Samuel: A Trustworthy Prophet

Hannah presenting Samuel to Eli (van den Eeckhardt, 16XX)

Hannah Presenting Samuel to the Priest Eli

“Samuel, Samuel.”

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)

“How long will you go on being drunk?” (1 Samuel 1)

“How long will you go on being drunk?”

When the priest Eli sees Hannah mumbling something as he sits at the door of the temple, he assumes she’s drunk, so he asks this question (1 Samuel 1:14).  Although Eli’s remark is less of a question, more of an accusation, and he concludes his speech by telling Hannah to put away her wine.  If Hannah were drunk, then Eli’s rebuke would be appropriate.  He’s a priest, so it’s his job to help keep people on the straight and narrow.  (Although, he wasn’t doing a good job with his own sons–see 1 Sam. 2:12.)

The problem is Hannah’s not drunk, just desperate.  She’s desperately praying for a child.  Hannah is barren, but her husband Elkanah has 2 wives, and the other wife, Peninnah is fruitful.  To make things worse Peninnah taunts Hannah, and this has been going on for years.

So, poor Hannah is literally pouring out her heart before YHWH, begging, pleading for a son (whom she promises to dedicate to YHWH), and then Old Eli comes up and starts insulting and accusing her.  Eli is in charge of Israel spiritually, but the man has no spiritual discernment.

How would you respond if you were Hannah?

I would have bitten his head off.  “You jerk! Leave me alone and focus on those loser sons of yours.”  To her credit, Hannah responds as graciously as one could imagine.  She calls Eli “my lord” and refers to herself as “your servant”.  She’s vulnerable and explains her predicament.

To his credit, Eli changes his tune and speaks a word of blessing to her that God apparently honors by giving Hannah a son, Samuel, who after being weaned was returned to Eli where he grew up.

The text continues to portray Hannah positively (in contrast to Eli and his sons) as her prayer of praise is recorded in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and echoes of Hannah’s prayer appear in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

This text clearly views Hannah, the female without leadership responsibility more favorably than the male with leadership responsibility.

She prays earnestly.  She speaks graciously.  Her words are recorded at length by the biblical authors.

He lacks discernment.  He speaks rudely.  His parenting of his two evil sons is condemned by God.

I want to be more like Hannah, than Eli.  To give people the benefit of the doubt.  To use my authority not to insult or put down those outside of power structures (either male or female).  I want my words to bless others in future generations.

To men in positions of spiritual leadership, be like Eli at the end of the story, not like him at the beginning.  Bless godly women, don’t curse them.

Why do people in positions of authority sometimes act like Eli?

Image (Jan Victors, Hannah giving her son Samuel to the Priest, 1645) from http://www.wga.hu/index1.html