Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

This excerpt comes from 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 3:1-10:

The twilight scene in which the call story begins could grace a pre-Raphaelite painting: the lights slowly fading from temple and its environs. First we are shown Eli laying up for the night, sleep gathering in his rheumy eyes: “Eli was laid down in his place, and his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see” (3:2).

The temple is shutting down for the night, and “the lamp of God” is about to be put out “in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep” (3:3). “The temple of the Lord” makes us think of Solomon’s Temple, as yet unbuilt, of course, not of a backwoods temple-shrine in Shiloh.

The empirically minded fifth-century Antiochene theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia rightly asks why the psalmist can refer to what is really a tabernacle as a temple and answers that “the tabernacle may be called the temple, the testimony of Kings [i.e., Regum] clearly instructs, since the construction of the temple had not begun at the time”: the Shiloh shrine is temple because the ark of the covenant there domiciled in its tabernacle (Exposition on Psalms 10, in Franke 2005: 210).

Living in the house of the Lord was evidently taken literally: because it characterizes their sleep positions by reference to the temple lamps, we can see that Eli is sleeping in an antechamber to the temple, and Samuel perhaps before the ark. The pre-Raphaelites would enjoy illustrating this because it is lucidly allegorical, representing by the state of visionless sleep that the people are not awake to the presence of God, that “the word of the Lord was precious [or sparse]; there was no open vision” (3:1).

The divine call comes when, at a real and spiritual moment of twilight, “the word of the Lord” is sparse and the light of “open vision” has almost been quenched in the land. The priest himself, the obvious recipient of the call, has become spiritually sluggish (Eli’s “eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see”; 3:2).

The temple light is about to be dimmed: “And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord” (3:3); then, as the unwitting prophet-to-be is “laid down to sleep” (3:4), God’s word strikes. God’s word is so much an unknown word, a new sign, that neither the boy nor the priest his “father” spontaneously recognize it.


©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.