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1 Samuel 3

Lesson Focus: God calls us to lead well.  God calls us to follow well.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:

  1. Become familiar with the narrative setting for the call of Samuel.

  2. Be able to discern a faithful leader in the church from an unfaithful one.

Catch up on the story: The book that bears Samuel’s name begins with the circumstances surrounding the birth of this great prophet.  In the beginning, we are told that there is a certain man from the town of Ramah named Elkanah who had two wives.  The first wife bore him many children, but his second wife, Hannah, could not have children.  Even the dullest of biblical readers should realize that whenever a story begins this way, with a barren woman, that God is about to do something new and wonderful.  Hannah, in her shame over not being able to have children, cries out to God in great distress during one of their pilgrimages to the temporary temple at Shiloh.  As she is crying out to God, Eli the high priest sees her and thinks that she is drunk.  She is praying, her lips are moving but no sounds emerge.  Hannah pleads with Eli to not disregard her: she is not drunk, merely distressed.  Eli blesses her and Hannah returns to her home encouraged. 

As things happen, Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth. She names the child Samuel, which we are told means, “I have asked him of the Lord.” Hannah then informs her husband that she will give Samuel to Eli at the temple as soon as he is weaned. The gift she has been given by God she now returns to God. Samuel will grow up as a Nazarite, one who is set apart and consecrated to the Lord. When he is weaned Hannah takes Samuel to Eli so that he can begin his new life there.

Meanwhile, we are told of the sins of Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They are described to us as scoundrels. Eli, for his part, is either unwilling or unable to curb the disgraceful behavior of his sons. He tries to correct their ways, but to no avail. We are also given a hint of what is to come for Eli and his sons. In ages past God had promised Eli’s ancestors that their family would always be priests. The promise, however, is very conditional. Eli’s sons have been very unfaithful and so they have disqualified themselves from God’s promise. No amount of sacrifice will change God’s mind about what God is about to do.

Samuel will be the new spiritual leader of God’s people. He grows up in the presence of Eli, but unlike Eli’s sons, Samuel matures in the right kind of way. He will be faithful where others have not been.

The Text: Our passage begins after Samuel has grown up some.  He is old enough to participate in the daily routine of the temple and to understand some of its significance.  We are told that the word of the Lord as been rare (literally, precious).  Perhaps due to the misguided or ineffectual spiritual leadership provided by Eli, God has not spoken very often. 

Remember that the Samuel narrative takes place at the end of the time of the Judges. Israel has been in the Promised Land for quite some time. She has had times of faithfulness and then times of unfaithfulness. Her unfaithfulness routinely led her into trouble at the hands of some foreign enemy. God would then work through an anointed Judge, i.e., Gideon and Samson, to liberate Israel. God often spoke to and through these people so that Israel might be safely led.

Our passage can be split up into two separate scenes. Scene one takes place at night. The setting is the temporary temple structure located at Shiloh. Eli, we are told, has failing eyesight. This might be a metaphor for failing spiritual sight as well. As we will see, it takes Eli a few times to realize just what is happening to Samuel. Although, he is not so blind as to fail to realize that what Samuel sees and hears is a word from the Lord.

Eli is asleep in his own room. It is night but the lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out. Eli was sleeping in the space close to the area which held the Ark of the Covenant. All of the sudden Samuel hears his name being called, “Samuel! Samuel!” Even though Samuel has been working with Eli and in the temple he has not yet come to “know” God. Certainly Samuel knows the stories of God’s faithfulness and provision for Israel, yet he has not heard from God for himself yet. God has not revealed himself to Samuel yet, although that is now what is happening.

Samuel, because he has not yet known the Lord, mistakes the voice he hears calling his name for that of Eli. He gets up and runs into Eli’s room and inquires what the old priest wants. Eli responds that he did not call Samuel. Samuel returns to his bed. The voice calls his name two more times. The next time he runs to Eli and Eli sends him back to bed. Finally, Eli realizes that the voice that Samuel is hearing is none other than the Lord’s. Eli instructs Samuel to respond to the voice the next time he hears it: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The voice of God calls to Samuel one last time.  We are told that the Lord stood before Samuel and began to address him.  The news is not good.  The punishment that God had told Eli would come because of his sons unfaithful behavior will come to pass.  The events will be so terrifying that the news of it will make the ears of those who hear about it tingle.  It is going to happen and no amount of sacrifice will prevent it.  The sons had intentionally abused the offering that had been given at the temple.  Unintentional mistakes made by priests could be atoned for with sacrifice.  However, the son’s sin had been defiant and a blatant disregard for God and his people (Tsumura, 180).  

Scene two begins with verse 15. The night has passed and Samuel has not slept. When morning breaks he rises and sets about his duties by opening the temple doors. Rightly so, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli what he has heard. Samuel could be seen as a threat to the power Eli and his family hold as the chief religious leaders in Israel.

Eli, who has surely not forgotten the events of the past night, begins to call for Samuel. Samuel responds to the call of Eli with the same words that he was instructed to respond to God with, “Here am I.” Eli, sensing that the news might not be favorable, urges Samuel to spill the beans. Samuel must not leave anything out. Eli, to urge Samuel along, says that God will do to Samuel what he is about to do to Eli if Samuel is not fully truthful! Samuel tells Eli all that God had told him.

