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1 Samuel 2:12-26
“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people.” — 1 Samuel 2:26
A Time for Growth
Have you ever noticed that most action-adventure films have the same basic plot? Everything seems to be going fine until some bad guys come on the scene, mess things up, and threaten the future. Good guys arise to save the day, but run into all kinds of trouble and almost fail before finally pulling it out in the end. Movies with more of an artsy or postmodern twist often have more complicated characters: good guys who have a dark side, or bad guys who find redemption.
Stories featuring good-versus-evil characters are as old as storytelling. The Bible, for example, is full of both villains and heroes. Some of them are also complex people: David, for example, was mainly a hero, but capable of villainy.
The characters in today’s text are more clearly drawn. There are two bad guys, and one good one. Let’s take a closer look.
Two worthless sons(vv. 12-17, 22-25)
Two of the most dastardly characters in all of scripture are men we don’t hear much about. They are the dissolute sons of Eli, who succeeded him as priests in the temple at Shiloh. If Daffy Duck were describing them, he’d say they were dethhhhhpicable.
When Hannah first came to the temple and prayed for a child (1 Samuel 1),elderly Eli was still the chief priest, but his two grown sons carried out most of the priestly functions (1:3). The sons have surprising names: Hophni is an Egyptian word meaning “toad.” His younger brother was named Phinehas, which is Hebrew – but it means “brass lips.”
Priests generally gave their children theophoric names, incorporating one or more references to God. Later on, for example, Samuel would name his two sons Joel (“Yahweh is God”) and Abijah (“my father is Yahweh”). It’s likely that Eli would have given his children similar names, and that the author has adopted or supplied unflattering nicknames to reflect their unbefitting “service” as priests.
Despite having grown up in the temple at Shiloh, raised by a priest, Hophni and Phinehas turned out to be shysters of the first order, lacking respect for either God or God’s people. Unfortunately, like most sons in ancient Israel, they were expected to take over their father’s business, and they had no business doing that.
The text flatly states that “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord” (v. 12). The word “scoundrels” translates the phrase “sons of belial.” The word “belial” means “worthlessness” or “wickedness,” and was such a strong word that the Qumran community used it as their primary word for the devil.
The author’s word choice is significant: when Hannah had come to the temple and made a solemn vow in asking for a son, old Eli had thought she was drunk. Hannah responded “don’t take me for a wicked woman!” Literally, “don’t take me for a daughter of belial!” Hannah was not the one who was wicked. That honor belonged to Eli’s sons.
Now, the worst thing about the contemptible pair is that, though they served as priests, “they had no regard for Yahweh” – or more literally: “they did not know Yahweh.” The Hebrew word “to know” suggests an intimate relationship based on personal experience: not just knowing about someone, but knowing them personally. Hophni and Phinehas grew up in church, as it were, but they did not know the Lord. It is possible.
The narrator catalogs some of their reprehensible practices: they took more than their share of boiled meat from the people’s sacrificial offerings (vv. 13-14), and they demanded additional meat raw with the fat untrimmed – a clear violation of the law (vv. 15-16). They threatened violence if the people did not comply.
The scipture’s judgment is, “This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt” (v. 17). They had no regard for the Lord who gave them life. They led services of worship, but they themselves did not worship. They knew all the rituals and how to use them to their advantage, but they did not know the Lord. They treated God’s special gifts with contempt, and violated their sacred trust with God’s people.
And that was not the end of it: v. 22 claims that the two married men also used the women who served at the temple gate for their sexual pleasure. Given their forceful means of obtaining meat, the women’s participation in the illicit liaisons may not have been voluntary.
Eli tried to straighten out his bull-headed sons, according to vv. 23-25, but it was too late. They dismissed him as a senile old man, refused to listen, and did as they pleased. Ultimately, they became the death of Eli, and of themselves (1 Sam. 4:1-18). The narrator’s lack of sympathy for them is evident: he declares “it was the will of the LORD to kill them” (v. 25, see “The Hardest Question” online for more on this).
Is it any wonder that the writer calls them scoundrels?
One worthy lad(vv. 18-21, 26)
The family of Eli was hopeless, and his future was nonexistent (2:27-36, 3:11-18), but that does not mean that the temple was doomed, or that God’s work was ended. Intertwined with the sordid story of two sorry sons is a ray of hope in the form of another son, a boy who serves the Lord with innocence and obedience.
Samuel had been born as a result of his mother’s vow, and brought to the temple when he was probably no more than three years old. We don’t know how long he had been there when the narrator described him as “ministering before the LORD” (v. 18), and we don’t know what type of ministry he was performing: the word was a technical term used for priestly service, but such service could take many forms. Samuel’s priestly status was also indicated by the linen ephod the narrator says he wore. We presume that Samuel was still a growing boy, for each year his mother Hannah “made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice” (v. 19).
Eli blessed Hannah, we are told, and prayed that God would give her another child to replace Samuel. In time, we read, she bore three more sons and two daughters (vv. 19-20), but the focus remains on Samuel, who “grew up in the presence of the LORD” (v. 21). Samuel’s growth did not stop there. After reminding us again of how wicked Eli’s sons were, the narrator tells us that “the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people” (v. 26).
Even so, though Samuel grew up “in the presence of the LORD” and “in favor with the LORD,” the story of Samuel’s call in the following chapter tells us that prior to that nighttime encounter, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him” (3:7).
Even for a good, well-trained, and cooperative boy like Samuel, there is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God through personal experience.
Samuel’s growth in faith was a progressive thing. He was a boy who ministered, like a young acolyte who proudly adorns an alb and lights the candles on Sunday morning. He grew in the presence of the Lord, like a child faithfully brought to Sunday school and worship. He grew in favor with the Lord, like a teenager who begins to integrate childhood faith with daily experience and comes to a personal encounter with God.
But growth continues: later on, the narrator points to yet another stage in Samuel’s development. After he responded to God’s prophetic call on his life, we read, “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD” (3:19-20).
A host of questions
None of us are born fully formed, either as human people or as Christian believers. We all must go through stages of growth and increasing maturity, but it is not automatic. We may have loving parents who take us to church and caring friends who do their best to bring us to God, but every person must make his or her own choices.
We’ve all read or heard horror stories of priests, pastors, or youth ministers who used their position of influence to abuse children or young people. We’ve all known people who grew up in church but abandoned their faith. We are familiar with our own struggle to grow in faith that sometime feels like two steps forward and three steps back.
Samuel’s experience – especially as compared to that of Hophni and Phinehas – reminds us that we can choose to mature in faith or to disown it. We can choose positive paths or negative ones. We can become people who bless the world, or people who honor ourselves alone.
Eli’s sons “had no regard for the LORD,” while Samuel “ministered before the LORD.” Eli’s sons were great sinners “in the sight of the LORD,” while Samuel grew “in favor with the LORD and with the people.” How much of Hophni and Phinehas lives in us? How much of Samuel?
With a new year approaching, this story of two bad boys and a good one offers us important food for thought. Going forward, what path will we take? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 27, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: 1 Samuel 2:12-26
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
You can do everything right and everything by the book and everything can still go wrong. The opposite is true as well: you just wing it and everything can turn out wonderfully. It is frustrating to know that you do all you can and sometimes it doesn’t matter. But the reality is that our students still have to choose for themselves. They have to make the choice to live a life that brings life and builds up the Kingdom of God. But that doesn’t mean that we stop or give up. We are not called to serve because of the results that we get but because we are called to serve. As the new year begins, commit to serving all of your students, no matter the choices that they make.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Good Guys vs. Bad Guys” from Captain America: The Winter Soldier via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: 1 Samuel 2:12-26