The Legitimacy of Samuel
These chapters trace the emergence of Samuel as Yahweh’s authorized leader in Israel. At the center stands the “Song of Hannah” (2:1–10), which not only celebrates the gift of Samuel but articulates Israel’s future (and future king) as an anticipated gift of Yahweh. Every assertion of chapters 1–3, from the gracious birth of Samuel (1:3–28) to the dream theophany (3:1–10), to the final statement of Samuel’s authorization (3:19–21), witnesses to the decisive role of Yahweh in Israel’s new beginning. Every actor in the entire Samuel narrative, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, and the many lesser players, are all creatures of God’s sovereignty and agents of God’s intended future. These chapters disclose how it is that Yahweh reshapes Israel’s historical process for the sake of the new king and the coming kingdom. Interpretation that takes the whole narrative in context asks how this Samuel, who is a gift of God’s power, serves the coming kingdom.
Troubled Israel, as the books of Samuel begin, is waiting. Israel is portrayed as a marginal community. We are soon to learn from the narrative that Israel is made marginal by the power and the pressure of the Philistines. In the face of that external threat, Israel is politically weak and economically disadvantaged. But there is also a moral, theological dimension to Israel’s trouble. By the end of the book of Judges, Israel is shown to be a community in moral chaos, engaged in brutality (chs. 19–21) and betrayed by undisciplined religion (chs. 17–18). Israel does not seem to have the capacity or the will to extricate itself from its troubles.
As the Samuel narrative unfolds, we discover that Israel is waiting for a king who will protect, defend, gather, liberate, and legitimate the community. Indeed, Israel is finally waiting for a quite particular king: for David! When David finally appears, Israel has the assurance that “this is he” (I Sam. 16:12). With David’s appearance Israel’s fortunes begin to change, and the change is known in Israel to be the work of God.
The story, however, does not rush to David. There is a long waiting; the object for which Israel waits is not known concretely beforehand. The waiting has its bitterness, for Israel in the meantime is afflicted by its troubled social, political, and economic situation. The waiting is confused, for Israel cannot know for certain where its future lies, how to appropriate that future, or how to wait faithfully for it. Indeed, Israel cannot even know just now that it has a future. The narrative leads us, along with ancient Israel, through that long season of bitter, confused, uncertain waiting. It may be that the narrator knows, well ahead of the telling, what the outcome will be. But as in every good story, we are not told too much too soon.
The story of I and II Samuel turns on the surprising gift of David, who makes all things right. The story, however, does not begin with the gift of David. It begins with desperate need, so that when the gift is offered we will be amazed by its grace. The narrator holds in abeyance the impressiveness, certitude, and triumph of David and begins with other, less formidable figures who inhabit Israel’s move toward kingship. The sequence of “great men” from Samuel to Saul to David is the obvious story line of the narrative. Even with this triad of impressive and dominating figures, however, we are still not at the beginning of this troubled waiting.
In a daring move, back behind “the great men,” the narrative locates the origin of Israel’s future and the source of its “great leaders” in the story of a bereft, barren woman named Hannah (1:2). The story of Israel’s waiting that moves from trouble to well-being begins neither in grand theory nor in palace splendor nor in doxological celebration. It begins, rather, in a single Ephraimite family, whose father has a solid family pedigree (1:1) but whose mother is barren—without children, and without prospect of children. Our story of waiting begins in barrenness wherein there is no hint of a future. Israel’s waiting (which culminates in David) begins as Hannah’s waiting begins, in hopelessness (cf. Gen. 11:30; 26:22; 29:31; Luke 1:36). Those who read the narrative are invited to listen and to notice—in the midst of such barren hopelessness—that fruitful waiting, hoping, and receiving can indeed happen.
The narrative of Elkanah-Hannah-Samuel (ch. 1) stands as our entry point into Israel’s astonished waiting. The narrative of chapter 1 functions as a paradigm for the entire drama of Israel’s faithful waiting as it is presented in the Samuel narrative. This chapter is a narrative complete in itself; it begins in a problem (v. 2) and ends in a resolution (v. 28). The problem is barrenness: no child, no son, no heir, no future, no historical possibility. The resolution is worship, with a son given and a future opened. The dramatic flow of the narrative is the process through which the problem of barrenness is transformed into a resolution of glad, trustful, yielding praise.
Israel’s drama from problem to resolution, then, is well under way before and without David. That dramatic movement from hopelessness to gift has as its proper subjects those who are, like Hannah, barren and bereft. It has as its unmistakable agent Yahweh, the one who can turn barrenness to birth, vexation to praise, isolation to worship. The narrative is a witness to Yahweh’s transformative power, which creates a new historical possibility where none existed.
