The deep ache begins in the pit of the stomach. It is an ache that bread cannot fill, a thirst that water cannot quench. It’s a gnawing emptiness…dusty bones covered in a flesh sack; on the outside, signs of life, but on the inside quiet death; a walking grave, devoid of breath; inky blackness; deafening silence; barreness; a lifeless tomb.
In the days of the judges, this was a pretty apt description for God’s people. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25). Perhaps postmodern relativism and individualism isn’t as novel a problem as we might think. This always has been a temptation for humanity: Live by our own rules, as if we are kings, as if God does not exist or is merely a spectator. Perhaps the context of Samuel’s story isn’t so different from our modern setting. There is something to be gleaned here.
God’s people had been delivered by God from the hand of Egypt. They were freed from Pharaoh’s bondage. In the Exodus, God created a people who were intended to be a light to the nations. They were given the law so they might live within the God-ordained boundaries of covenant relationship. Their very lives were to glorify God, testify to God’s goodness, and embody the very character and nature of God back into the world. God never intended for Israel to become another Egypt. In fact, to prevent any confusion, God told them, “Don’t be like Egypt!” Freedom and salvation were never about Israel’s glory, but about God’s glory.
Unfortunately, the story of the Book of Judges leading into the time of Eli the priest shows every effort by God’s people to live their own way, without any reference to God…except, of course, when they found themselves in trouble. Israel didn’t heed God’s warning not to become another Egypt. Instead, they became ravenous wolves, devouring the poor and the weak. They fed on each other and were never satisfied. Justice was deemed as looking out for your own good rather than upholding the good of others. Mercy was something practiced if it could benefit the one extending mercy. Love of self prevailed against loving God and neighbor. They raped and violated the defenseless—that’s not a metaphor. Everybody did what was right in their own eyes…barren wombs, empty tombs.
Eli was the head priest at that time. He was thoroughly deaf, or maybe he’d listened to so many complaints through the years that he’d learned the art of selective hearing. He also was becoming as blind. We wonder if this is a description concerning the hazards of old age or metaphors pointing to a more disturbing reality.
Hannah had come to the temple with her husband to offer sacrifices. Her heart wasn’t in it, burdened by the fact she was unable to bear a child. She was subjected to ridicule for her childlessness, yet she ached for a child. Her economic welfare depended on her having a son. There was a lot riding on her prayer, which she whispered, pleading for God to help her. She was pouring our her heart before God when she suddenly was interrupted.
Eli saw her kneeling, lips moving, no sound coming from her lips. He strained his ears and eyes, which widened in disgust. Suddenly, he was standing near her her, sternly reprimanding her, accusing her of being drunk.
Hannah was surprised by the attack. Stumbling over her words, she explained that she was praying to God to give her a child, her sincerity apparent. Eli’s ego was in jeopardy, embarrassed that he had not seen correctly. He quickly, half-heartedly blessed Hannah and dismisses her: “Go; let it be done as you asked.” Blind and deaf…barren womb, lifeless tomb…
God then did something astounding: He opened Hannah’s womb. Where there had been no hope of life, God opened up a new way for life to be birthed. Samuel was born—a son of promise to Hannah. Furthermore, Hannah did the most unthinkable thing. She dedicated Samuel to the Lord, and after weaning him, she took him to serve under Eli the priest—not exactly a promising role model for ministry.
Similar to Hannah’s womb, Israel had become barren. There was no life. Theirs was a dire situation. Eli’s priestly household was notorious for its greed. The members were wolves in sheep’s clothing, using their positions of authority to fulfill their own desires. They had made “virgins at the tent of meeting” an ironic term, mot to mention Hophni and Phineas used their positions of power to “fatten themselves on the choice parts of every offering made by the people of Israel” (1 Sam. 2:29).
Depite complaints from the people and warnings from a man of God, Eli continued to allow his sons to oppress and take advantage of the people they were supposed to be serving. Those who were intended to represent God’s Presence in the community only served to muddy God’s holy name. Blind and deaf…barren wombs, lifeless tombs.
We shift scenes, watching Eli in the temple. It was night, darkness enveloping him, his eyesight failing. Light no longer penetrated the veil covering his eyes. His was deeper than physical blindness…Eli’s spiritual leadership had fallen blind, leaving him spiritually inept, stumbling about in the darkness. Eli lay down in his usual spot, settled outside the light’s edge shining from the lamp of God’s presence.
Every night, exhausted from the demands and the new complaints each day held, Eli retired to his usual spot just outside the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested, where the light from the lamp of God burned. The familiar darkness sweeping over him. Everything was dim, dark, empty. He had resigned himself to the void. After all, who can give sight to failing eyes?
We hear those heart-wrenching words: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” We might wonder if God had decided to go on vacation or was giving His people the silent treatment. Perhaps God was aloof, far off and didin’t really care. Yet we have observed that for God’s people, seeing and hearing aren’t really a priority for them. One does not get a sense that God had stopped speaking…only that we have tuned out God; and it’s not merely an issue with the general populace, but with the clergy, as well.
As we peer closer, we spot Samuel curled up next to the Ark of the Covenant, in the sphere of light flickering from the lamp. Samuel was in the inner chamber, surrounded by the things that represent God’s Presence. He was resting when God began to call, “Samuel.” Samuel responded by jumping up and running to Eli.
Samuel’s voice suddenly awakened Eli: “Here I am.”
Eli cracked an eye, a bit discombobulated, and said, “My son, I did not call you. Go back and lie down.”
Samuel did as he was told, and God called him again.
