Opening The Old Testament
Echoes of Jesus? Reflections on 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
If all that is so, then we can easily understand why the loving Hannah makes for her son "a little robe" and takes it to him "each year" when she and Elkanah returned for the sacrifice (I Sam 2:19). I love this tiny feature of the story. Hannah, who has fulfilled her vow by offering her son to service of YHWH in the temple, hardly forgets him. Each year, before the yearly trip to the shrine, she weaves a robe, in increasing sizes following her son's growth, in order to cover him against the winter's cold, supplementing the skimpy ephod, which he is perhaps duty-bound to wear. This obvious love of a mother for her child, even though that child has a future of dangerous service to God, is fully reminiscent of Mary's love for her child, Jesus, though his and her destiny will be a most painful one.
After each visit for sacrifice in Shiloh, Eli, we are told, "blesses Elkanah and his wife (does the old priest still not know the woman's name?), and says, 'May YHWH give to you descendants from this woman (her name, please!) for the request that she requested of YHWH.' Then they went home" (I Sam 2:20). The same peculiar pun is contained here that was seen in I Sam 1:20. Hannah there says that she named her son Samuel, because she had "requested" him from YHWH. But the Hebrew word "request" is sha'al, a word suggesting the name "Saul," not Samuel, which means "God has heard." Of course, Saul and Samuel will finally have much to do with one another in this long story, but this double use of this verb is unusual.
And Eli's blessing is efficacious, as Hannah conceives several more times, bearing three sons and two daughters. But only of Samuel is it said "he grew up with YHWH" (I Sam 2:21). No doubt he is destined for greater things than his siblings, about whom we hear precisely nothing more. And this section of his story ends with an important observation that will find echoes in the later story of Jesus. "The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in the favor of YHWH and humanity" (I Sam 2:26). This sentence is nearly identical to the statement in Luke 2:52: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor." Clearly, this is why the collectors of the lectionary have chosen this passage as one to be read on this Sunday after the birth of Jesus. We certainly hear "echoes of Jesus" in this ancient story of the prophet Samuel.
Yet, their destinies are quite different, however much they both are remembered as unique servants of God. Jesus has a very brief ministry, dying at the hands of the Romans when quite young. Samuel lives a fantastically long life, most of it spent as the recognized and powerful leader of an emergent Israel; he is priest, judge, in effect a king but without the name of king. Jesus is called king, but only in an ironic sense. He is in his life a peasant and day laborer. Thus, he has come to redefine what it means to be a king.
Also, Samuel is all too human in his desire for dynasty through his wastrel sons and his unwillingness to support the kingship of Saul. In effect, it could be said that Samuel does Saul in, rejecting him from being king on two technicalities of sacrificial actions (see I Sam 13 and 15).
In contrast, Jesus is remembered as offering himself willingly for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized—finally dying innocently on a Roman cross. So, as much as their two lives intersect on the surface—unusual birth, loved unreservedly by a mother, growing in the favor of God and humanity—they diverge in much more important ways.
As a preacher, I would avoid forcing the story of Samuel to be a prefiguring event for the story of Jesus. Each of the great stories has its own value and deserves its own careful attention. There may be "echoes of Jesus" in Samuel's story, but the echoes quickly fade in the light of the larger contexts of the lives that are lived.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.