I have been reading through Samuel lately and I came across a verse that struck me as both interesting and troubling. This post is the first of two posts that will deal with two difficulties of this text. The first difficulty is the issue of divine sovereignty and human free will or responsibility. The second issue is the difficult phrase “God desired to kill them” and the goodness of God. This post will deal with the first issue.
The context of this passage (see 1 Sam. 2:12-25) is that Eli’s sons have been abusing their power as Priests to extort the people. Eli informs them that he has heard bad things about them and he warns them (by implication) that they are sinning against God. The response to this warning is found in 1 Sam. 2:25b and is as follows:
ולא ישׁמעו לקול אביהם כי־חפץ יהוה להמיתם
My Translation: But they did not heed the voice of their father for YHWH desired to kill them.
Using what appears to be a causal כי clause it suggests that God’s desire to kill them was the reason for their refusal to heed their father’s warning. This is troubling to the concept of human free will. What then are we to do with this troubling verse? I confess I don’t exactly have answers but here are a few thoughts.
First, the situation between the reaction of Eli’s sons and God’s causing their reaction because of his desire to kill them is closely reminiscent of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4-13). Now, in all of the discussion about which came first the chicken or the egg (i.e., did Pharaoh harden his own heart first or did God harden Pharaoh’s heart first?) the most cogent explanation that I have come across is as follows. The biblical text first makes clear that God intends to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21; 7:3), then follows with several ambiguous statements that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (ויחזק לב פרעה, Exod. 7:13, 22), then Pharaoh hardens his own heart (והכבד את־לבו, Exod. 8:11 [8:15 ET]), then finally after another ambiguous occurrence (8:15 [ET 8:19], 9:7) and Pharaoh again hardening his own heart (8:28 [ET 8:32]) does God explicitly harden Pharaoh’s heart (ויחזק יהוה את־לב פרעה, Exod. 9:12). The answer, in my opinion, to the question of who hardened Pharaoh’s heart is, the text clearly says both. There is an obvious interplay between Pharaoh hardening his own heart, ambiguous statements of his heart “being hardened,” and God actually hardening his heart. This strikes me as a great example where the biblical text shows the interplay between divine sovereignty and human free will (or responsibility) that gets confused in systematic theology. We cannot say that God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart so we affirm that God is sovereign, likewise, we cannot say that Pharaoh did not harden his own heart so we affirm that he had free will and was responsible for his actions.
Similarly, I see an interplay between divine causality and human free will/responsibility in 1 Sam. 2:25. It is telling that the text depicting the response of Eli’s sons says “they did not heed the voice of their father” not “God caused them to not heed the voice of their father.” They are responsible for their actions. On the other hand, it was God’s desire to punish them for their wicked deeds, so God is ultimately responsible for their continuing in their wicked deeds so that he would punish them. Thus, we have the causal כי clause describing the relationship between “they did not heed…” and “…God desired to kill them.” It seems that Eli’s sons acted on their own accord in their response to Eli’s warning (“they did not heed their father’s voice”) but also God is the cause of their refusal “because YHWH desired to kill them.” There is a back and forth here (not quite so pronounced as in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but present nonetheless) that refuses to be pinned down in answering the question: who is ultimately responsible for the sons’ actions. The narrative will not give us a simple answer, but it clearly affirms that both God and the sons are responsible.
Those are my thoughts on this issue, I’m open to others.