Today, we’re delighted to feature a second post for this new year by guest writer and previous ESN Associate Director Micheal Hickerson. Micheal did a great deal to grow ESN. Although he’s moved on to different career commitments, we’re always delighted to share his thoughts with Christian scholars. If you’d like to explore more of Mike’s work, including last week’s post and his extremely popular March Madness showdown posts on the Best Christian Book of All Time, click here. If you’re new to Scholar’s Compass, it’s our ongoing online devotional for academics. Launched in 2014, Scholar’s Compass has proved to be one of ESN’s most popular and enduring features. Click here to access the collection of Scholar’s Compass posts we’ve built over the past years.
The first few chapters of 1 Samuel serve as the origin story of the prophet Samuel. This is a low moment in the history of Israel. The book of Judges depicts a downward spiral further and further into chaos, war, and injustice. As 1 Samuel opens, the priest Eli thinks Samuel’s mother Hannah is drunk when she is praying at the temple. Think of what it must take for a priest to be unable to recognize someone at prayer.
Hannah was barren, and the child Samuel was God’s answer to her prayer for children. Out of gratitude, she gave Samuel into the service of God. By the time of the events in 1 Samuel 3, he is most likely 12 or 13 years old and has been serving Eli for about 10 years.
God spoke to Samuel throughout the night, but each time the boy mistook God’s voice for Eli’s. Even so, Samuel responded quickly, saying, “Here I am, ” a response given by many people called by God in the Bible, including Abraham, Jacob, and Isaiah. Though Eli was a bad priest, he eventually realized what is going on, and he advised Samuel how to respond and listen to God.
What is God’s first message to Samuel? Judgment against his mentor Eli.
“Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”
The nature of this blasphemy, described in 1 Samuel 2, may be a bit hard for modern readers to grasp. Israelite sacrifices were communal meals, with the priests entitled to a portion of the meat. Eli’s two sons— Hophni and Phinehas, who were also priests—were rigging the sacrificial system to make sure they received larger, better cuts of meat than they should have had. Eli’s sons were also having sex with female servants at the tent of the meeting. Considering the power imbalance between the sons of the chief priest and servant women, I doubt these encounters were consensual. In more modern terms, Eli’s sons had turned the worship of Israel into an embezzlement and sex trafficking operation.
If Eli already knew that God was going to punish his house for the sins of his sons, why did God command Samuel to deliver this message to Eli?
Imagine yourself in Samuel’s place. God has given you terrible news about one of the most important people in your life, someone who has essentially been your father figure since you were a small child. Further, Eli is the most important religious leader in Israel, while Samuel is just a boy. How much pressure must Samuel have felt to disobey God? Or to sugarcoat the message to protect Eli’s feelings and avoid his anger?
In my opinion, this moment is a crucible for Samuel. God is going to do something new in Israel, and Samuel will be a key figure in this renewal. In 1 Samuel 2:35, God tells Eli,
And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.
To do something new, the old leaders must be replaced by those who will do what is right, rather than following their own interests. These new leaders must be able and willing to speak difficult truths, even to the most powerful people, even when the truth may be personally uncomfortable.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into their brief exchange, but Eli seems to know how important it is for Samuel to speak the truth at this moment. I’d like to think that Eli has recognized the terrible mistakes that he and his sons have made, and he’s trying to encourage Samuel to follow a different path. Whether or not this is the case, the courage of this young boy to speak truth to power marks a new beginning for Israel.
Questions for Reflection
- What new beginning is God seeking to do in your life?
- What old systems, habits, or sins must be toned down so that the new beginning can take root?
- What trustworthy person can speak difficult truths to you? To whom can you speak difficult truths?
Almighty God, who speaks through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, open our ears so that we may hear your word to us. May we respond to your call with the same readiness and courage as young Samuel. Show us the destructive systems in our lives and communities, and lead us to be instruments of grace and justice to our neighbors. We ask these things in the name of the Lord Jesus, amen.
Image credit: Copley, John Singleton, 1738-1815. Samuel Relating to Eli the Judgments of God upon Eli’s House, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56458 [retrieved January 12, 2018]. Original source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eli_and_Samuel.jpg.