The Call of Samuel
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 24, 2008
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. Things are getting busy around the church and the divinity school these days. Tonight we’ve got Worship in Wait with Don Saliers and next week we’ll have our annual Trible Lectures in feminist theology. I heard on Friday that we do have enough people signed up for our Moravian Heritage Tour this summer, but there is still room for five or six if you are interested. I’m teaching a course on Moravian Theology this spring, and we are having quite a good time discussing Count Zinzendorf these days. I think the non-Moravians in the class may be getting the most out of our readings. Speaking of Moravians and education, next Sunday we will have a special treat here at Home Church. Chris Thomforde, the President of Moravian College and Theological Seminary will be here and will speak in Sunday School. The Adult Bible Class will be pre-recorded and you can listen to it on the radio, but all of the adult classes will meet in CE 101 to talk to Dr. Thomforde.
Last week we ended our discussion with the judgment pronounced against the sons of Eli, which led to a vigorous discussion in class. Many people do not like the OT because God appears to be a god of judgment and wrath. That aspect of God comes through in several places in I Samuel, including this story of Eli and his sons, but that is not the entire story. We have seen that I Samuel opens with a picture of God as a God of grace who can produce life where people perceive nothing but barrenness. This week’s lesson takes place several years after chapter 2. Samuel has grown into a young man, and Eli the old priest is nearly blind.
Prophets and Priests The story of Samuel’s call opens with a statement that the word of the Lord was seldom heard in those days and that visions were not common. People today often make the false assumption that in biblical days God was more immediately present and it was easier to believe in God. We read stories in the Bible and think that revelation was an ordinary occurrence, but we forget that the Bible covers hundreds of years of history. There were periods when God seemed silent and distant. Even when God made himself known, it was never to many people. Throughout the Old Testament, God spoke through a few individuals who were chosen as messengers. They were called prophets, which simply means a spokesman for God who could tell others the will of God.
The religion of ancient Israel depended on these prophets, and they are responsible for the production of much of the Old Testament. This does not mean that the prophets wrote the books of the Bible with their names on them. As far as we can tell prophecy was spoken, not written, but there were people who recorded the words of the prophets. There is also evidence in the Bible that there were “schools of prophets” or small groups of disciples who gathered around a noted prophet. Some of these disciples of prophets became prophets themselves, like Elisha; others simply recorded the teachings and spread the word of the prophet. It is important to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament that the ancient Israelites did not have a Scripture to guide them. This is so obvious that we sometimes cannot see it, but Eli and Samuel did not have a Bible. They had laws, some of which went back to Moses, and they had stories and tradition, but they did not have a canon of Scripture. It was the prophets and priests who were creating the religion of Israel and the sacred writings.
Priests had a different role in the religion of Israel, and it was rare for a prophet to also be a priest. The priest was an intermediary between God and humans who was in charge of cultic matters. Priests kept track of the calendar and made sure the holy days were properly celebrated. Priests were in charge of sacrifices and were the ones who removed a person’s guilt. Priests also kept track of many of the laws of Israel, and it seems likely that shrines, like Shiloh, had archives where the written laws were stored. In other words, priests had regularly duties, but prophets had to be free speak the truth, even when the truth was not welcome.
A Seldom Heard Word In his book The Prophetic Imagination, the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann contrasted the creative and subversive message of the prophets to the oppression of the monarchs, but he ignored the fact that the kings of Israel employed prophets in the government to act as advisors, particularly in foreign affairs. Prophets were also religious teachers and reformers. In other words, prophets had a role in the social order even though they often criticized it. The books of the kingdoms (Samuel-Kings) show us that the prophets helped create the kingdom and played a role in royal politics. At times, though, the prophets revealed God’s judgment on the social order. The prophetic condemnation of Eli and his sons in I Samuel was symbolic of the prophetic judgment against corruption in religion and politics. Prophets were reformers who could be revolutionary.
Unlike preachers today who have to give a message every Sunday morning, prophets gave the word of God only when called upon. People could consult with prophets and ask for a word from God, but they would not always receive an answer. When the storyteller says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days, he is letting us know that religious life was in decline. There were few men or women with the gift of prophecy. Israel was in a doldrums, without visions to inspire the people or a word of God to help them adjust to new challenges. The storyteller is also letting us know why Samuel was so confused when he heard God calling to him. Samuel, like most prophets, was not expecting to be called.
