I think some people miss what a pivotal person Samuel was. Samuel stands as a kind of bride between to times in Israel’s history. He is the last Judge of the time of the Judges. He is also the first prophet and is known as the founder of the school of the prophets. As Israel moves from an open society to a kingdom under a king, Samuel stands for God’s rule during a time when everyone wants a human king. He stands for God’s righteousness during the time of King Saul even with the audacity to stand up to the king himself.
His origins are however very humbling and yet inspiring. Samuel is the first-born child of a second wife in a polygamist marriage. Hannah had no children at the time of the story’s beginning but earnestly wanted a child. She prays so fervently that God grants her request and she conceives Samuel. Often people want to look at the origin of prophets as fatalistic events but I think in this case much has to do with the character of Samuel’s mother and how he raises her son. Samuel is not fated to be a prophet or a judge but he is more shaped into both by his mother and oddly Eli the priest.
Hannah prays until she gets an answer which is a characteristic that few people cultivate. She even endures Eli’s criticism that she had come to the tabernacle drunk. Her prayers are so deep that she moves her lips but no sound escapes. Once she receives word that she will get pregnant and she does conceive she dedicates herself to the task and once she gives birth her words are preserved as some of the most heartfelt praise to God. She returns to the tabernacle only after she has weaned Samuel which would have included getting him to the point where he could feed and dress himself not just getting off her breasts for milk. During this time her love and preparation of him would have been apparent and he would have heard from her that he was dedicated to the Lord. He took it to heart and so when he leaves his mother and live with Eli the change is something he probably understood needed to happen. Hannah is rewarded for keeping her word to God and being faithful with more children but My guess there was always a special place for Samuel in her heart and for her in his.
It is this kind of character development that God is more interested in than putting the event of a person’s life on a timeline. It is a lesson Samuel will learn very early and apply it for the rest of his life. When he is called by God, his heart is not the problem only his knowledge and once Eli figures this out and guides him the next phase of knowing God’s voice. He now has the heart to hear and the mind to know. The rest of Samuel’s call is simply whether he will be faithful to deliver what god said without editing it and he passes that test right away holding nothing back from Eli.
Eli, as much as he seems to be a decent fellow, is not a man to stand for righteousness. He has put himself in a position with God where he himself is blessed but God sees no future for his family or that the character of Eli’s sons will eventually destroy the family that he has. In any case, what God pronounces of Eli and his family is that they will never be high priest again and that they will pretty much be beggar priests the rest of their lives. Once Samuel tells Eli this, Eli’s response is to submit to his fate.
There are several open theism moments in this story. 1) Hannah’ prayer for a child and he dedication of that child to the Lord were open in that God could have not responded to her. She also could have gone back on her word and we would be reading about the consequences. 2) Samuel’s call in that Samuel had genuine choices about going back and listening to God and being obedient to tell Eli everything. If he had not told Eli or lied about it the story would be different and I doubt God would have trusted Samuel much thereafter. 3) Eli’s response to judgment has been to accept his fate which leads me to the conclusion that this was part of the problem. The great people in God’s sight so far in the Bible have not just submitted to God’s judgment, but have at times petitioned God to change his mind and He has done so on a couple of occasions. Had Eli repented of his apathy to his sons sinfulness and perhaps even removed them as priests, the judgment on his house might have spared the long term consequences. We saw this with Abraham’s appeal for Sodom, Moses for the people of God and the essence of every prayer we have looked at so far. This only gets more pronounced as the story unfolds and the relationship between God, Eli and Samuel gets more defined.
Next: Eli and Samuel