Whose Voice? Reflections on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)

Lectionary Reflections
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
January 18, 2015

If anyone knows any of the stories to be found in 1 Samuel, this may well be the one. It tends to come up regularly in Sunday School classes where the teacher is intent on urging the children to listen hard for God's voice in their own lives, and, if that voice comes, to respond as the young boy Samuel did in the temple at Shiloh. "Speak, for your servant is listening," says Samuel, and the voice goes on to speak. What the purported voice of YHWH says to Samuel is less discussed in Sunday school or anywhere else, as far as I can tell. I want today to look more carefully at what YHWH actually says to the budding prophet/priest of Israel, and to suggest that such a speech is deeply troubling in that ancient story and equally troubling as God's speech in our own time.

In last week's article (you do remember, don't you?), I attempted to discuss the central content of God's voice as it is found in Psalm 29. In that article, I summarized that content as strength that led directly not to control or power but to peace, which is the last word of that poem. And because Jesus at his baptism by John is visited by a dove, accompanied by the voice of God that first announces that Jesus is nothing less than God's beloved son, while later in Mark's gospel that same voice demands that all should "listen to him," this same Jesus is the "Prince of Peace," using words borrowed from Isaiah. Hence, the very oldest poem in all of the Bible, namely Psalm 29, proclaims that the essence of God is peace, and because that is so we are called to be makers of peace, too.

However, peace does not appear to be in the mind of the YHWH who appears to Samuel at Shiloh. Quite the opposite characterizes this particular divine speech. YHWH here is furious, beset by a monumental pique against Samuel's aged mentor Eli. The "why" of the divine displeasure is certainly very troubling. Though the scene is remembered as a quintessential call of a prophet, when the content of that call is examined, it is a most peculiar call, indeed.

YHWH first says, "Watch! I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears tingle of anyone who hears of it" (1 Sam 3:11)! This famous metaphor of "tingling ears" portends a very serious divine action — perhaps a great defeat of the odious Philistines or a reiteration of the Sinai commandments. But what YHWH is about to do is decidedly petty and small, if not completely unfair. "On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end" (1 Sam. 3:12). YHWH here references the announcement of the unnamed "man of God" in chapter 2:27-36 (in unfortunately very difficult Hebrew!) to Eli that the end has come for him and his progeny, because "you (Eli) honor your sons more than me" (1 Sam. 2:29). It is quite true that Eli's sons, Hophni and Phineas, are scoundrels, more interested in greed and women than in the finer points of the priestly craft (1 Sam. 2:12-18). And it is equally true that Eli, though he is very old, heard of these foul deeds of his sons, and did his very best to correct them, to turn them back to the ways of God. In a quite lengthy and detailed speech at 1 Samuel 2:23-25, Eli gives his sons a real tongue-lashing, calling their acts nothing less than "evil," and warning them starkly that foul actions against human beings may find some intercession from God, but if one offends God, there can be no final forgiveness, ironically predicting the way that YHWH in fact is about to act. What more can a father do to correct his sons?

It is apparently not enough for YHWH who claims to Samuel that Eli honors his sons more than he honors his God. I find this conclusion completely unfair. But there is worse to come. "I have told him (Eli) that I was passing judgment on his house for all time because of the sin of which he knew, for his sons have been scorning God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore, I have sworn against the house of Eli that the sin of the house of Eli will not be atoned by sacrifice and offering for all time" (1 Sam. 3:13-14). Note the repetition of "for all time"; YHWH announces that Eli and all of his family are doomed, because he "did not restrain them."

I cannot easily accept this rationale for a complete obliteration of a faithful priest and his household. Yes, his sons are little less than monsters and hardly worthy of priestly inheritance, but the fact is that Eli did attempt to restrain them as the passage above from chapter 2 plainly says. Why is YHWH so enraged over Eli's ineffectual parenting, especially in the light of YHWH's later rejection of the first king of Israel, Saul, over two technicalities of sacrifice (1 Sam. 13, 15), and YHWH's ready acceptance of the second king, David, even after that king's shattering of four of the ten commandments in his filthy actions with Bathsheba and Uriah, her husband (2 Sam. 11)? YHWH appears quite arbitrary in these stories and no more so than in the way Eli is treated here.