Samuel and His God

Samuel and His God

Samuel and His God

Samuel and His God

Synopsis

Samuel and His God explores the relationship among a prophet, his deity, and their people in 1 Samuel. Marti J. Steussy illumines the vexing elements central to this multifaceted narrative and probes the questions it raises, particularly with regard to the authoritative voice of Samuel, of God as portrayed in this account, of the narrator or narrators, and of the Bible itself. In this sense, Samuel becomes a case study in how the Bible's authors use stories to argue for who may speak for God.
Samuel hears the Lord's calling as a boy, becomes a servant to the priest Eli, and later becomes Eli's successor. As a leader of the people of Israel and a conduit for God's message, Samuel is a figure of immense authority, ultimately anointing the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David, and thus precipitating the transformation of Israel from a collection of tribes into a nation under a monarchy. But in biblical and historical portrayals of Samuel's interactions with his God, their people, and these early kings, the narratives introduce significant discontinuities and disruptions, most famously with respect to the question of whether kingship came to Israel as a sinful human initiative or as a divine gift.
Steussy takes up the challenge of helping readers grapple with the possibility that a multitude of storytellers representing disparate agendas may be responsible for aspects of Samuel's tale, and this makes mapping the cumulative story a problematic but revealing task. Samuel's story is further complicated by our embedded notions about prophets, God, and the nature of the Bible itself. The relationship between Samuel and God is often contentious, and the God of Samuel is a pre-Axial deity who does not necessarily act according to our usual assumptions about the "biblical God." Samuel is presented as an irascible and ambitious character whose own stakes in his community at times govern how he interprets and represents his relationship to his God. Steussy's close readings negotiate the plethora of viewpoints to be found here--those of the narrator(s), the characters, and other scholars of Samuel's story--to give us a comprehensive and richly nuanced portrait of one of the more complex personalities of the Old Testament.

Excerpt

The prophet Samuel’s story is told mostly in the first sixteen chapters of the book of 1 Samuel. Beginning with Samuel’s birth in the first chapter, 1 Samuel goes on to describe how Samuel grows up as servant to the priest Eli, whom he eventually replaces as the primary mediator between LORD1 and Israel. Under Samuel’s leadership the people of Israel—who at this point have no other formal leader— enjoy relief from foreign attackers. But when Samuel grows too old to lead the people himself, they ask him to appoint a king. lord tells a reluctant Samuel to comply. Samuel anoints Saul, who has some promising early successes but eventually loses LORD’s support. After Samuel has communicated this news to Saul, lord sends Samuel to anoint David. the rest of 1 Samuel is primarily about David and Saul, with Samuel mentioned only a few times. He makes his final appearance as a ghost, summoned by Saul, who declares that on the morrow, “LORD will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines” (1 S 28:19; this and all subsequent biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, unless otherwise indicated).

I first paid serious attention to the biblical character Samuel when a student asked me to preach on 1 Samuel 3 at his ordination. the student, whose great passion was ministry with children, had chosen the chapter because in it lord calls to the young Samuel as the boy sleeps in the temple. Since my student mostly wanted to show that even a very young person can be called by God, he trimmed the reading to leave out God’s actual message to Samuel in 3:11–14, a message formulated to “make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (3:11).

Now this student, who had been my teaching assistant, knew full well that I do not think problematic verses should be clipped from readings (as they so frequently are in church Bible lessons). If people have a problem with something in the Bible, I think they should talk about it rather than proclaiming respect for the Bible while censoring—if not downright misrepresenting—it. Furthermore, in my experience people grow far more by wrestling with difficult passages than by lingering over old favorites. the ordinand was, I am sure, not at all surprised when I began my sermon with the omitted verses, in which lord says, “On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (3:12–14).

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