The word of God was rare in those days. Despite the fact that there will be tens of thousands sermons preached across America this morning, many people feel that we are living in a time when the word of God is rare. This is, in part, because the modern world is suspicious of people who heard voices in their heads and see things that aren’t there. By definition, what Samuel experienced in the temple would be considered abnormal today, and psychologists would be more interested in what he had to say than priests would be. We live in an odd time, I think. On the one hand, we are surrounded by publications that claim to be printing prophecies and which tell outlandish stories of supernatural events, but on the other hand we are skeptical of any claims that cannot be verified scientifically. Churches are divided between those who believe strongly that miracles, visions, and other prophetic signs are still possible and those churches that prefer to stick with interpreting the ancient Scripture without the need to relive it. In our day, the word of God is rare, but that may be because it is drowned out by so much religious blather and faux spirituality. Some of us may be like Samuel. God calls, but at first we cannot respond.
Samuel The story of Samuel’s calling is beautifully written and has lost none of its appeal through the centuries. There is an interesting interplay of blindness and illumination in the story. Not only are visions are rare in the land, Eli the priest has become physically blind. God’s revelation is going to come when it is least expected. The lamp is still burning in the temple because morning has not arrived. It is the gloaming just before dawn – that time when the night is coldest and the world is silent. These images give us the sense that the whole society has grown old and lost its energy, but we know that a new day is breaking.
Samuel is not keeping a vigil like the mystics of old. He is sleeping in the temple before the ark of the LORD. According to ancient tradition, the great prophet and law-giver Moses used to receive the word of the LORD as he knelt before the ark. In modern times, the ark has been described as a radio or transmitter to talk to God. Readers of the Scripture know that the ark is a bridge between heaven and earth, but Samuel may not have known this. For him, those may have just been stories told by old men and women. It has been a long time since anyone had a word from God, and the keepers of sacred knowledge have become cynical and selfish. If you enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia, you may see the connection between this story in I Samuel and Prince Caspian. The word of God was rare and the people lacked a vision.
Samuel, the Temple servant, was in a situation like many priests and ministers today. We interpret the Scripture, offer prayers to God, and handle sacred things, but we do not really expect to hear a new word from God or to receive a new vision. Our service in the Temple is routine and ordinary. We keep the calendar and the feast days, and we are there to help in times of crisis, but we can predict what will happen week after week in worship. This is not a criticism of the church and its ministers, but it is a statement of fact. We sleep before the ark of God, tending the light, but we are unprepared to be illuminated.
Samuel’s Call Then Samuel hears the LORD call his name. He is shaken from his slumbers and jumps to his feet. He responds immediately saying “Here I am.” Young Samuel is obedient and eager to be of service, but he responded to the wrong person. Samuel naturally assumed that the words he heard were spoken out loud by flesh and blood, so he ran to his master, Eli. One of the things I love about the Old Testament is that you get stories like this that are so true to life. Samuel responded the way we would. He was not expecting to hear from God any more than we are. In the Old Testament even the great prophets almost missed their encounters with God; almost missed the message God wanted them to hear. Of course, we the stories of those who did miss their moment of revelation and encounter are not recorded in Scripture. Their names and stories are lost to us because they did not turn aside from their normal lives to enter into the presence of God. Perhaps the reason God’s word was not heard in Israel in those days was because no one was willing to listen.
Samuel rushes to Eli’s room. I wonder if something similar happens to people today. Like Samuel we run in fear to the nearest authority figure assuming that they called us. We work hard to please our parents, or our teachers, or our pastors, or some other authority, never questioning whether this is what God wants us to do. We sacrifice our time and energy and families and morals to please our superiors, never asking if we are pursuing our true calling.