This is no ordinary narrative. This is no “natural history.” This is a history which from its beginning refers outside itself to a sovereign will that overrides Israel’s chaos, to a comfort that overcomes Israel’s bitterness. This story does indeed wait for David, but the time until David comes is no empty time waiting to be filled. It is time already filled with the power of Yahweh to begin again. This first chapter is a narrative of Yahweh’s power and will to begin again, to create a newness in history precisely out of despair. This newness out of barrenness (and therefore out of despair) violates our reason and our reasonableness. Speaking reasonably, Hannah would have no child and Elkanah would have no heir. Israel would have no future. That exhausted rationality, however, is now shattered and defeated. Those overly fixed in their despair now have their life made over by the power of Yahweh. The function of the narrative is again and again to make life over by this inexplicable but relentless transformative power.
The problem is clearly and immediately articulated. The man with his impressive genealogy (v. 1) is matched to a barren woman (v. 2). From his fathers, Elkanah has a proud past. With his wife, however, he has no future. The story invites us with Israel to reflect on the question, How is a new future possible amid the barrenness that renders us bitter, hopeless, and fruit less? The dramatic answer to this question is articulated in four scenes.
This scene is a transaction between Elkanah and Hannah. The problem is barrenness. The incongruity in the scene is between the love Elkanah has for Hannah, which is not to be doubted (vv. 5, 8), and the fact of barrenness wrought by Yahweh (vv. 5, 6). Hannah’s barrenness overrides the power of Elkanah’s love. The outcome is a provoked woman, abused by her rival, Peninnah (v. 6), more vexed by Yahweh’s foreclosure of her future. Hannah’s response to her trouble is depression, grief, and loss of appetite (v. 7).
Hannah interacts with Eli, the priest at Shiloh. Her husband is absent in this scene. The action of this longer scene largely consists of three speeches. First, Hannah makes a vow (v. 11). She addresses Yahweh, the same God who in verses 5–6 had caused her barrenness. Her vow seeks to evoke a new gift from God. The vow is a standard part of a complaint prayer. As Hannah is bitter in her barrenness, so she will be grateful in her anticipated fruitfulness. She vows that the son of her womb will be preserved for obedience only to Yahweh. At the beginning we have a clue about how and why Samuel became such a sturdy champion of Yahwistic faith. He is predestined by his mother to be such a champion.
The second speech of Hannah is one of self-vindication to refute Eli’s mistaken assessment of her (vv. 15–16). He had thought her to be a drunken woman (v. 13). She is not drunk; she is desperate. Her desperation leads to an act of candid piety, speaking her grief and vexation precisely to Yahweh. She knows whom to address.
The third speech is a response of Eli, an assurance and a benediction (v. 17). The priest asserts that “the God of Israel will (may) hear and answer.” The exchange between the two is thoroughly Yahwistic. The priestly answer functions characteristically to resolve the complaint. The scene enacts intense covenantal faith in which the attentiveness of Yahweh is mediated by the priest. Hannah asks; Yahweh answers. (See the same kind of interaction in 7:9.) The narrative conclusion indicates that the priestly assurance marks the decisive turn in the story. Hannah believes Eli. She does not doubt “that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). As a result, the grief and despair of verse 8 are nullified (v. 18). She is a new, restored woman with a new chance in life, caused by a word of assurance authoritatively spoken. She believed the word!
In this scene Hannah is again with Elkanah, as in scene 1. The words are terse and minimal, but the account is sufficient to implement the priestly promise of verse 17. Yahweh does remember (v. 19). This is precisely what Hannah had asked, that Yahweh should remember and not forget (v. 11). Yahweh is a powerful rememberer; and when Yahweh remembers the partner and the promise, newness becomes possible (v. 20; cf. Gen. 8:1; 19:29; 30:22). The new son is the one “asked” for and the one graciously given. The hopeless one (Hannah) is now the one given a future. As is characteristic in Israel’s text, the drama leading up to the hoped-for event receives the most attention. The gift itself only implements that which the drama has anticipated. When the story finally gets to the actual gift, things can happen quickly. Nineteen verses prepare for the birth; one verse narrates it.
The fourth scene is structurally quite complicated. Hannah lingers behind Elkanah when he goes up to the temple, but in due season she comes to Shiloh, back to the priest Eli. Her business in Shiloh is to pay her vow (vv. 26–28). In offering her thanksgiving, Hannah is aware of the amazing sequence by which her barrenness has eventuated in birth. The one whom she had “asked” is now given back. Hannah is faithful; Yahweh is powerful. Hannah is appropriately grateful. In place of despair has come gratitude, resulting in submission and praise.
The resolution is glad worship (v. 28), a trusting yielding, which is Israel’s proper posture for the new story of monarchy now about to begin. Hannah’s “now therefore” indicates the climax of the narrative and the resolution of the problem. Her offer of the boy is a faithful counterpart to her vow. Barrenness ends, by the power of God, in glad, trustful worship.
