In those days, we are told, God was giving the Israelites the silent treatment. I mean, except for Hannah’s clearly prophetic song and the unnamed man of God’s curse – both just in the last chapter. But other than that, God wasn’t chatting to his people. Since the story that follows involves God trying to talk to someone who, humorously, has no idea what’s going on, this could just be an editorial note to explain why. Or it could be way of indicating just how bad things have been getting pre-monarchy. Or perhaps it’s a further indictment of Eli’s priestly managerial style.

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Before getting into the story proper, we’re given a final bit of detail – Eli’s vision is very poor. I thought this was going to turn into a Jacob/Esau situation, but it seems to have just been a red herring (or perhaps intended to explain why God came to Samuel rather than directly to Eli? Or perhaps simply a shorthand way of saying that Eli’s age was getting to him?).

So Eli is lying in his bed, Samuel is spending the night next to the ark, and with that the scene is set.

At some point during the night, Samuel wakes to hear a voice calling his name. Thinking that it’s Eli, he rushes over saying “Hear I am!” (1 Sam. 3:4). Eli denies having called him and sends him back to the ark room to sleep. Again, Samuel hears a voice calling him and, again, he rushes to Eli who, again, sends him back to bed. We are told that he didn’t understand what was happening because he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7). In other words, this prophecy business takes practice.

The third time this happens, Eli figures out what’s going on and tells Samuel that God is trying to talk to him, and would he please just stay in the ark room and listen for a change?

It’s worth asking why Samuel was sleeping by the ark in the first place. My New Bible Commentary very clearly assumes that it was “for the purpose of receiving any word from God” (p.288). This was, in other words, a sort of vision quest. Perhaps one that Samuel had no expectations from, explaining his surprise when it actually works.

The Prophecy

God has called to Samuel three times and is now attempting a fourth. He is so persistent because he has a message of the utmost importance to convey. You see, he really really needs to tell Samuel that: “I am about to do a thing in Israel” (1 Sam. 3:11).

No, wait, stop walking away! It’s a big thing! An important thing! A thingy thing! In fact, this is such a big thingy thing that it will make both of your ears tingle just to hear about it!

The thing, by the way, the same thing that he told the unnamed “man of God” in the last chapter – that Eli is going to be punished at some future date because his sons are meanies. I think it’s rather clear that we have two separate stories of the same prophecy, in both explaining why Eli was a high priest in Shiloh but his descendants aren’t. In the latter story, the prophecy is tangled into Samuel’s origin story.

When morning comes, Samuel is afraid to pass on God’s message to Eli. But Eli, who seems to be dealt with quite favourably, threatens Samuel if he doesn’t tell – “May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you” (1 Sam. 3:17) – but is accepting of his fate when Samuel gives him the memo.

After this incident, Samuel growing up continually in the presence of God, and God letting “none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). I took this to mean either that God is steering him right generally, or that God acts out his plan on Eli so that Samuel’s words come true.

When Samuel is grown, he takes on the mantle of a prophet and is known throughout Israel. My New Bible Commentary explains that this passage transforms a regional (Shiloh) priest into a prophet with a national scope – both in the story and, presumably, to future readers. The story closes with a reminder that this all happened at Shiloh, remember how God chose Shiloh to visit? I sensed a little patriotism sneaking in here, like the people of Shiloh really wanted everyone to remember that it was their homeboy who made it big.

Document Hypothesis

Abbie at Better Than Esdras has a discussion of source documents, and of where this story might have originated. You can read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

It turns out that the exclamation הִנֵּנִי is exclusive to JE texts. Someone calls out a name, and that person replies “הִנֵּנִי”. Check it: God to Abraham (Gen 22:1, E); Isaac to Esau (27:1, J), an angel of God to Jacob (31:11, E), Israel to Joseph (37:13, E), God to Jacob (46:2, E), God to Moses (Ex. 3:4, E). And finally here in Samuel.