1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  • Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Psalm 81:1-10  • 2 Corinthians 4:5-12  • Mark 2:23-3:6

The first thing that draws my attention in 1 Samuel 3 is the brief, passing comment that opens up my imagination the way that passing comments in Biblical narratives so often do: “the word of the LORD was rare in those days” (3:1).

Rare compared to when? The time when people gathered to hear this read? The days when Moses walked the earth? Some other time?

I can appreciate this comparison better now than I could twenty years ago: working as a professor at a Pentecostal college, I was around people all the time who claimed to hear words of knowledge, words of correction, words of prophecy, and all kinds of words from the LORD. Compared to those years, the year since I departed that college has been, among other things, a time when the word of the LORD has been less frequent.

But of course, 1 Samuel won’t let me dwell forever in that speculation or any of its other moments of speculation: when Samuel does get that rare word from the LORD, the content of that word brings a horror that overwhelms wonder and speculation. After we watch Eli guide Samuel in the ways of the LORD, teaching Samuel how to address the rarely-speaking God and what to listen for, Samuel does hear, and Eli has equipped Samuel to pronounce his own doom.

I know full well that Aristotle never intended to be enlisted as a helper to Bible-readers, but he comes to mind here: for the Greek philosopher, tragic stories serve a community by leading the people’s emotions towards fear and pity. That pair echoes through Aristotle’s little book Poetics, and even though 1 Samuel becomes a written text centuries before Aristotle and in a very different corner of the Mediterranean world, the effect stands to be the same. Eli has missed the mark. That’s the archery-metaphor that Aristotle teaches us in the Poetics, and the sheer range of the image shocks me every time I slow down to think about it. Yes, sometimes hamartia (which translators of Aristotle often render as “fatal flaw” and translators of St. Paul usually translate as “sin”) looks like a willful act of destruction, whether King Creon’s burying Antigone alive outside of Thebes or King David’s murdering his general Uriah or mighty Rome’s persecuting the faithful of God in the New Testament Apocalypse. But in other moments, hamartia starts not with deliberate choice but with a failure to respond well to circumstances. Eli’s hamartia is that sort: the old man doesn’t do much himself that’s wrong, but he’s too slow to keep his rotten sons from blaspheming God with their corruption.

The terror of 1 Samuel (and of so many other stories of missing the mark) is that any kind of hamartia, the sort that is done and the sort that is left undone, can utterly destroy a life and a family and a nation and just about anything in this world.

I’ve come to appreciate Biblical narrative not mainly because these stories are satisfying, morally or psychologically or otherwise, but because they ring true. My own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong would rather live in a world more like the one that Deuteronomy and Calvinist theology give me, one in which the folks who come to the nastiest kinds of destruction really deserved it. And my own sense of what’s good and what’s evil would prefer to live in a world more like the one that Process theology serves up, one in which God isn’t involved with any of the terrible things that happen in the world, save to commiserate with us mortals when they do happen and in every moment to ask the world nicely not to be so wretched. But neither of those worlds rings true like the world that emerges from the Psalms and the prophets and 1 Samuel. The world I actually inhabit often sees the beginnings of new possibilities emerge precisely when old certainties disintegrate, and the same God who initiates new things, if I’m telling true what I see and hear and intuit, really was involved in what happened to make those new possibilities so urgent.

If God is not involved, the Psalms of lament are delusional at best. And if all of us deserve the destruction that comes to us in the same way, then the book of Job is mostly lies.

But they ain’t.

So, in the face of the Calvinists and the open-theists and to the distaste of Aristotle, I’ll continue to read 1 Samuel with fear and pity, angry and willing to lament in God’s face that Eli really didn’t deserve what came to him when his sons, not Eli, were the tyrants. And in this time between times, when we testify to the first fruits of the resurrection but have not seen resurrection’s fullness, I do fear the destructive moments that might take me or my family or anything that I hold dear, knowing that I’m no better than Eli and likely have been worse.

And in the midst of all that, I do continue to confess an age to come in which fear and pity will have no place, where Eli’s neck is unbroken and Eli’s sons learn justice and the word of the LORD is never again destruction but for an age everlasting life and goodness and love. And that hope is all the sweeter, for now, when I don’t try so hard to deny that we need hope in these days when the word of the LORD is so rare.

Featured Image: Copley, John Singleton, 1738-1815. Samuel Relating to Eli the Judgments of God upon Eli’s House, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56458 [retrieved May 18, 2024]. Original source: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eli_and_Samuel.jpg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *