Hannah, wife of Elkanah the Levite, was at the tabernacle praying when she was startled by the harsh voice of Eli, the high priest. He accused her of being drunk (I Sam 1:12-14). Prayer was so rare in Israel that Eli did not realize Hannah was praying.
Having become lost to her surroundings because of her fervent request to God for a son, Hannah opened her eyes and looked up to see the priest frowning down on her.
“I assure you, sir,” Hannah said respectfully, “that I am not in a drunken condition.”
“But you have been acting very strangely,” Eli told her. “There are certain young women who stay around the tabernacle for wrong purposes. It you are one of them, I prefer that you leave.”
“I am not one of them,” Hannah explained. “I am sorry to have given you the wrong impression. If I seemed to have had too much wine, it was because I have been very unhappy. I am childless, and I was bringing my problem to God. I told Him that if He would give me a baby boy, I would give up the baby so that he could become God’s servant for the rest of his life!”
“That is indeed a worthy purpose,” observed Eli, who was not convinced that Hannah was telling the truth. “If it’s a son you want, where is your husband?”
“He is the man Elkanah, sitting over there at that table,” Hannah answered, pointing to a little group eating by themselves. “Unfortunately, I must share him with another wife whom you see there. The children around them are hers.”
“I am beginning to understand, my daughter,” said Eli. “I am sorry I spoke to you as I did. I should not have misjudged you, but there have been so many young women come here for no good that I considered you just another one of them. Return in peace with your husband to your home. I believe that God will grant the request you have made of Him” (I Sam. 1:15-17).
This encouragement from the high priest of Israel was a great help to Hannah. She was so inspired with hope that she cheerfully returned to her husband’s table to join in the meal. Elkanah was elated to note her change in mood, but Peninnah was perplexed and troubled. She saw nothing good in Elkanah and Hannah being in such a happy state.
Next morning after making a last offering, Elkanah returned home with his family. Although most of Israel was in an ill spiritual state, there were many such as this Levite who made a special effort to observe the annual Holy Days God had instituted. They were more obedient to God than millions and millions of English-speaking Israelites are today. Why? Because church-goers today are told by their leaders to have nothing to do with God’s Holy Days that he set apart to be observed forever – and that means the present day, as well as back then (Compare Lev. 23:1, 41 with I Cor. 5:7-8 and Acts 18:21).
When Elkanah went back to the tabernacle a year later, Hannah didn’t go with him and Peninnah and her children. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to go. It was because she had given birth to a son! She named him Samuel, which meant asked of God (I Sam. 1:18-20).
“I shouldn’t go to Shiloh until after our son is weaned and trained,” Hannah told her husband. “When he is of the proper age, I shall deliver him to the high priest for a life of service at the tabernacle just as I promised.”
“If you think you should stay home, so be it.” Elkanah agreed, “but I shall miss you while we are away.”
Hannah was sad to see her husband leave, but at the same time she was relieved to be out of Peninnah’s presence for a few days. Peninnah could no longer chide her for having no children, but this envious wife had now developed other types of caustic and unkind remarks with which to try to keep Hannah uncomfortable. In spite of these things, Hannah was happy because of her son.
Hannah didn’t go to Shiloh the following year or even the year after that. In those times a child was often two years old before it was weaned, a custom that prevails today to some extent among various peoples in the Middle East.
When Samuel was at last taken to Shiloh, he was probably nearly three years old. Besides the usual meat to be offered, Elkanah took three bullocks, over seven gallons of flour and a leather bag of wine – often called a “wine skin” in modern translations of the Bible. These extra things were to be used in the consecration offering having to do with little Samuel (I Sam. 1:21-24).
As soon as they arrived at the tabernacle and made an offering, Hannah took her son to Eli, who was still high priest. So much time has passed that Eli didn’t at first recognize her.
“I am the woman who was here praying by myself a few years ago, and to whom you spoke because you thought I was drunk,” she explained. “Perhaps you will remember that I told you that I was pleading to God for a baby boy, and that if God would give one to me, I would dedicate him for his whole life to the service of the tabernacle. God heard and answered my prayers, just as you said at the time that you believed He would. Here is the boy. I have come to the tabernacle to turn him over to you” (I Sam. 1:25-28)!
