I Samuel 2: Growing in Wisdom and Stature

I Samuel 2: Growing in Wisdom and Stature

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church,

originally broadcast on Feb. 17, 2008 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love most dearly. We lost power during the high winds last Sunday evening. I had to listen to the Carolina game on the radio in the car. It was a thrilling game. We lost power again on Tuesday during the Carolina-Virginia game. Not sure what the message is in that. My daughter Sarah went to a Valentines dance on Friday night and looked lovely. Last night we were in Valdese for the annual Waldensian celebration.  The event celebrates the decree of religious freedom given to the Waldensians in Italy in 1848.

            For announcements this week, let me remind you again about the trip to the Moravian homeland this July. We’ve got folks from California and Pennsylvania joining us on the adventure. Also, there are two special events at Wake Forest this week. On Thursday, Doug Pagitt, author of the book A Christianity Worth Believing In, will speak in a coffeehouse style gathering in Wingate Hall at 7:30. On Sunday, Don Saliers, a noted author on church music and liturgy will be preaching in Worship in Wait Chapel. That will be at 7:00 p.m. Dr. Saliers may be most famous to some of you as the father of one of the Indigo Girls. These events are part of our Public Theology program at the Divinity School.

Leaving Children:      Last week we closed with Hannah’s song, which celebrates the fact that God can overturn even the most dismal situation. Our discussion after we went off the air focused on the difficulties of leaving a child in someone else’s care. The biblical story does not describe the emotions of Hannah and Samuel, but we can imagine that the boy shed many tears over the loss of his mother. At one time, it was customary for the children of Moravian missionaries to be raised in boarding schools in Europe and America instead of staying with their parents. This made it much easier to send people out into missions, and it allowed them to focus on their work, but it was very hard for parents and children alike. Many tears were shed for absent mothers and fathers. We can assume that the same was true of Samuel and Hannah. In our lesson for today, we gain some insight into the life of Samuel as a boy serving in the Temple of the LORD at Shiloh. But first, we are introduced to two other young men serving as priests in Shiloh, the sons of Eli.

Corrupt Priests           The storyteller minces no words in introducing the sons of Eli. They were “wicked men” or “scoundrels.” The Hebrew is quite strong in condemning these young men as “worthless.”  Their specific misdeeds might seem minor to us today, like a school bully taking a smaller kid’s lunch money. All they were doing was interfering with the sacrifices made at the Temple. Rather than waiting for people to make the sacrifice in the accustomed way and then taking their proper portion from the pot in which the meat was being stewed, these fellows demanded that they be allowed the first pick from the cuts of meat before the fat was even burned off. On the surface, this sounds like a petty dispute over how to cook a piece of meat. Should it be stewed, broiled, or fried? This sounds like the kind of argument you might have at a family reunion; not the kind of thing that leads to God’s wrath. Why is this so important?

            First of all, there is the issue of corruption and abuse of public office. The sons of Eli, like all the priests of Israel, had a specific role to play in the social order. They were there to intercede with God and to insure that the sacrifices were properly performed. They served both God and the tribe as living bridges between the sacred and secular realms. Eli’s sons were not fulfilling their responsibilities as priests of the LORD of hosts. They did not wait for the meat to be properly given to God. Rather than helping families worship and reverence God in the proper way, the priests were actively interfering with the devotions of ordinary believers. They were so greedy that they did not even wait for the food to be prepared.

            It seems so minor to us, but think of the importance of meat in a world before modern technology and animal husbandry. Think of the families that only ate meat once a year during the festival. Think of the sacrifice that each piece of meat represented to a family struggling to live through long winters. This was a sacrifice they were willing to make to please to God, but God’s own representatives on earth were greedy. They did not make the sacrifices they demanded of others.

            The author of I Samuel summarizes the situation quite nicely when he writes “this sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt.” This is a nice reminder that the offering we give each week in worship belongs to God, not to the priest or minister. I wonder how often we are guilty of treating the LORD’s offering with contempt by how we use it. In ancient Israel, the priests’ portion of the sacrifice was determined in advance; therefore the priest went hungry when the people went hungry. That hasn’t always been true, and today most pastors are paid a regular salary. It was hoped that a regular salary would reduce the temptation to corruption, but as we have seen in politics, that is rarely the case. Greed can be insatiable, and once a person has concluded that he or she is the center of the universe, they have no limitations on their actions.

