Tag Archives: 1 Samuel

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8 (Cont’d)

Read 1 Samuel 8

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel (vv. 4-6).

The reason for Samuel’s displeasure at the elders’ request is not immediately apparent, although it appears he takes the request as a personal rejection. It is unlikely he is displeased for his sons’ sake. The elders’ delegation made a formal request to Samuel, acting evidently on behalf of the people who echo their words to him in verses 19-20, and reject his counsel. The elders and the people want a king to judge them “like all the nations.” Up to this point, Samuel has been a judge who has also acted, to some extent at least, like a king. By dint of his prophetic persona he has united Israel after the disastrous war between the tribes, and facilitated the campaign that overthrew the Philistine oppression. But Samuel was not a military judge as some of the former judges had been, but a prophetic-judge; a king would unify sacred and military powers in a single figure (Murphy, 65).

Samuel’s displeasure is validated by the Lord’s response to his prayer; God, too, is less than pleased with this proposal, and God, too, understands this request in terms of personal rejection: “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 8).

Here, perhaps, we see the significance of the ark narratives of chapters five and six. The ark does not simply represent the divine presence with Israel, but houses that presence. God is present with Israel but not controlled by them. God is supreme over the foreign gods and powers and vanquishes them in contest. God goes into exile for his people and returns to them. Yet God is present amongst his people in a highly symbolic and non-governmental way. What does it mean, then, for God to be King if he is not king in a literal and earthly sense? God does not exercise direct executive or judicial authority, but guides, protects and rescues his people through the judges and other intermediaries he establishes on their behalf.

“Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge…” (Judges 2:18). The ad hoc and charismatic nature of leadership in the pre-monarchical era required the people to look to God in dependence and trust for their preservation and deliverance. To live in and experience the blessings of the covenant required covenantal faithfulness on their part. By calling for a king, however, the Israelites were falling away from this primary relation and dependence by which they were constituted, identified and distinguished. Instead they sought to be like the other nations with a king who would represent them and fight for them. A standing army is easier to trust than a “God-in-a-box,” and a more secure arrangement than the ad hoc judges who arose from time to time to bring deliverance. Now the king will become the locus of their unity and identity as a people rather than God. But this visible means of security will come at a cost: the people are trading freedom for security and conformity to the surrounding world.

Samuel warns the people in great detail what will transpire under a monarchical system. They will give their sons and their daughters, their lands, harvests, and livestock for the king’s maintenance and for that of his retinue. In choosing a king they are also choosing a burgeoning bureaucracy and the taxation to support it. “You shall be his slaves, and in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves” (vv. 17-18). Samuel warns that in this turn from trust in God to becoming like the nations, the tribes of Israel will get what they want but they will not want what they get.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Read 1 Samuel 8:1-5

Samuel is old, has been judge in Israel for many years, and has gained the respect and affection of the people. But now in his old age, it appears that Samuel makes a critical mistake: He appoints his two sons Joel and Abijah as judges in his place. Until now we have heard nothing of Samuel’s personal circumstances, and still know nothing really of his wife and family. But now, in addition to their names, we know something else about his sons: they “do not walk in his ways,” but seeking to enrich themselves, took bribes and perverted the course of justice (vv. 3, 5).

Why has Samuel done this? Why has he appointed and retained his sons as judges in his place, especially when they prove unworthy of the role? Having seen what happened with Eli and his sons, is Samuel now to repeat the same mistake? Was there no one else he could appoint? At least Eli reprimanded his sons; there is no indication in the text that Samuel did the same.

Several questions arise, the first concerning, once more, the responsibilities of parenthood, or more generally, human nature in general. We saw in chapter two that God held Eli responsible for the behaviour of his sons, perhaps due to his failure to step them down from their priestly duties, given their disqualifying behaviours. It may not be Eli as parent but Eli as leader that has failed. Here, too, however, Samuel’s sons walk awry, interested more in personal gain than in fair dealing, justice, and public service. We know that Samuel is seen as possessing utmost integrity; has he somehow failed to pass this on to his children, nurturing in them the qualities so evident in himself? Or is this simply another instance of the wayward nature of human being itself, that when, given the opportunity of personal gain at the expense of others, many will prove willing to act corruptly?

