Friday, December 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 7

In this chapter Israel defeats the Philistines in battle. Israel has recovered the ark, by no action of their own. To them, it must have been pretty strange seeing an undriven cart riding into Beth Shemesh containing their nation’s most holy relic and a symbol of the LORD’s presence. For whatever reason, they did not take it back to the tabernacle at Shiloh, but left it for 20 years in a man’s house in Kiriath Jearim. And after all of the defeats and embarassment that they had suffered, Israel did once more what they had done so many times before, and they repented. This really is another “Judges cycle” like from the book of Judges. After suffering a staggering defeat and living in bondage to the Philistines for 20 years, they “mourned and sought after the LORD”. Samuel calls the people to gather at Mizpah, in a sort of religious convocation. Incidentally, their gathering could also be interpreted as a military act because they are essentially mustering an army at the same time. What’s funny is that Mizpah is actually the same place where the Israelites gathered in Judges 10 when they wanted to fight against the Ammonites, after “they got rid of the foreign gods among them”. It’s hilarious how similar all these events are to the episodes from the book of Judges. The Philistines, as I said, interpreted the Israelites’ gathering as an act of rebellion. The Israelites were gathering together so that they could fight against the Philistines, who were oppressing them at the time, and the Philistines were not willing to let them go. The Philistines also gather to fight, but the LORD intercedes on behalf of Israel, bringing “loud thunder” to disrupt the Philistines and give Israel victory. The Philistines are defeated for the rest of Samuel’s lifetime, and Samuel judges Israel from his hometown of Ramah. This is not where he was raised, since he grew up near the tabernacle in Shiloh. But what we read in chapter 1 of this book is that Samuel’s parents were from Ramah of Ephraim, so it appears that Samuel moved back to the town of his birth and his family. So far, everything is the same as prior Judges cycles. Now we will see if Israel dives back into sin, like earlier generations, or if they will maintain their devotion to the LORD. What we will read in later chapters is that while the Philistines are defeated, they are not crushed, and they return to attack Israel towards the end of Samuel's lifetime.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 6

In this chapter, the ark of the LORD is returned to Israel.

The basic premise of this chapter is the Philistines asking their “priests and diviners” what they should do to return the ark to Israel, because everywhere they keep it in their own lands brings nothing but death. The ritual involves bringing a “guilt offering” for the LORD, and sending it back on a new cart with two cows that have never pulled a yoke, and then they should just let it go and see what happens. When they do this, the cows behave exactly as the priests and diviners expected, delivering the ark back to the town of Beth Shemesh. God “strikes down” some people for looking into the ark, but other than that everyone lives happily ever after.

Is it just me, or does this whole story seem a little strange? In particular, how is it possible that the priests and diviners of the Philistines, who worship false gods, would know what things they could do to bring the ark back to Israel? Can anyone guess what a “cow that has calved” would behave if her calf is taken away and penned up? And these are two cows that have never pulled a cart before, so they have no training or experience doing this kind of work. The natural expectation is that the cows would not pull the cart, they would turn around and go in search of their calves. They would not pull in the same direction, and even if they weren’t searching for their calves, they would probably walk to a field somewhere and start eating grass. It simply doesn’t make sense that they would pull the cart to Israel, “keeping on the road and lowing all the way”.

That’s the point, of course. The diviners set this up as a test, because it would take some sort of supernatural intervention for the cows to behave completely contrary to their nature, delivering the ark up to Israel. (With some irony, the cows also delivered themselves up as a burnt offering.) What I find more peculiar about this story is that the diviners knew how to test the LORD’s will in this matter. I’m not sure how exactly to express this. By one interpretation, we could say that it was the wisdom of the diviners that they knew the correct test. By another interpretation, we could say it’s like Gideon’s fleece, that the diviners simply could have done anything and the LORD would have responded to get them to bring back the ark to Israel.

I think there are two things about this that are interesting. The first is to draw a parallel between this story and the story of Balaam. By all regards, Balaam was also a pagan prophet/diviner and not a follower of the LORD. However, the story of Balaam (Num 22-24) also contains references to Balaam speaking to the LORD at some times and having the “spirit of God” come upon him before he prophesied at other times (Num 24:2). I would not otherwise have envisioned such a close interaction between a pagan prophet (who was later killed by Israelites because he helped to lead Israel into sexual immorality) and the LORD. This story isn’t quite the same, but it also contains the notion of the LORD interacting in some ways with idolatrous priests.

