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Immersion, inspired by a fresh translation—the ...
Immersion, inspired by a fresh translation—the Common English Bible—stands firmly on Scripture and helps readers explore the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs of their personal faith. More importantly, they’ll be able to discover God’s revelation through readings and reflections.
Samuel's Journey With God
1 Samuel 1–15
Claim Your Story
The ways in which we as a culture think and talk about our lives together before God are changing. One primary example of this change, according to pollsters, is the number of people in America who now describe themselves as being "spiritual, not religious." Although it does not show up in the polling data as much, another example would be how frequently people describe their faith lives as a "journey." Often these two trends converge. People tell the stories about their spiritual experiences with God over the years—about moments or periods in life when God seemed near and alive to them, and about other times when God seemed distant at best or completely absent at worst.
Such personal stories share much in common with the biblical stories. Some might speak longingly about what it would have been like to live in "Bible times" when people heard God's voice as audibly as that of a person in the next room. But the reality is that even heroes of faith such as Samuel did not always recognize God's Spirit calling to them (1 Samuel 3:1-10). They too struggled in their journey through life, trying to remain engaged with God and to discern God's purposes. Listening closely to their stories can help us better understand how to stay engaged with God in our own spiritual journeys.
In what ways is your spiritual life a journey? How do you ascertain God's purposes for your life?
Enter the Bible Story
Samuel is the title character, if you will, of two books within our Bibles. Some measure of his importance and influence may be gained from the fact that the stories within those two books extend decades beyond his death. As we shall see, Samuel was a transitional leader in Israel's history—one of the last of its judges and the anointer of its first two kings. But Samuel also served in roles most often associated with priests and prophets within that culture and was even dedicated as a child to a lifelong vow of special commitment to God as a nazirite. According the Bible Dictionary of the Common English Bible, "Nazirites demonstrated their devotion to God through distinctive behaviors, commonly observing prohibitions against cutting the hair, drinking wine, or touching the dead."
You might think that with all these things going for him, Samuel must have lived an especially blessed life. Wouldn't it be great if our own spiritual journeys included moments when we heard God's voice, received the accolades of God's people, and were confident of not only God's will for the world but also that we were playing a part in bringing it to fruition? But as we travel Samuel's journey along with him, we see that the details of his walk with God included valleys as well as mountaintop experiences.
About the Scriptures
In the Common English Bible (like all Christian Bibles), the stories about the rise and fall of Israel's and Judah's kings are told in six books: First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles. We will look at the relationship between First and Second Chronicles and these other books in the last chapter of this study. For now, we need to understand two things about the four books of Samuel and Kings.
First, in the Hebrew Bible, there are only two books with the titles "Samuel" and "Kings" respectively. Samuel's story is basically contained in the first sixteen of the fifty-five total chapters of the book(s) bearing his name (his death is recounted in 1 Samuel 25:1, but his last mention comes in a story about Saul summoning his spirit from the grave in 1 Samuel 28). Many surmise the whole book is named for Samuel because it deals with the two kings he anointed, Saul and David.
Second, the books of Samuel and Kings are widely considered parts of a larger work referred to by scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. It includes the books of Joshua and Judges as well. It can be helpful to think of Samuel as one of Israel's last judges (see 1 Samuel 7:15-17). One of the patterns in this "history" is how it relates cycles of when God's people rejected the Lord, suffered as a result, repented, and were restored by God only to have the cycle repeat. Watch for signs of this pattern as we read through First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings.
Samuel's Birth and Dedication (1 Samuel 1:1–2:11)
One of the realities of spiritual journeys is that things that seem so clear and obvious in a scriptural story or even in the way a family member or friend recounts an experience after the fact were actually much more uncertain in the moment. If you pay close attention to all the details of the story, glimpses of that original ambiguity can come through—and sometimes the very point of the story seems to be to remind us that not everything is clear. Such is the case with the story of Samuel's birth. Let's begin, then, by shifting our own gaze a bit. Let's recognize that the opening of First Samuel isn't really Samuel's story; it is Hannah's story. And Hannah is nothing if not misunderstood.
Hannah's story, as we read it in Scripture, follows a definite and well-established pattern. She is the beloved wife who longs for but has not been able to give birth to a child. That story line places her in some fairly heady company: she is preceded by Sarah and Rachel in Genesis and followed by Elizabeth in Luke. Because we know their stories, we are confident we know hers as well. But Hannah didn't know her story would eventually be told alongside theirs. She only knew she wanted a son. Her husband, Elkanah, tried to console her: "Aren't I worth more to you than ten sons?" (1:8). His words were almost certainly intended to be comforting, but probably would have been heard as patronizing or even somewhat belittling. Perhaps she heard in his voice echoes of Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah—who had both sons and daughters and had become "her rival"—who "would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her" (1:6).
