Commentary: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
The texts for the next two Sundays after Epiphany both deal with calls extended to individuals as well as their responses. In each case, God is described as intervening in the human sphere and doing a new thing. Already in 1 Samuel 1 the reader has an indication of the unique role that Samuel will play in the succeeding narrative. The piety of his aged, previously barren mother Hannah is revealed in his dedication to the Lord's service (1 Sam 1:22,28). When weaned, Samuel is taken to Shiloh and placed under the tutelage of Eli, where he eventually ministers before the Lord.
Immediately prior to 3:1, the wickedness of Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, is thoroughly described. The juxtaposition of Samuel, who "ministers to the Lord" (v. 11), with the perversity of Eli's sons and their total lack of "regard for the Lord" (2:12) is striking. Samuel grows both in stature and in favor with the Lord, while the only thing that grows for Eli's sons is their degree of degradation. The flouting of their authority concerning sacrifices (2:12f.), their fornicating with women (2:22), ultimately prove to be the last straw, and the reader is informed that the will of the Lord was to slay them (2:25;4:11).
With the demise of Eli's house imminent, the rise of Samuel's future is as predictable as it is prepared for by the narrative (2:11,18,21,26,31a). The preceding material about Eli's house and its fate provides the context for the theophany experienced by Samuel in 3:1-10.
1 Samuel 3:1 informs the reader what anyone with insight would already know: "The word of the Lord was rare...there was no frequent vision." In other words, the fact that God's revelation was completely unexpected is doubly emphasized. The unexpectedness of God's revelation becomes evident in the calls that come to Samuel. Neither Samuel nor Eli realize what is transpiring there in the temple while the "lamp of God" yet burned. This describes the time of day when Samuel was called—before sunlight. It also serves to contrast the portrayal of a "sleeping" Eli (he has now lost his sight completely), while the lamp provides illumination for an "alert" Samuel. The rarity of the word of the Lord is further evidenced by Samuel's three-fold mistaking of the divine voice for Eli's. Eli's failing eyesight is no doubt the reason Samuel believed the calls were requests from Eli for assistance.
The alacrity of Samuel's response is notable. In fact, the author mentions it four times. In each of the first three instances, Samuel immediately rises up as if for service to Eli. By the third call, however, Eli realizes that this call has an otherworldly origin, and tells Samuel next time to respond to the Lord.
1 Samuel 3:7 is an important verse that serves to link this call of Samuel with the call that is described in our Gospel text from John 1. Samuel had not yet known the Lord, he had not yet had the word of the Lord revealed to him. For our lectionary purposes, this verse appears to connect the call of Samuel to the calls of Philip and Nathanael. After all, in the similar manner that the word had not been revealed to Samuel, Jesus had not yet been to Galilee (John 1:43), which means also that the word of the Lord had yet to be revealed then to Philip and Nathanael.
As in 1 Samuel, where insight is gained and the word of the Lord comes to Samuel, so we find a corresponding situation in John. In Galilee, Jesus finds Philip and calls him to "follow." This encounter reveals who Jesus is to Philip, because he immediately reports to Nathanael that this Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, is the "one of whom Moses as well as the prophets spoke," i.e., the Messiah. The effect of this revealing of himself to Philip inaugurates Philip's work as a disciple. Nathanael inquires about this man Jesus, and Philip responds, "Come and see." He responds like an evangelist, and gives the identical charge that Jesus extended to two of his disciples in 1:39 ("come and see").
While Jesus (the "word of the Lord") reveals himself in a progressive fashion in John 1, the understanding of who he is grows. Philip knows the historically situated Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah. Nathanael next confesses that Jesus is "the Son of God...the King of Israel." However, Jesus must inform them that they will need to have more insight finally to understand who he is. Therefore, in 1:50, when Jesus says, "You shall see greater things than these," he is essentially providing an introduction to the rest of John's Gospel in which these "greater things" will be described.
All of the Gospel "signs and wonders" performed by Jesus confirm, upon reflection, what he predicts in 1:51. The reader, after completing the entire Gospel, will think back and agree that the events of Jesus' life show him to be the locale of God's glory. The reference to seeing heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man points back to the Genesis 28 account when, in a dream, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.
By introducing this allusion, Jesus informed his disciples that just as that ladder provided Jacob with access to the heavens via the angels, he too stands as the vital link between heaven and earth. Through Christ, the heavens which were sealed up, were again opened (e.g., Hebrews 10:19-22) and the communion and reconciliation between heaven and earth restored. With this graphic image, Jesus reveals that he is now the person and means of God's self revelation.
Samuel was unaware of the voice that called to him. He was, however, quick to respond and sought to serve. In John, the understanding of who Jesus is developed through the introduction of titles throughout the first chapter of John. Only as the Gospel continues on, however, will the appropriateness of the many titles become clearer. The response of Samuel to the word of the Lord, and the response of the disciples "to come and see," may be viewed as the reaction expected of every person who is confronted with the Word, or who hears a voice calling his or her name.
John M. Scholer