Good morning! Today we start the books of Samuel, which bridge from the time of the judges to the first two kings of a united Israel, Saul and David. These books chart a move away from power by virtue of an inherited priestly office to power based more on God’s choice of righteous leaders. Today in 1 Samuel 1-4 we see a great failing of the “old way” under corrupt priests, but the “new way” of royal authority will reveal its own problems in due time. From here through the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, prophets have less formal authority over Israel’s leaders, but speak more reliably as the voice of divine morality.
It all starts today with another righteous woman’s example, that of Hannah the mother of Samuel. Barren and facing jealousy from another wife (similar to that between Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah), Hannah pleads with God to bear a son and promises to dedicate him to God’s service if she does. Eli, the priest at Shiloh, thinks she is drunk in making her fervent prayers and goes to reprimand her (foreshadowing his later failures). When she declares his misunderstanding, he promises an answer to her prayers. The baby Samuel is born to her later that year, and once he is weaned Hannah keeps her vow and dedicates him to God, leaving him in Shiloh at the temple with Eli.
Chapter 2 cycles between signs of obedience in Hannah and disobedience in Eli’s family. Hannah’s prayer at the beginning of the chapter—like Mary’s Magnificat in Luke’s gospel—declares God’s righteousness and care for the poor of the earth. Meanwhile, Eli’s rebellious sons take advantage of their position at the temple and usurp God’s offerings for themselves. Samuel, by contrast, grows into a dutiful “altar boy” serving in the temple. His parents are diligent in their annual temple visits and their continuing care for Samuel. Hannah later bears other children—interpreted as divine vindication of her uprightness. As the years pass, the outrages of Eli’s sons worsen, giving the Shiloh temple a bad reputation. A “man of God” tells Eli that his failure to reign in his sons will lead to their deaths and the priesthood going to someone more faithful. Here we see early expression of a prophetic tradition which will only grow stronger in Israel, calling for authentic obedience and righteous behavior rather than mere lip service to God.
Like all “call stories” (remember that of Moses), Samuel’s call to serve God in chapter 3 begins with misunderstanding and hesitation. Three times Samuel hears God calling, but thinks it is Eli. Finally, Eli discerns that the voice must be from God, and tells Samuel to answer back. Samuel hears God speak of the coming destruction of Eli’s family, and fears to tell his mentor/authority figure. However, the next morning Eli coaxes the prophecy out of Samuel and accepts it as God’s will.
We see Samuel’s first prophecy come true in chapter 4. Defeated in battle against the Philistines, Israel’s leaders presumptuously ask for the ark to be brought with them into battle as a sign of God’s favor. Eli’s sons accompany the ark in battle, and are killed there when the Philistines prevail and capture the “silver bullet” of the ark, a formal sign of God’s presence. On hearing the news that very day, Eli also passes away and his daughter-in-law goes into labor before dying herself. Her final concern is more for Israel than for her lost family members—she names the surviving child Ichabod, or “the glory has departed from Israel”. Nevertheless, like every other apparent defeat (including the crucifixion itself), God will prevail in the end through unforeseen means. Happy reading, and happy Easter!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Samuel 5-7. Thanks for reading!