This passage does not deal in the specifics of God’s call. It simply speaks of the importance of the call of God, and reminds us, simply, that God does call, and that we need help — sometimes from less than noble places — in hearing and responding.
A soldier stands under a tree in a national forest. He and his comrades are at the midpoint of a routine training exercise. A brief, violent rainstorm has blown through, and they have all taken cover. Now, they begin to emerge as the sun starts to shine, bright and warm in a blue sky, through clouds breaking apart and scattering with the freshening wind as quickly and unexpectedly as they formed.
The soldier is an agnostic — or so he would describe himself at this time, say, 11:55 in the morning. But come noon, that will have changed. The soldier will look up, close his eyes, and feel the sun upon his face — and suddenly, something, some small thing, just kind of lifts inside him. Something rises inside him, and at the same time, it’s as if something has settled upon him. He is suddenly, inexplicably aware of something he has given little if any thought to since those days, a decade or so passed, of enforced attendance at Sunday school. He is in that moment aware that there is a God, and that he could be, if he so chooses, in an intimate, daily relationship with that God.
And so, it begins. Or, rather, something begins, and something ends, for his life will never be the same. He will, former plans to the contrary notwithstanding, leave the military when his time of enlistment is up. He will relocate to a state he’s never been to before, pursue a theological education, become an ordained minister in a mainline denomination, following, one day at a time — sometimes one hour at a time — a path he would not have remotely imagined at 11:45 on that morning in the forest. He recognizes what has taken place as a call from God, and he has chosen to respond. Where that response will take him, he cannot know.
This passage before us now is about the call of God and the capacity to recognize that call. No specifics are given here as to what the call consists of, or what instructions come by way of that call to this boy pressed into service in the temple1— that will come later. What we are concerning ourselves with here is simply the call itself, the fact that God calls people from out of a clear blue sky, or in this case from out of the shadows of God’s house.
Whom does God call? What is the selection process? Why does God apparently call some, but not others? Let’s look at some of those specifics as they impact this case of Samuel and his boss — the chief priest Eli — and Eli’s two sons.
Samuel’s story begins before he is born, with his mother, Hannah. Hannah is one of two wives of a man from Israel. The man’s other wife had children, but Hannah — through no lack of affection on the part of her husband — had none.2
As you no doubt know, a wife with no children back then was considered “barren,” and being barren was considered a disgrace, a sign of disfavor from God, the author of life.
Hannah’s husband was a devout man, and he went up to the temple every year to offer sacrifices, taking his household with him. During one of those pilgrimages, a desperate Hannah presented herself before the Lord in the temple where the priest Eli presided. She vowed before God that if God would grant her a male child, she would dedicate that child to the service of the Lord for the rest of that child’s life.
The child apparently had no choice in this, not having yet been born, or even conceived. Be that as it may — that is just something that was done, back then. Hannah, at first mistaken by Eli for a common drunk, makes her situation and her case known to Eli, and receives his blessing. Utterly confident that her prayer will be answered, she returns to her life. In due time, she indeed conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel — and keeps her promise. As soon as he is weaned, she brings him to the temple and places him in the service of Eli and the temple. Her “barrenness” is now past her; she will in the future bear two more sons and two daughters.
And that is where we find the boy Samuel when we join him in the passage for today. He is serving in the temple. Night has fallen. Eli is lying down in his room, and Samuel is lying down to sleep in the temple itself.
And the Lord calls Samuel by name.
Why Samuel? Eli is the officially declared and dedicated priest of the temple, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were serving there with him, apparently performing the lion’s share of the temple duties. Why does the call of God come to the boy, Samuel, and not to this priestly family?
Well. We are told outright that Eli’s two sons were physically, sexually, and emotionally abusive scoundrels. They would take the choicest cuts of sacrificially offered meat for themselves from pilgrims who traveled great distances to offer that meat to the Lord, and if the hapless pilgrim objected, he would be physically threatened. They used their authority to take sexual advantage of the young women who served in various capacities in the temple.3 They had zero regard or respect for their duties as priests, or, worse, for the God of Israel.
Call and [non]response
Hophni and Phinehas were scoundrels, and Eli was as blind to their behavior as he was physically blind. Why their evil and irresponsible behavior? We are not told, specifically. Eli was not particularly evil, but he appears helpless in the face of the intentional and violent willfulness of his two sons.
So, what about those sons — Hophni and Phinehas? Could it have been that they had been dragooned by heredity into positions that they did not want, and so felt no responsibility to the position or its implied and specific duties? Eli and sons were Levites, and in those days, Levites were priests, period, whether they wanted to be or not. End of discussion. Did they resent that kind of cultural predestination, and decide to use the position simply to secure their own comfort and prerogative? Perhaps.
Whatever the case — they could have chosen to see their historical placement as a call from the Lord, but they did not. They chose to see it as nothing more than a privilege to be manipulated to their gain.
And that brings us back to the boy, Samuel. Dedicated before birth or even conception by his mother, he had no more say in his placement than Hophni and Phinehas did — yet his attitude is quite different.
God calls, we are told in our passage for today, Samuel by name. At first, neither Samuel nor Eli recognizes the voice of God — indeed, we are told, few to none could have recognized God’s voice, for the call of God “was rare in those days.”4
But on this day, God calls. And Eli, to his credit, is first to recognize what is going on. And Samuel, to his credit, says “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Why Samuel? Whose prerogative?
The call comes to Samuel — not to Eli, not to his sons. “Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” Samuel did not recognize God’s voice. Samuel was mistaking the Lord’s voice for Eli’s voice. It took the presence and insight — flawed though it may have been — of Eli to recognize that it was the Lord calling. No matter how weak or even corrupt our elders might be, we still need them, and the powers of discernment that they’ve developed over the course of their lives, to help us recognize God’s call, and to discern where that call might take us.
One wonders about Eli. His sons are scoundrels; that is made more than
abundantly clear. But what about him? Might there have been a time when the Lord called Eli, and Eli said “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”? What happened? “The word of the LORD was rare in those days,” we are told — yet Eli knew the ways of the Lord well enough to know that it was indeed the Lord who was calling, and that Samuel was not just hearing things, or having a bad dream or whatever. Eli may have thought a deeply troubled, praying woman was merely drunk — but when push came to proverbial shove, he knew when the Lord was speaking. We need our “elders” — their counsel, their insight, their foresight. It was the foresight of Samuel’s mother that led to his dedication to the God who calls. It was the flawed wisdom of Eli that recognized, finally, God’s call. And not to stretch a point too far — there was an “elder,” a minister in a mainline denomination serving as chaplain right there in that national forest — that our soldier could talk to about this strange occurrence. Our elders — sometimes tragically blind, weak, misguided, deluded though they be — nevertheless have served, and they are likely to know, finally, if it is God who calls.
God is speaking now. Do we hear? Does someone hear? And will we respond — or will our tragic devotion to our own pursuits deafen us to that voice, or mislead us with thoughts that we are “just hearing things”? May we learn to listen! May we respect our elders, however weak or flawed! And may we be ready to hear and respond!
1 Although referred to in scripture as a “temple,” the reference here is actually to a worship center in Shiloh, which predated the later temple in Jerusalem.
2 1 Samuel 1:1-2
3 1 Samuel 2:12ff; 2:22.
4 1 Samuel 3:1b.