The second is to observe how the LORD relates to people outside of the covenant. Almost all of the OT is about how the LORD relates to Israel, or how Israel relates to other nations. In the cases where the LORD does speak to other nations, it is almost always through an Israelite prophet who is himself under the covenant. In this case (and in the case of Balaam), we can read about how the LORD interacts directly with the people from other nations.

To be clear, I think the OT was written by Israelites and for Israelites. In so many ways, it is a story about Israel, and that is what it is meant to be. The text is biased towards Israel for this reason, and generally omits anything that does not relate in some way to Israel, so the rarity of passages that describe the LORD speaking directly to other nations is in large part a result of this bias.

However, every nation has a story; every person has a story. Not every story is told in the OT, but that doesn’t mean those stories don’t exist. And every story, in one way or another, contains the LORD, who is the creator of the universe and everything within it. It should not surprise us, then, to find the LORD interacting with people outside of the covenant. Even more, it is those interactions that bring us into the covenant in the first place. When the LORD first spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, Abraham was not under the covenant. And when the LORD speaks to every man or woman in our present age, and guides our hearts to him, we are not at that time under the covenant. The covenant itself is an act of God brought to strangers who did not previously know him.

Therefore, I do not find the contents of this chapter surprising, but I do find it unusual, because there are not many passages like this where pagan priests mediate between the LORD and other people. I believe that God has spoken to unbelievers in many times and many ways, but it's not frequently described in the OT due to a sort of selection bias implied by the Israelite authorship of these books.

We also discover from this chapter that rats were part of the plague. This wasn’t mentioned in the previous chapters, but golden rats form part of the guilt offering, so by implication it must have been part of the curse as well.

Lastly, when the ark gets to Israel, verse 19 says that 70 people died “because they had looked into the ark of the LORD”. There are two notes I want to make about this verse. First, the covenant does not explicitly condemn looking into the ark. However, only Levites would be permitted to carry it, and even then I’m not sure if they were permitted to touch it. Opening and looking into it is, in this case, a kind of sacrilege. What’s interesting is that Samuel (who is not a Levite or priest) slept in the room with the ark. I think this shows more than anything else the importance of intent, and not just action. Samuel could touch the ark and live because he did so respectfully; the 70 who died were killed because they looked into the ark out of curiosity and not respect. Or at least, that’s what I would guess. In the end, the people decide that the LORD is too holy to remain in their presence, so they send messengers to Kiriath Jearim to move the ark there.

The second point is about the number 70. Is it 70, or is it 50070? This is a really minor point, but it’s got a surprisingly long story behind it. The reason why this is even an issue is that some manuscripts contain the Hebrew number 70, and some contain the number 50070. The Septuagint also contains the number 50070, and the majority of extant Hebrew manuscripts (a.k.a. the Masoretic Text) contain the number 50070. But God killing exactly 50070 people is both impractical and unrealistic. It’s impractical because most estimates would not even put the entire town’s population at 50000, and it’s unrealistic because it doesn’t make sense why God would kill such a precise number of people.

From what I’ve read, the textual difference in Hebrew between 50070 and 70 is very small, so it could have been a typographical error that happened somewhere early in transmission, and the error was reproduced for generations until it got into the Masoretic Text. Its presence in the Septuagint means that such an error (if that is the source) had to have occurred before the 1st century BCE.

This is the simplest and most likely explanation. However, to many people it raises important issues about the meaning and fidelity of the biblical text. Especially to people who believe in scriptural infallability, it can be hard to accept the idea of an error in transmission.

After all of the time that I have spent studying biblical archaeology and translation methods, I don’t think there is any inconsistency here. This is something I discussed more in my introduction to bible translations at the beginning of this commentary, but to summarize, the world has many thousands of extant bible fragments. Some of these are short, and some of them contain the entire text of the old and new testaments. Some of them are old, and some of them are very new. Even the bibles of our day will at some point become an “extant bible fragment”, just like the Septuagint and Vulgate of earlier periods are the source manuscripts of our day. As one would expect, there are thousands of differences between all of these manuscripts, and nearly all of them are minor (many don’t affect the meaning at all, like if I forgot to put a period or comma somewhere). Scholars produce unified manuscripts by taking all of these fragments and reconciling the differences. It’s a complicated process, but the essence is that they are trying to identify what the original source text would have contained (the original source is called the “autograph”).