A second question concerns the nature of hereditary offices, and whether nepotism invariably leads to the kind of corruption portrayed here. There is, actually, no real sense in which this was an act of nepotism by Samuel. Murphy, in fact, rejects this idea, arguing instead that in the kind of pre-state, segmentary, tribal culture that characterised pre-monarchical Israel it was natural that sons be appointed to the positions occupied by their fathers. Further, she observes, the elders who come to Samuel do not complain that Samuel appointed his sons per se, but that the sons, “do not walk in your ways” (v. 5). It was not that Samuel made his sons judges, but rather that the sons have become the kinds of judges that they have (Murphy, 62). This important observation will help lift this text beyond the kind of moralism that arises when the question of parenting is emphasised. 1 Samuel, after all, is about how the decentralised tribal society seen in Judges became a nation around a centralised monarchy.

Even so, the question concerning hereditary offices does not go away. The elders who come to Samuel are asking for a king: another form of hereditary office, which again indicates that it was not the appointment of Samuel’s sons which was itself the issue. Nevertheless,

The attitude toward kingship seen throughout the somewhat inglorious history of the monarchy is one of unresolved tension, and that tension is reflected in the ambiguity here. On the one hand, particularly in the Psalms, the monarchy is viewed very positively; it was a God-given gift. The king was God’s representative on earth, able to lead the people in their service of God and reflect God to them, helping them to understand his character and purposes. On the other hand, Samuel and certain of the prophets saw the monarchy as a rejection of God and his kingly rule; the king stood between the people and God, drawing their allegiance to himself and away from God. In this view, the monarchy was neither necessary nor useful for the life of God’s covenant people (Evans, 57).

The Scripture itself, according to Evans, does not resolve the question of the hereditary office, but it does provide perspectives that help us think about the question, and about the nature of Christian leadership in general. To the extent that the king exercised his authority in a priestly manner, directing the people toward God and representing God’s character and purpose to the people, it is affirmed. To the extent, however, that the king aggrandises himself and pursues his own will to the detriment of God’s purposes both for himself and for the people, his leadership is rejected. Samuel’s sons did not “walk in his ways,” and on these grounds are rejected. Nor is the fault Samuel’s: they are responsible for their actions.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 7:3-17

Read 1 Samuel 7:3-17

In verse three Samuel reappears in the narrative, having been out of the picture since chapter 4:1, and out of the picture for perhaps as long as twenty years. After their devastating loss to the Philistines Israel was indeed impoverished, and subject at least, to Philistine power. During this time Samuel continued to grow, not only in years but in his call, service, maturity, and reputation. Samuel was a prophet-judge, a circuit judge “bringing justice and encouraging worship” on an annual basis in the region where he served (Evans, 54). The four cities mentioned—Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah—are all centrally located a little south of Shiloh.

But Samuel appears to have done more than become a localised prophet or judge. In verse three he is addressing “all the house of Israel,” with a call to repentance that includes a rejection of idolatry. In the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history idolatry was a perennial issue, a form of religious-cultural syncretism, in which Israel were not whole-hearted in their devotion to God. Samuel confronts this attitude head-on:

If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

To the modern western mind, the idea of idolatry is curious if not foolish, primitive and superstitious. But the ancient Israelites were simply adapting themselves to the surrounding cultures, adopting their mores and religious values, and the promise of security that they brought. Seen in this light, idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues, but seeking one’s security in and setting one’s heart on anything other than the one God. Samuel will have none of it. True repentance will be indicated by the sole devotion of their hearts toward God; there is no place here for a divided heart.

True repentance, and true religion, are matters of the heart. This is understood in the Old Testament as the defining and motivating centre of human personality. It is this centre, as representing the whole, which is to “return” to the Lord in full and sole devotion. “For human beings,” says Murphy, “monotheism is never just a theory, but a decision” (52). And if Israel will do this, Samuel promises, God will deliver them from the power of the Philistines.

Samuel, it seems, has managed unify Israel, or at least gathered them in unity to Mizpah. The prophet-judge is in this sense also a prophet-general, a military as well as juridical and religious leader, as was common with a number of earlier judges. The gathered people confess their sins and make an offering to the Lord.