Even the priest Eli ridiculed Hannah (1:9-18). She was at the Lord's house and so overwhelmed with emotion that she was "praying in her heart; her lips were moving, but her voice was silent, so Eli thought she was drunk." His command to her was simple and direct: "Sober up!" But by that point, she had had enough. "No sir!" she replied, "Don't think your servant is some good-for-nothing woman. This whole time I've been praying out of my great worry and trouble!" It's hard to know just what tone Eli took when he told her, "Then go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you've asked from him." Was he embarrassed for his misunderstanding or dismissive of what he took as an unlikely cover story? Even Hannah's final words in the exchange—"Please think well of me, your servant"—can be taken in two very different ways. Was she chastened by the priest's harshness and pleading for forgiveness and understanding or hoping her newly acquired ally would continue to remember her in her agony for a child? When you notice in the Common English Bible's footnote in verse 18 that the Hebrew text lacks the description that as Hannah left she "wasn't sad any longer," then you are only left to wonder.
Then, with only the certainty a narrator can provide, we are told, "the LORD remembered her" (1:19). Did Eli remember or "think well" of her? (Not if Hannah's reintroduction of herself to him in 1:26-28 offers any clue.) Did Elkanah think there would be any different consequence of their sexual relations than before? (Not if his still condescending tone in 1:23 is any indication.) But all that really mattered was "the LORD remembered her." And once she cradled a son in her arms as the matriarchs Sarah and Rachel had, Hannah remembered and knew of a certainty that God was the source of her joy. So, "she named him Samuel, which means 'I asked the LORD for him'" (1:20).
Hannah also remembered her promise that if God would give her a son, she would "give him to the LORD for his entire life" as a nazirite (1:11, 22-23). Once she had weaned the child (likely at an age somewhat older than we wean our children), she kept that promise. When she left him at "the LORD's house at Shiloh," she offered a prayer full of confidence that God is the one ultimately in control (2:1-10). Every conventional sign of power is only an illusion before the Lord. Those who place confidence in themselves fail to see it, but everything is dependent upon God's purpose. It is a prayer far removed in every way from her earlier prayer "out of ... great worry and trouble" (1:16).
Samuel's Rise to Prominence (1 Samuel 2:12–7:17)
Samuel's own journey is paved not only by his mother's faithfulness but also by the faithlessness of others. As the very young Samuel is being raised at "the LORD's house" under the supervision of Eli, the priest's own sons were earning a reputation for corruption (2:15-17). In contrast, "the boy Samuel grew up in the LORD's service" (2:21b). As the years passed, Eli's sons moved on to radically inappropriate sexual behavior (2:22); "meanwhile, the boy Samuel kept growing up and was more and more liked by both the LORD and the people" (2:26). These contrasts, along with an oracle from "a man of God" that God had rejected Eli's sons as legitimate priests for Israel (2:27-36), provide the backdrop for Samuel's call story.
The story is actually quite comic in its telling (3:1-19). Three times during the night, God calls out Samuel's name, and three times Samuel runs off to Eli thinking that it was the priest who was summoning him. Twice the narrator tries to explain Samuel's failure to recognize that it is God who was calling him (3:1b, 7), but the explanations do little to reduce the humor of the story. It is only on a third occasion of being awakened that a possibility dawned on Eli that still eluded Samuel: "If he calls you, say 'Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening'" (3:9).
We can draw two lessons as we chuckle at Samuel (and ourselves, if we admit it). First, if even heroes of the faith had difficulty distinguishing the voice of the Spirit from other voices in their lives, then we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves if we only recognize God's directing voice in looking back over the course of our journey. Second—and just as importantly—we should acknowledge that we need the assistance of others experienced in the faith to help us discern when the voice we are hearing really is God calling to us.
The message God brought to Samuel that night reasserted the earlier message brought by the "man of God" about the rejection of Eli's sons. It not only confirmed that that man was a prophet but also began to establish Samuel's own prophetic credentials, especially since over the coming years "the LORD was with him, not allowing any of his words to fail" (3:19).
At this point, the story line in Samuel takes a three-chapter-long sidetrack away from Samuel's own journey. But this story about how the Philistines came to first capture and then subsequently return "the chest containing the Lord's covenant" is no simple meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch literary diversion. It recounts both how the demise of Eli's sons, Hophni and Phineas, came about and through its echoes connects with stories from Judges when Israel had previously failed in its covenant responsibilities to God, repented of those failures, and God had yet again come to their aid. And as before, even that deliverance was not enough to secure Israel's allegiance to the covenant; for when the story returns to Samuel, some "twenty years" later, we find him calling on the people to "get rid of all the foreign gods" to whom they had given their hearts so that in response to their repentance, God would once more save them from the Philistines (7:2-14).
So it was that the prophet Samuel also "served as Israel's judge his whole life" (7:15-17). But it was at the end of his life's journey that it would take its most unexpected turn—not just once, but twice.