This narrative, constructed according to the conventions of the genre of birth narrative, is carefully crafted and tightly disciplined. Its outside perimeters (vv. 1–2, 28) show that the structure of Israel’s faith is one of problem-resolution. This structure is presented through the speaking parts of complaint (vv. 11, 15–16) and assurance (v. 17), which then issues in thanksgiving (vv. 25–27). By transposing the action of problem resolution or even barrenness-birth to complaint-assurance, the story turns our attention away from the event of the birth itself to the drama of fidelity between Hannah and Yahweh. The subject of the narrative is Yahweh’s astonishing fidelity and Hannah’s responding fidelity.
The reality of need, and explicitly barrenness, is not distinctly an Israelite problem. The narrative, however, invites a Yahwistic rendering of human trouble and its resolution. Yahweh stands at the center of each scene:
Israel’s life has to do with the power and fidelity of God. In the chapters to come, Israel will be tempted to flex its muscles, to be inordinately impressed with power and pomp and privilege—and with David! This narrative stands poignantly as a counteraffirmation to what is to come. Israel’s new life emerges out of barrenness by the power of God. That power is inexplicable, but also irresistible. That power is evoked, summoned, and triggered by lowly Hannah, who had no virtue, no claim, no capacity, only a stubborn insistence addressed to Yahweh and a readiness to yield back all good gifts. The narrative ends in yielding praise (v. 28). Such praise is the proper posture in which Israel’s new life begins again.
Our modern propensity to inquire about the biological miracle of the birth is subdued by the flow of the narrative. The narrative wants us to notice Yahweh as the key actor. The narrative invites us to wait in our trouble with such a focus on God, to see if prayers can be uttered, if vows can be made, if gifts can be received, if thanks can be rendered, if worship can be enacted. When all of that becomes possible among us, we are prepared for the story of Israel’s new life.
The birth of a child to a barren woman is not a routine matter at any time, certainly not in ancient Israel. The birth is first of all an occasion for unmitigated celebration. The deepest yearning of the mother has been inexplicably fulfilled. Hannah’s worth, her dignity, and her rightful place with her hus band have been restored. Hannah must sing! Second, however, this surprising birth is perceived to be more than a personal, familial event. The birth is an assertion that concerns the entire community. It is an assertion that the life and future of Israel (like the womb of Hannah) have been reopened. Hannah and the community of Hannah are not fated. If a son is given in the midst of barrenness, who knows what else may yet be given, perhaps even well-being in the midst of this troubled community! The birth is not a private wonder but a gift of possibility for all of Israel. Israel must sing with Hannah!
This birth is not wrought by biological manipulation or by dark, managed religious secrets. It is pure gift, wrought in the intense conversation of complaint and answer, of promise and fidelity, of need and response. The narrator (and Hannah and Israel) does not doubt that the birth concerns Yahweh. Yahweh has mobilized awesome life-giving power in the midst of Israel’s hopeless deathliness. Thus the song is one of doxology. Israel must sing with Hannah in praise to Yahweh! While the newborn son is celebrated, the song finally concerns not the son but Yahweh. The accent is on the Giver, not the gift. Precious as the gift is, the Giver is the one who outruns Israel’s awed expectation. Praise is the only speech appropriate to the occasion.
Hannah sings a very special song with reference to a concrete miracle. In doing so, however, she joins her voice to a song Israel has already long been singing. Israel is peculiarly a community of doxology. Its life consists in praise to God for what God has done and for what God characteristically continues to do. Thus Hannah sings no new song; she appropriates a song already known in Israel. The “Song of Hannah” thus is likely to have been taken from Israel’s repertoire of public hymns. The song has standard hymnic elements; it speaks in unqualified ways of Yahweh’s power and dominion. It seems to contain concrete thanksgiving for remembered gifts, but these concrete memories are now generalized as characteristic of Yahweh. What Yahweh has done (in our memory and experience), Yahweh characteristically can and does do.
The song has public, national dimensions in speaking of enemies (v. 1), war (v. 4), and eventually even of a king (v. 10). It is likely that the song was originally used by the royal establishment to celebrate monarchial victories in war. Now, however, the song is appropriated by the tradition of Samuel in a double interpretive move. First, the great public song (reflected in Psalm 113) has been drawn close to the personal family celebration of an astonishing son. Second, however, the tradition which appropriates the song for Hannah is mindful that the focus of the Samuel tradition is not simply on the freshly birthed Samuel but on the emergence of kingship in the story yet to be told. The newly arrived Samuel, before the story is finished, will be a kingmaker and a king breaker. Thus the personal joy of Hannah is tilted toward the coming greatness of Israel under David. The poem, given its original usage as a royal psalm and given its present usage for family celebration, requires a doublefocused singing. Israel never separates intimate family joy from public destiny. When mother Hannah sings, she sings about her joy, but she also sings about Israel’s public prospect.
