Most readers of the Old Testament are familiar with the story of young Samuel sleeping at the tabernacle, under the care of the priest Eli (1 Sam. 3). Each time YHWH calls to the boy, he runs to Eli thinking the priest called him. Only on the third time does Eli figure out that YHWH wants to give Samuel a message. Eli tells Samuel to say, “Speak, YHWH, for your servant is listening,” which he then does and YHWH delivers his message finally.
Most times when this story is taught, the actual message is ignored, de-emphasized, or forgotten.
Do you remember the content of YHWH’s message?
It was a brutal one. God told Samuel that he was going to punish Eli, his family, and his priestly dynasty, basically cutting them off from the priesthood because of the blasphemous behavior of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas (taking the best portions of the meat for sacrifices and sleeping with the women who served at the tabernacle).
Why speak to the boy and not to the priest directly?
Good question. As the narrative is laid out, YHWH had already spoken to Eli via a prophetic man of God a similar message (1 Sam. 2:27-36; because of the language, scholars typically attribute this message to a Deuteronomistic redactor—what do you think? If so, which one: Dtr1, Dtr2, DtrH, DtrN, or DtrP? A Deuteronomistic school, perhaps?).
To his credit, Eli seemed to know what the message was about. The next morning he told Samuel to give him the brutal truth, even pronouncing a curse on Samuel: whatever the judgment was in the message it would befall the boy if he wasn’t fully honest.
To his credit, Samuel spoke truth to Eli, telling him everything, hiding nothing.
Why would this message be hard for Samuel to deliver?
Eli was a priest, Samuel was a boy. Eli was essentially Samuel’s father; he calls the boy “my son” twice in the story (1 Sam. 3:6, 16). Most of us have a hard time confronting others. Young Samuel needed to do it to the old man who served as priest and judge for the nation of Israel. As the boy Samuel became a man, he became known as a “trustworthy prophet of YHWH” (1 Sam. 3:21).
What made Samuel a trustworthy prophet?
Because Samuel was able to speak truth in difficult situations, as YHWH, and even Eli, had taught him. He rebukes the nation of Israel for idolatry (1 Sam. 7). He twice rebukes Saul, the man he himself had anointed to be king, first for a premature sacrifice and second for an incomplete slaughter (1 Sam. 13; 15). He then essentially commits an act of treason, by anointing David as king, while Saul is still on the throne (1 Sam. 16).
We like the story of the boy who heard from God, but we don’t like the part about delivering bad news of judgment for disobedience to people in authority. Trustworthy prophets, like Samuel, speak truth, even to those over them.
What do you think of Eli, good guy, bad guy? Does he get a bum rap?
Image “Hannah Presenting Her Son Samuel to the Priest Eli” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (c. 1665)