A Child Borrowed and Loaned
1 Samuel 1:27-2:8, 3:1-10
The Book of First Samuel begins with three narratives that give
theological direction to the book: the providential birth and dedication
of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1 1:28), the decline of the house of Eli (2:11-36), and
Samuel's prophetic call (3:1-4:la). These introduce the prophet Samuel as
one who will play a crucial role in a new era of Israelite history. They
also lay the groundwork for the transition from the period of the Judges
to the era of the Israelite monarchy. The Song of Hannah (2:1-10) is a
poetic thanksgiving hymn incorporated into these narratives. It serves to
emphasize the continuing activity of God in the shifting arena of human
Together these narratives serve to focus attention on the figure of
Samuel and his rise to a position of influence among the Israelite tribes.
Yet in the background the narrative deftly weaves throughout the book a
theological commentary on God's work among the people and their role as
the people of God amid significant and permanent changes in their social
and cultural structures.
This commentary will focus on only two of these narratives, Samuel's
birth and prophetic call. But we should keep in mind that these first
three chapters of 1 Samuel function together in context to establish the
theological groundwork for how Israel responded to the changes that would
forever transform her role in history.
I. The Gift of a Son (1 Samuel
27. "I prayed for this child, and the
Lord has granted me what I asked of him. 28. So now I give him to the
Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord." And he
worshiped the Lord there.
As noted, these verses are actually the conclusion of the opening
narrative of the book and must be seen in that context (1:1-28). Hannah,
the childless wife of Elkanah, grieved because she had no children. Her
rival wife, Peninnah, compounded her misery by taunting her because of her
barrenness. Hannah, as she prayed in the sanctuary of God at Shiloh, vowed
that if God would allow her to bear a son, she would dedicate him back to
God. God heard and answered her prayer and she gave birth to Samuel. True
to her vow, after she gave birth to the child and weaned him, she brought
him to the sanctuary and placed him in the service of God at Shiloh under
the priest Eli.
27. I prayed Prayer, along with
other acts of devotion to God (sacrifice, worship, vows), plays an
important role in this story. The narrative strongly emphasizes the godly
character of both Hannah and her husband Elkanah.
The lack of children, especially sons to continue the family, was the
bitterest disappointment for a woman in the ancient Near East. Barrenness
was often seen as a curse from God (note v. 5). However, the barren woman
to whom God gives a child is an important theme in several biblical
stories (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachael, Manoah's wife , Elizabeth). These
accounts affirm that God can work in apparently impossible situations to
fulfill His purposes for His people. The emphasis in such stories is
always God's ability to work in the world in spite of and beyond human
Faithful prayer and devotion to God were always important elements in
the birth of a son to one who had been barren (Gen 15:1-6; 25:21; 30:22;
Luke 1:6-7-7; the birth of Samson serves a different purpose in the
context of Jud. 13). In each case, the child born to the barren woman
played a significant role in biblical history (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph,
Samuel, John the Baptist).
27-28. I asked . . . I give him
There is a word play here that is impossible to translate into English,
but is crucial for the story. The Hebrew word translated "ask" (sha'al)
can also mean "ask for" in the sense of "to borrow." From this it
can also mean "to loan." The two English words "ask and "give" in these
verses are the same word in Hebrew used with different meanings: "I asked/borrowed him from God, so now I will
loan him back to God.
Many versions (for example, RSV, NEB) translate "I lend him" rather
than "I give him." "Dedicate" would be a good
translation. The same word is also used to explain Samuel's name (v. 20),
so he can be described as both "asked for/borrowed" and
This play on different shades of meaning of the same Hebrew word serves
to make an important theological point in the narrative. Samuel was given
to Hannah as if on loan for a time. Her act of devotion in fulfilling her
vow to God is simply returning to God what she had "borrowed" for a while.
We should take care here not to romanticize this too much. But we should
take seriously the implications of the narrative that this child was a
gift of God and therefore in a position to carry out his purposes for his
people. It is likely this theological dimension that allows the Song
of Hannah at the birth of Samuel to become the framework for the Gospels
writer to tell of the birth of Jesus from the perspective of Mary (the
Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55; see
commentary on Luke 1:39-55).
28. For his whole life Hannah's vow
of lifelong dedication of her son to God had included a vow never to cut
his hair (1:11). Because this is one of the vows taken by Nazarites (which
also included abstinence from wine and avoidance of contact with a dead
body; Num 6:1 21), some scholars have suggested that Samuel was a Nazarite
like Samson (Judg 13:4-7). Nazarites (Heb: "dedicated" or "consecrated")
were men or women who took these vows as a sign of special dedication to
God. In a sense, they were like some of the monastic orders throughout the
history of Christianity who took special vows of silence or chastity as a
sign of devotion to God. However, while Hannah's vow for Samuel sounds
like that of a Nazarite, the term Nazarite is never applied to Samuel in
the biblical traditions.