What happens next is difficult to describe. There is both a military confrontation and a divine intervention. Or it may be that the divine intervention was through the military confrontation. Murphy suggests,

What happens in the story theologically is that ‘the Lord thunders’ against the Philistines and throws them into terrified flight; what happens humanly is that all the tribes act as one; and these two, the human and the theological, occur simultaneously (53).

All the focus of the narrative is on Samuel and his action. Samuel does not fight; he prays and sacrifices, and God hears and answers his prayer. Certainly Israel fights and pursues; certainly God superintends and gives deliverance. Yet it is Samuel’s leadership, his wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God which calls, inspires, and gathers Israel, and acts as a lightning rod of divine presence in the face of imminent threat and crisis.

There is no doubt that this was a significant military victory: the power of Philistia over the Israelites was decisively beaten for the whole period of Samuel’s life. More significantly, it was a crucial stage along the road of Israel’s national and religious development. Through the force of Samuel’s example, spirituality, and leadership Israel, emerging from a period of terrible defeat and oppression, was becoming unified as one people devoted to one God.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

Read 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

The ark has wreaked havoc in Philistia, or so it seems, and the leaders want rid of it. They seek the counsel of the priests and diviners, who suggest returning it with a “guilt offering” so that healing might come to the people. On the one hand, they assume that the trouble that has befallen them is the direct action of Israel’s God. On the other, however, a question remains whether this is in fact the case, or whether they have had a particularly bad run of luck (v. 9). Nonetheless, their counsel assumes that the root of their problems is God.

The guilt offering suggested was five golden mice and five golden tumours—corresponding, probably, to their afflictions, and presumably, to their cause. By sending these tokens with the ark they acknowledged that this plague had come from God, and by sending them out of the country, they also are symbolically sending the plague away. Although it is easy to view the Philistines as deeply superstitious, such a characterisation is less than fair. Indeed, the text itself indicates that the Philistines are aware of what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and take it as a warning (v. 6).

The priests and diviners do not make it easy on themselves. They insist on a new cart with cattle that have never been yoked. They choose milk cows with calves, but take the calves away from the cows. The cows are left free to go where they will, yet they do not return back to their calves, but go straight toward the land of Israel; the plagues have not been a coincidence.

The people of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the ark and offer appropriate—and costly—sacrifices. But, and here the story takes an interesting twist, some of the people look into the ark and are struck dead. (One wonders what Calvin would make of those who seek to “peer into the depths of God.” Calvin repudiated such speculative attempts to apprehend the essence of God, and insisted that we content ourselves with that which God has revealed.) Again there is a difficulty in the Hebrew which suggests that perhaps 50,070 people were killed, but the structure of verse nineteen is difficult, and most translations and commentators opt for the more “reasonable” number of seventy. Nevertheless, this cost is too great for the people of Beth-shemesh and they send it away to Kiriath-jearim where it remains for some twenty years.

In chapters four and five we found that God had judged his people and allowed them to be decisively defeated. God has also allowed himself to be “captured,” to be taken into the hands and control of the pagans, to be exiled and cut off from his people. And yet God is not captured, not exiled, not defeated, and not controlled. God remains Lord even in “defeat.” God bears witness to himself where Israel has failed to do so, and so wins the acknowledgement and grudging respect, if not the love, of the Philistines. God has now returned from his exile, returned to his people, but God will not be their captive or their possession either. The people of Beth-shemesh have transgressed the boundary, presumed upon the divine majesty, and failed to consider his holiness. They have not, as the early Barth insisted in his first Romans commentary, “respected the distance.”

