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A Child Borrowed and Loaned
1 Samuel 1:27-2:8, 3:1-10

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

The Book of First Samuel begins with three narratives that give theological direction to the book: the providential birth and dedication of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1 1:28), the decline of the house of Eli (2:11-36), and Samuel's prophetic call (3:1-4:la). These introduce the prophet Samuel as one who will play a crucial role in a new era of Israelite history. They also lay the groundwork for the transition from the period of the Judges to the era of the Israelite monarchy. The Song of Hannah (2:1-10) is a poetic thanksgiving hymn incorporated into these narratives. It serves to emphasize the continuing activity of God in the shifting arena of human history.

Together these narratives serve to focus attention on the figure of Samuel and his rise to a position of influence among the Israelite tribes. Yet in the background the narrative deftly weaves throughout the book a theological commentary on God's work among the people and their role as the people of God amid significant and permanent changes in their social and cultural structures.

This commentary will focus on only two of these narratives, Samuel's birth and prophetic call. But we should keep in mind that these first three chapters of 1 Samuel function together in context to establish the theological groundwork for how Israel responded to the changes that would forever transform her role in history.

The Text

I. The Gift of a Son (1 Samuel 1:27-28)

27. "I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. 28. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord." And he worshiped the Lord there.

As noted, these verses are actually the conclusion of the opening narrative of the book and must be seen in that context (1:1-28). Hannah, the childless wife of Elkanah, grieved because she had no children. Her rival wife, Peninnah, compounded her misery by taunting her because of her barrenness. Hannah, as she prayed in the sanctuary of God at Shiloh, vowed that if God would allow her to bear a son, she would dedicate him back to God. God heard and answered her prayer and she gave birth to Samuel. True to her vow, after she gave birth to the child and weaned him, she brought him to the sanctuary and placed him in the service of God at Shiloh under the priest Eli.

27. I prayed  Prayer, along with other acts of devotion to God (sacrifice, worship, vows), plays an important role in this story. The narrative strongly emphasizes the godly character of both Hannah and her husband Elkanah.

The lack of children, especially sons to continue the family, was the bitterest disappointment for a woman in the ancient Near East. Barrenness was often seen as a curse from God (note v. 5). However, the barren woman to whom God gives a child is an important theme in several biblical stories (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachael, Manoah's wife , Elizabeth). These accounts affirm that God can work in apparently impossible situations to fulfill His purposes for His people. The emphasis in such stories is always God's ability to work in the world in spite of and beyond human endings.

Faithful prayer and devotion to God were always important elements in the birth of a son to one who had been barren (Gen 15:1-6; 25:21; 30:22; Luke 1:6-7-7; the birth of Samson serves a different purpose in the context of Jud. 13). In each case, the child born to the barren woman played a significant role in biblical history (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, John the Baptist).

27-28. I asked . . . I give him   There is a word play here that is impossible to translate into English, but is crucial for the story. The Hebrew word translated "ask" (sha'al) can also mean "ask for" in the sense of "to borrow." From this it can also mean "to loan." The two English words "ask and "give" in these verses are the same word in Hebrew used with different meanings: "I asked/borrowed him from God, so now I will loan him back to God.

Many versions (for example, RSV, NEB) translate "I lend him" rather than "I give him." "Dedicate" would be a good translation. The same word is also used to explain Samuel's name (v. 20), so he can be described as both "asked for/borrowed" and "dedicated/loaned."

This play on different shades of meaning of the same Hebrew word serves to make an important theological point in the narrative. Samuel was given to Hannah as if on loan for a time. Her act of devotion in fulfilling her vow to God is simply returning to God what she had "borrowed" for a while. We should take care here not to romanticize this too much. But we should take seriously the implications of the narrative that this child was a gift of God and therefore in a position to carry out his purposes for his people.  It is likely this theological dimension that allows the Song of Hannah at the birth of Samuel to become the framework for the Gospels writer to tell of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Mary (the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55; see commentary on Luke 1:39-55).

28. For his whole life   Hannah's vow of lifelong dedication of her son to God had included a vow never to cut his hair (1:11). Because this is one of the vows taken by Nazarites (which also included abstinence from wine and avoidance of contact with a dead body; Num 6:1 21), some scholars have suggested that Samuel was a Nazarite like Samson (Judg 13:4-7). Nazarites (Heb: "dedicated" or "consecrated") were men or women who took these vows as a sign of special dedication to God. In a sense, they were like some of the monastic orders throughout the history of Christianity who took special vows of silence or chastity as a sign of devotion to God. However, while Hannah's vow for Samuel sounds like that of a Nazarite, the term Nazarite is never applied to Samuel in the biblical traditions.

