SAMUEL, THE NA’AR
If you grew up in Sunday school or children’s church, you probably remember the prophet Samuel was born because his mother Hannah promised that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to God’s service. God heard and answered, and Hannah fulfilled her vow, bringing Samuel to the tabernacle at Shiloh after she had weaned him. You know, too, the story of the boy Samuel being wakened from sleep three times in one night by a voice, and thinking it was the priest Eli, to whom he was then a personal attendant. The third time, Eli realized God was calling the boy, and said, if it happened again, Samuel was to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9). My childhood teachers encouraged us to memorize it in the language of King James, “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.” God did call again, and Samuel answered, “Speak; for thy servant heareth” (v. 10). He was only a boy, after all, and never had heard God speak before (v. 7); perhaps he left out “Lord” (Yahweh) simply from nervousness!
Between these two events in Samuel’s childhood lies today’s first reading, a text that twice (vv. 18, 26; also in v. 21, not part of our reading) labels him na’ar (NAH-ahr), “a boy” (v. 18) or, with the definite article, “the boy” (vv. 21, 26). Though “a boy/the boy” is correct here, the essential meaning of na’ar is not “boy.” Na’ar/na’arah(nah-ah-RAH, the feminine form) designates a youngster who had not yet attained his/her full adult status, standing, or position in ancient Israel’s society. Every boy was a na’ar and every girl was a na’arah, but not every na’ar or na’arah was a boy or a girl. This is vividly demonstrated just four chapters before ours (in LXX/Eng. canonical ordering), where Boaz referred to Ruth as a na’arah, though already by that day she had been a widow for perhaps as long as ten years (Ruth 2:5).
Samuel was a na’ar because he still was in preparation for his future role as God’s transitional prophet between Israel’s period of the Judges and the monarchy, which Samuel would inaugurate at the people’s insistence and with God’s permission. Ruth still was a na’arah because she was a dependent member of Naomi’s household; she had not yet become Boaz’s wife, and manager of her/their own household. This understanding of the status and role of the Hebrew/Israelite na’ar is important not only here with respect to Samuel. It also will be helpful in discussing the na’ar Jesus’ standing with the learned ones in the Temple, and with his parents, in the context of today’s Gospel reading.
The “backward” look at Samuel as na’ar in our text is the charming vignette of his doting mother making “a little robe” for him each year and bringing it to him at the time of “the yearly sacrifice” (v. 19). Hannah had not gone with her husband during the first years of her son’s life, while she still was nursing him (1:22-24). Now that she no longer had him with her, her long-term labor of love was to utilize a primary skill of every Israelite wife, probably doing everything with her own hands – from carding, spinning, and weaving, to cutting and sewing, each year, a robe a size or two larger than the one of the year before. Even not yet fully qualified for his future roles as priest, judge, and prophet, Samuel, “a na’ar wearing a linen ephod” (v. 18), performed at least some of the tasks of the tabernacle. The ephod was not a robe, so that was not what Samuel’s mother made for him. We cannot say for sure whether the new robe each year was linen or wool. However, Shiloh was in the Ephraimite Hill Country, where winters can feature short spurts of harsh weather, so it seems probable Hannah made wool robes for her firstborn.
The forward look in our lectionary reading is verse 26, “Now the na’ar Samuel was going [continuing to go] – that is, he was growing up in stature, and was [becoming] good [mentally and ethically more mature] – as well with Yahweh as with humans” (author’s slightly expansive translation). This evaluation is, of course, the link with the better-known assessment Luke gave by way of wrapping up his account of Jesus’ encounter with the teachers of the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:52), and the reason for our text’s inclusion in today’s lectionary readings. Mary surely knew she was quoting or paraphrasing Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10) at several points in her own song which we call the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55); Luke also knew that as he recorded Mary’s song at the beginning of his Gospel. Just as surely, Luke knew his profile of Jesus’ multi-faceted maturing (2:52) was nearly an exact quote of the same assessment of Samuel in verse 26, here. We will pick this up again in our discussion of today’s Gospel reading.