It is likely, as Murphy notes (48), that no one really understands the disasters in 1 Samuel 5-6, for the passage lies beyond our historical ability. This does not mean, however, that we can gain no instruction or benefit from it. The ark is the symbol—and sacrament—of the divine presence. Indeed Murphy declares that “it is not possible to understand this carnival of the glory of the Lord in his ark without appreciating sacramental power” (49). The ark is an earthly tangible thing, but simultaneously the divine throne by which God is present with and enthroned amongst his people. Its potency is “a visible symbol” of the glory that it bears (ibid.). As the divine throne it is also sacred, and to be acknowledged, honoured and treated as such. Evans (50) wonders whether Paul might have had a passage like this in mind when he warned against misuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Within the overall structure of the narrative, another insight dawns. The ark is now housed at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—a back-water, out-of-the-way kind of place—side-lined, and marginal to the life of Israel, until David retrieves it and brings it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. This is a figurative portrayal of the sidelining of God in the national life; the divine kingship is marginal until David is established as king and the ark restored to Jerusalem (see Murphy, 51). If this interpretation is accepted, it provides a lens through which the rest of the book is to be understood, and in particular, the reign of Saul.

One further point of instruction may be possible. It may be appropriate to read this text typologically or allegorically, as pointing to Jesus Christ, who is in his own flesh, the presence and covenant of God with us. He, too, was captured, taken into the hands and control of the pagans, cut off from his people, exiled from God and nation—yet not captured, defeated, exiled or controlled, but victorious. But this text would also warn us that we either have Jesus on his own terms or not at all. He is never our possession, but the holy God who has come to us in mercy, and the merciful God who nevertheless ever remains the holy One who is Lord.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3 (Cont)

Despite a number of scholars suggesting that Zadok is the “faithful priest” (2:35) who will replace Eli, the author or editors of 1 Samuel have placed the call of Samuel immediately after this prophecy. This shows that in the present narrative at least, Samuel is seen as the successor of Eli and his sons, in terms of national leadership if not as high priest. Once more, as Evans suggests (p. 39), the story highlights “the power of God and his empowering of the powerless: The inexperienced youth, the decrepit priest and the barren woman are all presented as significant tools in the outworking of God’s purposes.”

In her exposition of this chapter, Francesca Aran Murphy meditates on the idea of calling or vocation: “a vocation is not a project I make for myself, but a call to me, from someone else, to which I hear and respond. Vocation results from calling” (27). Samuel begins to be the person God intends him to be only because he hears God’s call and responds obediently to it.

Murphy insists that the story of Samuel indicates the importance of the individual in the making of history. This runs counter to much social-scientific philosophy which would lodge the rationale for historic change in mass movements, social dynamics and environmental features. Murphy demurs: “it is characters, not conditions and contexts, that make history” (28). This, perhaps, is a “both-and” question. The sixteenth-century Reformations were no doubt assisted because of the social, political, religious, and economic factors in play at the time, but whether they would have occurred without the catalytic character of Martin Luther is indeed questionable. History, in this sense, is not inevitable, but “the one God guides history by calling out unique actors to stage a providential history” (28). While the study of such historical factors is not unimportant, biography is more so.

Most ancient New Eastern cultures created national records and lists of their kings with their purported achievements. Israel surpassed them in history writing and created, in Regum [i.e. the books of Samuel and Kings], the first real long-range historical work because it grasped more deeply than these collectivist cultures the principle that “men are free and responsible moral agents is the fundamental principle of historical thinking: no free will, no history—no history in our sense of history” (28, citing John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness, 252, original emphasis).

But Murphy goes further: God does not simply call individuals, he creates them by his call. God’s call separates the one called from the collectives to which they belong (in Samuel’s case, family and tribe) into a direct relationship with himself. The divine call constitutes the moral individual as they respond in obedience to that call, answering God and becoming a responsible participant in what God is doing. Such persons not only act in history, but in partnership with God they become co-creators of it (29).

God’s call separates a person his or her culture, and this break with the internal social dynamic of a culture gives them the spiritual wherewithal to found a genuine community, spreading from and embedded in the work or task that is named in the divine call. Such characters are made individuals in order to give their lives to their community (30).

The divine call is not to privilege and status but to service. Samuel is to serve the word which has been addressed to him, and this is neither easy nor comfortable. His call is not to lead “his best life now,” but to hear the word of God and declare it, in spite of his discomfort in doing so. He must announce judgement to Eli, and later to Saul. He would mourn over his task, yet he proved faithful in its execution.

God’s call is the foundation of personal identity and mission. Our identity is not self-grounded, not established in anything within ourselves, but is a gift received when the personal God calls us by name to bind him to himself. In this call is given a task or a mission issuing in a life of self-dispossession that a community might be founded and gathered, which in turn will hear the divine voice and call. Here the call of Samuel becomes our call, and his story ours. Will we hear as he heard, and respond as he did?