Samuel and the Beginning of Israel's Monarchy (1 Samuel 8–15)
As Samuel grew old, his hope was that his sons would continue down the road he had been traveling. So "he appointed his sons to serve as Israel's judges" (8:1). But Joel and Abijah proved to be just as corrupt as Eli's sons had been a generation earlier, and the elders of Israel refused to accept their leadership. Instead, they requested that he appoint a king to rule over them "like all the other nations have" (8:5). Samuel thought it was a bad idea. As God pointed out in response to Samuel's prayer for guidance, this was only the latest in a long string of the people's rejection of God's reign over them stretching back to just days after they had left Egypt. Although God told Samuel to try to persuade them it was a bad idea by reminding them what life under a king was really like, God also conceded there was no real chance such persuasion would succeed. When in fact it did fail, God told Samuel, "Comply with their request. Give them a king" (8:22).
God's directive was simple and straightforward. The process itself proved to be anything but. The humor in the story returns, although it is somewhat subtler. Yet how else than as humor is one to understand a story about the son of a wealthy man, handsome and standing "head and shoulders above everyone else" (9:2), who fails at rounding up his father's stray donkeys but nevertheless winds up anointed as king of Israel? Might there be just a touch of political satire against kings mixed in this humor? Even once anointed as king, Saul declined to share anything with his family other than Samuel's assurances that the donkeys—that are not with him—had nevertheless been found. When Samuel summons Israel to present Saul as their king, Saul is ultimately found "hiding among the supplies." Or was he trying to hide, since again we are told, "he was head and shoulders taller than anyone else" (10:22b-23)? Little wonder, then, that some of the people "despised Saul" (10:27). Only once, when Saul succeeded in a military campaign to break a siege on Jabesh-gilead, did Israel truly follow Samuel in accepting Saul as their king (11:1-15).
Thinking that at last his work with Israel was over, Samuel once again reminded the people both of their past failures and of God's gracious response to their repentance (12:6-15). The prospects for the future under the king could be bright, but only if they would "fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all [their] heart." If they instead repeated their past errors, Samuel told the people, "then both you and your king will be destroyed" (12:24-25). The ensuing chapters (13–15) recount the events whereby first the promise of a dynasty and ultimately the authority from God to reign itself would be stripped away from Saul. But through it all, Samuel stayed engaged with God, praying for the people and listening for God's voice to direct him on his continuing journey (see, for example, 15:10-11).
Live the Story
We began by considering the similarities between the biblical stories and our stories, by reminding ourselves that these stories can help us better understand our life journeys. As we think about how we can live out these insights, we need to also remind ourselves how the very telling of the story brings clarity that was almost certainly lacking in the moment.
The old saying goes, "Hindsight is 20-20." So it is with our spiritual lives. The scriptural stories provide us with corrective lenses. The stories about Hannah, Samuel, and all the rest bring into sharper focus the ways God is at work in our personal lives and the world more broadly. But it is just as true that it is in looking back over our own journeys through those lenses that we are able to see God's presence most clearly.
Take some time to reflect back over your life not just as a sequence of events but also as a spiritual journey. How does Samuel's story help you give structure and insight into your telling of your own story, whether to yourself or to others? How do Hannah's prayers help you share your own struggles with God?CHAPTER 2
1 Samuel 16–31
Claim Your Story
My wife and I are blessed with two children, a son and a daughter born eight years apart. Being of different genders and broadly separated in ages, one might think we were spared many of the fights so common between siblings. Perhaps we were spared "many," but certainly not all of them. I had plenty of opportunities to separate my oldest from his sister, assure him I would be talking to her next, but then once again explain that it really didn't matter what his toddler (and later elementary school-aged) sister had done to him. He was so much older, so I had to have different expectations of him. "You are only responsible for what you did," I would say, "no matter whether what she did was wrong or not."
We all need to be reminded occasionally about both the limits of what we can and cannot control and the importance of taking responsibility for what we can. Just as importantly, we need to join our faith in God to our personal accountability. When we are in a faithful relationship with God, it's easier to be faithful in our relationships with others, because we trust God to do what we can't.
When have you wished you could change or control how others behaved? When have you had to face your own responsibility for problems in a relationship? How has your faith in God affected how you responded in such situations?
Enter the Bible Story
David was by far the youngest of Jesse's eight sons. We can only imagine how many disputes Jesse broke up. But I wonder: Did David overhear conversations between Jesse and his brothers like the ones I've had with my son? One thing is certain from considering David's interactions with Saul: Somewhere along the line, he learned that while he wasn't responsible for what others did to him, he had to take responsibility for what he did in return. And a key reason that he may have been able to do that was because "David, Jesse's son, [was] a man who shares [God's] desires" (literally, "after my heart"; Acts 13:22).
Excerpted from Immersion Bible Studies: 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles by Timothy B. Cargal, Stan Purdum. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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