The third chapter of First Samuel describes a time of limited prophetic activity (not unlike our own) when “word from the Lord was rare” and “visions were infrequent” (I Samuel 3:1 NASB). The priest Eli and his young protégé Samuel are lying down at the Shiloh temple (I Samuel 3:2), the former resting by the ark of the covenant (I Samuel 3:3). After three verses establishing a highly ordinary setting, the pace picks up when God initiates action.
The Lord called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.” Then he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, lie down again.” So he went and lay down. (I Samuel 3:4-5 NASB)When called, Samuel excitedly runs to answer the priest (I Samuel 3:5). His youthful enthusiasm is misdirected as he mistakenly interprets the voice’s origin. Fortunately, God’s call is deliberate and persistent. Undeterred, the Lord awakens Samuel four times (I Samuel 3:4, 6, 8, 10). In a comedic scene, three times the confused young man awakens Eli. After the third attempt, the seasoned priest recognizes that God is calling Samuel and instructs his pupil to respond in kind (I Samuel 3:8-9). The fourth time is the charm as Samuel receives the revelatory word (I Samuel 3:10-14). As such, Samuel first hears the voice of God while literally lying down on the job (I Samuel 3:4).
The setting is significant, symbolic of the nation’s theological predicament. Richard D. Phillips (b. 1960) observes:
The setting for Samuel’s calling is provocatively stated: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out” (I Samuel 3:3). This indicates that it was in the early hours before dawn that God called to Samuel, since the lamps were kept lit until morning. But this was also symbolically true: the lamp of God’s presence in Israel was dim but not completely out. In such a setting, the voice of the Lord was once more heard within his house. (Phillips, 1 Samuel (Reformed Expository Commentary), 65)The light is scarce but it is not yet extinguished. The voice in the darkness mirrors the hope for renewal embodied in Samuel.
Kevin J. Mellish (b. 1968) adds:
The location where Eli and Samuel slept at the time of the theophany is also symbolic. Eli was in his own room and separated from the ark. Samuel was lying down in the temple...where the ark of God was (I Samuel 3:3). Based on this description, Samuel must have slept in the inner sanctuary where the ark resided. It is noteworthy that Samuel, the prophet/priest designate, remained near the presence of God, which was symbolized by the ark of the covenant. Eli, the soon to be deposed priest, slept at a distance from it. The imagery is fitting considering that Yahweh’s presence no longer abided with Eli as it was with Samuel, This is also the first, albeit brief, reference to the ark in Samuel. (Mellish, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary), 61)Some have posed that Samuel’s position indicates that he is seeking just such a divine encounter. V. Philips Long (b. 1951) explains:
That Samuel is described as “lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was” (I Samuel 3:3), has led some to speculate that he may have been engaging in a well-attested ancient Near Eastern practice called “incubation.” Incubation involves spending a night in the temple precinct in the hope of receiving a divine or oracular dream. The practice is attested among the Egyptians, with manuals of dream interpretation being used as early as the New Kingdom period, among the Hittites of Anatolia, and in Canaan during the biblical period...Extrabiblical examples of such theophanies, or auditory message dreams as they are sometimes called, come from Egypt (Thutmose IV, fifteenth century), Ugarit (in both the Kirta Epic and ‘Aqhatu Legend), Hatti (Hattušiliš, thirteenth century), and Babylonia (Nabonidus, sixth century). (John H. Walton [b. 1952], Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 282-83)Ralph W. Klein (b. 1936) counters:
We are not told why Samuel slept by the ark. The view that he was participating in some kind of incubation ritual seems contradicted by his repeated suspicion that Eli—and not God—was calling him. (Klein, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 32)Instead, Samuel is likely taking his turn in fulfilling priestly duties. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) assumes:
While Samuel was fulfilling the Torah obligations to tend the lamp of God (cf. Leviticus 24:3; Numbers 18:23), the Lord called the youth and delivered a message of judgment to him. In a form paralleling Abraham, Jacob, and Moses’ obedient responses to divine calls (Genesis 22:1, 11, 31:11; Exodus 3:4), Samuel responded, “Here I am” (I Samuel 3:4). Because he did not initially know the Lord, however, Samuel at first went to Eli for further instructions (I Samuel 3:5-6, 8)...It is...probable that the writer included this note to demonstrate Samuel’s diligence in fulfilling Torah mandates. As a son of Aaron, Eli was required “to keep the lamps burning before the LORD from evening till morning” (Exodus 27:21; cf. Leviticus 24:3; also Numbers 18:23). However, since Eli apparently was too old for active service before Yahweh as a priest (cf. Numbers 8:23-26), the Levite Samuel was permitted to act as his surrogate in this matter (cf. Numbers 18:23). (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 86)God calls Samuel while he is already on duty. Though Samuel does not know who is calling, he responds promptly and politely. Josephus (37-100) records that Samuel is only twelve years old at the time (Antiquities of the Jews 5.10.4).
