatic. The spirit of Yahweh came upon particular individuals as occasion demanded. Those individuals were a mixture of military figures, prophets and others. ‘Dynastic’ leadership, which passed from one generation of a family to the next, and was contained within that family, was not approved. That is reiterated at the beginning of 1 Samuel, where we are told that the sons of Eli, priest at the tent shrine of Yahweh at Shiloh, were ‘scoundrels’ (1 Sam 2:12), the implication being that they were unfit for leadership. Eli is now old (2:22) and the question of his successor as priest is open. In today’s reading we hear of the divine election of Samuel. Like Moses before him and Jesus to follow, stories of his birth and early childhood already mark him off as especially chosen (1 Samuel 1-2). The story demonstrates clearly that in spite of political manoeuvres and expectations, the corruption of public figures and leaders, and forces for convention in society, God is capable of beginning again with his own choices and bringing hope to his people. There is divine governance in society that may not always seem evident or clear, but is nevertheless real and effective.

The scene is set at night. Eli, old and with poor eyesight, is in his room. The young Samuel is lying in the sanctuary where the ark of Yahweh was kept. Despite the ‘quaintness’ of this story, as noted already, it is actually concerned with political power plays. The writer gives us clues as to the direction the narrative will take. Eli, who cannot see well will eventually ‘see’ who is calling Samuel and point to Yahweh’s part in it. Samuel sleeps in the sanctuary, which in the ancient world was a way of seeking some revelation of the will of a god. And, even though we are told the word of the Lord was rare in those days (3:1), we are also told that on this evening, ‘the lamp of God had not yet gone out’ (v. 2).  Through irony and hint, we know that Yahweh is active and about to do something new and surprising.

The narrative is, however, drawn out by the misunderstanding of the characters especially that of the young Samuel who does not yet realise who calls to him in the night. It also takes a few attempts for Eli to ‘see’ what is happening. Moreover, when Samuel eventually hears the word of Yahweh it is critical of Eli’s house (vv. 10-14) and Samuel is reluctant to tell the old man.

But while the action and misunderstanding of the characters draws the drama out, it also speaks to the reader of important issues. First, this is a time when the word of the Yahweh was ‘rare’. The narrative is set in a time when there is uncertainty about God’s direction for his people. Even those whose task it is to ‘read’ the times in the context of God’s work with his people can struggle in their important work. Ministering to the Lord’s people is not an easy assignment. There are often circumstances where no clear direction in faithfulness is evident. Such occasions can often be periods of temptation to what might be called a practical agnosticism or even a practical atheism. We think because it is not clear what we are called to in faith that we can then act as if there is no call from God. In such circumstances political power plays and positioning can often replace a genuine seeking after the ‘will of God’ as discerned through Scripture, tradition and in community. The narrative addresses this and asserts the constant working of God toward his purposes, sometimes in ways which are unexpected and rebuke those who seek to manipulate the understanding of God’s will in the community.

Secondly, Eli is a model of ministry in this context. Even though we know his family is condemned, and Eli himself seems powerless to do anything, he is wise enough in the faith to direct the young Samuel to the point where the latter can ‘hear’ what Yahweh has to say to him. Moreover, Eli has the courage to hear that word from the lad, even though it is critical of his own interests. He is a model of self-effacement as he seeks to discern the way of the Lord in his troubled world. In a politically charged and uncertain society, it is in the innocence of a young lad, the wisdom of an old man willing to yield his part in affairs, and the joyous song of a young mother (1 Sam 2:1-10), that we hear of the way of the Lord. So it is too in our Christmas and Epiphany celebrations.

Psalm 139

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