Modern Corruption                In the Moravian Church, as in most Christian churches, clergy are those who have been ordained for a ministry of word and sacrament. The office of pastor, minister, or priest is grounded in the priesthood of ancient Israel. Though we do not sacrifice animals, we do have a sacred meal called Holy Communion. Though we do not give prophetic oracles, like Samuel did, modern priests and ministers are expected to preach the Word of God faithfully. Not only are the clergy set aside by the community of faith to perform the role of preaching the word and properly administering the sacraments, the clergy are expected to see that the ministry of preaching and administering the sacraments is carried out responsibly by the whole church. In so many ways, the role of modern ministers is similar to that of Eli and his sons, and those who cynically abuse their office through greed, laziness, contempt, or lust are no better than the sons of Eli. We cannot expect clergy to be perfect, but we can expect them to perform their duties faithfully and to be trustworthy. The same applies to all public officials.

            To make matters worse, the sons of Eli extorted the extra meat from those who were unwilling to go along with their corrupt ways. They threatened to harm those who resisted. I know it is difficult to picture priests threatening people this way, but there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the priests of Israel were pasty-faced momma’s boys. It is quite likely that Eli’s sons were strong young men who could physically intimidate others. They were even more threatening because they used their religious authority. Who wants to anger the servants of the LORD? It is a great sin to strike one of God’s chosen. Who could stand up to corrupt priests and call them to account when they were the supreme spiritual and moral authority.

            This is actually a reoccurring theme in the history of Christianity. Once the church became a powerful force in the world and gained control of great wealth, it was not uncommon for priests and bishops to abuse their offices. The Catholic Church was probably most at its most corrupt around the time of John Hus, when the pope himself used the threat of eternal damnation as a way to extort money from people. In his call for reform, Hus frequently used this story in I Samuel to compare the priests of his day with the sons of Eli. Hus’ followers tried to abolish corruption, but it remains an on-going struggle. You’ve heard televangelists tell people to donate money in order to avoid calamity or receive a blessing. Like the sons of Eli, there are people today who use religion to enrich themselves and misappropriate gifts given to God for their own gain. According to I Samuel, these people are scoundrels and worthless.

Samuel the Boy Priest           The second chapter of Samuel begins with this story of corrupt priests to highlight the importance and goodness of Samuel. Because of their contempt and greed, the sons of Eli were worthless in the eyes of God, but the boy Samuel “grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.” Young Samuel wore a linen robe, just like the priests, but his heart was pure. He did not participate in their corruption. We are told that Hannah and Elkanah were rewarded by God for their sacrifice of Samuel. The woman who had been barren and sunk in melancholy had three more sons and two daughters – just shy of the seven children mentioned in Hannah’s Song. We never learn their names or hear their stories, though. The great tales are about children who leave home and follow the calling of God out in the world. It is the boy they lent to God whose name is remembered.

            We learn in this chapter that Samuel’s mother and father stayed in contact with him. They continued to come each year to the shrine at Shiloh and celebrated the feast there. These annual events must have been like regular family-reunions for Samuel. His mother always brought him a new robe she had made because he would have outgrown the old one. We can picture her working all year turning flax into thread and weaving it into a robe, and then proudly putting it on her son at the start of the festival. The text says that Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD, which most likely means that he lived in the Temple itself. This concept of growing up in the presence of the LORD became very important for the old Moravians who believed that children should be raised knowing that they always belong to Christ. Ideally they would never need a dramatic change in life because they would grow up always in the presence of the LORD, like Samuel.

            After we went off the air last week, we talked a little about the fact that Eli’s wife probably helped raise Samuel even though she is not mentioned in the story. The story does not tell us what Samuel did at Shiloh, but it appears that he acted as Eli’s servant in the Temple. He would have done the cleaning and so forth. The old Moravians adopted this practice as well. They had boys called acolytes who were responsible for helping the minister at home and in setting up the sanctuary for worship.