And he worshiped   Various manuscripts have different readings for this part of verse 28. The Greek translation (Septuagint) omits it altogether. The Hebrew has a singular but given the context it probably should be understood as a plural ("they," RSV; cf. v. 25).

II. The Boy Who Could See (3:1-3)

1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. 2. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

1. The boy   The Hebrew word (na'ar) refers to a young male child. While it can refer to boys of various ages (infants, Ex 2:6; older boys, Gen 37:2) the emphasis is on Samuel's youth.

Ministered   The Hebrew word (sharat) indicates a higher level of service than that of a slave and is used of those in trusted positions (Gen 39:4). The word often refers to those who served in the temple or in sanctuaries of worship.

Those days refers to the period of the Judges. The last verse of the Book of Judges (24:25) summarizes that era of Israel's history: "everyone did as they saw fit."

The word of the Lord   The Hebrew term translated "word" (dabar) has a wider range of meaning than in English. It can refer simply to a spoken word. However, it can also refer to an action associated with what is spoken, or to an activity or event. The word of the Lord encompasses not only God's communication of His purpose and will for the world but also His activity and actions in the world.

However, the phrase came to have a technical meaning in much of the Old Testament to refer to a message from God mediated through a prophet. Even though the term frequently refers to oral speech, the significance does not lie in the actual act of speaking. Rather, the content of the message and the authority by which it is given is emphasized. A prophet who receives and gives the word of the Lord is one who accurately interprets and communicates God's will (note Amos 1:1; Jer 1:2, etc.). The "word" in this context referred to a revelation from God of who He was and what He expected of humanity (cf. John 1:1 18).

Visions   While the verbal form of this word can refer to seeing physically with the eye (Isa 33:20), "vision" most often refers to communication from God without reference to the means of that communication. The word vision is a synonym here for "word of the Lord" and should be understood in the sense of revelation. As the narrative unfolds with the following comments about Eli's poor eyesight, we should keep in mind that the narrator is telling this story very subtly here. The interwoven references to visions, eyesight, and light become metaphorical vehicles for theological commentary about what is going on spiritually in Israel as God calls this young man Samuel.

2. One night   We can take the reference to night as simply a historical comment about the time of day in which this incident took place. But in the cluster of images here referring to sight, the fact that it is night becomes a significant element in the narrative. Frequently in biblical traditions, darkness is used as a symbol for lack of understanding or of spiritual need.

He could barely see Twice in these early narratives, Eli's poor eyesight is noted (3:2; 4:15). In his earlier encounter with Hannah in the temple, he misunderstood what he could see (1:12-13). Seeing is often a symbol for "understanding" or spiritual insight in Scripture. The implication throughout the story is that Eli's spiritual eyesight is also poor!

Eli's failure to train his two sons in the proper respect of God eventually resulted in him "seeing distress" (2:32). Both sons died and the priesthood passed to another family (2:32-35). The narrator makes his point with a touch of irony, playing on the imagery of sight: God does not appear to the priest Eli because he cannot see! Instead, he appears to the borrowed/lent Samuel because he is willing to see as well as to listen/obey.

These narratives present a clear contrast throughout. On the one hand, Samuel's devout parents are blessed (2:21) and their son continues to mature spiritually (2:26; 3:19). On the other hand, Eli's family gradually disintegrates because of failure to honor God. Eli tries to convince his sons of their responsibilities to God and their opportunity to minister to people, but they refuse to listen. The contrast of the selfish sons of Eli who refuse to listen, and the very young Samuel who sees and hears what no one else can see and hear becomes the focal point of the story. It even hints at Samuel's later ministry where he becomes known as a Seer, one who sees in behalf of God (1 Sam 9:9).

3. Lamp of God   A light was to burn in the sanctuary of God from evening until morning (Lev 24:2-4). On one level, we might again take this as a simple comment about the time of day and the setting for the narrative. Yet, there is an obvious theological connection here between the comment that "there were not many visions" (v. 2) and the fact that the lamp of God was still burning in the darkness. The implication is that even though the spiritual level of the people of God has reached a low that could be described in terms of darkness and blindness, yet the presence of God still flickered among his people. The very fact of Samuel's birth, and certainly what is about to unfold in the following verses, bear witness to the fact that God had not abandoned his people to the darkness. In the very context of spiritual blindness, God's presence among his people is about to be fanned into new flame!

