Connections 01.14.2018: Samuel and Eli

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 19–4:1a

Sometimes we picture ancient stories in black and white. They are old, removed, and distant. And even when the characters are vivid and exciting, they are almost superhuman to us. They don’t seem real. I’ve always felt closest to Bible characters when the storyteller portrays them as human beings who could be people I know—or even me!

Several years ago, I tried to make this wonderful story about Samuel and Eli more vivid in my mind. Though my imagined historical details are almost certainly inaccurate, I can still reread my little version and feel connected to both characters in a way I didn’t feel before I experimented with the text.

Samuel splashed his face with the muddy water servants had gathered from the river. It felt cool when he dipped his hands into the wooden bucket. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with wet fingers, then wiped his hands on his undergarment. After a long day of instruction under Eli, he was ready for sleep.

He paused before the holy of holies, which contained God’s ark, and said a quiet prayer. “Help me God, that I may be your servant and follow your Law.” Then he unrolled his straw mat in a corner of the temple. The lamp of God still burned, throwing shadows on the stone walls. Samuel lay on his back and watched the firelight dance.

His eyes wandered back in the direction of the ark that stood behind the curtain. Inside the great chest, which was adorned with two golden angels, were the stone tablets that contained the ten laws God had given Moses on the mountain so many years ago. Samuel still didn’t quite understand the power of those laws. He only knew that he was to follow them without fail. Eli, the aged priest, was instructing him in the ways of the temple. The temple and Eli were what Samuel had always known. They were his home, his family.

He thought back to a time many days ago. His mother, Hannah, had come along with his father, Elkanah, to offer the yearly sacrifice at the temple. Each year, Hannah made a robe for Samuel and brought it to him during the sacrifice. Seeing his parents was strange for Samuel, who had lived with Eli since he was two years old. He struggled to feel a true connection to these poor people who came to the temple to give their meager offering. A year was a long time. His mother wasn’t there to see him grow and change. When the time came for her to visit him, for that brief moment in a vast expanse of time, neither of them knew what to say.

Samuel eyed the robe he had folded and placed beside his mat. He stroked the coarse fabric and marveled at his mother’s careful stitching. She cared deeply for him. He knew that. Still, he wondered what his life would have been like had his mother kept him instead of bringing him to the temple. Would he have been a shepherd? A carpenter? A hunter? A warrior? Would he have known his father as more than a tired-looking man who worked hard to provide for his wives and children? For there were other children. Samuel had several half-brothers and sisters, as well as three brothers and two sisters born of his father and mother. He did not even know what they looked like.

Eli had taken great care of him throughout the years, loving him as a son. Now that the old man was nearly blind, Samuel was responsible for most of the duties at the temple.

Samuel sighed. His eyes burned with exhaustion. He had spent hours that day reading aloud to Eli from tablets. With his poor reading skills, the task was arduous. He let his eyes close and soon drifted to sleep.

Suddenly, Samuel bolted upright on his mat, his heart was pounding. The lamp of God burned still, but the flame was dim. He strained to see through the darkness. The only other light came from two small windows in the temple walls, where the white glow from the moon trickled in. There was nothing out of place, no movement, no sound.

“Samuel! Samuel!” came a voice from the hallway.

Oh, it is Eli! Samuel thought, relieved.

“Here I am!” he answered loudly, throwing off his cover and hurrying to Eli’s room, his feet slapping the cool stones.

By another shaft of moonlight, Samuel could see his teacher’s chest rising and falling rhythmically. He seemed to be asleep. But surely…

“Here I am,” he said, “for you called me.”

Eli’s eyes opened slowly. He frowned slightly at Samuel. “I did not call. Go back and lie down again.”

Remembering how suddenly he had awakened, Samuel realized he must have had a dream. “Yes, Teacher,” he said sheepishly. “Forgive me for disturbing you.”

He shook his head as he walked back down the hallway. Crawling onto his mat for the second time that night, he pulled the cover up to his chin and was drifting off to sleep when he heard the unmistakable voice.