The boy-priest in his little ephod became a prophet declaring the message of God, and if not a king, still a national leader and king-maker, a precursor of kings, the last and greatest of the judges, though still an isolated and lonely figure. As such, “Samuel is a living analogy to the prophet, priest, and king that Christ will be in the fullest sense. Of none of Israel’s kings can it be said with historical plausibility that he was prophet, priest, and king. It can credibly be said of only Samuel” (Murphy, 18).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Read 1 Samuel 2:12-36

Elkanah and his family have returned home, and the focus now shifts to Shiloh, where Samuel remains, serving the Lord. But all is not well at Shiloh, as the first verse of this passage notes: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord.’ The passage has four scenes: first a description of Eli’s sons’ disregard for the peoples’ offerings; second, a brief cameo of Hannah and Samuel’s interaction in succeeding years as Samuel grows; third, Eli remonstrating with his sons over their behaviour and warning them of the dire consequences that will follow; and fourth, a prophecy against Eli and his house by an unknown ‘man of God.’

Perhaps the key verse in the chapter is 30b: ‘for those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt.’ Associated with this is the prophetic declaration in verse 35 that God will raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do ‘according to what is in my heart and in my mind.’ This verse, as well as the contrast in this passage between Hophni and Phinehas on the one hand and Samuel on the other, provide some indication of what it is to honour the Lord. Further definition of this will be provided later in the book, in chapter 12. The verse provides another hermeneutical lens by which to understand the unfolding narrative.

The first scene (vv. 12-17) portrays Hophni and Phinehas’s complete disregard—indeed contempt (v. 17)—for the worship of God’s people, taking the best of their sacrifices—by force if necessary—for their own benefit. Later we hear that they are having sex with the women who serve at the tent of meeting—hopefully not by force—and that this is generally known. In the fourth scene Eli is implicated in their behaviour for he has not restrained his sons, but rather has made himself fat on the offerings of God’s people. He ‘honours’ his sons above God (v. 29). Though God holds Eli responsible for the exercise of his office, he does not diminish the responsibility of Hophni and Phinehas. They have dishonoured God and his worship, their own office and the people. They have abused their position and power, serving themselves rather than God, and mistreating the people of God. God’s judgement will be harsh—both will die on the one day. The priesthood will removed from Eli and given to the as-yet-unnamed faithful priest.

In the midst of all this Samuel ministers to the Lord as a little priest in a linen ephod made for him annually by his mother. Like Jesus (cf. Luke 2:52), Samuel grew physically and spiritually, gaining favour both with the Lord and with others. The simple devotion of Hannah and Samuel contrasts sharply with the lives of Hophni and Phinehas, the “anti-priests” who have inverted their true roles (Murphy, 24).

These episodes show the corrupt state into which the national and religious leadership has fallen. Israel remains a tribal society, though the shrine at Shiloh has become a centre of religious and political focus, with Eli “at the apex of the network of local judges and assemblies, a ‘superjudge’” (Murphy, 12). The narrative, therefore, provides the theological justification for the judgement that will fall upon Eli and his house, as well as continuing the introduction of this special child who will become the final judge in Israel prior to the emergence of the monarchy. Despite Samuel’s presentation as a “little priest,” it is unlikely that he is the faithful priest who will replace Eli and his family. Some commentators suggest that the faithful priest is actually Zadok who served as priest in David’s reign, though Christians might also view this as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ priesthood, for he is the truly faithful priest who has done according to all that is in God’s heart and mind (Evans, 37; cf. 1 Kings 2:35).

