by Father Mike Stubbs
In the ancient world, it was fairly common for people to sleep overnight in a temple.
Sometimes they would do this in the hopes that the god who lived in the temple would speak to them in a dream. Individuals suffering from illness would hope that the god would heal them.
In Greece, the sick especially turned to the god Asklepios to cure them. This practice was called incubation. Whole temples dedicated to Asklepios were built for that purpose.
Similarly, temples in Egypt were dedicated to Imhotep for the same reason. He was a mortal who rose to the status of a deity after his death.
Sunday’s first reading — 1 Sam 3:3b-10, 19 — tells us: “Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was.” Evidently, he has chosen this location, not because he expects that God will speak to him but, rather, because he is a servant working in the temple. Still, it seems as though he could have chosen a more comfortable spot.
At any rate, God does speak to Samuel, even though Samuel does not realize that it is God.
In the practice of incubation, the individuals would sleep in a pagan temple, so that the god might appear to them in a dream. While this practice bears some similarities to the incident with Samuel, there are some major differences. First of all, Samuel does not seem to have intended any of this to happen. It comes as a complete surprise to him. He just wanted to go to sleep.
Secondly, God does not speak to Samuel in a dream while Samuel is still sleeping. Instead, God wakes Samuel from his sleep by calling out to him.
God rouses Samuel from his sleep in order to call him to a new phase of his life, so that he might serve God as a prophet. In a sense, the manner of God’s call to Samuel acts as a metaphor for what God is asking of Samuel. His sleep corresponds to his lack of awareness. Being roused from sleep corresponds to God’s bringing Samuel into a heightened state of awareness. He is now fully awake and ready to do God’s work.
Hitherto, Samuel worked as a servant in the temple, polishing the candlesticks and sweeping the floors. From now on, God will set Samuel to work cleaning up the people of Israel, calling them to spiritual purity and washing away their sins. His work in the temple was a kind of apprenticeship, preparing him for a much bigger job.