And he worshiped Various
manuscripts have different readings for this part of verse 28. The Greek
translation (Septuagint) omits it altogether. The Hebrew has a singular
but given the context it probably should be understood as a plural
("they," RSV; cf. v. 25).
II. The Boy Who Could See (3:1-3)
1 The boy Samuel ministered before the
Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were
not many visions. 2. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that
he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3. The lamp of God
had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord,
where the ark of God was.
1. The boy The Hebrew word (na'ar)
refers to a young male child. While it can refer to boys of various ages
(infants, Ex 2:6; older boys, Gen 37:2) the emphasis is on Samuel's youth.
Ministered The Hebrew word (sharat)
indicates a higher level of service than that of a slave and is used of
those in trusted positions (Gen 39:4). The word often refers to those who
served in the temple or in sanctuaries of worship.
Those days refers to the period of
the Judges. The last verse of the Book of Judges (24:25) summarizes that
era of Israel's history: "everyone did as they saw fit."
The word of the Lord The Hebrew
term translated "word" (dabar) has a wider range of meaning than in
English. It can refer simply to a spoken word. However, it can also refer
to an action associated with what is spoken, or to an activity or event.
The word of the Lord
encompasses not only God's communication of His purpose and will for the
world but also His activity and actions in the world.
However, the phrase came to have a technical meaning in much of the Old
Testament to refer to a message from God mediated through a prophet. Even
though the term frequently refers to oral speech, the significance does
not lie in the actual act of speaking. Rather, the content of the message
and the authority by which it is given is emphasized. A prophet who
receives and gives the word of the Lord is one who accurately interprets
and communicates God's will (note Amos 1:1; Jer 1:2, etc.). The "word" in
this context referred to a revelation from God of who He was and what He
expected of humanity (cf. John 1:1 18).
Visions While the verbal form of
this word can refer to seeing physically with the eye (Isa 33:20),
"vision" most often refers to communication from God without reference to
the means of that communication. The word vision is a synonym here for
"word of the Lord" and should be understood in the sense of revelation. As the narrative unfolds with the
following comments about Eli's poor eyesight, we should keep in mind that
the narrator is telling this story very subtly here. The interwoven
references to visions, eyesight, and light become metaphorical vehicles
for theological commentary about what is going on spiritually in Israel as
God calls this young man Samuel.
2. One night We can take the
reference to night as simply a historical comment about the time of day in
which this incident took place. But in the cluster of images here
referring to sight, the fact that it is night becomes a significant
element in the narrative. Frequently in biblical traditions, darkness is
used as a symbol for lack of understanding or of spiritual need.
He could barely see Twice in these
early narratives, Eli's poor eyesight is noted (3:2; 4:15). In his earlier
encounter with Hannah in the temple, he misunderstood what he could
see (1:12-13). Seeing is often a symbol for "understanding" or spiritual
insight in Scripture. The implication throughout the story is that Eli's
spiritual eyesight is also poor!
Eli's failure to train his two sons in the proper respect of God
eventually resulted in him "seeing distress" (2:32). Both sons died and
the priesthood passed to another family (2:32-35). The narrator makes his
point with a touch of irony, playing on the imagery of sight: God does not
appear to the priest Eli because he cannot see! Instead, he appears to the
borrowed/lent Samuel because he is willing to see as well as to
These narratives present a clear contrast throughout. On the one hand,
Samuel's devout parents are blessed (2:21) and their son continues to
mature spiritually (2:26; 3:19). On the other hand, Eli's family gradually
disintegrates because of failure to honor God. Eli tries to convince his
sons of their responsibilities to God and their opportunity to minister to
people, but they refuse to listen. The contrast of the selfish sons of Eli
who refuse to listen, and the very young Samuel who sees and hears what no
one else can see and hear becomes the focal point of the story. It even
hints at Samuel's later ministry where he becomes known as a Seer, one who sees in behalf of God (1 Sam 9:9).
3. Lamp of God A light was to burn
in the sanctuary of God from evening until morning (Lev 24:2-4). On one
level, we might again take this as a simple comment about the time of day
and the setting for the narrative. Yet, there is an obvious theological
connection here between the comment that "there were not many visions" (v.
2) and the fact that the lamp of God was still burning in the darkness.
The implication is that even though the spiritual level of the people of
God has reached a low that could be described in terms of darkness and
blindness, yet the presence of God still flickered among his people. The
very fact of Samuel's birth, and certainly what is about to unfold in the
following verses, bear witness to the fact that God had not abandoned his
people to the darkness. In the very context of spiritual blindness, God's
presence among his people is about to be fanned into new flame!
