Monday, December 14, 2009

An Exposition on the Life and Role of Samuel.

Well, here I am again posting schoolwork. I thought while researching this paper that Samuel was a fascinating character in Israel's history, and is one of my biblical heroes. I hope you enjoy this essay. May you come to know God better in learning about Israel's last judge, a prophet, a warrior and a king-maker.
            His life began because of an impassioned plea. His destiny was sealed with a covenant made by a desperate and most grateful woman. His call came to him as a child. His God spoke to him; disciplined and refined him. He became a warrior. He became a prophet. He became a maker of kings. He became an instrument of God’s will for his chosen people. He is Samuel, the last judge of Israel, and his life is of vital importance to understanding God’s identity and purposes for his chosen people.

            In 1 Samuel, chapter 1, a woman named Hannah is introduced as one of two wives of a Zuphite named Elkanah. Hannah was barren, and she was miserable. Elkanah’s other wife’s name was Peninnah, and she habitually taunted Hannah for her infertility. A woman who could not bear children in the times around 1100 B.C. was considered cursed by God, and unfortunately, Peninnah chose to be cruel to her co-wife. Yet Elkanah loved Hannah with all his heart, giving her double portions of his yearly sacrifices, but Peninnah always got Hannah so worked up that she couldn’t eat. This went on for a long time, and one day Hannah could take it no longer and cried out to the Lord. The prayer of the priest Eli asking God to grant her heart’s desire went straight into heaven with her own prayer. God heard, and God answered.

            What is interesting to note is that Hannah felt compelled to bargain with God. So great was her desire to have a child that she was willing to offer the child back to God as recompense. She vowed that no razor would ever touch her son’s head if only God would remember her. Such a vow was usually only made by a person who chose to set himself or herself apart wholly in the service of the Lord, and these people further vowed not to eat or drink anything which came from a grapevine, and not to ever come into contact with a dead body, being guilty of breaking covenant even if the person died while in their presence (Numbers 6:1-8). These people were known as Nazirites, a term derived from the Hebrew word nazir meaning to consecrate. The root of this word is nazar, which means to set apart.  According to the Mishnah, the Jewish digest of oral law, a typical Nazirite vow was a period of service of about 30 days, although longer terms were not uncommon. Here, though, Hannah’s anguish provokes her not only to make the Nazirite vow for her son before he is conceived, but that she makes the vow for his entire life.

            It was no surprise to those who would later read the book of 1 Samuel as Scripture that God heard Hannah’s prayer and remembered her and allowed her to conceive a son. It must surely, though, have been a wonderful shock to Hannah and her family, and egg on the face of Peninnah, who would now have to cease tormenting Hannah and either repent of her misdeeds or be forever shamed by them. Later, in chapter 2, Hannah would pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God, and would release all of her emotions pent up during the period of Peninnah’s wicked needling (1 Samuel 2:1, 3, 5). In a sense, Hannah’s prayer shows godliness and a willingness to forgive, because in these times, it was commonplace for people to vent their darker emotions upon God in prayer, and not seek revenge upon their brethren.

            Hannah remembered her vow, and when the boy, named Samuel, which sounds like the Hebrew term meaning heard of God, was weaned, he was taken along with the correct offerings for the Nazirite vow, to the house of the Lord at Shiloh (1:24) and there he was given over to service to God for life. Thus begins one of the most awe-inspiring stories of the history of Israel.

            Samuel grew, and learned the ways of God’s priesthood. One night, God called upon him, and he didn’t recognize the Lord’s voice at first, until Eli realized that Samuel was hearing directly from God and advised him to heed what he heard and obey. It seems almost ironic that Samuel’s first prophetic message from the throne of God turned out to be a direct word against the house of Eli, who as the high priest was like a father to young Samuel, and who had taught him all the ways of the Levites. It was a message that Eli’s sons would soon suffer the fate that God had promised Eli years earlier (1Samuel 2:34-36) that they would. Although Samuel is afraid to tell Eli this at first, Eli tells Samuel not to hide it. After Samuel divulges God’s word to Eli, the Levite says something very wise: “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1Samuel 3:18). The following verse tells us that God was with Samuel as he grew up, and fulfilled all of his promises to him. Samuel became known all over the country as a prophet of the Lord, and his word came to them, which means that when Samuel spoke, people listened and passed it on.

            An important thing to remember is that Samuel stayed true to his Nazirite ways all his life. As an Israelite, he remained true to the Law of God. As a Nazirite, he remained set apart from Israel, and walked a seemingly lonely road. While his people carried on their daily lives, with their daily struggles and daily habits and daily diversions, Samuel stayed absolutely faithful to the ways of God, which means not falling into the habits and lifestyles of his people in order to be ready to lead them, at a moment’s notice, into whatever God should call upon them to do. Samuel was the kind of leader that Israel desperately needed, because the Israelites had a history of being led astray. Samuel led a hard life, but his was a life of service to, and on behalf of, his nation and of his God.