The song is enveloped by reference to “my horn” (qeren; RSV has “strength” in v. 1) and “horn of his anointed” (qeren; RSV has “power” in v. 10). The song begins in celebration of Hannah’s “raised horn” and concludes with the “raised horn” of the messiah. The entire song is about a “raised horn,” which means visible elevation to worth, dignity, power, prestige, and well-being. This is the song of a woman until recently barren and of a people until recently oppressed. Their joy in the new “raised horn” is commensurate with their astonishment at this inexplicable change of status, inexplicable except for the power of Yahweh, who can only be praised.
The main theological themes in Hannah’s incredible change of status are introduced. Hannah sings of “my heart, my horn, my mouth, my enemies” (v. 1), but these are placed in stark contrast to “your deliverance” (author’s emphasis). It is Hannah’s joy but Yahweh’s power. Verse 2 complements verse 1 by a powerful triad of “none, none, none,” asserting there is no other like Yahweh, thee, our God. This song is indeed a celebration of Yahweh’s incomparability. Yahweh is the one who has the power to transform and the willingness to intervene on behalf of the powerless. Both qualities are required. Power to transform without willingness to intervene ends in a haughty transcendence. Willingness to intervene without power to transform ends in a pitiful sentimentality. Yahweh is neither haughty nor pitiful but possesses, as no other, the combination of qualities and inclinations that matter to this marginal singing community. Israel throws this song defiantly against the reality of its marginality. At the outset of the Samuel narrative of Israel’s historical transformation, Israel gladly testifies to the odd fidelity of this God who works the change.
These verses provide specific cases of transformation worked by Yahweh’s power to transform and willingness to intervene. Yahweh presides over all human actions and is not deterred by or overly impressed by human actions or human resistances (v. 3; cf. Prov. 16:9). It is Yahweh’s capacity in the face of human action that gives hope to the weak and the marginal. Yahweh’s intervention changes the disproportion of power and potential in human transactions. Thus in war the mighty may not win and the feeble may be strong (v. 4; cf. Prov. 21:30–31). This judgment about war anticipates the triumphs of Israel to come, perhaps with particular reference to David’s paradigmatic defeat of Goliath (I Sam. 17).
The matter of transformation draws closer to Hannah’s own case in verse 5. First there is a reversal of the full and the hungry. Then there is a reversal of the barren and the fruitful. Notice how polemical and partisan the claim is. It is not said that the hungry will also be full or the barren will also have children. Rather, the full and the fruitful will be displaced by the hungry and the barren and will now suffer the fate so long assigned to the others. The full now receive as their destiny the hunger they had imposed in previous arrangements. The tone of the lyric bespeaks a well-established social resentment against those who have been too well off for too long, who now are consigned precisely to the loss of what they most valued (cf. Luke 16:19–31).
After a statement about war, food, and children, verse 6 states the extreme case, life and death. This God presides in singular sovereignty over the gift of life and death and bestows these gifts in utter knowing (v. 3), without offering rationale or justification (cf. Deut. 32:39). In the purview of Hannah there are no secondary causes, no extenuating circumstances. There is only Yahweh. To those who are now full and now fruitful, this may seem arbitrary. To those who are now hungry and now barren, however, the reality of Yahweh permits powerful hope, which moves social possibility beyond the administered rationality of the political-economic establishment (cf. Luke 6:20–21, 24–25). This is hope beyond the defined boundaries of current social reality, a hope most urgent for those excluded by present boundaries. Such an “irrational” hope is an act of faith that all of God’s gifts have not already been committed to present forms and arrangements. God has new, powerful gifts to give and is now about to spread them among the powerless and marginal.
The power of social resentment and social possibility becomes more explicit in verses 7–8, which sing of social inversion concerning the poor and rich, the high and low. In verse 8 we are able to see the dangerous social implications of resurrection faith. This is the real “raising” Yahweh will do, raising to power and social possibility. In that peculiar, powerful act of Yahweh, all present social distinctions and political disproportions are overcome and dismissed. In the midst of this song, the social privileges of princes are sung into nullity. One can imagine the haughtiness of Peninnah (1:4–6), who seemed so privileged. One can imagine the arrogance of the Philistines, who seemed so secure. Later one can sense (and resent) the pride of Babylon, who seemed ordained to dominate the world forever (Isa. 47:1–2). All it takes to change those arrangements of tyranny and exploitation in the imagination of Israel, however, is one clear doxology. All it takes for a new possibility is one act of Yahweh, besides whom there is no other.