So it is meaningless to say that every manuscript that exists is “infallible”. There are too many differences to do that. Some people will say that the original autographs are infallible, but that errors can sometimes emerge in derived copies. That leaves me wondering what it even means to say that the originals are infallible if we no longer have them. Infallibility was not one of the criteria used to select the canonical books of the bible, and even further, different churches have different bibles (the Catholic bible includes a few books that Protestant bibles do not, and Eastern Orthodox bibles have a few extra books on top of that): are all of these infallible? Only some? If so, which ones?

My personal opinion is that these kinds of questions have no satisfying resolution. Further, I do not think these are the right questions to ask. The only way the bible could have ever gotten down to us is if God shaped and controlled its transmission, not just the original authorship. But what does any of this mean to me? I think the right question to ask is, “does God use the bible to teach us about himself, about ourselves, and about how to live in the world?” I don’t find pedantic arguments about the technical definition of “infallible” to be constructive.

I am very pragmatic: if God uses the bible to teach me about life, the universe and everything, then I should read it. To me, that is the true measure of authenticity. If God speaks through some text, then that text becomes the word of God in that moment and in that way. In other moments and other ways, it might not be the word of God, just as much as people use the bible to justify e.g. violence or slavery. I believe the LORD can speak through many things. One day he might speak through the bible, another day he might speak through a dream, another day he might speak through a newspaper article or science fiction or anything else. In a more ephemeral sense, everything can be the word of God to someone and not be the word of God to another. Romans 1:20 says that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” The way that I would rephrase this is that all of creation exists to testify to the “invisible qualities” of God, and in that sense everything is the word of God.

But to the people who do not understand, it might not be the word of God, insomuch as God does not speak to those people through these things. There is something powerful about the word of God. There have been times where I felt the word of God acting upon my life like an external force; something concrete, real and very, very powerful. These times form the minority of my experience. Most of the time I pass through life hearing very little from God on a day to day basis. But everything that I hear, I value. I believe that this is a good way to live.

From all this, it should be obvious why I am not personally concerned about 70 or 50070 dead Israelites from a bygone era that may or may not be allegorical depending on whom you ask. What I care about is the reality of God’s voice speaking into my life from anything or everything in creation. If the LORD chooses to honor the bible by speaking through it, who am I to gainsay him? But if he speaks through the natural world or anything else, who am I to contradict? The only thing that I know for sure is what Moses said in Deuteronomy 8:3, that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” I can’t afford to choose what words I want and what I don’t. I need every word. For several years when I was first learning about Christianity, I had a pervasive fear about “what if I miss a word”. What if God is speaking something to me, but I am not mature or wise enough to discern it, or I’m distracted or anything else happens. I think this is similar to the issue of mistranslation: what if God created some original infallible bible, but it has been corrupted over time (as some people believe) and no longer corresponds with the original message. God might be speaking, some would say, but we are no longer capable of hearing it.

What I eventually realized is that God understands me. He knows what I am capable of hearing and what I’m not. He knows how to speak to me in a way that I understand, and if there’s something he wants me to know, he won’t just throw it out there and leave me to figure it out on my own. If God speaks, he has the power to both bring a message to us and also enable us to understand it. I have never felt that this relieved me from the importance of trying to understand, but it relieved me from the fear of failing. It works the same way with the bible. He isn’t going to just “throw out there” an autographical text sometime between 1100 and 300 BCE and leave it up to the world to ponder over it and mine it for lessons about life. The whole reason why I talked so much about the “word of God” as distinct from the bible is because God is capable of actively empowering the bible to speak messages to us. God speaks the message, but he also gives us the ability to understand it if we are sincere and willing to hear it.

I am still growing in wisdom and discernment, and I hope to continue growing in these for a long time. But I do not depend on my wisdom to perceive the word of God; I depend on the Spirit of God enabling me to understand. As 1 Corinthians 2 beautifully explains it, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him - but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” God reveals all things by his Spirit, and how much more does he reveal the things of God, those words that he speaks to our hearts to guide us to him.

In summary, I feel like in some ways it is God’s responsibility to speak to me in a way that I can understand, and it is my responsibility what I decide to do with it.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 5

In this chapter, the Philistines are afflicted in whatever city they bring the ark of the covenant.

This is an interesting chapter. In the previous chapter, the Israelites brought out the “ark of God” in the hopes that it would ensure their victory over the Philistines. The Israelites did not follow the LORD or obey the covenant in this time, and we have a lengthy account of their disobedience in the book of Judges. In most respects, their defeat at the hands of the Philistines here is just a continuation of the stories from Judges. In this way, the LORD demonstrates that it is not the objects associated with the covenant (such as the ark or the tabernacle or the altars) that brings Israel prosperity or success, it is whether their hearts follow the LORD. They were living in rebellion, and bringing the ark of the covenant with them just means that when they are defeated, they would lose the ark as well.