It is clear that Samuel perceives the voice audibly, originating outside of himself. T.M. Luhrmann (b. 1959) determines:
The striking phenomenonological detail is that Samuel looked for the source of the voice. When someone gives you that detail—they heard a voice and then looked to see who was speaking—it is good evidence that they heard the voice with their ears. (Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, 344)Samuel’s call marks a rare instance of a human hearing the audible call of God. Steven J. Andrews (b. 1954) and Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) characterize Samuel’s experience:
Being so physically close to the Lord’s throne, Samuel was bound to meet him. All of chapters 1 and 2 has led up to this point. God was going to do something wonderful with this young man who was dedicated by his parents to minister before the Lord...Here was the moment of contact. Here was God’s call. It was personal and face-to-face. It was private when no one else was around. It came in God’s house in the early morning. Samuel answered...but he didn’t know who called him. He heard, but he wasn’t listening...God is certainly persistent. The verb call occurs eleven times in I Samuel 3:4-10. Anyone who has ever experienced a call from God can tell you that sometimes it is relentless. God does not give up. (Andrews and Bergen, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 32-33)Samuel incorrectly assumes that the voice he hears is Eli’s. To explain this error, the text offers a narrative aside to remind the reader that Samuel has yet to hear the voice of God; Samuel is not yet the legendary prophet (I Samuel 3:7). One can hardly blame Samuel for his failure to recognize the voice. God has not spoken to him previously and Eli’s is the most likely voice. In this secluded setting, who else would be calling him?
Mary J. Evans (b. 1949) muses:
The story continues with the young Samuel asleep in the area where the ark of God was kept, a fact that shows how fully he had been integrated into priestly service. He hears a voice and immediately goes to Eli—maybe it was a regular occurrence for the almost blind Eli to need help. Samuel’s willingness to get up three times in the night, apparently without complaint, to attend to the ailing old man speaks well for the character of the young priest and draws attention to his worthiness to receive the prophetic word. (Evans, 1 and 2 Samuel (New International Biblical Commentary), 28)Samuel’s mistake is also natural as the voice of God is often filtered through human beings. Kenneth Chafin (1926-2001) acknowledges:
How easy it still is not to be able to discern God’s voice from other voices. It would be so much easier if all of God’s messages to us came with a clearly printed label: “From God.” But, as my colleague, Frank Tupper [b. 1941], says, “God speaks to us through familiar voices.” While there is a tendency to think of the more dramatic revelations of God as normative, most people experience God’s guidance in quite ordinary ways: through experiences good and bad, while reading the Scripture, through the counsel of another, or out of a growing interest. (Chafin, 1, 2 Samuel (Mastering the Old Testament), 46)Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) adds:
Learning to discern the difference between human words and God’s word is basic to his prophetic and priestly life: Samuel listens. Listening is an act of personal attentiveness that develops into answering. The emphatic “Let anyone with ears listen!” with which Jesus concluded his parables (Matthew 13:9, 43) is repeated in the Spirit’s urgent messages to the churches in the Revelation (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22)...Samuel answers, which is to say, he prays...Samuel’s very existence is a result of prayer, the prayer of his praying mother, Hannah. The story of his call in the temple, introducing his prophetic vocation, shows him learning how to pray for himself, that is, listen to God’s personal word to him and then respond. (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 38-39)Ironically, Eli the priest is seldom depicted speaking for God. Yet here it is Eli, not Samuel, who correctly discerns the voice of God. Eli is finally doing his job: presenting a worldview with God at its center.