The severity of divine judgement promised to Eli and his house reflects the standard of holiness required of God’s ministers, and the distance that this holiness makes between itself and sin (Murphy, 25). Abuse of power, position and privilege is always despicable, even more so when it also involves sexual abuse. When those who claim to represent God engage in these kinds of abuse it is especially reprehensible. In this passage we learn that Yahweh refuses to cohabit with such sin and will hold his ministers to account. Leadership implications for ministers today are plain: God calls us to faithfulness in ministry, to honour God above all else, and to find our ministry within the compass of that who is the “true minister of the sanctuary,” the true faithful witness and high priest: Jesus Christ. Religion without faith and piety is not just hypocritical; it is dangerous.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Read 1 Samuel 2:1-11

Hannah’s song provides the theological introduction and orientation to the books of Samuel as a whole, just as David’s song provides a similar perspective as the work ends (2 Samuel 22). These bookends suggest the work of the final editors of this collection. Scholars suggest that the provenance of the psalm is from a later period, especially given the references to the king and the Lord’s anointed in verse ten which do not quite fit the pre-monarchical period. Perhaps it was included here because of the contrast of the barren and fruitful women in verse five which links the psalm to the story so far. It is not impossible, however, that the psalm originated with Hannah. Miriam in Exodus 15 and Deborah in Judges 5 are also portrayed as women psalmists who celebrate and reflect theologically on God’s works in song.

Whatever its origin, “the fact remains,” says Evans, “that the privilege of providing the main theological introduction to the whole account of the history of the Israelite monarchy is given to Hannah. That fact is probably not irrelevant” (30). Hannah did not abdicate her responsibility for theological reflection, and did not leave it up to the experts (i.e. Eli)—which perhaps was just as well. The story which follows includes many tales of the human quest for power, often with immense brutality, intrigues, and murder. The psalm insists that God is the only true sovereign, one who elects and disposes, who chooses and rejects, who upends and overturns human standards and expectations, and who will ultimately subject all human activity to judgement. Hannah’s song, coming from one who although somewhat wealthy, was poor and powerless in other ways, resonates with hope that God’s judgement will prevail, and that human arrogance and abuse of power will be brought to an end.

The psalm begins with her own exaltation and rejoicing, but quickly shifts to a meditation on the character and works of the God who has heard and answered her prayer. God alone is holy; there is none beside him (v.2). This is a full-throated rejection of religious syncretism in an environment where Israel continued to worship not only Yahweh but put their trust in the fertility gods as well. Yet only Yahweh is a rock providing security and salvation. He is the creator who set the world on its pillars (v.8; note the ancient cosmology), and he continues to rule his world with sovereign authority.

The major part of the psalm is a warning to the powerful and arrogant (v.3a): God will defend his “faithful ones” and “cut off” the wicked (v.9), he will “judge the ends of the world” (v.10). Human power will not prevail against the sovereign authority of Yahweh. The salvation that Yahweh brings is portrayed in images of historical rather than eschatological reversal. Thus, the weapons of the mighty are broken while the feeble are strengthened; the sated go hungry as the hungry are filled; the barren give birth while the mother of many is left forlorn. The agent of these reversals is the Lord. Historical developments are not accidental but subject to his providential control.

Yahweh kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Yahweh makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The idea that Yahweh kills and makes alive is frightening, predicating a sovereignty to Yahweh we wish to deny. Yet it is precisely this activity that is highlighted in the following narrative which speaks of Yahweh’s intent to kill Eli’s sons in divine judgement for their wickedness (vv. 25, 34). The question of divine violence is one we shall encounter again in this study of Samuel. Here, the psalmist operates with a sense of comprehensive divine sovereignty.

Nor is the exercise of this sovereignty arbitrary. It is the high and mighty, the rich and powerful who are brought low and made poor, while it is the poor and humble, feeble and barren who are exalted and made rich. These acts of divine reversal reveal the way of Yahweh, and his divine care for those on the underside of human power and greed. As such, the song provides the framework by which the rest of the ensuing narrative (and its characters) must be understood.

Approaching 1 Samuel (1): The “Author”

Francesca Aran Murphy

When I began reading through the books of Samuel a month or so ago, I knew I had no commentaries on these biblical books on my shelves. I set out immediately to rectify this long-standing and obvious lacuna, and, although the bookshop did not have much to offer, I did find two to help my initial engagement with these texts. Both written by women—an added bonus, considering the somewhat marginal-though-critical role women play in these books—neither would be recognised as “real” commentaries by some scholars.