Discernment Samuel goes to Eli. Three times God calls to Samuel in the Temple, and three times Samuel runs to Eli instead of listening to God. We’ve seen that Eli has his flaws. His sons have turned out rotten, but he is not a bad man. He is wise enough as a priest to recognize that something unusual is happening, and he is good enough not to try to take advantage of the situation. He could have said, “I’m glad you are here Samuel. Clearly God wants you to work harder for me.” Most of us would be getting pretty tired of Samuel coming in and waking him up. If I were Eli, I would have told Samuel that he better not come back in – even if God was calling! We might be inclined to say to Samuel, “Listen, boy, if you keep hearing voices, we’re taking you to a shrink.” But Eli was a priest of the LORD of hosts. He was the closest thing to a psychiatrist that they had in ancient Israel. Eli knows that Samuel is not insane just because he heard someone call his name in the night. Eli correctly perceives that it is God who is waking Samuel up, but there is a way to find out for sure. Eli tells Samuel to stay in the Temple, in front of the sacred ark. If he hears the voice a fourth time, he should say “speak, for your servant is listening.” This will be the test to see if the voice is from God.
Let’s linger just a moment over this scene of the confused Samuel standing by the old priest’s bed. The storyteller has made it clear that this is a book about the transition from the old to the new. The night is passing and dawn is bringing new light. The old is passing away and the new is emerging, but it is the old blind priest who correctly perceives what is happening. The old must help the young interpret the changes that they will bring about. Each generation is connected to the next even when the younger generation gives a prophetic message of change.
There is something quite appealing in Samuel’s simple response to God. “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Perhaps this is why we don’t hear God speak today. We do not offer ourselves as servants. We think spiritual gifts make us special when in fact they place under an obligation. We forget that when God speaks, he wants us to something. We forget that if we want to hear God’s word, we need to listen; not just with our outer ears but with our hearts and lives. Perhaps we need to practice listening and being open rather than talking all the time.
Prophecy God told Samuel that he was going to do something that would shock everyone in Israel. What God is planning will be exciting and controversial, and he is going to trust the future to a young priest lacking in experience. God tells Samuel that he is going to fulfill the judgment that has already been pronounced against the house of Eli. Because the sons of Eli had been contemptuous and contemptible in their public service, they are going to be eliminated. They would no longer have the opportunity to abuse worshipers and the women who worked in the temple. They would no longer bring shame to the house of the Lord or profane his sanctuary. They had been warned, but the sons of Eli had not changed their ways, and their guilt could not be atoned for through a sacrifice. God had already told this Eli, but now Samuel would be a witness to the prophecy.
This prophecy provides an opportunity to discuss the nature of prophecy in the Bible. Many people think that the words of the prophets were directed to the distant future, thousands of years after the time when they were given. That is a modern notion. As far as we call, biblical prophecy tended to be about issues closer to home. Prophets did offer predictions about the future, but it was almost always about events on the horizon. In essence, prophets read the signs of their times and interpreted the will of God accordingly. The prophecy given to Samuel is a perfect example of this. It is a prophecy that will be fulfilled soon, and Samuel has to be ready to deal with the results.
Bad News When Samuel got the disturbing news about Eli and his sons, he did the only reasonable thing. He lay back down, hoping it was all a bad dream. He wanted to avoid the bad news. Samuel is so much like us today. Often we know the truth about someone else’s life. We can read the signs and see that someone is heading into severe problems, but we don’t want to tell them. It is much easier to go back to bed and pull the covers up. It is much easier to stay in church, kneeling before the altar, than it is to confront a friend or family member with their problems. There is someone we know who is heading into addiction or alcoholism, but we remain silent. We see the harm caused by public officials and business leaders, but we don’t want to risk rejection by speaking out. We became quietly complicit in their self-destruction and abuse of others. God speaks a word of judgment to us, but we keep it quiet because it is more important for us to be liked that to be a prophet of God’s justice and mercy. Like Samuel, we try to ignore the word of God and go to sleep.
But Eli insisted that Samuel tell him the truth, and Samuel took the risk to speak the truth to someone in power. We don’t know if Samuel’s words surprised him or merely confirmed his sense of doom. In any case, it is to Eli’s credit that he encouraged Samuel to be honest and forthright. We should all develop this kind of courage – the courage to let others tell us the truth, even if it is a painful truth. And Eli recognized the word of God when it was mediated through Samuel, and he did not blame the prophet for the message. May we learn to do the same.