In verse 8c the song makes a remarkable interpretive connection. In verses 5 and 7–8a the focus has been on the hungry, barren, poor, and needy. In a doxological ejaculation, Hannah/ Israel asserts that Yahweh is the creator who has established the world on pillars, which belong only to Yahweh (v. 8a). The turn of the doxology is marked by an emphatic “for,” which gives the reason for Hannah’s confidence and joy. The hope of the poor and weak is rooted in the foundational power of the creator. The hope of Israel and the power of God are joined by this preposition “for.” The deep-set pillars of Yahweh permit the world not to sink into chaos. The world all belongs to Yahweh, and Yahweh has made it possible. Yahweh presides over the world and therefore can do as Yahweh wills with it. Verse 8c, however, is more than a statement of power. It is an assertion of Yahweh’s utter freedom. Yahweh need not bow before, yield to, or defer to any prince or noble. Yahweh need not conform to any legitimated social arrangement. Yahweh is free to reorder the earth and will do so on behalf of the marginal.
The poem thus links the majesty of Yahweh’s sovereignty over creation with the hope of the marginal. That connection is succinctly asserted in Deuteronomy 10:14, 17–18:
Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it… . For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.
Yahweh’s cosmic power is mobilized precisely for the socially marginal. No wonder Hannah sings! The worldly hope of the weak is rooted in the power that holds the world together. No wonder the marginal in Israel join Hannah in her song! No wonder their songs must be addressed to Yahweh, who is the only one with such sovereign power, the only one attentive to the marginal.
Here a somewhat changed theme is presented. The God praised is the judge who will preside over all the earth and all powers in it (v. 10). As judge, Yahweh will not only pronounce judgments but will actively intervene to implement those judgments. Yahweh will distinguish between the “faithful ones” and the “wicked” (v. 9a). The faithful are those who trust God’s promises, receive God’s gifts, and keep vows to God—people like Hannah. The wicked are those who rely on their own strength—people like Peninnah or the Philistines. Against the judging, ruling power of Yahweh, arrogant human strength cannot prevail (v. 9b). No power, no social arrangement, no alternative claim to authority can withstand the rule of Yahweh (cf. I Cor. 1:25).
We are told at the conclusion of the song (v. 10) that the rule of Yahweh is in the strength of the king. How odd! At the very beginning of the book of Samuel, long before Saul or David or any king appears in Israel, the poetry has Hannah assert that the coming king will be an agent for the poor, needy, hungry, barren (cf. Ps. 72:1–4, 12–14). This poem anticipates the hope placed in kingship for time to come. The poem, moreover, articulates the criteria by which subsequent kings are to be evaluated. All of this is placed on the grateful, expectant lips of Hannah.
We had thought this was Hannah’s song about her son. It is. It concerns her “horn.” The song, however, breaks out beyond Hannah. It now trusts in and anticipates the “horn of David,” who is the true horn of Israel. It anticipates that Yahweh will reorder social reality, precisely in the interest of those too poor and too weak to make their own way.
In the first instance this poem is indeed Hannah’s song. It is the voice of a joyous woman stunningly rescued from barrenness. It is at the same time, however, a powerful poem that has futures well beyond Hannah. Childs has observed (pp. 272–273) that this song provides an “interpretive key” for the books of Samuel. That is, the power and willingness of Yahweh to intrude, intervene, and invert is the main theme of this narrative. We watch while the despised ones (Israel, David) become the great ones. At the center of this startling inversion is the eighth son (16:11–12), who sits with princes and inherits a seat of honor (2:8).
This song becomes the song of Mary and the song of the church (Luke 1:46–55), as the faithful community finds in Jesus the means through which Yahweh will turn and right the world. The Song of Mary, derived from Hannah, becomes the source for Luke’s radical portrayal of Jesus. This song becomes a source of deep and dangerous hope in the world wherever the prospect and possibility of human arrangements have been exhausted. When people can no longer believe the promises of the rulers of this age, when the gifts of well-being are no longer given through established channels, this song voices an alternative to which the desperate faithful cling.
First Samuel 2:1–10 begins in barrenness redeemed; barrenness, however, is the penultimate humiliation. The last threat is death; and the best, most astonishing gift is resurrection life. Hannah and Israel sing of the one who “brings to life,” who breaks the power of death. It does not matter if that power is experienced as barrenness, as despair, or as oppression. Hannah flings this song buoyantly in the face of the power of death. Her act is an act of daring hope, rooted in a concrete gift, waiting for more of life yet to be given. Our interpretive responsibility now is to see who among us can join this dangerous, daring song to this same God who has power to transform and willingness to intervene. That power and willingness are the source of Israel’s only consolation (Luke 2:25) and are the energy that drives the Samuel narrative to its remarkable Davidic possibility.