Alister E. McGrath (b. 1959) writes:
On the first three occasions, Samuel assumes that the natural sound he has heard has a natural referent, and behaves accordingly...The turning point of the narrative takes place when Eli offers an alternative interpretive framework. Confronted with the evident failure of the most obvious schema, Samuel is invited to consider an alternative explanation of his experience (I Samuel 3:9). Eli can here be seen as a representative of the tradition of Israel, which offers an alternative way of interpreting nature – in this case, as a gateway to the transcendent. God is made known through the natural order. (McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, 176)It might have even been presumptuous for Samuel to assume that God is calling him. Jack M. Sasson (b. 1941) elucidates:
It is not a lack of intelligence that prevents Samuel from understanding what Eli does comprehend but rather a profound psychological block. Is it possible that God is calling him rather than Eli the priest? Conversely, Eli apprehends what Samuel fails to see, not because of superior intelligence or experience, but because he lacks the inhibitions generated by self-interest. Nothing deters him from assuming that God might turn to the young servant and pass over the old priest! In this way, Eli’s humility compensates for Samuel’s. (John Kaltner[b. 1954] and Louis Stulman [b. 1953], Inspired Speech: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East Essays in Honor of Herbert B. Huffmon [b. 1933], 179)God speaks to Samuel in such a way that causes Eli to fulfill his primary duty as priest: directing his congregant to God. In some small way, Eli redeems himself. In a sad irony, God’s message to Samuel is confirmation of the fall of Eli’s household (I Samuel 3:11-14). Tragically, Eli’s most effective act as priest occurs while mediating his displacement.
Dallas Willard (b. 1935) praises:
How wonderful that Eli recognized what was happening to young Samuel and could tell him what to do to begin his lifelong conversational walk with God! Otherwise, it might have been years before Samuel would have found his way by himself. We must not mistakenly assume that if God speaks to someone, he or she automatically knows what is happening and who is taking. If Samuel did not know, surely many others also would not. (Willard, Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, 143-44)In this case, as in many, effectively hearing God is an act of collaboration. For God’s voice to be heard, the lad needs to be open to it, but he also needs guidance from an elder.
Though the passage illuminates the struggle that clergy experience in discerning their calling, discerning the voice of God and distinguishing it from one’s own is a universal challenge that plagues clergy and laymen alike. Hearing God’s voice is often difficult. But it does not mean that God is not speaking.
Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) asserts:
God speaks to Samuel. That God speaks is the basic reality of biblical faith. The fundamental conviction of our faith is not so much that God is, as that God speaks. The biblical revelation begins with God creating by word, speaking the cosmos into being (Genesis 1:1-31). It concludes with Jesus, the Word of God, speaking in invitation, “Come...” (Revelation 22:17). All the pages in between are packed with sentences that God speaks—in creation and invitation, in judgment and salvation, in healing and guidance, in oracle and admonition, in rebuke and comfort. The conspicuous feature in all this speaking is that God speaks in personal address. God does not speak grand general truths, huge billboard declarations of truth and morals; the Lord’s speaking is to persons, named persons: Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul. And Samuel. Personal address, not philosophical discourse or moral commentary or theological reflection, is God’s primary form of speech. Whenever we let the language of religious abstraction or moral principles (and we do it often) crowd the personal address, we betray the word of God. (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 38)Though God speaks, hearing is not often easy. Even Samuel, who literally lives in the temple, struggles to do so. Samuel’s experience demonstrates that a person can even be in the precarious position of encountering God without knowing it.
