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Eli, Samuel and the nature of priesthood

Samuel and EliContinuing my series on repeating the wisdom of Professor RWL Moberly I'd like to share with you some insights on what 1 Samuel 3 might have to tell us about the nature of priesthood. What follows will take the form of a fairly straightforward exegesis of the passage as I remember Professor Moberly presenting it with a few conclusions of my own...

The boy Samuel was serving God under Eli’s direction. This was at a time when the revelation of God was rarely heard or seen. One night Eli was sound asleep (his eyesight was very bad—he could hardly see). It was well before dawn; the sanctuary lamp was still burning. Samuel was still in bed in the Temple of God, where the Chest of God rested.

I take it from this that the people of Israel were in a time of relative spiritual darkness. The reference to Eli's bad eyesight is probably an extension of this. Why else would the narrator mention it unless he wants the reader to understand that God's priest is just as spiritually blind as everyone else? However, in spite of all this the narrator notes that "the sanctuary lamp was still burning", perhaps a sign that the light hasn't quite gone out on Israel's awareness of God.

Then God called out, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel answered, “Yes? I’m here.” Then he ran to Eli saying, “I heard you call. Here I am.”

Just like that. Out of the blue. God calls to Samuel! What do we notice about Samuel's response? Firstly, there is no surprise. Samuel doesn't awaken and say to himself, "Whose voice is that? I don't recognise it!" The translation here makes it clear why: the voice he hears isn't strange, it is Eli's.

Secondly, we can then note that when God calls to Samuel he does it in a familiar way. When God is revealed to someone this revelation may well resonate with something familiar. It is extremely rare for God's voice to boom down from heaven and sometimes it is incredibly difficult for us to listen to the still, small voice. It therefore makes sense that God may choose to speak to us through others and that seems to be what's happening here.

Eli said, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” And so he did.

Eli's response further emphasises his own spiritual blindness. Rather than recognising what has happened Eli is rather abrupt. There's probably a challenge here to the priesthood of all believers: How often do we recognise God speaking to someone through us? How often do we say, in essence, "I didn't call you", instead of perceiving that God has called?

God called again, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel got up and went to Eli, “I heard you call. Here I am.”

Again Eli said, “Son, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” (This all happened before Samuel knew God for himself. It was before the revelation of God had been given to him personally.)

The same pattern recurs and this time the narrator makes explicit what was merely implied earlier: Samuel doesn't know God for himself. It's no great surprise that Samuel doesn't know what is going on, how could he? We don't often get to know someone new without an introduction!

God called again, “Samuel!”—the third time! Yet again Samuel got up and went to Eli, “Yes? I heard you call me. Here I am.”

That’s when it dawned on Eli that God was calling the boy. So Eli directed Samuel, “Go back and lie down. If the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.’” Samuel returned to his bed.

Eli's spiritual fog finally begins to lift. He finally realises what is happening! At this point Eli takes on a position of great power and authority and there is, therefore, also a great risk. Power and corruption often go hand-in-hand and this situation is no different. Eli takes on the function of the voice of God for Samuel; when God speaks Samuel hears Eli's voice and it quickly becomes possible now that when Eli speaks Samuel understands it to be God speaking.

I'm sure that lots of us could identify fathers (or mothers) in Christ who have been incredibly influential in our early journey of faith. It seemed at the beginning that everything they said was like something coming from God. When in that position there's always a risk of the abuse of power. I'm afraid that church history has plentiful examples of those in positions of power turning their authority into an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. The person through whom God speaks can often end up mistaking themselves for God.

So how does Eli respond when he recognises his own status in the eyes of Samuel? He does exactly the right thing by pointing beyond himself to the bigger reality that is calling Samuel. He shows Samuel the way forward and invites him to participate in the bigger reality of God.

Then God came and stood before him exactly as before, calling out, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Samuel answered, “Speak. I’m your servant, ready to listen.”

Note that now God's relationship with Samuel is much more direct: "God... stood before him". Even though he's been there all along Samuel is now in a position to see him.

What do we take away from all of this? Firstly, the role of the priest is always to point forward to God. There's always a human temptation to make ourselves important and to lift ourselves up. Eli teaches us that we need to direct people to a bigger reality. Our thoughts, ideas and projects are never ends in themselves (however much we'd like to think they are).

Secondly, we ought to learn to recognise when God is speaking through us (and be careful with it). Sometimes we can inadvertently find ourselves in positions of spiritual authority (this certainly applies to those in church leadership and youth work roles). Even someone we consider to be just a friend can be greatly influenced by the things we say. Therefore, we all need to regularly examine our own hearts. Do the things we do and say point beyond us to the resurrection life and union with Christ? Or do they subtly serve to further our own interests and re-enforce our own authority? Does the way we interact with others build the kingdom of God or our own personal kingdoms? I'll certainly confess to knowing how easy it is to dress up my own self-interest in pious words and the "right" language and how easy it is to be self-deceptive on this front.

Thirdly, we ought to be aware (and appropriately non-idolatrous) of our own "god parents". When we find someone we really "connect" with it's easy to read everything they say as divinely inspired. I'm on a bit of a Richard Rohr binge at the moment. I love him. His daily meditations always seem to hit my nail right on the head. However, I'm aware that I need to check myself regularly. Is my appreciation of Fr. Richard leading me deeper into the likeness and love of Jesus or into the likeness and love of Richard Rohr. If it's not the former then he becomes an idol instead of a priest. I know people with similar warmth towards Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren, Scot McKnight, Pope Francis and many others. These are all good in and of themselves but idolatry is dangerous.

The final conclusion, drawn from the previous two, is that we need to hold each other to account. It's dangerously easy to be in a position of authority and not recognise it; there's a fine line between admiration and idolatry. I don't know many people who like challenging others but we need to do it. With love. So the next time you see me, please ask me: "How has Richard Rohr encouraged you further into the likeness of Christ this week?" If I can't answer you then we need to have a conversation. Ask me: "What have you done this week to point Matthew towards Jesus?" If I can't answer you then please have some ideas ready to help me out! (Seriously, what do you do with a six month old?)

Remember: we're all priests. It's not just people in a dog-collar who should be pointing towards Jesus and saying, "See! The Lamb of God!"

Posted by Mike

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