This narrative unit has two purposes: (1) to articulate the legitimacy of Samuel as “the leader” for Israel in the crisis to come and (2), conversely, to discredit the failed leadership of the house of Eli. We have seen in 1:3–28 that Samuel is a special gift from God (to Hannah) and a special gift back to God (from Hannah). The narrative of chapters 1–3 wants us to understand that Samuel’s origin and his destiny are both peculiarly in God’s hand and for God’s purpose. This account of Samuel’s rise to power (2:11–4:1a) is no ordinary historical report but is a witness to how God’s intent in Israel is implemented. Part of the working of God’s intent in Israel is the nullification of the old priesthood, which is accomplished through this narrative.
“The rise of Samuel” is narrated in counterpoint to the account of “Eli’s fall.” Samuel’s rise is punctuated by a series of carefully placed statements reporting his growth to manhood and his maturation in faith. There is irony in the fact that he is nurtured in faith by Eli, the very one whom he displaces.
Samuel’s growth and maturation are narrated in these statements: “The boy ministered to the Lord, in the presence of Eli the priest” (2:11); “The boy … grew in the presence of the Lord” (2:21). (Whereas the beginning is in the presence of Eli, the rhetoric is now escalated to the presence of Yahweh.) “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord” (2:26). “Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (3:19). In the last three of these notices the verb “grew” (gdl) is used. By the end of the narrative, Samuel arrives at manhood.
His is a manhood of enormous authority, destined by Yahweh and recognized by Israel. The narrative has moved in broad strokes to get to the main point, the destiny of Israel on its way to kingship—led there by Samuel, albeit with mixed signals. Samuel’s growth has been nurtured by Eli. It has been governed from the beginning, however, by Yahweh.
The countertheme of the narrative concerns the failure of the old priestly order of Eli (and his sons). Eli had misunderstood his initial contact with Hannah (1:13). By the time of our text, Eli is older and even more inept. The initiative for priesthood has been taken by his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who are degenerate and exploitative. The family and order of Eli are dealt with in three sections of the narrative.
First, verses 12–17 are a descriptive report, indicating the ruthless, cynical use of priestly power by Eli’s sons. Like Samuel, the sons of Eli are called na’ar (“young men”). “The sin of the young men was very great” (v. 17). The term “great” (gdl) is the same term used for Samuel. The linguistic parallel seems to sharpen the contrast intentionally. Both Samuel and the sons of Eli are “great.” Samuel is “great” as a mature man of God, Eli’s sons are “great” in sin.
In the second narrative element, Eli himself is inept but not evil (vv. 22–25). Eli rebukes his sons, but to no avail. Eli is still a man of responsible faith.
The third element of the narrative concerning Eli (vv. 27–33) is exceedingly difficult. It narrates the divine decree that the house of Eli will be displaced by a different priestly house. The decree is in the mouth of an unnamed “man of God.”
We may treat the text in two quite distinct ways, historically and theologically. The text is of historical importance because it reflects the conflicted relationship between various priestly groups or orders in the life of Israel. That history begins with a recital of the history of Eli with Yahweh (vv. 27–30a), not unlike David’s history with Yahweh related later on (II Sam. 7:8–9). Eli’s house has been chosen by God for the priesthood (v. 28). His house is presumably the Mushite priesthood rooted in Moses, identified with the Levites, and embodied subsequently in the person of Abiathar. God has made a promise to this priestly order “for ever” (v. 30).
According to this tendentious narrative, however, the sons of Eli have been so extravagantly disobedient to Yahweh that the promise of God is abrogated (vv. 30b–32). These sons of Eli “do not know” Yahweh (v. 12). They will not listen to (obey) Eli (v. 25). They are brazen and cynical. As a result of their disobedience, Yahweh nullifies the eternal promise and ends the authority of the house of Eli. This is a remarkable decree, for it reports Yahweh’s nullification of a promise made “for ever.” It turns out that Yahweh’s promise “for ever” was stringently conditional. It is an understatement to conclude that Eli’s house did not meet the conditions! In this theological tradition, responsive obedience is required even for God’s most sweeping promises.
The second part of this astonishing decree moves well beyond the horizon of the Samuel narrative. Verses 33–36 probably represent a later attempt to legitimate subsequent developments of priestly power and authority. Cross has proposed that as verses 27–32 narrate the end of the Mushite priesthood, verses 33–36 anticipate the priesthood of Zadok, which is linked to the Aaronite order. The “faithful priest” of the “sure house” (v. 35) is Zadok, who turns out to be the priestly “winner” in the Solomonic crisis (cf. I Kings 2:35; 4:2). The oracle, serving the interests of the house of Zadok, thus places in God’s mouth authorization for the displacement of the Mushite priesthood by the Zadokite order.
