The first half of this chapter is a great Sunday School story: I can remember as a child loving the hymn based on it, James Burns’ Hushed was the evening hymn, set to Arthur Sullivan’s great tune. After that, though, it turns a bit nasty, so we keep that part out of the children’s ears, and safely inside those square brackets. But the chapter as a whole is a watershed for Israel, and a challenge for all who are positions of leadership today. To understand why, we’ll have to read around the passage a bit (never a bad idea).
Samuel, like so many other key leaders in the Bible, had been a miracle baby, and now as promised he was apprenticed to Eli the priest at the sanctuary in Shiloh. But around the key story we are given a lot more other information about the state of the nation at this time. 3:1 tells us that the word of the Lord and vision from him were rare, and interestingly the next verse tells us that Eli himself was virtually blind. But there was more to it than that. Whilst we have no record of Eli ever bringing prophetic messages from God, nor in fact doing very much at all in terms of his priestly leadership, he does seem to spend a lot of his time sitting around on a throne (4:13), and wringing his hands over the behaviour of his uncontrollable sons Hophni and Phineas. They too are priests, but are totally corrupt, pinching food from those bringing sacrifices, and raping any women they fancied. Eli hears reports from others about their behaviour, but can only rebuke this abuse of power in the mildest of terms. In addition his level of spirituality seems to be very low: he mistakes fervent prayer for drunkenness, in a way similar to some of the bystanders on the Day of Pentecost, and uncannily like some of the mockery levelled at charismatic Christians more recently.
Hannah, Samuel’s mum, had prophesied, in a way very similar to Jesus’ mum 1,000 years later, about God’s penchant for reversing people’s fortunes (2:7), bringing down the proud and powerful whilst exalting the meek. It is the first job of the her son as the fledgling prophet to proclaim that God is about to do just that to Eli’s family.
It is an uncomfortable calling to pronounce judgement, and one which is particularly out of fashion today in a church which has lost much of its prophetic edge and wants to be encouraging of pretty much anyone or anything. Yet we continue to reap the whirlwind from the behaviour of some of our leaders who, like Eli’s sons, use their positions to harm and abuse others. Samuel’s ministry is a hinge-point in the history of Israel, bringing to an end the corrupt period of the Judges and uniting the nation (for a while at least) under the monarchy. This story sets the tone for his future ministry as one who certainly could receive words and visions from the Lord, to great effect.
Over the years I have held several diocesan posts which have been about helping local churches to be healthy and effective. I have learnt two things from this kind of ministry: 1) it’s hard, and 2) effective churches are led by effective leaders. Most leaders have told me it’s hard in their particular patch, because it’s so urban, or because it’s so rural, or because it’s so middle-class … My conclusion is that it’s hard everywhere. But I have come to believe that leadership is key: it is rare to see an effective church with ineffectual or even downright corrupt leadership, and tragically I have seen plenty of both. The Bible encourages us to pray for our leaders, and that is needed today more than ever. But perhaps we also need to hear again some of the prophetic voices who call out bad behaviour and protect the Church from it in a way which Eli so manifestly failed to do.
Let’s start with a bit of Hebrew geekery – Gen 1:1 is a bad translation! There is no ‘the’ before ‘beginning’, and the word ‘beginning’ is constructed to show that it is the beginning of something, not just ‘the beginning’. So a better translation might read ‘When God began to create …’ We are used to the idea that creation happened ex nihilo, or starting absolutely from scratch, but a careful reading of the text won’t allow that here. Formless and void though it may have been, the earth was in some sense already there. So was darkness, and so were some waters over which the Spirit was hovering. One Jewish tradition taught that God had practised already, and had rejected 974 attempts before finally getting it just how he wanted with the 975th, which is where we live. Whether or not we like this idea (and it does have a certain appeal), it is clear that God had been at work long before the big bang which started things off here. He had already prepared the raw materials before the actual creation of our world began.
Today as we remember the Baptism of Jesus, which launched him into his public ministry, we can also see that work had been going on before the big day. The Bible is largely silent about it, as it is about the pre-creation cosmos, apart from the tantalising glimpse Luke gives us of Jesus aged 12. Of course this particular vacuum has been filled abundantly with legends, like that of Jesus bringing clay birds to life and striking neighbours blind. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas makes delightful reading (just Google it to see the text), but fortunately is not within our canon of Scripture. All we get is the big day when his ministry is launched, and an awareness that God has been at work in him before that.
The other thing to note about Gen 1 is that it is a deeply polemical work, in other words it is written for something, but also against something. The chapter is generally thought to be a part of what is called the Priestly Code, probably written after the Babylonian exile to give a logical and orderly account of the creation. But it was written in the context of a nation which for a generation or more had been living with a different story, that of the Babylonian god Marduk cutting the evil sea-monster Tiamat in half and using the two halves to make heaven and earth respectively. Clearly the writers were very familiar with this story, and the people for whom it was written would have been very familiar with it too; indeed some of them may have believed it, along with the pantheon of other gods worshipped around them, represented by stars, sun, moon, trees and so on. There are interesting echoes: the Hebrew words for the ‘deep’ in v.2 is related to the name of Tiamat, and the separation in v.6 reflects the cutting in half of the monster. In other parts of the OT God chops up sea monsters or otherwise destroys them. But then, in a deeply subversive way, God goes on to create sun, moon, stars and the rest. They’re not gods: they were spoken into being and put there by our God! This is the truth, and you’d better believe it!
Another passage (which I would have chosen for the Epistle today if they had asked me) brings these two ideas together. Paul wrote in Gal 4:
When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.
God had been at work in and through his Son, but one day, on just the right day, the set time arrived, and Jesus manifested himself and began his ministry. But the word ‘repent’, with which that ministry began, means that his ministry was not just for something but also against something: all that is evil, unjust and destructive, all that we have put our faith in, all the myths which we have believed because all those around us believe them. Simeon had perceived this when he first me the baby Jesus. God had been at work in him preparing him for a ministry which would inevitably bring division, become a challenge, and call people to a crisis point, to a ‘make your mind up time’.
So Jesus’ baptism invites us to consider how God might already have been at work, in our lives, in our world, in the Covid pandemic, in Trump’s USA … and what we might be called to turn from in repentance so that the truth can restore our perspective and set us free.