“Samuel!”

That is Eli, he thought, and scrambled off the floor and down the hall. Surprised to hear Eli snoring, he nevertheless entered the room and awakened the old man.

“Here I am, for you called me.”

Lying on his side, Eli mumbled something Samuel could not understand, then leaned up on his elbow. “My son, I did not call. Now you must lie down again.”

Samuel was sure he had heard his teacher, but he did not argue. Perhaps the priest had been dreaming as well and called out in his sleep.

“Forgive me, Teacher,” he said as he backed out of the doorway. “I will not disturb you again.”

This time, when Samuel entered the temple, he explored all the dark corners to be sure no one else was there. He glanced toward the ark. All was still. All was quiet. Shrugging, he went back to his mat. Once again, he lay down, but he could not fall asleep.

The voice came again. “Samuel! Samuel!”

Frustrated, Samuel stood on his mat and looked around. The voice came from the hallway. He was sure of it. Perhaps his teacher was sick and needed care. Samuel recalled a time when Eli had suffered from fever and become delirious, speaking nonsense. Maybe he was sick again.

He walked quietly down the hallway and entered Eli’s room for a third time. His teacher was awake.

“Here I am, for you called me,” he said as before.

Eli sat up and squinted at his apprentice. As Samuel waited for his reply, he noticed that the old man’s expression changed, softened. Eli stretched out his arm toward Samuel, and the boy moved forward and took his teacher’s hand.

“My son, go back and lie down,” said Eli, with a slight smile on his lips. “If the voice calls you again, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”

Confused but obedient, Samuel kissed his teacher’s hand and returned to the temple. He lay on his mat and stared at the ceiling.

“Samuel!” said the voice. This time it was as close as if someone spoke right beside Samuel’s ear.

With a pounding heart and fear in his stomach, Samuel answered, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Discussion

1. How did the reimagined story of Samuel and Eli affect your reading of the Scripture text?
2. Have you ever read any other reimagined stories from Scripture? If so, how did you feel about them?
3. Why might it be helpful to envision familiar Scriptures in this way? For instance, how could it be meaningful to picture Mary nursing baby Jesus, burping him, and changing his diaper, all the while feeling the strain that young parents of newborns often feel?
4. Have you ever heard God speak to you—either audibly or within your spirit? If so, how did you recognize the voice as God’s?
5. What might God have to say to you through Samuel’s story and through the events of your life today? How can you be a better listener?

Reference Shelf

The narrator makes no overt claim that the widespread lack of communication from Yahweh is due to Eli’s uninspired leadership, but the implication is apparent. Eli’s failing eyesight that renders him so dependent on Samuel may be a subtle literary comment on the old priest’s lack of spiritual vision. Likewise, while Samuel sleeps in the temple before the ark of God, Eli may be found lying down “in his room,” presumably a cell attached to the temple and within easy earshot of Samuel. Through their physical locations, the author suggests that young Samuel, for all his naïveté, is really closer to God.

The temple in Shiloh was probably a small affair, more like a heavy tent than a permanent shrine. Archaeologists have found no clear remains of a temple from the Iron I period in Shiloh (modern Khirbet Seilun), though houses are frequent and pottery abounds.

Sacred lamps were filled with oil and replenished during the day but allowed to go out at night. On one particular night, the narrator tells us, sometime before the lamp sputtered out, the LORD first spoke to Samuel. In a story grown familiar by many retellings, we learn that Samuel twice mistook the voice of God for Eli, assuming that the aged priest was in need of assistance (vv. 4-6). The author’s reminder that Samuel “did not yet know the LORD” marks the transition to Yahweh’s third call, which Samuel again misinterpreted. There is delightful irony in that Eli, who was blind, finally saw what was happening and discerned that God was calling the boy (v. 8). Eli coached Samuel in the proper etiquette of responding to God’s call: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (v. 9).

Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 63-64.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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