Eli remembered Hannah. He knew that it required much courage for a mother to give up her only child. It occurred to him to refuse to accept such a young lad, so that he might spend a few more years with his parents, but he realized that it would be even more difficult for the mother to bring Samuel back again.
When the time came for the consecration offering, Hannah voiced an unusual prayer of praise. She was so thankful for what God had done for her that she was happy even for the opportunity of giving up her son (I Sam. 2:1-10).
After the time of worship was over, Elkanah and his family returned to their home, leaving little Samuel to be reared and instructed in the simple duties he would at first be required to perform at the tabernacle.
At this time matters were anything but right at the tabernacle. Eli’s two sons, priests next in rank under their father, had the same duties and authority as those of Aaron’s two sons when the tabernacle was at Mt. Sinai. Those two, Nadad and Abibu, met sudden death when they overstepped their authority (Lev. 10:1-2).
Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, were swiftly heading for a similar fate. They were committed to serving God with fear and reverence. But they had become increasingly greedy, careless and immoral. They were careful to try to hide their evil conduct from their father, but they didn’t seem to care what God thought of them. They were far from fit to be priests, but God allowed them to carry on for a time, just as He often allows sinful men to continue in their ways. If every person were struck dead the moment he first sinned, there would be nobody living. But there is always a point at which God deals with those who continue to break His laws.
According to the Creator’s instructions for making peace offerings at the tabernacle, a carcass was to be divided three ways: the part for God, including the fat, the part for the priests, including the right shoulder and breast, and the portion that was left, which was to go back to the one who offered it. Only God’s part was to be roasted on the altar. The rest of it was to be boiled for the priest and Levites and for the family making the offering (Lev. 7:11-17, 28-34; II Chron. 35:13; Ezek. 46:20, 24).
Hophni and Phinehas didn’t go along with such rules any more. When a carcass was brought in as a sacrifice, they seized their share of the meat before the rest of it was taken to be used elsewhere. Often they would roast their part of it before God’s part was burned on the altar. Furthermore, they would go to the huge seething pots that had just been filled with raw meat to boil, and yank out as much as they wanted of it with large, three-pronged hooks. They would thus take much of the meat belonging to persons who had brought it for offerings. Everyone could see they were violating God’s ordinances. Those people who were bold enough to object to this unlawful practice were told that the priests would do as they pleased, even if they had to get their way by force.
This situation was so difficul that even the most zealous Israelites came to abhor the offerings they knew they should make (I Sam. 2:11-17). They feared to complain, having been warned that no one should accuse a priest of doing wrong (Ex. 22:28; Acts 23:5). The conduct of Hophni and Phinehas was damaging to Israel, just as the disobedience to today’s religious leaders is doing great harm to our people. The priests’ sins within a short time led to the spread of idolatry (Judges 8:33), after the death of Gideon.
A year after Samuel had been dedicated, his parents came to Shiloh as usual. There they saw their son busy in his service at the tabernacle. He was dressed in a special shoulder garment that caused him to look very official, for a young boy.
It was a happy week for Hannah, who spent many hours visiting Samuel. She gave him a coat she had made, and for a number of years afterward she brought him a new coat each time she and her husband came to the tabernacle, which was during the fall at the Feast of Tabernacles. The parents of Samuel had no difficulty attending God’s Festival each year as it was still a time of peace under Gideon, shortly before an Ammonite-Philistine invasion (Judges 10:7).
During one of the festivals, Eli asked a special blessing on Elkanah and Hannah because of their giving their only child to the service of the tabernacle.
“Reward this couple for bequeathing their firstborn son,” the high priest asked of God. “Make it possible for them to have more children.”
God answered Eli’s request. In time Hannah gave birth to three more sons and two daughters. Having a total of six children, she no longer felt secondary to Peninnah, who by that time had given up her efforts to appear as the superior wife (I Sam. 2:18-21).
As Samuel was growing into a young lad and was increasing in worth at the tabernacle, Eli was reaching an age at which he realized that his life could end any day. He had hoped that his last years would be peaceful, but for a long time he had been receiving indirect reports of his sons’ conduct. At first he gave little heed to these rumors, but when they began increasing, he knew he would have to speak to his sons. Eli’s intention wasn’t turned to action, however. He dreaded the unpleasant task of reproaching his sons. As an excuse, he kept reminding himself that the rumors possibly weren’t true.