III. The Response of a Servant (3:4-10)

4. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, "Here I am." 5 And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down. 6. Again the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." "My son," Eli said "I did not call; go back and lie down." 7. Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8. The Lord called Samuel a third time and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." 9. Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9. So Eli told Samuel. "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak. Lord, for your servant is listening."' So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel" Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

4. The Lord called Samuel   The Hebrew has a preposition here ("to Samuel") so the NIV translates this as a simple object. However, the Greek translation (Septuagint) of this verse reads, "The Lord called, 'Samuel! Samuel!'" And he answered . . ." as in 3:10. Some translations (RSV) follow this reading.

Here I am   This is a single word in Hebrew (hinneni), a common Hebraic way of responding to a summons. It has the meaning: "I have heard and am listening for instruction."

The double use of a person's name, as in "Samuel! Samuel!" followed by a response of "Here am I," is a common biblical way of describing an encounter between God and someone willing to respond in obedience (Gen 22:11, 46:2. Exod 3:4). The implication of an improper response is that the person is not in right relationship with God (Acts 9:4).

7. Samuel did not yet know the Lord   The word know carries considerable meaning in Hebrew. It can refer simply to knowledge about something. However, it can also refer to deeper discernment, such as insight into the nature and character of God (Ex 14:4). It most often communicates intimate relationship, as in its common use for sexual intimacy between husband and wife (Gen 4:1; The RSV reads "Adam knew Eve his wife" while NIV reads the Hebrew word "know" as "lay," communicating more clearly sexual intimacy: "Adam lay with his wife Eve."). The term is also used for the covenant relationship between God and Israel (Amos 3:2).

The implication here is not that Samuel lacked any relationship with God, as with Eli's sons who "did not know the Lord" (2:12; the word "know" is used in the Hebrew although NIV translates "they had no regard for the Lord."). Rather, Samuel had not yet received the word of the Lord that would establish the special relationship between God and Samuel as his prophet (note 3:19-21).

Revealed   The Hebrew means "to uncover" or "to show," and in this context indicates that Samuel had not yet been commissioned as a prophet.

9. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening   As we have seen, the response "Here am I" with which Samuel had already answered three times means the same as this reply. However, earlier Samuel had thought he was responding to the priest. Eli instructed Samuel that his response should recognize that it was indeed God who was speaking. It should also make clear that he was submissive to God. The term servant is the normal designation of a slave and further shows complete willingness to respond obediently. Lord is probably omitted in Samuel's own answer (v. 10) because this time Samuel clearly recognized who was calling!

10. The Lord came and stood   This apparently describes a physical visual encounter with God. However, the narrative is very brief and unusually silent about the circumstances of this appearance of God. Such encounters with God, called a theophany or an epiphany, are usually described in much more elaborate terms (for example, Hab 3; Isa 6; Ex 34). The importance of this mention of God's coming is not that God physically appeared to Samuel (although that could easily have been the case!). The significance is rather in the context of the passage. The narrator draws a contrast between the lack of visions that marked the period of the judges, and the fresh activity (word) of God that would mark the prophetic era inaugurated by Samuel (contrast 3:1 with 3:21!).

The "word" of God that Samuel received following his call (vv. 11-14) is also a part of this narrative. The message concerned the downfall of the house of Eli and the inauguration of a new priestly line. That message with which Samuel was commissioned proves to be a crucial link in this transition period between the judges and the monarchy. It is also an important link later in the narrative that Samuel's own sons were as unworthy of continuing the leadership of Samuel as Eli's sons were unworthy of continuing his ministry (1 Sam 8:1-5). This dynamic in the larger narrative underscores the transition unfolding between the leadership of local tribal priests like Eli and the later organization of an all-Israel monarchy. Samuel also proves to be a transition figure in that larger narrative, the last of the tribal Judges and the first of the prophets who function with Israel's Kings.

The narrative concludes with summary comments on the role of Samuel as the mediator of God's will (3:19-4:1a). Samuel, the child "borrowed" and then "loaned" back to God, emerges from these narratives with a passion for obedient service to God. It is this dimension of the young man Samuel's ability to hear and see God when other leaders could not that allows him to lead the people into a new era of God's activity (3:21).

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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