This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The child in this week’s Old Testament lection is not a prop, however; nor is he the symbol of any vested interest’s political or economic agenda. His presence in the narrative, as the yearned-for offspring of the previously barren Mother Hannah, is the foil to Eli, the priest at Shiloh and his children, to whom the Word of the Lord, by the time of the story, hardly ever comes any more. Samuel has no pedigree that would give him clout or make him worthy of any special notice by those in authority, not even being from the right tribe for priestly activity (1:1–Ephraim, rather than Levi). The text does not say, but his father, Elkanah, may have had so many children by his other more fecund wife, the haughty Peninah, that Samuel’s absence may not have been something which overly concerned him, as it did Mother Hannah (cf. 1:23-24). But the lack of fatherly attention paid to the boy in the story will be in inverse proportion to that which Yahweh bestows on him as the narrative unfolds. For as with the figures of Joseph and Moses, the miraculous birth scene of Samuel in chapters 1-2 foreshadows the coming of a liminal figure whose leadership facilitates the crossing of a threshold, in this case, not a geographical one, but a political one, in the form of a transition from theocracy to monarchy.
But all that lies in the future, when the child has become a man. Here we find him still the child, under the tutelage of the hoary old priest, Eli, whose senses are as sclerotic and ineffectual as his spirituality. Yet even here his character’s liminality surfaces in relation to the two primary figures in his life thus far. For Mother Hannah, the appearance of Samuel marks the end of her suffering, her torment at the hands of those, like Peninah, who had mocked her barrenness. For Eli, however, the coming of Samuel is experienced quite differently. The coming of the child marks the beginning of his suffering, even as Yahweh uses the child as the channel through whom to deliver Eli & Sons their pink slip. Eli, to his credit, finally “gets it” managing, like Samson, to summon up a last bit of his mojo near the end to do what he was supposed to have been doing all along.
In theological terms, Eli represents the vested interests who are used to having their way, and who expect that the place that they have occupied in this present generation will continue indefinitely, even into the lives of their children, world without end. Such are typically depicted in scripture as being far from the heart of Yahweh, of seeking their own ends, rather than seeking the interests of God or the people whom they serve. By contrast, Samuel represents those to whom no one ever listens, the people who are regularly dismissed as unimportant, peripheral, or out of touch with “the real world.” It is such people, the text shouts in whom the Lord delights in using as conduits for bring the Word to the people.
Like so many other biblical narratives, we identify with the underdog, Samuel, yet the sad truth is that, for most of us, in our lives, we’re much more like the doddering Eli, having lost sight of what our mission is, and unable to hear to anything that might correct us. In many ways, the text represents what is happening in global Christianity, which Westerners still believe is centered in Europe and North America, but which is actually diminishing there by the day even as the faith explodes in the Two-Thirds World. Sadly, like Eli, this message may not get through to us until it is too late. Yet even as one channel becomes less and less useful, the text also suggests that the capacity for maintenance of God’s covenant with the people in the form of the Present Word remains ever possible, as God continually raises up unlikely vessels to be its bearer.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is parish associate at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.