Mary J. Evans, former academic dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and vice-principal of London School of Theology, wrote The Message of Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series (2004). This work is self-consciously not a commentary in the traditional sense of the word, but an “exposition” that seeks accurately to expound the biblical text with a view to contemporary insight and application (9). Evans writes, however, “with the conviction that the books of Samuel are a vital part of God’s Word” (10), and so takes them “seriously as the word of God” (15). Like a commentary, her exposition pays close attention to details of the text, the narrative structure and flow, the historical context, etc. This is a useful and accessible introduction that would benefit any Christian reader of the books of Samuel.

I have really been taken, however, by Francesca Aran Murphy’s 1 Samuel in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (2011). Murphy, professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written—if the first chapter covering 1 Samuel 1–3 is any indication—a remarkable exposition of this biblical book. The Brazos series “enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places” (blurb, emphasis added). Thus the work differs from more typical commentaries which analyse historical, linguistic, semantic, and thematic matters associated with the text, or explore and utilise particular hermeneutical lenses in their reading.

Of course Murphy employs the fruits of research into such matters, and has her own hermeneutical lenses. In her introduction we gain a sense of her approach to 1 Samuel when she reflects on what constitutes an author—particularly the author of 1 Samuel, and so also on the nature and function of this biblical text. She appears to reject the idea of the book as the product of editors working with collections of ancient documents. But she also rejects the “heroic sole author” of romanticism. Both these images, she suggests, derive from seventeenth-century British and European culture. Rather, her view includes the figure of a prophet whose immediacy to the divine grounds their religious authority. However the shift from oral to written tradition (or, revelation), is not merely the work of the prophet alone. The prophet provides the moral vision of the work, but this work is also carried out communally. Murphy analogises: perhaps there are similarities to modern script-writing for television drama series; “the best television series have as their executive director a mastermind…[who] gives the series an overall moral vision” which is then worked out collectively by a group who crafts the vision (xviii-xix).

Murphy utilises this image again, in the structure of her commentary which is divided into seven “series” (we might say, “seasons”). Each series (“season”) is composed of a number of episodes. Thus “season one” is “Grace and Nature”; season two is “The Carnival of the Ark”, and so on until season seven, “The Death of the Brother.” Season one has six episodes: Two Wives (1 Sam. 1:1-10); The Political and the Personal (1 Sam. 1:11-20); Samuel Handed Over (1 Sam. 1:21-28); Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-11); Worthless Men (1 Sam. 2:12-36); The Call of Samuel (1 Sam. 3). This structure certainly resonates with me: I can “see” each episode as though on television.

For Murphy, then, “we will term the anonymous script writer of 1 Samuel its “author” because the term retains the shadow of the prophet and his mantle. This is important for Murphy because it provides insight into the function of the text—for both ancient and contemporary readers—and so also provides an orientation to the text itself.

The author of 1 Samuel was not only an independent historian, but also a writer who put his historical gifts at the service of the church. Independent but not autonomous, he wrote as one responsible for a religious community. His task was more like that of a bishop writing a pastoral letter or like that of a prophet, than that of a scholarly historian. For an individual scholar, history is a piece of the past about which he writes, perhaps imposing a philosophy of history upon it. For a people, on the other hand, “history is the remembered past,” the past as it belongs to us. One over-dramatizes the contrast if one says that the author of 1 Regum was a liturgist not a historian: and yet, there is something in it, since our “prophet” was sowing the seeds of a communal memory (xx, citing Lukacs, Historical Conciousness: or, The Remembered Past new edition (1985), 152).

Over the years I have read commentaries that approach the biblical text simply as “history” – or ideology or legend, etc., and some which certainly impose their own philosophy onto the text. Some will argue, and correctly to an extent, that it is impossible to do otherwise; we cannot help but bring ourselves and our own experiences and philosophical perspectives to the text. And it is often the case that these readings illumine and inform us in fresh ways.

But Murphy’s approach tends to viewing 1 Samuel not merely as “history” but as scripture, and so as a word that continues to speak. Its function is not simply an etiological account of the Israelite monarchy, but has religious, liturgical and prophetic functions, and to be read most fruitfully, must be read in account with its nature as such, its prophetic dimension continuing to inform the contemporary reader open to listening to it as such.

I will give some indications of how this plays out in Murphy’s exposition in a follow-up post.