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Sunday, 18 January 2009

Samuel

The story of Samuel in the Temple is an old friend, isn’t it? I was
amazed, when I came to have another look at it, that it was actually a
much darker story than I remembered. We all know the bit about Samuel
waking up in the night and thinking Eli has called him, and Eli
eventually clicking that God was trying to speak to Samuel.... but what
is the context? And what, actually, did God want to say?

It all started, of course, with Samuel’s mother, whose name was Hannah.
She was married to a man called Elkanah, and, in fact, she was his
senior wife. But her great sadness was that she had no children, and her
co-wife, called Penninah, did. Elkanah actually loved Hannah more than
he loved Penninah, and although I don’t suppose he minded for his own
sake that she had no children, he minded for her sake.

And, we are told, whenever Elkanah went to the Temple to make
sacrifices, he gave Hannah a double portion. And one day, Hannah, in the
Temple, is just overcome by the misery of it all, and pours out her
heart to God – I’m sure you’ve been there and done that; I know I have.
And Eli, the priest, thought she was drunk, seeing her mumbling away
like that.

It was rather a bad time in Israel’s history. I don’t know if it ever
occurred to you – it hadn’t to me until this week – but this is not the
Temple in Jerusalem that Jesus would have known; the first Temple in
Jerusalem wouldn’t be built until the reign of King Solomon, about
seventy or eighty years in the future. This Temple was in Shiloh, and
really, it was the place where the Ark of the Covenant resided. And Eli
is the priest in the Temple. Now, back then, being a priest was
something that only certain families could do; and if your father was a
priest, you usually were, too. It’s actually only within quite recent
history that what you do with your life isn’t determined by what your
father did – and didn’t we just hear this week that people are finding
it increasingly hard to get a better education than their parents, and
perhaps do different things? Anyway, back then, you followed in your
father’s profession, and if your father was a priest, as Eli was, then
you would expect to be one, too.

Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were not really priestly material. They abused
the office dreadfully – taking parts of the sacrifices that were meant
to be burnt for God alone, sleeping with the women who served at the
entrance to the temple. I don’t think these women were prostitutes –
temple prostitution was definitely a part of some religions in the area,
but I don’t think it ever was part of Judaism. These women would have
been servants to Eli and his family, I expect, and considered that
service as part of their devotion to God. And perhaps, too, they helped
people who had come to make sacrifices and so on. Whatever, Hophni and
Phineas, Eli’s sons, shouldn’t have been sleeping with them, and they
shouldn’t have been disrespecting the sacrifices, either.

There had been a prophecy that the Lord would not honour Eli’s family
any more, and that Hophni and Phineas would both die on the same day,
and a different family would take over the priesthood. Eli had tried to
tell his sons that their behaviour was unacceptable, but they hadn’t
listened, and one rather gets the impression that he had given up on
them. He was not a young man, by any manner of means.

And now he had this child to bring up, Samuel, first-born of the Hannah
whom he had accused of being drunk. Hannah had lent her first-born child
to the Lord “as long as he lives”, since God had finally granted her
request and sent her children – unlike some of the other childless women
in the Bible, people like Sarah or Elisabeth, God gave her more than one
child in the end. So Samuel, her first-born, was lent to God, and grew
up in the Temple.

I had always somehow imagined the Temple as being the Temple in
Jerusalem, but, of course, it can’t have been. It was probably just an
ordinary house, but with the main room reserved for the altar of the
Lord and the Ark of the Covenant. Samuel sleeps in there, you notice,
and Eli has his own room at the back somewhere. And I imagine Hophni and
Phineas have rooms of their own, too.

I do think that the first verse of our reading is one of the saddest
there is: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not
widespread.” “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were
not widespread.” It sounds like a very bleak time, doesn’t it?