Samuel returned to Eli, saying, “Here I am.”
Eli said, “My son, I did not call you. Go back and lie down.”
“Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord. The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7).
God called Samuel a third time.
Again, Samuel went to Eli and asked, “You called?”
Eli responded, “Idiot boy!” Actually, that’s how I imagine myself responding to being woken up three times in the same night for the same reason. Yet finally at this point, Eli comprehended God’s calling to Samuel. So, he instructed the boy to go lie down, wait for God’s call, and respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.”
Perhaps Eli had been slow in connecting the dots because: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Sam. 3:1). Maybe the lack of seeing and hearing God was symptomatic of the spiritual bankruptcy of God’s people and their leaders rather than a lack of effort on God’s part. Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes had left them blind and deaf… barren wombs, lifeless tombs.
God came and stood there, calling to Samuel as before. In that moment, God told Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” Closed ears once again would hear God’s words. What will be heard and seen will be judgment upon the house of Eli due to lack of obedience.
After receiving this word from God, Samuel lay down until morning. As dawn pierced the veil of night, Samuel burst out of the doors of the house of the Lord. It’s birthing language! Even as Hannah’s barren womb was opened and new life came forth, God gave new birth to a barren people, no longer blind and deaf, but seeing and hearing, no longer a barren womb and lifeless tomb but a birthing womb that brings life from the tomb! The word of the Lord would not remain hidden and unheard!
Eli called for Samuel to learn what God said. Role reversal! The young acolyte who had been dependent on Eli was now the one Eli depended on to hear from God! Although Eli learned about God’s judgment on his household, he gave a very flippant response: “He is the Lord; let Him do what is good in His eyes” (1 Sam. 3:18). He offered no remorse, no reversal, no repentance, but only religious language, empty of conviction.
We learn, “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and He let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. All Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel through His Word” (1 Sam. 3:19-21). God restores sight to the blind and makes the deaf hear.
Isn’t it interesting that two people can be in the house of the Lord, surrounded by all the things representing God’s Presence and yet have two very different outcomes? One ends in death and destruction, while the other experiences new life. Perhaps it’s not very surprising, but it is sobering! Proximity to holy things does not automatically result in acquiring holiness.
How easy it is for us to become deaf and dull of sight, leaders without light. We handle the sacred, we study and converse. Our very lives are wrapped up in the rites and rituals of the holy. Prayer here. Scripture there. Singing familiar tunes without reflection. Wash, rinse, repeat. It is a cycle that quietly becomes ingrained in our rhythms, yet escapes rooting in our hearts. The focus shifts slightly from God to us—our needs, our wants, our desires. Sensitivity to God’s light in our lives is dulled; ;our hearing becomes selective, at best.
Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran scholar and pastor, said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”1 Our religious rituals can become hollow rather than giving voice to the Holy. Eli, Hophni and Phineas were not exceptions to the rule. We all can recount stories about ourselves and others having fallen into the trap of subverting worship for our own gain rather than proclaiming God’s glory. There must be something deeper that empowers our worship and ministry. That something can be only an encounter with the living God, the One who opens blind eyes and deaf ears. The word received ultimately must go out into the community as good news that shares that new life.
A story I recently read cut me to the heart because it demonstrates what is really at stake: William recently had moved into the town. Sadly, William’s elderly mother had died the very day his family moved into the community. William, knowing his mother loved sacred music, began coming to this church composed of people from 40 different nations, people who bodied forth difference.
Initially, he sat near the front of the congregation, not far from Miss Ida [who sat straight-backed and still near the front of the congregation, lips pursed, hands folded neatly in her lap. William was clicking his recorder on and off, rewinding, fast-forwarding, sometimes mumbling, and all the while rocking back and forth, back and forth. After a few Sundays, someone told William he was making too much noise. If he insisted on bringing the recorder and pushing the buttons, he would need to sit in the lobby and listen to the service via the speakers. That is what William did…for three Sundays.
On the fourth Sunday, Miss Ida arrived uncharacteristically late and asked William why he was sitting in the lobby instead of the sanctuary. William said, “The people in there said I was making too much noise. I have to sit out here.” In a quiet act of compassionate dissent, she sat with him. He rocked, and she was still. The next Sunday, five others joined them. On the following Sunday, 30 people sat in the lobby.
Today, William sits with the choir. He is the “assistant sound man.” Every Sunday, he records the service, clicking his buttons, mumbling and rocking. After each service, William walks several miles to the cemetery and leaves the cassette on his mother’s grave with these simple words, “Here’s church, Mama.” William understood communion. His ministry was to help others understand.2
Surrounded by all the symbols of the sacred…someone in this congregation has become deaf and blind to the ways God might be moving and speaking. Like Eli and sons, this person perceived the church to center on their needs and wants. They used their power to push William out, much as Hophni and Phineas misused their power. Blind. Deaf. Dead.
Miss Ida proved to be a person who was listening, watching, waiting. She responded to God’s call, able to offer new life to a very barren situation. An act of faith that shone God’s light, His Presence…bursting forth in new life for William and this congregation! Miss Ida, similar to Samuel, responded in obedience, which made all the difference.
How might God be speaking to us today, calling us to faithful obedience? What new thing is God doing that might make our ears tingle? The Lord has come and is standing, calling each of us by name. Let us respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, for Your servants are listening!”
Hauerwas, Stanley, and Samuel Wells. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
Quote by Jaroslav Pelikan: “Tradition Is the Living Faith of the Dead…” (accessed Apr. 1, 2013).