The transition of authority from the one priestly order to the other is marked by two interesting notes. First, an exception is made for one man who shall not be cut off (v. 33). This refers to Abiathar, a trusted priest of David, banished by Solomon but not killed (cf. I Kings 2:26–27). Second, verse 36 suggests that the older order may endure, but it will be in a dependent position, receiving its keep and sustenance from the now powerful new order.
From a historical perspective, this peculiar text reflects a change in the arrangement of priestly power and authority. The divine decree is probably an intrusion in the text and demonstrates how narrative can be used for purposes of propaganda and establishing legitimacy. The rise of the house of Zadok as such, however, has no bearing on the narrative of Samuel. It is of interest only to a later political force that has made good and partisan use of the narrative.
The decree of this “man of God” does, however, serve the theological interest of the Samuel narrative directly, because it shows God’s decision to terminate the house of Eli. Without looking ahead to the coming house of Zadok, the nullification of Eli’s house is of interest, because it makes way for the priestly authority of Samuel. Aside from later historical, propagandistic interests, the narrative asserts that God is indeed doing “a new thing” in Samuel. The very Eli who nurtured Samuel in faith is now displaced by Samuel. This displacement happens not because of Samuel’s aggressiveness but because of Yahweh’s unshakable commitment to the leadership of Samuel. The entire narrative thus prepares us for the new venture of faith and politics for which Samuel will provide the crucial leadership. That leadership, however, is fully in the service of and obedient to the purposes of Yahweh, who now wills a sharp turn in the shape and destiny of Israel. For theological exposition, it is this fresh authorization of Samuel that is the crucial issue. The intrusive allusion to a later priesthood leads us away from the main thrust of the narrative.
The main story line now resumes. Fishbane has shown how chapter 3 is crafted to legitimate a new leadership and to delegitimate the old leadership. This innocent-looking narrative functions in the context of a serious struggle for power. Samuel is again “the boy” (v. 1). He continues to be subservient to Eli and obedient to Yahweh. The dream report, perhaps the best-known story of Samuel’s early life, is given in verses 2–14. That story is too often taken simply as an idyllic account of childlike faith. It is that, but it is much more than that, for the dream narrative is used to articulate a most disruptive, devastating assertion (vv. 11–14). The form of the narrative is a dream theophany in which a decisive word is given from outside conventional human experience. Samuel is available for this communication from God and perfectly responsive (v. 10). Moreover he is fully supported by Eli, who is now dependent upon him (v. 18).
The juxtaposition of verses 9–10 and 15–18 suggests a subtle treatment of the relation between Samuel (who now comes to power) and Eli (who now loses power). Patient, caring Eli instructs Samuel in his response to God (vv. 9–10). Eli gives Samuel the very words he is to use in response to Yahweh (v. 9), and Samuel uses those very words (v. 10). In that scene, young Samuel is completely dependent upon knowing Eli.
The roles between the two are then reversed (vv. 15–18). Eli has forfeited the word of Yahweh, and it is given to Samuel. Eli is now dependent upon Samuel to learn the word of Yahweh. Earlier, Samuel is uncertain and must be guided. Now he confidently receives the oracle but is reluctant to tell Eli, because the oracle is against Eli (vv. 15–18). It is surely intentional irony that in verse 16 Samuel makes the same response to Eli that he does in the earlier text, “Here I am.” While the response is the same and Samuel’s deference to Eli is consistent, there is no doubt that the power has shifted. The young innocent one is now authorized; the old knowing one has become fully dependent upon Samuel. The reversal of roles is not stated directly, but the narrative is formed so that the point becomes unavoidable. Yahweh does indeed “raise up and bring down.”
In using the dream theophany, our interest is often on the idyllic childlike exchange of verses 4–10. When the message of the dream theophany is given, however, there is nothing idyllic or childlike about it (vv. 11–14). The substance of the message should receive our primary attention. That substance is hard, abrasive, and devastating. The house of Eli had been promised authority “for ever” (2:30). Now that same house will be punished “for ever” (3:13). The judgment will be so harsh that “ears will tingle” in dismay (v. 11; cf. II Kings 21:12). The verdict of Yahweh is as sure as it is devastating. There is no appeal or recourse.
The problem has been the sons of Eli, not Eli himself. However, Eli must pay by having everything taken away. When he hears the message, Eli is a model of piety and acquiesence (v. 18). In this terrible moment of decision, Eli and Samuel are together in obedience as they had been at the outset. Both of them accept the verdict of Yahweh. For Samuel that verdict offers power and authority. For Eli the same verdict offers only grief and humiliation. For both the verdict is unquestioned. The narrative concerns the sure, irresistible power of Yahweh’s will, which now turns the course of Israel’s life. Eli had nurtured Samuel in obedience. Now the two of them stand together to face the hard, powerful will of Yahweh.
