Preaching with The Storytellers Bible: June 3, 2018

May 30th, 2018

The following is a free excerpt from The CEB Storytellers Bible, a resource which helps readers see the big themes and important truths of the Bible while also guiding them in how to tell these stories in contemporary language. For the next four weeks, Ministry Matters will feature excerpts from the Storytellers Bible to match the Sunday lectionary.

Second Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 3:1-20

The boy Samuel is awakened by a voice that neither he nor Eli recognizes at first. Then when they do understand that it is YHWH speaking, the words that God speaks through Samuel about Eli’s sons are hard to take.  

Some theologians disagree about which is more important, the fact that God has spoken to someone or the content of what was said. For instance, many will argue that God’s revelation to Job at the end of the book that bears his name is more important than what God tells Job. Some will even go so far as to argue that God’s speech to Job is utter nonsense, and thus the content is not important. In this passage many interpreters have so marveled at the fact that God communicated with the boy Samuel that they lose sight of the content, which in this case makes for a far more interesting story.

Samuel, perhaps seven or eight years old, slept in the sacred tent, which served as the Israelite temple. It must have scared Samuel to sleep there, when Eli the high priest, and his family, slept in another tent nearby. How many times had he awakened in the night, terrified, with no mother to comfort him? Such details are left to the modern storyteller’s imagination.

One night, Samuel heard a voice calling his name. He naturally assumed that Eli needed him for something. Samuel went to Eli and woke him, but the old man denied any knowledge of the voice.

"The CEB Storytellers Bible" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here:

As with many folktales, the action repeats three times. Eli, oblivious to so many things, takes three times to figure out what is going on. Although comic, the high priest’s failure to discern the hand of YHWH is symptomatic of his fundamental spiritual blindness, which the narrator underscores when it becomes physical blindness later in life. The third time, Eli realizes that something is going on, and so he instructs Samuel the next time he hears the voice to respond with a formulaic expression of obedience: “Speak. Your servant is listening” (3:10).

Samuel does so, and he receives the first word from YHWH that anyone has heard for a long time. And most interpreters usually stop there—the boy who listened to the Lord. The story is so seductive, why go on?

But what YHWH says has far-reaching significance for Samuel’s life as well as for the history of Israel. YHWH tells the young boy that his adopted father, the high priest, and his family are utterly corrupt and will be killed. For obvious reasons, Samuel fears sharing this news with Eli, but when pressed, he speaks bluntly. The old man meekly accepts the rebuke and spends the remainder of his life awaiting his fate. His sons die in battle a short time later, and Eli dies suddenly when he hears the news of their deaths.

But consider Samuel, whose first message from YHWH is that God has rejected his adopted family. A vacuum remained that only Samuel could fill. The young boy could not have received it as good news. It was a burden and caused the breaking of hearts. Samuel, young and unformed, had lost two families before he reached his majority. This made him strong, but perhaps hard, too hard to understand and sympathize with the weakness of others.

And so that first communication set the tone for Samuel, and for most of prophecy in ancient Israel. It was a crushing burden, a burden that isolated Samuel and put him in opposition to most of society. And Samuel became king maker and king breaker, a fierce and giant figure in Israel.

This is an ambivalent episode in its tone. The form of the story is comic—the boy hearing voices, rushing to the old parent, only to be sent back to bed and to hear the voice again. The repetition of this activity gives almost a Keystone Cops structure to the narrative.

When Samuel finally responds to the voice and listens, the story takes a sudden turn toward the serious, even tragic. The boy must go to the priest, his surrogate father, and tell him the awful truth about his biological sons and their fate. It must take the same kind of courage for a member of an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family to finally tell the truth about that family’s situation.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of Samuel’s life. He will have to face the people of Israel with the hazards of monarchy when they demand a king. And at YHWH’s behest, he will choose a new king while the king Samuel anointed with his own hands still occupies the throne.

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