Opening The Old Testament
Hello, Is This God? Reflections on 1 Samuel 3:1-10
But it was YHWH, and the words that Samuel heard were harrowing. "I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone daring to hear it tingle. On the day when I act I will do everything that I said I would do to the house of Eli. I am about to punish him and his family and all his relations, because he knew of the evil of his disgusting sons, who spend their lives blaspheming me, and did not do enough to restrain them. As a result, there are not enough sacrifices, not enough prayers, not enough holy vows to assuage my fury against all of them, and that fury will never be quenched but will forever rage and rage and rage!"
And with that final "rage" echoing in the air, the voice was stilled. And Samuel lay stunned. What was he to do? Announce to his mentor, the pathetic and aging Eli, that his day was past, that his life was about to end, that his family and priestly dynasty was to be annihilated by a furious YHWH? This was his prophetic call? Little wonder that later prophets—Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel—found myriad ways to attempt to escape the call of YHWH. They claimed extreme youth, desperate sin, poor marital bonds, odd behavior as impediments against doing what God asked them to do.
Well, Samuel does it. He denounces Eli and becomes himself priest and leader of the people of Israel. And as a result of his very long life of leadership, he calls Saul to be king and then deposes him, throwing Israel into a turmoil of confusion that leads to the kingship of David, a kingship that ends in adultery, lying, and murder.
Being a prophet has decided dangers attached to the work; hazards duty pay called for! To claim to speak for God places one in the most precarious of positions. Can any human finally know if the words that fall from her lips are in fact the words of the Almighty? Can anyone be absolutely certain that what he says even faintly echoes what God would say to an anxious world? The Bible offers only one direct way that one can tell whether a prophet is really a prophet of YHWH. In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, it says, "How can we recognize a word that YHWH has not spoken?" And the text answers the question like this, "If a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that YHWH has not spoken."
Well, there is a most unhelpful bit of advice! Lacking a crystal ball, just how am I to anticipate whether that person's words or this person's ideas are in fact God's words and ideas, if all I can do is wait and see whether they come true or not? I fear I am left with my limited human perceptions after all. Could I have told whether Samuel was actually speaking YHWH's words, if I had overheard him in the temple of Shiloh? Not likely. All the more reason to listen with care to those claiming a direct phone line to God; they do not have one any more than I do. Yes, Samuel is remembered as a great prophet of God, but like all such people, he must be assessed and probed and tested and evaluated. And as for those of us who stand up and announce that we are spokespeople for that same God, we must expect the same reactions.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.