            Samuel was not really a “boy priest.” He was a boy who dressed in a robe similar to a priest’s and assisted the priest at the shrine. There is one very odd and intriguing thing about Samuel serving at the Temple, which biblical commentators rarely discuss. Samuel was not of the tribe of Levi, which was the priestly tribe. Nor was he a descendent of Aaron, the first high priest. According to some statements in the Bible, Samuel should not have been allowed to do what he was doing, and yet he would become one of the most famous priests of Israel. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I do think it is significant that the text does not even deal with this issue.

Eli and Sons                As Eli grew old, his sons presided more at the shrine, and their corruption grew worse. They began having sex with the women who served at the Temple. It is not clear just who these women were, but they appear to have been consecrated to the service of the Lord, and it would have been sacrilege to sleep with them. They may have even been consecrated virgins or they may have served for a period of time at the shrine as an act of devotion. We do not know if they consented to sex, but there is no indication that they had seduced the priests, the way some medieval preachers claimed. Based on the earlier description of the sons of Eli, it sounds like the priests forced themselves on the women. This is a type of corruption that we can appreciate better than taking the best cuts of beef at the feast. This is the type of behavior that can get a modern preacher or president in trouble. This became a scandal in the land and was something Eli could no longer ignore.

            So, Eli confronts his sons as both a father and a priest of the LORD. The scandal affects him, too, because in a patriarchal society the father is responsible for the actions of his children even if they were adults. Eli tells his sons that their sin would be bad enough if they were like other men, but they had been set apart for the service of the LORD. Their job was to intervene with God on behalf of sinners. How could they be mediators with God when they were corrupt and sinful? How could they pray for others when they were guilty? Who was there to ask forgiveness of them? John Hus and the old Moravians used these arguments of Eli in their struggle to clean up corruption in the medieval Catholic Church. How could sinful priests serve Holy Communion to others?

            But as is too often the case, Eli’s complaints had no effect. He had abdicated his responsibility for too many years and ignored the corruption around him. One of the problems with corruption is that it undermines your will and even your desire to live differently. Those who have become cynical doubt the sincerity of others. Those who have contempt for the sacrifices of others are unlikely to moved by the tears of their father or the warnings of a prophet. Each act of extortion, every threatened violence, each violation of another person chips away at our own heart and soul until there is nothing left but the greed and hunger of an animal. Eli’s sons had become worthless because they had traded their souls for a bowl of stew and a few moments of pleasure. The text says that it was the LORD’s will to kill them, which is a harsh statement, but Eli’s sons were already too dead in their hearts and souls to live as men. They could no longer seek the love of God and so all they could experience was wrath.

Grew in Stature and Favor                It is at this grim point in the story that the storyteller inserted one of the most interesting sentences in Scripture. In contrast to the sons of Eli who were slipping deeper into the pit of despair and hopelessness, the boy Samuel continued “to grow in stature and favor with God and men.” If you’ve ever had any doubt as to whether the early Christians read the Old Testament, read opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Last week we mentioned that Hannah’s song was the model of Mary’s Song in Luke’s Gospel. This week we find that Luke described the boy Jesus who stayed behind in the Temple using words taken straight from I Samuel 2. Jesus, like Samuel, grew in stature and in favor with God and people.

            It is a beautiful and meaningful phrase that lets us know that Samuel and Jesus were both once boys who had to grow into men. It is a phrase that reminds us all that childhood is an important part of our physical, moral, and intellectual development. And this phrase reminds us that Samuel and Jesus found favor with other people, not just with God. They were not social misfits, malcontents, or miscreants rejecting the norms of society. They were grace-filled young men who would save the people in their own way. Here in I Samuel, this phrase is used especially to highlight the contrast between the sons of Eli who were rejected by God and the people, and Samuel who continued to grow in grace and favor.

Conclusion                  The second chapter of first Samuel ends with a grim prophecy. An unnamed “man of God” pronounces to Eli that God’s judgment is upon him and his family. The sins of his sons are such an abomination to the LORD that they will not be allowed to succeed their father as priests in Shiloh. A new line of priests will be established, but surprisingly they will not be the children of Samuel. This prophecy may have been used at one time as a bit of propaganda to support the priests in Jerusalem, but its main purpose at the beginning of this epic tale is to remind us that even priests and kings are subject to God’s justice.        

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