Samuel, we are told, did not know the Lord. He didn’t know the Lord.
This in spite of ministering in the Temple daily. He wasn’t able to
offer sacrifices, of course – he was not, and couldn’t ever be, a
priest, as he came from the wrong tribe. But he would have helped Eli
get things ready, he would perhaps have made the responses. He would
certainly have known what it was all about. But he did not know the
Lord, in those days. The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

So when God calls him in the night, he has no idea what is happening,
and thinks that Eli is in need of help. And it isn’t until the second or
third time that Eli realises what is happening, either. But once he
does, Eli explains that it might be that God is wanting to speak to
Samuel, and he should say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening!”

And then what? No message of hope or encouragement such as anybody would
want to hear. In fact, quite the reverse:

“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of
anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all
that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I
have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the
iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did
not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the
iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering
forever.”

There will be no escape for Eli; he could, and should, have stopped his
sons from being blasphemous, from disrespecting the offerings of God’s
people, from sleeping with the temple servants. I get the feeling Eli
has rather given up, don’t you? When Samuel tells him what the Lord has
said, his reaction is simply, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems
good to him.” And in the end, just to round off the story, both sons
were killed in a battle against the Philistine, and Eli died of a heart
attack or something very similar that same day. And the Philistines
captured the Ark of the Covenant.

All very nasty – not one of the nicer stories in the Bible, I don’t
think. But what does it say to us? What do we have in common with these
people at the end of the Bronze Age, or early Iron Age, I’m not quite
sure which they are?

The thing is, of course, we do have rather too much in common with them.
This is a time when the Word of God is not heard too much in our land.
It is a time when churches are disrespected, and even ministers and
priests have been known to abuse their position.

I suppose that there is nothing new; every age has probably said the
same of itself. We know that we are, naturally, sinners, and unless God
help us we shall continue to sin.

Samuel served in the Temple but he didn’t, then, know God. Eli had given
up; Hophni and Phineas set him a poor example. It must have been
confusing for Samuel – what was it all about? And then when God did
finally speak to him, it wasn’t a comforting message of cheer and
strength, but a reminder that God’s judgement on the whole shrine and
the priestly family who ran it was going to happen.

But good things came from it, too. Samuel became known and respected as
a prophet and as a judge in Israel. He couldn’t be a priest, as he was
from the wrong tribe, but he could be, and was, a prophet who was widely
respected and loved. It was he who anointed Saul as king, and then David.

So there is hope, even in the cloudiest, stormiest days. The temple of
Shiloh was abandoned, and the Ark never returned there. But the Ark did
return, and eventually the Temple was built in Jerusalem. Samuel became
one of the most famous prophets of them all.

Samuel said “Yes” to God. He was willing to hear God’s message, no
matter how unpleasant it had to be, no matter how traumatic. He was
willing to hear, and he was willing to speak it out. And so God used him
to establish the Kings of Israel and then of Judah – perhaps not the
most successful monarchy ever, but from King David’s line came, of
course, Jesus.

It is never totally night. God ended Eli’s family’s service to him, yes;
but the Temple endured, and was eventually rebuilt in Jerusalem, bigger
and better than before. The Ark of the Covenant was taken into captivity
– but it came back, and remained in the Temple until it was no longer
needed, as God made a new covenant with us.

When we go through difficult times, and I think we all do, whether as
individuals, as churches, or as a society, it’s good to think back on
this story. God may be bringing one thing to an end; but a new thing
will, invariably, follow, just as spring follows winter.

The difficult thing, of course, is going on trusting Him when all does
seem dark, when we can’t see how things are going to work out. But
remember Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8: “And we know that in
all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been
called according to his purpose.” I do think that we can ask to see how
God is going to work a bad situation for good: it’s amazing how that can
and does happen.

And we need, like Samuel, to listen to God, and to do what He asks of
you, no matter how difficult? Are you willing to do this for God? Am I
willing? It isn’t easy, is it?

Thanks be to God that we need do none of this in our own strength, but
in the power of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us. Amen!

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