The story of old Eli and young Samuel has been told a lot of times. The story I have always heard is how Samuel learned, finally, to hear God’s voice. It’s a really good story. But lately, I have been noticing what Eli hears.
Eli can’t hear God speaking to him anymore. He did once. Now he needs help and Samuel provides the help Eli needs. He doesn’t know he is doing that. Samuel is innocent entirely of God’s plan for Eli, but he helps Eli to hear God by doing all the things he is supposed to do. It’ a sobering thought.
Let’s look at it from God’s point of view. How do you get a message to Eli when Eli has stopped listening? Answer: you call Samuel. I chose this picture because Eli looks really irked and Samuel looks clueless.
Samuel has no idea what is going on. He hears his name being called and there are only two of them there, so he knows it is Eli calling. So he runs to Eli to see what he wants. Eli has no idea yet what is going on, but he is sure that he did not call Samuel and he tells Samuel that. Samuel doesn’t know how to understand what Eli is telling him—might not believe it either—but he goes back to bed as Eli has told him to do.
Note the difference at this point between understanding what is going on and doing what you are supposed to do.
Samuel goes back to sleep and hears his name being called again. Since it can only be Eli, he goes back to see Eli and gets the same answer. Eli might be puzzling a little about why Samuel keeps hearing his name being called, but he is way past doing anything about it. Only being wakened again and again out of a sound sleep by a very obedient little boy is going to raise that question in his mind.
The discrepancy between what Samuel thinks is going on and what Eli suspects is going on has now gotten sharp. Eli now needs another explanation for why his servant keeps coming up and waking him. This is a big deal. He has lived for many years without stumbling on this discrepancy. It is the equivalent of the harassment tactic of phoning a victim’s number every hour all night. At some point, the victim will say, “Who are you and what do you want.”
Samuel knows that only he and Eli are there. That’s how he knows who is calling him. But Eli knows—now that he has been forced to consider it—that there are three there: Eli knows Yahweh is there as well. Samuel does not know that. That means that if Samuel keeps getting called and Eli knows he is not doing the calling, it is God.
It has been a long time since Eli has heard anything from God. He has learned how not to hear God. If spiritual sensitivity could be compared to wearing hearing aids, Eli has taken his hearing aids out. He is slowly dying and everything is fine, but he can’t keep Samuel from waking him up and, eventually, he can’t help noticing what is going on.
God’s project of contacting Eli is now half done. Eli is paying attention. So God tells Samuel everything Samuel needs to hear, including a bunch of really nasty stuff about Eli. The next step is for Samuel to break the bad news to Eli and he doesn’t want to.
But Eli has been awakened now, and from a much more substantial sleep that the one Samuel kept interrupting; he understands, now, that the little boy is not going to want to tell him the bad stuff. So he instructs Samuel very directly to tell him all the bad stuff and Samuel does.
17Eli asked, ‘What message did he give you? Please do not hide it from me. May God bring unnameable ills on you and worse ones, too if you hide from me anything of what he said to you.’ 18Samuel then told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Eli said, ‘He is Yahweh; let him do what he thinks good.’
As I was reading over this familiar story and seeing if from another angle, I remembered a very bad movie about God. It is Oh, God, with George Burns playing God. He wants to get a message to Jerry Landers (John Denver), who doesn’t believe in God in any way practical enough to allow God to give instructions. God gives Jerry a written note inviting him to come and see Him. Jerry wades it up and throws it away. The next day, that note is in the outer leaves of a head of lettuce. Jerry wads it up and throws it away. Then it shows up on his pillow that night.
Jerry still doesn’t believe in God, but he wants his life back with the same intensity with which Eli wants his night’s sleep back. So he goes to the place where God is and hears what God wants to tell him and is forever changed.
You can see why the story of Eli reminded me of the story of Jerry. But in Oh God, the role of Samuel is played by a piece of paper that magically reappears over and over until Jerry gets tired of throwing it away. If you don’t have a magic piece of paper, you will need someone like Samuel.
Who’s like Samuel?
Samuel is, in this story, God’s catalyst. He has no idea what is going on, but he does his job. He is, in that one sense, inert. God knows what is going on and Eli once knew what was going on, but Samuel does not. Samuel knows his duty and he does his duty and in that way, God is able to get Eli’s attention without using a magically reappearing piece of paper.
I look around, sometimes, for what I think of as “meaningful work.” By that, I mean work that means something to me. I’m not sure I have the patience to do the catalytic work Samuel was called to do.