Reflection on 1 Samuel 3:1-20 & Psalm 139:1-18

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

“Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

In recent years we have come to better understand the destructive impact of colonisation upon the people whose lands are being occupied by newcomers, and subsequently we have a greater appreciation of the suffering of the Canaanite people who were subjected to conquest by two invading hordes.  In spite of the appalling stories of the genocidal destruction of Canaanite settlements in the book of Joshua, the Israelites did not exterminate an entire people.  Archaeology has discovered that Canaanite and Israelite communities existed simultaneously during the period of the Judges.  Eventually, the Canaanites did lose their distinct identity, probably through a process of assimilation into Israel.  In turn, their religious beliefs and customs influenced those of the Israelites, leading to the paganism that later prophets so bitterly complained about.

In the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE (before the current era) a struggle for dominance in Canaan occurred between the Israelites, who were culturally similar to the Canaanites, and the Philistines who may have originated in Crete, and who had established cities along the Mediterranean coastline.  The Philistines were militarily better equipped and so tended to control the fertile lowlands, while the Hebrew clans were largely restricted to the less productive high country.  At this point, there was no nation of Israel, only a loose federation of twelve independent tribes.  Skirmishes between the Israelites and the Philistines tended to be localised and involved only the tribe most impacted, with on occasion support from their nearest neighbours. When needed, a tribe would seek out a charismatic leader to lead them out against the foe.  This, then, is the context of the life of the prophet Samuel, who reluctantly oversees Israel’s transition from a fragmented clan structure to a centralised monarchy with a king who is given authority over all the tribes. 

Our passage opens when Samuel is about thirteen years of age according to ancient Jewish tradition, as recorded by Josephus in his Antiquities. This is the age when Jewish boys were considered sufficiently mature to become “sons of the law”, that is to become personally responsible for their adherence to the requirements of the covenant. If correct this tradition indicates that Eli’s task in raising Samuel is now over.  The temple at Shiloh where they lived and worked would probably have been like other Canaanite and Israelite temples of this period. It would have consisted of a large room, with a niche for the Ark of the Covenant on the western wall, and a door in the eastern wall leading out into a courtyard where the altar of sacrifice was located.  Small rooms around this courtyard would have provided accommodation for the priests. On this night Eli is lying in his own room while his young protégé is in the actual sanctuary in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.  No explanation is given for Samuel’s unusual sleeping quarters.  In ancient times devotees would spend a night in a sanctuary in the hope of receiving a revelation from the deity whose temple it was. Even today there are Moslems who believe that God speaks in visions to those who sleep in a sanctuary. So perhaps this is a rite of passage for young Samuel, but if so he seems unaware of the possibility of God speaking to him.  Not surprising, perhaps, at a time when “the word of the LORD was rare… visions were not widespread”.  The reference to the lamp of God having not gone out probably indicates that the time of Samuel’s encounter with God was towards dawn, but it may also symbolically indicate Israel’s spiritual condition.  In the Jewish arrangement of the Biblical texts, the book of 1 Samuel immediately follows that of Judges, with no Ruth in between. Judges ends with the statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”[1] Israel is like a lamp about to run out of oil but its light hasn’t yet been completely extinguished.

There follows the comic episode of Samuel repeatedly hearing his name called and, thinking each time that the now nearly blind Eli required his assistance, running to the old priest and saying, “Here I am, for you called me,” only to be told he was mistaken and sent back to bed.  This story demonstrates the depth of the youth’s devotion to the elderly priest and the strength of Eli’s fatherly affection for the boy he calls “my son”.  Neither remonstrates with the other for what each must have thought was thoroughly thoughtless and perhaps even irrational behaviour.  Finally, Eli realises that God is attempting to communicate with Samuel and instructs the boy in how to respond. Samuel is to say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”  In Hebrew to be willing to listen means to be willing to obey. 

The lot of an Old Testament prophet was seldom joyous.  Frequently the messages he or she was charged with delivering to the leaders of the Israelite people were words of judgment rather than words of praise.  In his commissioning as a prophet, young Samuel discovers immediately this downside of the prophetic call.  God pronounces judgment on the House of Eli.  Eli spoke truthfully to his sons when he said, “If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can make intercession?” Then the text goes onto say, “his sons would not listen to the voice of their father.”[2] Because of the wickedness of Hophni and Phinehas, God has decided to remove the high priesthood from the family of Eli and give it to the family of Zadok.  The terrible message that God gives Samuel for Eli is that “the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  It is not surprising that young Samuel has no desire to convey such awful news to the mentor and guardian he clearly loves.  Eli has to prise it out of him with an oath.  Eli’s uncomplaining acceptance of God’s judgment upon him and his household is totally unexpected.  At this point in the narrative, we come to see that Eli is both a figure of great piety and great tragedy. 

The passage ends with an editorial comment about the adult Samuel’s reputation as a trustworthy prophet throughout the land of Israel.  The text says that the LORD continued to reveal himself to Samuel at Shiloh; but perhaps the editor was mistaken.  In chapter four we read of the deaths of Eli, his sons, and daughter-in-law in childbirth all on the same day, and of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines.  We’re not told what subsequently happened to Shiloh.  Archaeology, however, has uncovered evidence that Shiloh was torched in the mid-eleventh century BCE, that is at the time of the Philistine wars.  Jeremiah refers to this destruction in a prophecy against Jerusalem, in which he reports God saying, “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.”[3]  When the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to Israel it was not reinstated in the sanctuary at Shiloh, and Samuel’s circuit as Judge and Prophet of Israel was to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, and he made his home in Ramah where his family lived, and where he built an altar to the LORD.  No mention is made of Shiloh which clearly has been destroyed.

The birth of Samuel was considered an answer to his mother’s prayer.  God knew Samuel and had a purpose for him from before his birth.  As the psalmist writes of himself, “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  Psalm 139 is a celebration of the omnipresence and the omniscience of God, who is utterly involved and completely concerned about creation as a whole and each of us as individuals.  God knows our strengths and our weaknesses better than we do, and God has a far better understanding of what we are capable of achieving than we do. God understood the potential of the thirteen-year-old Samuel and called him to become a prophet just prior to a battle with the Philistines that had a disastrous outcome for the Israelites.  God called Samuel while a boy to become the man who would guide Israel’s transition from a tribal federation to a monarchy in order to more effectively meet the Philistine threat.

God is always present with us as we step out into the unknown.  The psalmist’s confession to God that “you hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand on me,” is not a complaint about how restrictive God is but praise for how protective God is.  This is the same sentiment that St Patrick expressed when he wrote, “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every human who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”  It is now four months since Dan left us to work for Presbytery, and over that time many people from within our congregations and among our staff have heard and responded to God’s call to take on new responsibilities in the church.  I thank you all.  Because of your labour we are in good heart as a worshipping community.  This past week the Ministry Settlement Board met for the first time and in due course God will inspire us to call a new senior minister to lead us.  Then as now may we all continue to follow Eli’s advice and say, “Speak Lord, for your

[1] Judges 21:25

[2] 1 Samuel 2:25

[3] Jeremiah 7:12