Norman J. Cohen (b. 1943) cautions:
Samuel reminds all of us how difficult it is to truly hear, see, and meet the other in our lives. When we finally do experience a moment of recognition and engagement, we sometimes are so overwhelmed that we cannot find the right words to express what we are thinking and feeling. As we are overcome with emotion, both elation and fear at the same time, words may seem impossible. (Cohen, “The Difficulty of Discerning the Call”, Hineini in Our Lives: Learning to Respond to Others Though 14 Biblical Texts & Personal Stories, 81)Like all prophets, Samuel’s first prophetic act is to listen. His experience demonstrates that disambiguating the voice of God is a learned skill. This provides both a challenge and hope for us all as we echo Samuel’s words: “Speak, for your servant is listening (I Samuel 3:10 NASB).”
Why does God not make his identity more obvious when dealing with Samuel? When have you been called by an unfamiliar voice? If God called you, how would you know? Have you ever audibly heard God? In your mind, whose voice is most like God’s? What would have happened to Samuel had Eli failed to direct him? When has God spoken to you through a “familiar voice”? In what ways has God spoken to you? How have you been changed by the voice of God?
God speaking to Samuel forever changes his and his nation’s history. James E. Smith (b. 1939) notes:
One night (literally, “it came to pass on that day”) suggests that the day was special, a milestone in Samuel’s rise to leadership, and consequently in redemptive history. (Smith, 1 & 2 Samuel (The College Press NIV Commentary), 74)The third chapter of First Samuel relays a coming of age story as Samuel is moving from “lad” to prophet. Samuel does not become a renowned prophet over night.
Richard L. Schultz (b. 1952) clarifies:
Hearing God’s call did not suddenly move Samuel from childhood to adulthood; following this encounter he still had to “grow up” (I Samuel 3:19). This text emphasizes God’s judgment on blatant sin in the family of Eli, Israel’s religious leader. It also portrays God’s careful preparation of Samuel for significant spiritual and political leadership as one who was open to hearing God’s voice and obeying. (Schultz, Out of Context: How to Avoid Misinterpreting the Bible, 86)
Samuel’s experience invites a discussion of calling. John Goldingay (b. 1942) projects:
Speaking with students often suggests to me that we think of ministry as something that enables us to find fulfillment, as it makes it possible for us to give expression to the gifts God has given us. Discernment thus begins as our seeking to perceive what our gifts are and how we may express them. There’s none of this way of thinking in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Samuel is not called because this will be the way he finds fulfillment...Given that the connotations of the word “call” have changed, we might do better to use the word “summons” rather than “call” to describe what happens to Samuel or Paul. Samuel gets the idea when he recognizes in the middle of the night that his boss has summoned him to do something, so he reports for duty; he just doesn’t realize which boss it is...There is nothing wrong with people using their gifts to serve God...It just has nothing to do with calling. (Goldingay, 1 & 2 Samuel for Everyone, 31)As the message Samuel receives concerns Eli, many note that I Samuel 3:1-21 is not technically a call narrative. Anthony F. Campbell (b. 1934) advances:
The initiative is...given to Eli, and the focus of interest moves to his reaction. The story comes to rest with his acceptance...It is important to recognize that this is not a prophetic call narrative; there is no call. It may serve in place of a call narrative, since after this first experience of God’s word Samuel continues as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. For all that, it is not a call narrative. (Campbell, 1 Samuel (The Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 57)In contrast, Ronald F. Youngblood (b. 1931) offers:
The literary genre of I Samuel 3 has usually been considered a prophetic-call narrative in the grand tradition of Exodus 3 (Moses), Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and the like. Recently, however, on the basis of ancient Near Eastern parallels, Robert Gnuse [b. 1947], in The Dream Theophany of Samuel: Its Structure in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Dreams and Its Theological Significance has theorized that I Samuel 3 is best analyzed as an auditory message dream theophany. Although he sometimes tilts the evidence in his direction...his arguments are impressive...Of course, the genre could turn out to be a blend of both types (a not uncommon feature of Old Testament literature)—prophetic-call narrative plus auditory message dream theophany. But the advantage of Gnuse’s analysis is that it deals adequately with the fact that the Lord speaks to Samuel at night—a matter not handled convincingly by the theory that I Samuel 3 is a prophetic-call narrative and nothing more. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], 1 Samuel-2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 65)Some argue that as Samuel is awake as the story unfolds, the story cannot accurately be labeled a dream theophany. What cannot be argued is that this story marks a new era for Samuel and Israel. Samuel becomes an agent of change in both the nation’s religion (as a prophet) and politics (as the anointer the kings). His authorization to do so is significant.
Robert Alter (b. 1935) remarks:
The idea of revelation...is paramount to the story of Samuel, whose authority will derive neither from cultic function, like the priests before him, nor from military power, like the judges before him and the kings after him, but from prophetic experience, from an immediate, morally directive call from God. (Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 109)Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) expounds:
The narrative takes great care to show that Samuel’s credibility does not rest on any conventional political confirmation. Rather, Samuel is presented as having an authorization rooted in nothing other than the freedom and promise of God. Samuel’s freshly authorized voice in Israel’s public life stands over against all conventional modes of power and brusquely displaces them. Surely the old Israelites—and the storytellers—are political realists. They understand how political-priestly power works, how it is secured, maintained, and exercised. They want to assert, at the same time, a holy governance that matters in concrete life, a holy governance that is not bounded by accustomed power, by ordained authority, by conventional leadership. There is a chance for newness. (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 27)Samuel is authorized to lead, but more importantly Samuel becomes Samuel through the process. His purpose is completely changed as he finds his identity in connection to God.
Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) analyzes:
In order to become a moral individual, a person, Samuel must be called out of the familial collective and enter a direct relationship to God. God does not, here, just call an individual to effect a change in Israel’s culture: he creates an individual so to do...Only when the Lord calls with a single voice and reveals his unity, and only when the recipients of this revelation absorb communication of “Who he is,” can they become unified individuals, persons who act on history and cocreate it. (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 29)Merold Westphal (b. 1940) informs:
It takes little imagination to hear the resonances of Emmanuel Levinas [1906-1995]’s me voici, whose origins in any case are biblical, in Samuel’s “Here am I.” While this speech act is an expression of Samuel’s freedom, there is more heteronomy than autonomy in it. He does not originate the conversation but is called, called forth, even called into being by a voice not his own. The meaning of the situation in which he finds himself is not determined by his horizons of expectation, which are simultaneously surprised and shattered. Nor is it just his situation that is changed; his very identity is changed, as he becomes no longer merely Hannah’s son or Eli’s helper, but the one who stands coram deo, in God’s presence, by a call that is at once invitation and command. Everything begins with “you called me.” Prayer is the beginning of responsibility because it begins as response...He identifies himself as the servant before his Lord...Actually, when he responds in accord with Eli’s instruction, he does not name the speaker, but simply says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”...The heavy lifting is done by Samuel’s self-identification as the servant of the speaker, whose divinity he now recognizes. He calls himself ebbe, a bond-servant. (Bruce Ellis Benson [b. 1960] and Norman Wirzba [b. 1964], “Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self”, The Phenomenology of Prayer (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy), 17)Samuel’s awakening is intended to awaken us to our calling as well. Though we may not be called to be prophets or national leaders, our true identity is to be found as servants of God.
Who are today’s change agents? What have you been authorized to do? What has God called you to do? Have you found your identity in God?
“Not only do we not know God except through Jesus Christ, but also we do not know ourselves except through Jesus Christ.” - Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensées, p. 7