That was before he received an anonymous tip that his sons were carrying on in a shameless, wanton manner with some of the women who stayed in the tabernacles area. Eli had noted evidence of this flagrant misconduct by Hophni and Phinehas, but he had chosen to overlook it. Now that the people were beginning to be aware of it, he realized that he could no longer delay rebuking his sons.
“I have been receiving some alarming reports about things you have been doing here at the tabernacle,” Eli grimly announced to his sons next time he saw them alone.
The two priests glanced at each other with expressions of righteous indignation. “Who are those who dare tell lies about the priests of Israel?” Hophni demanded.
“The people have no right to judge us!” Phinehas muttered.
“Both of you would probably be better off if they did,” Eli told them, frowning. “However, it is God who judges us, and I know you have much to fear from Him for the outrages you have been committing. Don’t you realize that you are causing the people to sin because of your bad examples and by your driving them away from the tabernacle? If your misbehavior were only against man, it would be bad enough. But you have been defying the Creator whom you have been chosen to serve! Unless you give up your evil ways now, God will take your lives” (I Sam. 2:22-26)!
“Those who have accused us are the ones who should repent! “snapped Hophni as he turned to stride away with Phinehas.
It was plain to Eli that his sons only resented his remarks, and had no intention of changing their ways. He knew that further words would only be wasted. He was painfully aware that if he had been properly strict with them years before, this calamitous situation probably never would have occurred. There was only one course left now for the good of Israel. That was to put Hophni and Phinehas out of their capacity at the tabernacle, and replace them with two priests next in line for such offices. That, however, was something that Eli didn’t quite have the courage or inclination to do.
Not long afterward an unusual stranger came to the tabernacle to talk to Eli. When Eli saw the man, he was somehow uncomfortable in his presence. There was something about him that made the high priest feel as though the fellow could read his innermost thoughts, and that he was aware of all that had been going on at the tabernacle. When the man spoke, Eli was startled to learn that he did know what was going on.
“When your forefather Aaron was in Egypt, God chose his family for the priesthood,” the stranger reminded Eli. “At that time God gave definite instructions concerning the offerings and the manner in which the tabernacle was to function. I have been sent to tell you that God is well aware that you and your sons have failed miserably in running matters rightly. You honor your sons above God – which is idolatry. You have allowed them to steal from those who brought offerings so that all three of you might gorge yourselves” (I Sam. 2:27-29).
“Even though God promised that the priesthood should be in the family of Aaron forever, and set your family in the priesthood, the Creator can’t go on using men like you as His most high-ranking servants. You will die soon, but not before you see an enemy come on the Israelites to take away their wealth. As for your sons, they will both die the same day, and not long from now. Then God will choose from among Aaron’s other descendants a high priest who will be faithful. Others in your family will come and beg him for food and for work. Furthermore, all your male descendants shall die before they are of middle age. Consider these things, and how you have brought them on yourselves” (I Sam. 2:30-36).
When the stranger finished speaking, Eli was so upset that he was speechless. He was shaking as he watched the man stride away from the tabernacle and disappear.
At this time Samuel was probably about 12 or 13 years old. He was of increasing help to Eli, who was a heavy man in his last years, and who needed someone in attendance because of the high priest’s having difficulty in moving about. For this reason, Samuel’s bedroom was close to Eli’s in the high priest’s quarters near the tabernacle, so that the lad could quickly wait on Eli in the event he needed help during the night.
One night Samuel was awakened by a voice speaking his name. Thinking that Eli had called; the boy ran to the high priest’s bedroom.
“Here I am, Sir!” Samuel whispered out of the darkness.
Eli’s loud breathing ended with a sudden snort.
“Is that you, Samuel?” the high priest muttered sleepily. “Why have you awakened me? I didn’t call you. Go back to bed!”
Samuel returned to his room, puzzled as to the source of the voice. Before he could fall asleep, he distinctly heard his name spoken again. He jumped up and once more announced his presence to the sleeping priest, who again informed him that he had not called.
Samuel returned to his bed. He was too perplexed to get back to sleep (I Sam. 3:1-7).
“Samuel! Samuel!” a voice startled him for the third time, strangely seeming to come to him from all directions.
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.