Friday, June 17, 2011

"Speak, Lord, Your Servant Hears"

One of my all-time favorite stories in Scripture (1 Samuel 3:1-21) is that of Samuel the prophet's first encounter with God as a young boy. He'd been God's precious gift to Hannah, after she'd gone childless so long, and had endured the taunts of the co-wife of her husband, Elkanah, despite the latter's obvious and professed love for Hannah. As it turned out, Hannah seems to have really gotten the hang of the begatting process: she later had three more sons and two daughters!

True to Hannah's earlier promise to God and to the priest of Shiloh, Eli, she dedicates Samuel entirely to God's service as a nazarite, forever, in fact. The story takes up in 1 Samuel 3 as the boy goes about his temple duties.

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
By God's providence, Samuel comes on the scene at a time of major transition in Israel's history. During the period of the Judges, God raised up charismatic figures to guide the Chosen People. Desiring more, in terms of leadership, especially a visible symbol of power, the Israelites would eventually opt for a king, against Samuel's intuition and against God's wishes. 

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out,
That last line has a poignancy to it: the enlightening wisdom from on high hadn't been extinguished, but neither was it shining too brightly. When the Word of God is "rare", whether in the lives of individuals or nations, darkness, spiritual blindness quickly sets in.   

and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
The Ark of the Covenant stood as a symbol of God's very presence in the sacred space in the midst of the people. Samuel, laying truly in the "cloud of unknowing", then receives the call. 

Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 
Notice the speed and dedication with which Samuel responds: no hesitation, even though he thought it was Eli. What a model for our hearing the call of God in the midst of life's daily demands: what Zorba the Greek calls "the whole catastrophe"! 

and [Samuel] ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 
How easy it is for us so often to brush off, to ignore the messenger as an incovenience while in our spiritually soporific state, to miss the cues that will lead us deeper into God's presence and the understanding of God's will.

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
Samuel is only one example of so many unknowing, uncomprehending figures in Scripture (Rahab the prostitute, Zacchaeus the tax collector, Saul of Tarsus) whom God selects to deliver a message that will shake people out of their spiritual lethargy and negligence. 

The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’
Even though he'd been cued into the response by Eli, the whole context of the story gives us the impression that, indeed, Samuel was really listening and hearing what God had to say.

Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
Once, God had asked Abraham: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" God is always "mighty in all your acts, wonderful in all your works". But here is something extra special about to happen, and God uses that wonderful image of tingling ears! This new thing will amount to a deep spiritual experience.

On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,* and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’
Eli had to know that this was coming for some time. The writer of 1 Samuel has only disdain for Eli's two priest sons, Hophni and Phinehas: "...the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people..." (1 Samuel 2:12-13) They apparently took for themselves all the prime cuts of meat from sacrifices, and committed adultery with the women who served at the sanctuary entrance. Eli was quite aware of their behavior, and, though he rebukes them: "...No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad...", he does nothing to stop it. The sons continued: "...they would not listen to the voice of their father...", quite in contrast to the young boy, Samuel, who was listening intently to God's word.  

Samuel lay there until morning;
Samuel's real training to become a prophet of God, one who speaks the Word in God's stead, sometimes comforting, sometimes very disconcerting, had begun. What thoughts and questions must've been running through that young boy's head! Imagine the fear and dread he must've had at the prospect of relaying God's message to Eli, that Eli's house was doomed to oblivion. 

then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. 
Again, Samuel's routine duty of opening the door to God's house takes on, in the story's context, and deeper meaning. In a time and place where the word of God was rare, and true spiritual vision not widespread, Samuel now becomes an instrument for throwing wide open the doors of access, both of the temple and of the human heart, to the living God. 

Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 
Eli is a tragic figure. He's obviously no dumbbell, and the very fact he insists on Samuel telling him everything, even the dire judgment he already expected, says something of his relationship with God.

So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’
Samuel prophesies to Eli that Eli and his family will be punished for this: with all men being usually placed in positions subservient to priests from other lineages, and dying before reaching old age. The curse alludes to a previous promise from God that Eli's lineage would continue eternally. While this continuation isn't revoked, a curse is placed on all of Eli's male descendants forever. The Philistines will later capture the Ark of the Covenant, and, in the process, Hophni and Phinehas will be killed. Eli himself, when he learns of the Ark's capture, will fall from his seat, breaking his neck and dying.

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.
When our lives are consistently fed with God's word, there can only be growth. Not only is it characterized by wisdom, but also by integrity, truthfulness, a sense of surety. "The sum of your word is truth..." (Psalm 119:106) So it was for Samuel. The boy who had not yet known the Lord, was now the seer, the one for whom God had pulled back the curtain (re = back + velum = curtain, revelare = reveal) on God's Presence. God's revelation of Godself to us through the Word, primarily Jesus, and in many other forms, is what sharpens our spiritual sight.  

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