III. The Response of a Servant
4. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel
answered, "Here I am." 5 And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you
called me." But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he
went and lay down. 6. Again the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up
and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." "My son," Eli said
"I did not call; go back and lie down." 7. Now Samuel did not yet know the
Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8. The Lord
called Samuel a third time and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said,
"Here I am; you called me." 9. Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling
the boy. 9. So Eli told Samuel. "Go and lie down, and if he calls you,
say, 'Speak. Lord, for your servant is listening."' So Samuel went and lay
down in his place. 10. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the
other times, "Samuel" Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant
4. The Lord called Samuel The
Hebrew has a preposition here ("to Samuel") so the NIV translates this as
a simple object. However, the Greek translation (Septuagint) of this verse
reads, "The Lord called, 'Samuel! Samuel!'" And he answered . . ." as in
3:10. Some translations (RSV) follow this reading.
Here I am This is a single word in
Hebrew (hinneni), a common Hebraic way of responding to a summons.
It has the meaning: "I have heard and am listening for instruction."
The double use of a person's name, as in "Samuel! Samuel!" followed by
a response of "Here am I," is a common biblical way of describing an
encounter between God and someone willing to respond in obedience (Gen
22:11, 46:2. Exod 3:4). The implication of an improper response is that
the person is not in right relationship with God (Acts 9:4).
7. Samuel did not yet know the Lord
The word know carries considerable meaning in Hebrew. It can
refer simply to knowledge about something. However, it can also refer to
deeper discernment, such as insight into the nature and character of God
(Ex 14:4). It most often communicates intimate relationship, as in its
common use for sexual intimacy between husband and wife (Gen 4:1; The RSV
reads "Adam knew Eve his wife" while NIV reads the Hebrew word "know" as
"lay," communicating more clearly sexual intimacy: "Adam lay with his wife
Eve."). The term is also used for the covenant relationship between God
and Israel (Amos 3:2).
The implication here is not that Samuel lacked any relationship with
God, as with Eli's sons who "did not know the Lord" (2:12; the word "know"
is used in the Hebrew although NIV translates "they had no regard for the
Lord."). Rather, Samuel had not yet received the word of the Lord that
would establish the special relationship between God and Samuel as his
prophet (note 3:19-21).
Revealed The Hebrew means "to
uncover" or "to show," and in this context indicates that Samuel had not
yet been commissioned as a prophet.
9. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening
As we have seen, the response "Here am I" with which Samuel had already
answered three times means the same as this reply. However, earlier Samuel
had thought he was responding to the priest. Eli instructed Samuel that
his response should recognize that it was indeed God who was speaking. It
should also make clear that he was submissive to God. The term servant is
the normal designation of a slave and further shows complete willingness
to respond obediently. Lord is probably
omitted in Samuel's own answer (v. 10) because this time Samuel clearly
recognized who was calling!
10. The Lord came and stood This
apparently describes a physical visual encounter with God. However, the
narrative is very brief and unusually silent about the circumstances of
this appearance of God. Such encounters with God, called a theophany or an
epiphany, are usually described in much more elaborate terms (for example,
Hab 3; Isa 6; Ex 34). The importance of this mention of God's coming is
not that God physically appeared to Samuel (although that could easily
have been the case!). The significance is rather in the context of the
passage. The narrator draws a contrast between the lack of visions that
marked the period of the judges, and the fresh activity (word)
of God that would mark the prophetic era inaugurated by Samuel (contrast
3:1 with 3:21!).
The "word" of God that Samuel received following his call (vv. 11-14)
is also a part of this narrative. The message concerned the downfall of
the house of Eli and the inauguration of a new priestly line. That message
with which Samuel was commissioned proves to be a crucial link in this
transition period between the judges and the monarchy. It is also an
important link later in the narrative that Samuel's own sons were as
unworthy of continuing the leadership of Samuel as Eli's sons were
unworthy of continuing his ministry (1 Sam 8:1-5). This dynamic in the
larger narrative underscores the transition unfolding between the
leadership of local tribal priests like Eli and the later organization of
an all-Israel monarchy. Samuel also proves to be a transition figure in
that larger narrative, the last of the tribal Judges and the first of the
prophets who function with Israel's Kings.
The narrative concludes with summary comments on the role of Samuel as
the mediator of God's will (3:19-4:1a). Samuel, the child "borrowed" and
then "loaned" back to God, emerges from these narratives with a passion
for obedient service to God. It is this dimension of the young man
Samuel's ability to hear and see God when other leaders could not that
allows him to lead the people into a new era of God's activity (3:21).