Of all the imagined scenarios that could have unfolded upon receiving such news, the one that takes place is reassuring. Eli, while blind physically and perhaps spiritually blind, does not fail to realize that what has been spoken is a word from God. He is still a man of faith; he still places his trust in the God he has served for so many years. “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

The passage ends with a concluding paragraph that describes Samuel’s continued growth. As he grew God was with him. The phrase, “none of his words fall to the ground,” carries with it the meaning that Samuel’s words were heeded by those who heard him. Indeed, all of Israel, from Dan in the very north of the country, to Beer-sheba in the south, knew and trusted this man of God.

This narrative, for Israel, marks a new beginning, a transition of power. Through the barrenness of one woman, through her hope and faith in God, God brings forth a new beginning.

So What? When reading this text we often get stuck focusing on the call from God that Samuel receives.  It is easy to focus on the child-like faith that Samuel must have had so that he was receptive to hearing God’s words. While I think that is an important aspect of the story, I do not believe that it is the most fruitful for us.  Yes, Samuel receives his call to ministry at a tender age, but perhaps it is the content of the call that should be the most formative for us. 

Eli’s sons were more than just scoundrels. It was their birthright to continue on in Eli’s place as priests in the temple. As priests, in a nation that had no formal leadership structure, they exercised a great deal of power. They could, as Eli had done, used their positions to guide Israel, or they could use their power for their own benefit. The text before chapter 3 tells us of Hophni and Phinehas’ transgressions. They abused their positions of leadership by taking what was to be rightfully offered to God as a sacrifice. They bullied the people into handing over the choicest pieces of the sacrifice to feed their own appetites. The long and short of it is that Eli’s sons failed to exercise the leadership that God had bestowed upon them.

Samuel’s first act as the mouthpiece for God delivers God’s message of intolerance for those who mislead and abuse his people. Throughout Samuel’s career leading Israel, Samuel will constantly challenge those in authority and the structures of authority that fail to lead and care for God’s people in the right kinds of ways.

What is clear to us is that even when God institutes good leadership it can, and at times does, turn from God. The results are disastrous for those who are being led and often for the leaders themselves. There are two take aways for us as the people of God. First, as we lead people in following God and as we follow those who we believe God has placed in leadership for us, we must always question if the way we are leading or following is faithful. As we lead we must ask are we taking advantage of our position of power? Are we using the gifts that people offer to God to satisfy our own appetites? As we follow, are we following someone who helps us serve others, or are we following someone who leads us to satisfy our own desires? Christianity is replete with leaders who only tell us what we want to hear.

The second take away has to do with our response to those who exercise failed leadership. Are we sensitive enough to recognize failed spiritual leadership? Do we have the courage to be truthful in the face of misguided and abusive forms of leadership as Samuel was truthful? As the people of God we are called, at times, to act as prophets who speak the truth against leadership, both inside and outside the church, that takes advantage of people. While, hopefully anyway, the opportunities to speak prophetically against leaders in the church does not come around often, the opportunities to speak prophetically and act prophetically against forms of leadership that fail outside the church presents itself all too often. May we be like Samuel, sensitive to hear God’s word of truth and courageous enough to be truthful in the face of failed and dangerous leadership.

At this point, a caveat needs to be offered.  A mere disagreement with leadership is not always a reason to speak prophetically or act prophetically against it.  Disagreements in the church are legion.  Some take these opportunities to seize power for themselves.  Prophetic utterance and action need to be carefully considered and in light of Jesus’ double command to love God and neighbor.  Is the leader or structure of leadership in question leading us to love God and neighbor?  If so, then the disagreement might only be a matter of personal taste or priority.  If not, then action should be taken.  Obviously, the actions of Hophni and Phinehas did not lead Israel to love God more fully.

Critical Discussion Questions:

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  2. God is constantly taking steps to ensure that his beloved people are being led well.  Often times this means challenging the entrenched leadership which has abused its power and the people it was called to serve. 

  3. God reveals himself to us so that we might know him and serve him.  Samuel has no power or impetus to move on his own.  His right to speak is only because God has revealed himself to Samuel. 

  4. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  5. Our movement toward becoming Christ-like is dependent on our willingness to utter the words that Samuel utters when God calls him, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

  6. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  7. We should take care that we become a people who are leading and following well. Those we follow in the church must be the type of people who are compelling us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. In verse 1 we are told that visions and the word of the Lord were not widespread in the days of Eli the priest. Why do you think this was?

  2. Samuel does not immediately recognize the voice calling him as God’s voice. Why do you think he is slow to realize who is calling him?

  3. What were the sins of Hophni and Phinehas? Why would God be so angry with them. See chapter 2 for more details.

  4. God says that the thing he is about to do will make the ears of those who hear it tingle. Why is the news of God unseating this priestly family such big news? What might it mean for Israel’s future?

  5. Does it bother you that no amount of sacrifice could atone for the sins of Eli’s house (v. 14)? Throughout the Old Testament the picture we get of God is one of faithfulness in the midst of unfaithfulness and forgiveness in the face of graves sins. Why is this time different?

  6. This passage is important for us because it helps us remember that not all religious leadership is faithful to God’s calling, as Hophni and Phinehas had not been. In what ways might it be appropriate to test our own religious leadership? What might be a faithful litmus test for our leaders?

  7. As we lead we must ask are we taking advantage of our position of power? Are we using the gifts that people offer to God to satisfy our own appetites? As we follow, are we following someone who helps us serve others, or are we following someone who leads us to satisfy our own desires?

  8. Are we sensitive enough to recognize failed spiritual leadership? Do we have the courage to be truthful in the face of misguided and abusive forms of leadership as Samuel was truthful?

Works Cited: David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).