            Now, Israel at this time was having many problems, not the least of which was oppression by the Philistines. It was during an unsuccessful battle with these enemies that Eli’s sons were killed, as God had said would happen, but also the unthinkable happened: the Ark of the Covenant, which was becoming more of an idol to the people than a symbol of God’s presence, was stolen. Upon hearing all of this news, Eli fell out of his chair and broke his neck and died. Certainly, matters are made worse when Eli’s daughter-in-law gives birth to a son that same day and dies in childbirth, only after naming him Ichabod, which means no glory, basically saying that since Eli and her husband are dead and the ark is gone, no further glory exists in Israel. Insofar as she was wrong to think in such a fashion, she certainly cannot have considered what such a name would have done to affect the life of her son. What she also cannot have known is that God would not let the ark stay in the hands of the Philistines. Seven months later, God sees to it that the ark is returned to Israel (1 Samuel 6). We know it was God because the ark came back on a cart with no driver!

            Fast forward twenty years. By now, Samuel is a man, and he knows his people are ready to be delivered from the Philistine oppression. He commands them to lay aside their Baals and Ashtoreths and once again put their trust in God. In the early days of his life, words from God were scarce and the people had fallen once again into the pagan practices of their neighbours, but now, with the Lord’s presence reaffirmed through their new prophet, the tribes of Israel once again renewed their faith. Pouring out water before God that day (1Samuel 7:6), they showed that their repentance was pouring out of their hearts, and then they fasted and confessed their sin, and from that day forward, Samuel was their leader. He showed them that their repentance was accepted when the Philistines, having heard of the assembly at Mizpah, attacked and Samuel cried out to God on behalf of his people and led them into battle. The enemy soldiers were driven before Israel by a great storm from heaven, whereupon the Israelites pursued and slaughtered the Philistine army (1 Samuel 7:11). From that day forward in Samuel’s lifetime, the Philistines posed no further threat. Samuel had proven his mettle as a warrior, as a priest, as a prophet, and seemed perfectly fit to lead Israel in the ways of the Lord.

            We fast forward again to nearly the end of Samuel’s life, and almost like clockwork in chapter 8, Israel once again shows her iniquity and lack of trust in God. They have Samuel the prophet and judge as a leader, a blessing from God in his own right. Yet, all of the neighbouring nations are ruled by kings. As Samuel ages, the Israelites realize that his sons, Joel and Abijah, are not as upright as he is, and although they serve Israel, they are dishonest and prone to perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:3). Obviously, this thought scares them. Samuel has been able to keep the neighbouring enemies at bay, but his sons can’t live up to it. Israel calls out for a king. Samuel protests, knowing that God is their true king. It has been God all along that has led them. Samuel had simply been obedient. Totally obedient. That should have been their example, but Israel is not known for her perceptive powers. Samuel tells Israel what the Lord has to say on the matter, that a king will ultimately prove to be more of a hindrance to Israel than a help, and ultimately a king will cause separation between the people and God, because of their lack of faith (1Samuel 8:10-18). They don’t listen. Samuel must have felt like a failure.

            So Samuel, after having warned Israel and receiving direction from God, anoints Saul (which may very well have been Samuel’s defining purpose in this whole lifelong journey), who starts out alright as king but who quickly allows power to go to his head. He makes a lot of stupid and arrogant mistakes, but in spite of this, Saul reigns forty-two years. At one point, Saul takes it upon himself to offer a burnt offering in Samuel’s stead, which proves to be a big mistake. It is one that would spell the end of Saul’s reign and that of his house. Later, Saul neglects to slaughter all of the Amalekites as God had mandated, sparing her king, Agag. Samuel has to finish the job himself, and shows once again that he has what it takes to obey the Lord in all things. Saul is subsequently ousted from God’s anointing.

            In the end, Samuel is instructed once more to anoint a king. This time, Israel fares better in the selection of David, youngest of the eight sons of Jesse. David’s eventual coronation marks a pivotal point in Israel’s history and begins the royal lineage from which will spring the King of Kings.

            As for Samuel, his time in the light is over, and in chapter 25 it is written that Samuel had died. His story, however, will never be forgotten. He set an example for all of God’s people and especially for their leaders. When a leader submits to a life of dishonesty and self-centredness, they will fall. When the people of God are led astray, they suffer. When a leader makes choices based on his or her own understanding and doesn’t consider God’s will, plans fail and people get hurt. Yet, a leader who humbles himself every day and follows in the footsteps of his God is a force to be reckoned with indeed. Samuel gave every shred of his love, his obedience, his dignity and his very life into the service of God, as one set apart in order to best serve his people, and during his time Israel had peace. May God’s people always remember what it is to serve him, and each other. Let there be peace once again.

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