That is how the Philistines find themselves in verse 1, carrying the ark of God to Ashdod, one of the 5 major cities in the land of Canaan. In fact, the Philistines are taking this as a spoil of war, and they carry it to the temple of Dagon as a symbol of their dominion over Israel. Furthermore, they take it as a symbol of the supremacy of Dagon over Yahweh, the God of Israel. In previous chapters of this commentary, I have noted that culturally, each nation is associated with one or several patron gods, and that victory of defeat in battle is interpreted as the strength or weakness of their respective gods. The Philistines are triumphing over Israel, but they are also triumphing over the LORD.

The puts the LORD in an interesting position. I think it is most similar to when the LORD threatened to destroy Israel in the wilderness, but Moses interceded that their enemies would interpret that as the LORD being weak, unable to bring his people into the promised land (Num 14:16 for instance). In this case I think it’s similar, because Israel is bringing disaster upon themselves by their rebellion, but the LORD doesn’t want to be caught in a position where Israel’s defeat is interpreted as his own weakness. The logical result is that the LORD has to demonstrate his supremacy over Dagon and the Philistines, and the only thing they would understand is a demonstration of power.

That is the context of this chapter, and in light of this context I think it’s pretty straightforward. The LORD literally overthrows the statue of Dagon, breaking off pieces, and by extension he also brings a “heavy hand” upon the people of the city. Verse 5 gives us an interesting etiology, that “to this day” people skip over the threshold of the temple of Dagon because pieces of Dagon broke and fell there. My readers should also note the association between the statue of Dagon and Dagon himself. The way that modern readers might think of this is, “there is a statue that represents Dagon”, much like Michelangelo's David is a representation of David. I don’t believe that is what the ancient writer is trying to convey. Verse 3, for instance, uses the expression “there was Dagon, fallen on his face”. In this verse, the statue of Dagon is considered to be Dagon himself; the representation and the “reality” of Dagon are the same. I think this is a meaningful distinction and it is pervasive throughout the OT.

For instance, when Micah constructed an idol in Judges 17, it’s very possible he believed that he was, in some fashion, creating a god. Maybe I’m off base here, but there are many places in the OT where the physical structure of an idol is conflated with the identity of the god it purports to be. It’s like the famous painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. In that case, the painting is not a pipe, it is only a representation. But in this case, it’s plausible that the Philistines thought that the statue of Dagon really was Dagon.

It’s also possible this is why the Ten Commandments contains such a strong injunction against making idols. Partly this is because idols are a gateway to worshiping other gods, but partly this is because the LORD is not, and could never be, represented by any physical form or image, and to do so would necessarily result in misunderstanding and underestimating him. Gods like Dagon are “safe” because they are finite and controllable. Any god made by human hands can similarly be destroyed by human hands, and that gives humans the ultimate power over any gods with such forms. It’s an interesting paradox, to worship a god of one’s own creation. Devotion is an act of submission, such that the Philistines might have called Dagon lord. They worshiped him and offered sacrifices out of the belief that he could protect and bless them, and that would only be possible if Dagon were stronger and more powerful than them. At the same time, Dagon has all of the limitations that I discussed above; he is finite, controllable and even destroyable. That is the inherent paradox, to worship a God for his strength while at the same time exerting control over him.

(Minor note: I am using male pronouns “he” and “him” for convenience only. Ancient gods were associated with both male and female genders. The LORD himself is neither male nor female, but it would be far too cumbersome to write “he/she/it” everywhere I go through hundreds of chapters. This is an unfortunate limitation of the English language.)

Tangent over. The Philistines move the ark a couple times, to see if the suffering would be relieved in some other city. Perhaps the god of Gath is stronger than Dagon of Ashdod. This reminds me of Balak taking Balaam around to various places to see if perhaps he could curse Israel from one vantage point but not another (Num 23-24). It doesn’t work, and by the time the ark gets to Ekron the people freak out and refuse to allow it in.

The last thing I will mention is the peculiarity of a plague of tumors. I think this is the only place in the OT where tumors are recorded. The word also appears in Deut 28:27 as one of the promised curses if Israel should ever depart from the covenant, but this is the only place where it is recorded happening. My first thought when reading this is “the LORD is giving them cancer”. It’s possible the tumors are non-cancerous, as Deut 28 associates the tumors with boils and scabs, and given the limitations of Israelite medical science, these tumors are probably visible near the skin surface, because it’s unlikely they would have known about other kinds of tumors.  I'm not sure what else to say other than that I always found this passage a bit strange.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 4

In this chapter, the Philistines defeat Israel, capture the ark of the covenant and slay the two sons of Eli.

