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1 Samuel 3:1-20

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Background to the Book of 1 Samuel (Historical Setting the Book of 1 Samuel)

The story contained in the books of Samuel tells of the extraordinary change in the way Israel is governed. Up to this time, there had been various tribes who on occasions had come together to combat a threat from other nations. In each instance in the book of Judges, we are told how a person was raised by God to lead the tribes on this particular occasion. The Spirit of God settles on the person and even when this is not overtly mentioned in the story it is clear from the way the story progresses that we know God's hand is directly involved in the successful consequences.

1 and 11 Samuel tell us about the immense political and new government structures, which take place around the end of the 10th century BCE. The centre of government during the time of the judges was at Shiloh and by the time we get to the end of 11 Samuel, the centre of what is now an empire, has moved to Jerusalem.

The voices for setting up a monarchy became stronger and it fell to Samuel, the last of the judges, to be instrumental in the forthcoming tussle between those who wanted a monarch and those who believed that God would continue to raise up leaders as required.

The amount of material, which focuses on Samuel, Saul and David compared with the space given to the remainder of the Kings of Israel, is quite disproportionate. A total of fifty five chapters is given to these three people and forty seven chapters to all the remaining kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms.

We read in the books of Joshua and Judges about the gradual settlement of the Israelite tribes into Palestine, some encroaching from the south, others from the east and the north. It was clear there was fighting with other tribes and we become familiar with the names of the Edomites and the Moabites. However, the greatest threat became the Philistines who had settled in the west of Palestine along part of the coast. Because they had perfected the art of iron casting, they were able to make wheels and other tools which gave them a superiority in war. The settlement process took at least two hundred years from the time the tribes started to enter into Palestine.

One of the ancient traditions tells of the conquest of Canaan by slow stages, with each tribe fighting alone or, at best, in coalition with other tribes. Another tradition tells about the invasion, which attacked first the southern hill country, where Judah and Simeon defeated Adonibezek, took Hebron, Debir, and Hormah, but could not gain control of the coastal plain. The house of Joseph invaded the central highlands and captured Bethel. To the north, the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali settled among the Canaanites, and, as they grew stronger, gradually forced them into slave labour. To the west, the tribe of Dan was hemmed in against the highlands and could not conquer the plains.

The books of Samuel tell us how first Saul became king and was commissioned to defeat the Philistines who were a very real threat to the survival of Israel. Next, we see the gradual disintegration of Saul's mental and physical health and the rise of David after his defeat of Goliath. David is portrayed positively as he saves Saul's life and negatively as he betrays his own people and fights for the enemy, although never against Israel itself. The Philistines thought he was doing this but David was fighting other tribes and killing everyone so there was no one alive to tell the Philistine commander what David was doing. Some of the negative qualities of David's actions and character are omitted in a later telling of his story (Books of Chronicles). It is well that we remember he was a person of mixed motives, great faith, courage, love, greed, need for power, who killed those in opposition to his desires, he was cruel and had fits of anger. His grief at the death of Saul and Jonathon is beautifully portrayed in the lament of 2 Sam 1:19ff.
In the second book of Samuel, we read of the rise and fall of David's reign.

Dates of the first 3 Kings of the United Kingdom


c.1020-1004 BC


1004 - 965



Literary Background to the Book:

In the English translations 1 Samuel comes after the book of Ruth which has finished with the genealogy of David and we move now into the story of how Israel got its first king and then David.

Martin Noth's publication of his book (1943) in which he proposed that the body of material from Deuteronomy to the end of Second Kings was called the Deuteronomic History has been accepted, in some form, by most people. He suggested that early in exile an author/group created this history using many different sources and traditions to compose this body of work in order to explain to the people in exile why that were there. It begins with the laws given to Moses (Deuteronomy) and demonstrates in the stories following the Book of Deuteronomy how the people, priests and especially kings disobeyed the law with the consequence that they lost the land and ended up in Babylon. They gained the land (Joshua & Judges) because it was given by Yahweh and lost it because they went after other gods and were generally disobedient in their religious and ethical practices.

There is one voice in the Deuteronomic History which believes the people tried to displace Yahweh as King when they called on Samuel to give them a king like the surrounding countries. This belief becomes a major factor in their punishment and exile because they failed to trust in Yahweh and their Kings were disobedient also.

There are many books which give introductions to the Deuteronomic History and the Old Testament Guides list some idea.

Context of 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (What's Happening in the Literature around 1 Sam 1:4-20)

The Book of Samuel begins the narrative which demonstrates God's involvement with the affairs of Israel as she moves from the chaos at the end of the judges period to the call for and establishment of the throne of David. Samuel's conception is by the grace of God (and the Lord remembered her, 1:19) and God continues to be in his life as Samuel plays an important role in the reshaping of Israel's history. The story eventually ends with the reign of King David, but it takes a long while to get there - 35 chapters before we get to the point that David is crowned king over Israel and Judah.

The story of the corrupt sons of Eli surrounds the continuing story of Samuel which begins in 1 Samuel 1 ( we dealt with 1 Samuel 1:4-20 on Pentecost 23, 2004). Chapter 1 finishes with Hannah keeping her promise to God and taking the young child into Eli's care at Shiloh where she lends him to the Lord (v.28). 1 Samuel 2 begins with the lovely Song of Praise to God by Hannah (vv1-10) before it goes into detail about the sins of Eli's two sons.

