Archive for September, 2011

From Shiloh to Jerusalem

Last week I posted a quick study on the early narratives of Samuel, showing the fall of Eli’s family, priests at Shiloh, and the rise of Samuel, the “faithful priest” the Lord raised up to replace the house of Eli.  I noted there that the “narrative of 1 Samuel 1-7 is largely focused on this reversal.”

But there is another important storyline bubbling beneath the surface of these chapters that I don’t want to pass over.  The sins of the Shiloh priests (detailed in my last post) in the first few chapters of Samuel set the stage for another important transition for the people of God.

The focus of Israelite worship at the beginning of 1 Samuel is Shiloh.  This is where the priests served (however poorly), the tent of meeting was located and where the ark was kept.  But starting in chapter 4, the ark leaves Shiloh never to return.  Because the sins of the priests there, the Lord takes the ark from his people, through Philistine territory and back to Israel.

This section reminds me of Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 8-11.  There, Ezekiel is shown by the God the horrible sins being perpetuated by the leaders of Israel in the Temple (bowing to the sun, making idols, etc).  God’s response to this constant idolatry and rejection of him is to pull his presence out of Jerusalem and leave his people, in effect.  The end result is that Jerusalem is sacked by the Babylonians and the people carried into exile.

The stories aren’t exactly parallel, but they do make similar points.  In both instances, the leaders of God’s people dishonor their God and abuse something he gave them for their own good (the sacrificial system, the ark, etc).  In both instances God’s response is to remove his presence from their locus of worship for a time.

Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, treat the ark as a lucky rabbit’s foot.  Rather than seeking the Lord’s help in battle, they presumptuously believe they can trot out their magical weapon and the Lord must work for them.  The Lord refuses to play the role, so he demonstrates his own complete freedom: he causes the Philistines to win the battle, but rather than this indicating Dagon has defeated Yahweh, Yahweh defeats Dagon in his own temple (1 Samuel 5) and eventually the ark ends up in Kiriath Jearim for 20 years (7:1-2).

There’s nothing really said about the ark for a while.  The astute reader, which I admit I was not for the first billion times I read this, will ask the question at some point, “what happened to the ark?”  After all, for the first 6 chapters the ark is one of the two main characters, along with Samuel.  For 3 chapters (4-6) Samuel is out of the picture and the entire story centers around the ark and its “travels.”

So we ought not be surprised when the ark storyline is picked back up in 2 Samuel 6.  David brings the ark from Kiriath Jearim (with a pit stop at Obed-Edom’s house, lucky guy) to Jerusalem, where the Temple will eventually be built by his son, Solomon.  It isn’t random that the book of Samuel ends on a story of David buying a threshing floor in Jerusalem to build an altar (2 Sam 24:18-25) in order to offer a sacrifice and end a plague.  It is this location, according to 1 Chronicles 22:1, that the more permanent altar is built in the Temple.

So the narrative of the early chapters of 1 Samuel don’t just tell the story of Samuel replacing Eli and his sons, it sets the stage for the ark, representing the presence of God, moving to Jerusalem, the future home of the Temple.

Going back to my previous post, I quoted Conrad Mbewe, who once said, “The God of the universe will not allow his agenda to be hijacked by ungodly, selfish leaders.”  There will always be leaders in the church- or any Christian, really- who will be characterized by ungodliness.  There will always be those who treat God as a “cosmic vending machine,” who must give you what you want when you want it.

The Lord is patient, but he will, at some point, assert his own freedom.  As much as he likes to bless his children, as important as his presence is in the church, he does not work for us.  We cannot, as Mbewe says, “hijack” his plan.

God’s plan was for Israel to have godly leaders who honor him in their lives and in their worship.  Eli and his family failed to do this, and failed miserably.  So the Lord removed the ark from Shiloh and replaced the priests with Samuel.  Eventually Israel has David as their king, the great king to whom all others are compared, who returns the ark to its rightful place for it to be placed in the Temple.

This all points to Jesus, the son of David, the great King and Priest to whom no other can be compared.  Instead of attempting to enforce his own plan, Jesus openly admitted “I can do nothing on my own initiative” (Jn 5:30) and did what his Father planned.  And Jesus is the Temple, where the presence of God dwells and sacrifice for sin is made.  The presence of God returned to his people in Jesus and restored them, which was the Lord’s plan all along.