This chapter is the beginning of what appears to be another "Judges cycle", where Israel will be again oppressed by their enemies until some heroic figure emerges to rescue them from a self-inflicted national tragedy.  I say self-inflicted because the people are sinning against the LORD like how Eli's sons are sinning against the offering.  Every one of the Judges cycles began with the people sinning against the LORD, usually through idolatry and worshiping other gods.  Since this story is happening at the end of the Judges period, we can imagine it is a similar situation here.

Israel is defeated in battle before the Philistines, and they come up with an interesting solution: to take the ark of the covenant into the midst of their camp, to lead them in battle.  Recall how in the desert, the ark of the covenant led the people as they moved from one campsite to another (Num 10:33).  In this case, the elders of Israel suggest that bringing the ark will bring about the same kinds of victories they saw against Og and Sihon.

What's interesting is that this is more or less the plot of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is premised on the talismanic power of the ark of the covenant to guarantee any army invincibility in battle.  In fact, there is even a line in the movie when Indiana Jones says that no army with the ark has ever been defeated.  Apparently Mr. Jones has not read the book of 1 Samuel, because as we can see in this chapter the army of Israel is routed after they bring out the ark.  The point is obvious: the ark of the covenant has no power in itself.  It only has power if the LORD gives it power, which is very much in proportion to the righteousness of the people who hold it.  That's why it's preposterous to think that the Nazi army (in Indiana Jones's case) could simply take the ark of the covenant and somehow attain its power.  It's power is from the LORD, and the LORD cannot be manipulated.  In this case it's the same: the LORD will not give power for Israel to defeat their enemies if Israel is worshiping other gods and living contrary to the Law.

One part of this story that I find particularly interesting is how in verse 5 we see the psychological effect of the ark, boosting the morale of Israel and bringing fear into the hearts of the Philistines.  If the power of the ark were only psychological, then Israel would have been victorious here as before.  However, because God was not with Israel in this battle, the Philistines "take courage" (v. 9) and defeat Israel once again.

What's more, because Israel brought the ark of the covenant into the camp as a weapon of sorts, the ark was captured in their defeat, and the two sinful sons of Eli were killed in the battle.  Israel had sought to use the LORD like a tool, bringing victory against their enemies without humbling their hearts before him.  As a result, they have neither victory nor the ark that they had thought to use.  Eli also dies when he hears about the ark being taken by the Philistines, although he did not stop it from being taken out of the tabernacle.

Lastly, we see that the line of Eli is not completely cut off: Phinehas has a son who is borne soon after his death.  The boy is named "Ichabod", which means "no glory", and that must have been an awkward name growing up.  He is named after the departure of the glory from Israel, and I can only imagine how that must have affected the people around him.  It would be like naming a Japanese boy, "Nuclear" or something.  Even just saying his name would be a reminder to the people around him of the hardships their nation has suffered, similar to how Naomi called herself Mara in the book of Ruth.  Or perhaps an even closer example is how Rachel, at the moment of her death in Gen 35, named her son Ben-Oni, which means son of my suffering, and it was her husband Jacob who renamed the boy Benjamin.

In this case, it's a name that speaks about more than personal suffering and even more than national suffering.  It's a name that speaks of national failure.  The departure of glory is not something that happened to them, it was something that they did, that they brought about by their idolatry.  Eli and Phinehas's wife die from the grief that came upon them, and that shows the kind of despair the nation is in right now.  But we know that Samuel is righteous and "the word of Samuel came to all Israel" (v. 1), so perhaps things will get better, in a time and a way that Israel does not anticipate.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter, the LORD speaks to young Samuel and Samuel begins ministering prophetically.

The first thing I would like to point out is a very subtle thing that many readers might not otherwise notice, which is in verse 3.  Do you see it?  "And the lamp of God had not yet gone out."  What is the lamp of God?  It is the lampstand that is contained within the tabernacle, opposite of the table of bread of the presence (also known as the table of showbread).  From this verse, we can infer that it was an ordinary occurrence for the lamp of God to eventually burn out, because the word "yet" implies that it was something that happened often; perhaps every night.