After some brief news about Samuel, Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam 2:18-26) we read of a man of god visiting Eli. A 'Man of God' is a title in this early literature for a prophet and it used extensively in the Deuteronomic History books (Deuteronomy - 2 Kings). He uses the words which typify a prophetic oracle - Thus says the Lord. He prophecies the end of the house of Eli because they have abused their position and taken portions of the sacrifice which they had no right to take. Instead, of the corrupt sons of Eli, God will raise up a priest who will be faithful. We know from the story that this person will be Samuel. Our lectionary reading tells of the call of Samuel which ends with Samuel a grown man receiving further communications from God at Shiloh. The story continues with the description of the battles with the Philistines and the role of the ark.

Insights/Message of 1 Samuel 3:1-20

Literary: We know how Samuel came to be part of the household of Eli as told in 1 Samuel 1. The sons of Eli are corrupt (1 Sam 2:12-17) and have abused their positions as priests, therefore God will raise up another instead. 1 Sam 2:18-21 has already pointed us forward to 1 Sam 3 in which a similar phrase is used in both texts, "Samuel was ministering to the Lord",. 1 Sam 3:1 is the introduction to the story in vv.2-18 in which both the characters are introduced and it is made plain to the audience that what we are about to hear/read is very unusual. God has not been revealing self in those times and as Birch says, " It authorizes and legitimizes Samuel as the only source of God's Word during the oncoming period of radical dislocation and transformation in Israel (Birch: 991). The story builds suspense by the repeated ignorance of Samuel to realise that it was the Lord calling and not Eli. His eagerness to respond is noted with the phrase, "Here I am", and his willingness to be obedient to Eli is a major theological theme within the books of Judges to the end of 2 Kings. Samuel is sleeping in the place which houses the Ark - the symbol of God's presence with the people. Although many of the translations talk about the place as the temple it is probably a quite simple structure unlike the temple built by Solomon. The story plays itself out in three parts: xxvv.2-9 = Samuel's inability to recognize the Lord: vv.10-14 = dialogue and message from the Lord: vv.15-18 = Samuel reports to Eli. The unusual expression in v.11, "at which the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle" is a Hebrew term that announces the divine word will be heard and understood.

Message / Theology: God's word will come true and Samuel's destiny was decided before he was born when Hannah first made her promise to give him to the Lord. However, Samuel had never had an experience of God's presence and this made it difficult for him to discern what was happening, indeed it took a while for Eli to realise. God speaks into a time when the Israelites were threatened by the superior power of the Philistines and although Eli is innocent, his sons are corrupt. This call of Samuel is often romanticized, but we know from later in the story that Samuel was the spokesperson for God. This obligation to speak God's word caused him great anguish. A call by God is not a pietistic experience to relive, but contains a commission by God to serve in some way. 1 Sam 3:19-4:1a demonstrates that Samuel was accepted by the people as a prophet that was speaking on behalf of God. All Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet. There are very few communities who acknowledge a prophet such as those in the Old Testament. Prophecy is a feature within New Testament communities, but there are very few people named as prophets - Jesus and John the Baptist are the major exceptions. The Old Testament prophets were people called by God to declare a message for the present and seeking a response in the immediate. The were forth tellers and not foretellers for the distant future, that is the role of "apocalyptic literature'. Jesus and John the baptist were in this prophetic model. We have people in the church who are prophets and speak God's word into situations and indeed suffer for their proclamations.

There is an interesting reversal of power here. In the initial section Samuel is dependent on Eli telling him what to say and do. As noted before Samuel is an excellent model of obedience even when commanded by Eli to tell him the difficult message relating to the demise of the house of Eli. However, from then on Samuel is obedient to God and he becomes the focus of the narrative. As Brueggemann notes the roles are reversed in this chapter (Brueggemann: 25). This story is part of the much larger narrative in which Samuel will play a major role in the advent of kingship and ultimately the fall of Israel and Judah. It is interesting to reflect on this story in light of the power struggles that often plague our church and the way they curtail energy for the task of mission/evangelism. How often does the "old guard" concede power gracefully and allow those called by God to give leadership with new hope and possibilities. That is what clearly happened for the Israelites when he grew in relationship with God. The people recognised this aspect of Samuel and "knew that Samuel was established of the Lord".

Resources/Worship for 1 Samuel 3:1-20 Worship and Ways to present 1 Sam 1:4 - 10

This narrative works really well with 3 voices and a narrator.

Resources: Commentaries:

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the books of Samuel, eg. If you want to know more about the Philistines there are details given of several articles/chapters in books that can help with this topic.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the 1990's is more up to date than some earlier works.

Anderson, A.A. 2 Samuel. WBC. Dallas: Word Books, 1989
Birch, B. The First and second Samuel. NIB. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Brueggemann,W. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990
Gordon, R.P. 1 & 2 Samuel. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984
Gunn, D.M. The Story of King David. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1978
Hertzberg, H.W. 1 & 11 Samuel. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1964.
Klein, R. 1 Samuel. WBC. Waco., Texas: Word Books, 1983.
Mauchline, J. 1 and 2 Samuel. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971.
Schniedewind,W.M. Society and the Promise to David: The Reception History of 2 Samuel 7:1-17. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: