I promise to write more posts on Galatians in a little while, but I’d like to take a bit of a detour to 1 Samuel, which I recently finished reading. In a few posts, I will deal with the first seven chapters of the book.
These first seven chapters set up the situation in Israel just prior to the beginning of the monarchy (ch. 8 contains Israel’s request for a king so that they may “be like all the nations” and have a king to judge them and fight their battles). Prior to that time, Israel was led by prophets, priests or judges (people who stood as a go-between for the LORD God and the people of Israel). To better understand this story, it might be helpful to know that that religion, both in Israel and in the lands surrounding them, was not viewed as something separate from the national life and identity of each people. If your nation prospered and/or won battles against its enemies, it meant that your god(s) were with you. If you were conquered by your enemies, it meant either that the gods were against you or not powerful enough to defeat the god(s) of your enemies. This fact is highlighted chs. 1-7 in the way the Israelites attribute the Philistine’s victory over them to that fact that God’s hand is against Israel (and also how the Philistines react when the Israelites begin to rise up again). But let us start at the beginning.
1 Samuel 1:1-2:11
Hannah, one of the two wives of Elkanah (a man who lives in the hill country of Ephraim), is barren (v. 6 notes that it is the LORD who closed her womb). She is mocked by the other wife, Penninah, because she has no children and Penninah has plenty. Despite this, Elkanah loves Hannah and gives her a double portion when he goes to sacrifice the LORD at Shiloh. Because of Peninnah’s provocation, Hannah weeps and does not eat. Her husband tries to comfort her by saying, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
At Shiloh, Hannah prays fervently to the LORD and vows that if he will give her a son, she will give him the the LORD. The priest, Eli, sees her and thinks she drunk (because her lips are moving as she prays in her heart) and he rebukes her (I wonder if that’s one indication of how bad the situation has become in Israel – Eli doesn’t seem particularly suprised to meet a drunken woman at the temple). Hannah explains herself and Eli says, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him. And, lo, Elkanah sleeps with Hannah and the LORD causes her to become pregnant with a son. When the child (Samuel) is weaned, she takes him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh so that he may, “appear in the presence of the LORD and dwell there forever.”
So Samuel is set up in the narrative as a priestly figure, one who is going to serve as a meditor between the LORD and Israel. This idea is reinforced in the first third of chapter two in Hannah’s prayer/song, a poetic piece which is reminiscent of the Song of Moses in Exodus 15. It is in many ways a victory song, rejoicing in the LORD God who triumphs over the enemies and saves his people. It extols the LORD as the one who gives strength to the feeble, feeds the poor and gives children to the barren woman. Conversely, it shows that God defeats the mighty, he “brings low and he exalts” (v. 7). He preserves those who are faithful, but cuts off the wicked (v. 9); the LORD will break his adversaries into pieces (v. 10).
It is interesting that the very last verse (v. 10) mentions the “king” or “anointed” (a term used both to denote kingship – being anointed as king – or to denote someone being anointed as a priest). “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed.” At this point in the story, the monarchy in Israel doesn’t exist (and when it does come into the story, it’s clear that Israel’s desire for a king other than the LORD is a rejection of God as their king), so its appearance in chapter two may indicate that the poem (or at least that last bit) was placed there as a literary device to foreshadow the stories about the monarchy which come later.
1 Samuel 2:12-36
The rest of chapter two paints a picture of the corruption in Israel at the time of Samuel’s birth and the start of his time in serving the LORD in the temple. Again, we meet Eli the priest and get a close look at his wicked sons, Hophni and Phineas, who treat the offerings of the LORD with contempt and have sex with the women who serve at the entrance of the tent of meeting (the tabernacle, God’s house). Eli confronts his sons, saying, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” Yet his sons do not listen.
Meanwhile, intertwined into the chapter are verses about Samuel’s growth in the LORD (which contrasts the evil of Eli’s sons). Samuel ministers before the LORD (v. 18), Elkanah and Hannah are blessed by Eli and the LORD gives Hannah more children (v. 20), and Samuel grows in the presence of the LORD (v. 21).
In the second half of chapter two, an unnamed man of God comes to Eli and gives him a word from God telling him that he has been rejected by God because of the wickedness of his sons. What is interesting here (and important to note because it’s a huge theme in the Old Testament) is that God does not begin by reproaching Eli for his personal sins, but reminds him that his “house” (or family) was chosen as far back as Israel’s enslavement in Egypt to be priests before the LORD. God promised Eli’s ancestors that their family would be priests before the LORD forever, yet because Eli honored his sons above the LORD and would not stay their wickedness, his house has been rejected by God. Eli’s not just responsible for himself, but for his sons and their sin. The man of God predicts the death of Hophni and Phineas and the destruction of Eli’s entire household. In place of Eli’s house, the LORD says that he will raise up for himself a faithful priest who will act according to what is on the LORD’s heart and mind, and God will build him a secure house (descendants) who will serve as priest before the LORD’s anointed (the king, I would assume?).
In this way, the book sets the stage for Samuel to be the priest who will come in and save the day and bring Israel back to God. At least, that’s what the reader is led to think. But is Samuel really the one who will restore Israel to right worship of the LORD? And what actually happens to Hophni and Phineas? You’ll have to either read 1 Samuel or wait until the next blog post to find out.