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God Will Raise Up a Faithful Priest

The early narrative of 1 Samuel juxtaposes the house of Eli, the priests in Shiloh, and Samuel, the one who would take their place.  Because of the sins of Eli’s sons, which ultimately reflect on Eli himself, God judges them and replaces them with Samuel, who heard the word of the Lord and obeyed.  Consider the structure of 2:11-4:1a, which shows a progression of growth for Samuel and sin for Eli’s family:


2:11- Samuel ministered before the Lord

2:12-17- Eli’s sons corrupting the priesthood

2:18-21- Samuel ministering before the Lord & growing up in His presence

2:22-25- Eli’s sons’ corruption and refusing to repent

2:26- Samuel growing in stature and in favor w/ the Lord & people

2:27-36- prophecy of fall of the House of Eli

3:1-4:1a- Samuel to take the place of Eli and his family


It seems to me that the author is intentionally setting up the rise of Samuel and the fall of the house of Eli (I’ve written previously about the author using literary devices to make a point here).

Looking more closely at the Eli’s family, you can see the unlawful practices of their priesthood in Shiloh.  Eli’s sons sleeping with the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting (2:22) is pretty obviously bad, especially when you consider the strong possibility that this was some form of ritual prostitution.

But there are a couple more sins that are perhaps less obvious.  The priests would eat whatever portion of the sacrifice they wanted, which is seen as wrong since the narrative says Eli’s sons “had no regard for the LORD” (1 Sam 2:12) and “were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt” (2:17).  It’s easy to tell from the narrative that the sons were, indeed, “scoundrels” (2:12), but why they were scoundrels is perhaps less obvious.  What one might not know is that there were very specific laws given to priests for what they may or may not eat (see Lev 7:29-36).

Even less obvious is the problem with 1 Sam 3:3, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out…”  This seems harmless enough, until you remember that Lev 24:1-4 specifically instructs the priests not to let the lamp go out.  This also implicates Eli in not only being a horribly permissive father (which is clear up to this point), but he is also guilty of neglecting the commands given to his ancestors.  (See this post for another example of an author not explicitly calling attention to a sin, but expecting the reader to know the laws given in the Torah.)

Let’s lay it out a little more clearly just how awful the priesthood of Eli’s family was (again, keeping in mind that ritual prostitution might not have been what was going on):


Sinful Action

Law Broken

…the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot.  Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself.  This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh.  But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” (1 Sam 2:12-17) The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast belongs to Aaron and his sons [the priests].  You are to give the right thigh of your fellowship offering to the priest as a contribution…. The LORD commanded that the Israelites give this to them as their perpetual share for the generations to come.  (Lev 7:29-36)


Eli’s sons… slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting (1 Sam 2:22) No Israelite woman is to become a shrine prostitute (Deut 23:17-18)
The lamp of God had not yet gone out… (1 Sam 3:3)


Outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, Aaron [and future priests] is to tend the lamps before the LORD from evening till morning, continually.  This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.  (Lev 24:1-4)


You’ll notice the 1st and 3rd commands given were specifically said to be honored “for the generations to come.”  So what we have here is a family of priests habitually refusing to obey the Lord, and ultimately paying the price as they are replaced with Samuel.

Jumping to chapter 7, we see Samuel doing things the right way.  Instead of abusing the sacrificial system, Samuel properly offers a sacrifice and Israel wins their battle against the Philistines (7:7-11).  When the Lord delivers his people in battle, Samuel names the place “Ebenezer” (stone of help), in effect replacing the previous Ebenezer, where Israel lost a battle led by Eli’s sons against the Philistines (4:1f).

All of this shows how and why Eli and his family fell from power, and why Samuel was chosen to take their place.  Whereas Eli’s family showed contempt for their holy position as priests serving God’s people and contempt for God himself, Samuel grew in the Lord, served him faithfully and honored the Lord at all times.  The narrative of 1 Samuel 1-7 is largely focused on this reversal, where God rejects the wicked priesthood of Eli and his sons and raises up a faithful priest (2:35).

I recently listened to a sermon preached by Conrad Mbewe on Jeremiah 23, a passage denouncing ungodly leaders (shepherds) in Israel and predicting their replacement (ultimately by the Great Shepherd, the Faithful Priest).  Mbewe said something that reminds me of these chapters in Samuel, which seems like an appropriate way to end this study: “The God of the universe will not allow his agenda to be hijacked by ungodly, selfish leaders.  He will raise another in your place.”

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