The author only mentions it to give us an idea of what time it is, but there is a subtle implication: the priests are not doing their jobs.  The priests were commanded to keep the lamp of God burning continually for all their generations (you can read about this command in various places: Ex 27:20, Lev 24:2)  In my opinion,  this is the author making a sort of passive-aggressive criticism of Eli and his sons for failing in their duties.  Incidentally, this is another case where the author is not explicitly condemning Eli's actions, but we should be able to read what is going on.  Not only are Eli's sons disregarding the Law by eating fat and committing sexual immorality, they are also disregarding their duty to maintain the tabernacle in such things as the golden lampstand.  This is just one more thing to show us the kind of society that existed at the time and how the people and priests related to the LORD.  There were definitely righteous men and women, such as Hannah, who obeyed the commandments of the Law, but then there were other people who did "what was right in their own eyes" such as Eli's sons.

The second part of verse 3 is also interesting.  It shows that Samuel was sleeping in the tabernacle "where the ark of God was".  It's worth mentioning that this verse actually uses the word "temple" instead of "tabernacle", which in this case is an anachronism because the temple hasn't been constructed yet.  This is why I haven't talked about the temple at all, because it was not described in the Pentateuch.  Just so my readers understand, the temple is essentially the exact same thing as the tabernacle in both purpose and design; however, the temple was built as a permanent construction, while the tabernacle is designed to be taken down and set up so that it could travel with the Israelites through their wandering in the desert.  The first reference to the "temple" was in 1 Samuel 1:9, and this is the second such reference.  In my opinion, this subtle change in language indicates that Samuel (and subsequent books) were probably written by a different author or in a different time than the earlier books of the OT.

But that wasn't the thing I wanted to point out.  What I wanted to point out is that Samuel is sleeping near the ark of God, which would have been in the most holy place that should have only been visited by the high priest once a year.  This verse is implying that either the ark was not kept in the most holy place, or that Samuel was permitted to sleep in a place that should not have been visited by Levites, much less by an Ephraimite such as himself.

What makes this even more striking is that the LORD doesn't rebuke Samuel for what he's doing; in fact, the LORD takes this as an opportunity to speak to Samuel and favors him.  By all appearances, Samuel is also violating the Law, just as Eli's sons violate the Law.  However, Samuel is favored for his actions, while the LORD (in the previous chapter) condemns Eli's sons to death.  What is the difference between Eli's sons and Samuel?  I believe the answer is honor.  Samuel desired to honor the LORD, and slept in the presence of the ark because he desired to be closer to the LORD.  Eli's sons sought to enrich themselves and take advantage of their power for personal gain.  I think this is an important example of how the LORD is not seeking strict obedience to the Law, but obedience to the spirit and intent of what the Law means.  It is primarily expressed in the Shema of Deut 6: To "love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."

 We don't know Samuel's story, but in whatever way, he has earned the LORD's favor.  The LORD calls him three times, but for some reason he thought it was Eli calling.  Perhaps he heard the LORD's voice out loud and mistook it for Eli?  Eli is also slow to figure out that it is the LORD calling him, and Eli seems to share Samuel's confusion.  V. 10 is another interesting verse, because it says the LORD "came and stood... as at other times".  This suggests that the LORD not only spoke to Samuel, but was in some way present in the tabernacle where Samuel was sleeping.

The particular message that the LORD shared with Samuel is almost the same as what we read in the previous chapter.  It's pretty strange to imagine Samuel as a young child prophesying destruction to the high priest Eli, an elder, one of the chief leaders of Israel.

In the end, "the LORD appeared again at Shiloh" because of the prophecies of Samuel.  This draws a sharp contrast against v. 1 when "word from the LORD was rare in those days".  Eli and his sons did not honor the LORD, so the LORD did not honor them by sharing "words" with them.  With Samuel, all of Israel knew that he was a prophet because the LORD spoke to him and fulfilled the words that he spoke.  It appears that Samuel's faithfulness is helping to restore the word of the LORD to the entire nation, although the unfaithful priests have yet to be dealt with.

In the larger context of Israel's history, we can see how the delinquent priesthood plays along with Israel's anarchy.  The people do "what is right in their own eyes", and the priests seem to behave likewise.  There have been a handful of righteous men and women, sometimes the judges and sometimes ordinary folk like Hannah or Jael, but the culture at large has been rebellious and sinful.  Samuel's rise as a prophet is similar to the judges who came before him (such as Deborah, who was known as a prophetess), but as we will see from the length of his account, Samuel will play a far more transformative role.  The earlier judges "saved Israel from their enemies", but Samuel will help bring a more profound transformation to the nation from the inside out.