The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”—1 Samuel 3: 1-4
It’s a story we’ve seen many times before: A God-fearing woman prays for a child, conceives in her old age, and has a son whom she dedicates to the Lord. Sarah? Rebekkah? Samson’s mother? No, in this case, it’s Hannah who defies the odds by having a baby “in the nineteenth year of her married life, and the one hundred and thirtieth of her age,” according to The Legends of the Jews.
Having made a solemn promise to God—“I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head”—she brought the young Samuel to Shiloh and left him in the care of Eli, the elderly priest.
Two things in particular stand out for me in this story. First is the fact that it is Samuel—not Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas—who later inherits his position as high priest. Although God had promised this honor to Eli and his family, 1 Samuel 2 tells us that “the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.”
Not only did they confiscate and eat the meat people brought to the tabernacle as a sacrifice, but they also “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Their behavior pained Eli greatly, but he had nothing to rein them in. Ultimately, God declares that the two will “die by the sword” on the same day. The role of priest will be going to someone else.
The second observation is that while Hannah promises her son to God, it is still up to Samuel to answer God’s call. According to the story in 1 Samuel, the boy is lying on the floor of the temple when he awakens to the sound of his name. Naturally, he assumes it is Eli calling him, but when he goes to the old man’s room, Eli tells him to go back to bed. Twice more Samuel does this, but after the third time, Eli realizes that it’s God who’s calling the boy. He tells Samuel that if he hears this voice again, he should answer with, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel does as he is told.
Reflecting on the story of Samuel, we can conclude a number of things: Lineage and status don’t carry any weight with God. Hophni and Phinehas may have been Israel’s “fair-haired boys,” but it was their character and their lack of spiritual depth that mattered. Surprisingly, God chose a “nobody”—in reality, just a boy—to be the next great leader. Even then, however, God was not coercive in the least. Samuel still had the opportunity to say yes or no. Ultimately, he made the wiser choice.
O God, in the midst of noise and distractions, help me to hear your voice when you call, and to be ready to answer, “I am listening.”