The focus of 3:1–19, however, is not on the ending announced for Eli. The accent rather is on the new beginning now to be made with obedient Samuel. Samuel is characterized in the narrative as a voice outside conventional authority. He hears Yahweh’s powerful word (3:19–4:la). Israel must now heed Samuel. The “word is rare,” the vision is infrequent (v. 1), yet Samuel receives a word (v. 11). In the end the narrative (and Israel) knows that Yahweh is with Samuel (v. 19). He is a bearer of revelation, as he is a child of miraculous birth. He is the one in whom Israel’s destiny for the future is vested. The peculiar authorization of Samuel is accomplished in accordance with “the word of the Lord,” but the actual working out of God’s will comes with “the word of Samuel” (4:1a). All Samuel’s words must be heeded. None of his words must be permitted to fall to the ground (v. 19).
The final paragraph of the unit holds together nicely the staggering gift of God’s revealed word and the concreteness of Samuel’s word (3:19–4:1a). Samuel’s word is never quite equated with the divine decree but is surely authorized by that decree. The proximity of the word of Samuel to the word of Yahweh is not unlike the double word in Jeremiah 1:1–3, where the “word of Yahweh” is given in the “words of Jeremiah.” The Bible characteristically holds together and yet distinguishes the will and decree of Yahweh and the concrete historical form which that will must take. The will and purpose of Yahweh are brought to concrete expression through various persons, among them Samuel and Jeremiah. Israel must take the human announcement of God’s will with great seriousness. Yet the careful wording of the matter suggests that the Bible resists the equation of divine will and human expression. The human word is as much as Israel receives. It is a word that must be taken seriously, but it is not finally the word of Yahweh. It is “the word of Samuel” that comes to Israel (4:1). In this careful, subtle distinction, Israel struggles with the relentlessly historical mode of its faith.
Our preaching of this text will not want to linger long on the specificities of Eli’s failure, or on the complicated history of priesthood leading to the triumph of Zadok, or on the dream theophany as a mode of disclosure. One must stay attentive to the larger theme, the legitimacy of Samuel and the beginning of a new social possibility for Israel ex nihilo. Chapters 1–3 as a larger unit serve to authorize Samuel to take a fresh initiative in Israel’s life.
The narrative takes great care to show that Samuel’s credibility does not rest on any conventional political confirmation. Rather, Samuel is presented as having an authorization rooted in nothing other than the freedom and promise of God. Samuel’s freshly authorized voice in Israel’s public life stands over against all conventional modes of power and brusquely displaces them. Surely the old Israelites—and the storytellers—are political realists. They understand how political-priestly power works, how it is secured, maintained, and exercised. They want to assert, at the same time, a holy governance that matters in concrete life, a holy governance that is not bounded by accustomed power, by ordained authority, by conventional leadership. There is a chance for newness, and that chance is rooted in Hannah’s piety, in Israel’s daring doxology, in Eli’s yielding, in Samuel’s availability, in God’s resolve to do a new thing.
This narrative, in concert with Israel’s most profound faith, finds it credible to have God assert, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” The narratives of Samuel want to assert that conviction, but they must do so in the midst of a difficult public crisis. God’s new thing is not a grand religious act but an invitation to a fresh, dangerous social beginning. All around the innocence of this narrative there were undoubtedly threats, bargains, and cunning calculations. In the midst of all those seductions, however, there is a season of naïveté when a young boy can receive a vision, an old man can embrace a relinquishment, a surprised mother can sing a song, the ears of the conventional can tingle, and life begins again. A new beginning means a terrible ending of some other arrangements. As we shall see, Samuel subsequently grows vexed and irascible about those endings, but not now, not here. This new beginning requires facing candidly all that has failed, and this narrative does that without flinching or deceiving.
First Samuel 2:11–4:1a invites a faithful simplicity about public possibility. What if the grasping political power and the harsh rapaciousness of religion were judged, condemned, and dismissed? What if old power were turned out and Israel were again young enough to dream? Samuel, as presented in these verses, is without vested interest. Unlike the sons of Eli, he would have no “bigger-than-regulation” fork with which to have more than his share (2:12–16). This narrative, by the power of a new disclosure from God, dares to believe and hope the community can begin again. Hard-nosed and sore-pressed Israel had a moment when they “knew” (3:20). They knew about Samuel and about the word, and therefore they knew about beginning again. In that knowing they found courage. They dared to believe that this God could act to “kill and make alive” (2:6). They watched in hope for the giving of new life. They knew also, as they watched Eli, about the coming of death. But they believed and hoped more powerfully than they grieved. They permitted their dream from God to override the sordid realities to which the old arrangements had disastrously led them.