One night young Samuel, who was sleeping in a room adjacent to Eli’s near the tabernacle, heard a voice calling his name. Thinking that Eli, the high priest, had summoned him, he hurried to Eli’s quarters. The high priest told Samuel he didn’t call him. The same thing happened a little later, and again Eli told him that he hadn’t called (I Sam. 3:1-6).
After Samuel returned to his bed he heard the voice speak his name for the third time. He hesitated to bother the high priest again, but there was just the chance that this third call had come from the increasingly helpless old man. So for the third time he went to Eli’s quarters and timidly asked if he could be of service.
Eli slowly set up and peered through the gloom at the boy, who was fearful that he would be rebuked.
“If you heard someone speaking your name, it wasn’t I,” Eli muttered thoughtfully. ‘What was the voice like?”
“The first time is sounded a long way off,” Samuel explained. “The second time it seemed closer. The last time, just a couple of minutes ago, it sounded closer yet, as though it came from everywhere!”
Eli sat in silence for a few moments. He realized that an awesome thing was taking place. He was certain because this thing had happened to him in the past. For some purpose God was speaking to Samuel (I Sam. 3:7-8)!
To Eli this was a snub from God, inasmuch as the high priest was the one to whom the Creator usually spoke unless there was a leader in Israel who was unusually close to God. Eli understood why God had chosen to contact another; even one who was only a child. It was because of the careless manner in which he, Eli, had conducted matters at the tabernacle.
“Go back to your bed, my son,” the high priest sighed. “If the voice comes to you again, be sure to answer, “I hear you, Lord! Please tell me why you are calling me.’”
This instruction was puzzling to Samuel. He obediently went back to bed, but he didn’t sleep because of being so curious and excited by what the high priest had told him to do about the mysterious voice. He was so keyed up that when he distinctly and closely heard his name pronounced again, he almost forgot what he had been told to answer.
“Y-yes, Lord!” he stammered, not really knowing whom he was answering. “I’m listening (I Sam. 3:9-10)!
“Do not be fearful,” the voice went on. “I am the God of Israel, here to inform you of some important things.”
Samuel was greatly startled to learn that God was speaking to him. But somehow he became at ease as the seconds passed. He listened intently as the voice continued to come to him out of the night.
“I am going to cause some very unhappy events in Israel. If I were to announce to all the people what I shall do, their ears would tingle with the dread words. First I shall bring judgment against the family of Eli. Even though you are yet very young; you should know that your high priest has been offensively careless in his high office. He has allowed his sons to do some very vile things. The sins of all three have been so great that no sacrifice or offerings can atone for them. Because of their disobedience, the lives of these people will violently end at a time I shall soon choose” (I Sam. 3:11-14).
Samuel was stunned by what he had heard. He had never been aware of Eli or his two sons doing anything wrong. To be informed that his superiors had displeased the God they served was a shock to him. There was little sleep for him the rest of the night.
Next morning he got up as usual to open the entrance to the tabernacle. With the coming of dawn, the event of the night before became to him as a strong dream he almost wanted to forget. He had no intention of revealing it to anyone, but when Eli called him later to talk to him, he was fearful that he was going to be asked to give an account. It isn’t always pleasant to be a prophet.
“I know and now you surely know that it was God who spoke to you last night,” the high priest told Samuel. “He must have called you again after the third time I told you to go back to bed. He must have had some message for you. I want you to tell me everything that He told you. Don’t hold anything back, or God might deal even more harshly with you than He would deal with me if I were to disobey.”
Frightened by these words, Samuel related all that God had spoken. When Eli heard what God had to say about him and his sons, he almost regretted questioning Samuel. He bowed his head and stared submissively at the ground.
“If it’s God’s will,” he murmured, “then it will surely happen the way He has planned it” (I Sam. 3:15-18).
God hadn’t revealed just when these things would happen. For the next several years Eli was in a state of fearful uncertainty for himself and his sons. Meanwhile, Samuel grew up to become a well-known young man. All of Israel knew him as one whom God had chosen as a prophet. Samuel didn’t ask to be made a prophet: God chose him. He increased greatly in wisdom and intelligence, and foretold events that came true with startling accuracy because God continued to speak to him from time to time (I Sam. 3:19-21).
The leaders of Philistia, the coastal nation that had for several years lorded it over Israel, meanwhile had received increasing reports of the rising young leader at Shiloh. Fearing that Israel might be organizing a rebellion against them, they sent out an army to march among the Israelites and remind them that it would be foolish to rise against the Philistines.
When it was reported that a Philistine army was moving into an area about twenty-five miles west of Shiloh, the elders of Israel quickly formed a fighting force that moved swiftly to within a few miles north of where the enemy stopped to camp.
When the Philistine learned of the presence of the army of Israel, they decided to attack before the Israelites soldiers could become greater in number. The Bible doesn’t state how many troops were in each army, though there were probably at least forty or fifty thousand on either side. Whatever the numbers, when the encounter was over and each side had withdrawn from the battlefield, the Israelite army went back to its camps with about four thousand less soldiers (I Sam. 4:1-2).
The leaders were stunned by this defeat. They felt that their forces weren’t meant to lose because they were part of God’s chosen people! They seemed to have forgotten that Israel was chosen for an example of obedience, not for special favors. What with most of Israel being in a state of disobedience, the leaders had no sound reason to expect victory.
Nevertheless, some of the elders came to the camp with an idea they thought would insure the Israelites’ winning any other encounter with the Philistines.
“We should have the ark with us,” they suggested. “Our ancestors took it with them in times of war. They had it with them when they went against Jericho, and the whole city fell. God wouldn’t let anything happen to the ark, and he would have to spare us to keep the ark safe!”
This stratagem was vigorously acclaimed by the troops. Men were sent at once to Shiloh to bring the ark to the camp with all possible haste so that it would be on hand in the event the Philistines attacked again.
When the soldiers arrived at the tabernacle to request the ark, Eli was greatly troubled. He felt that it would be a grave mistake for a sinful nation to rely on the presence of the ark as a kind of fetish to insure safety in battle.
“I think the ark should remain in the tabernacle, Eli resolutely informed the men. “I can hardly agree to your taking it!”
Having been awakened because of this matter, the old priest shuffled back to his bed, leaving a group of very disappointed men.
Next morning young Samuel went as usual to open the gates of the tabernacle. To his surprise they were already open. After trying in vain to find Phinehas and Hophni, he awakened Eli to tell him that his sons weren’t on duty. The sightless old man groped into the tabernacle, thinking that they might be there. They were gone!
When he came back out, he was pale and shaking.
“They have unwisely taken the ark!” he muttered to Samuel. “God will not deal lightly with those who have done this awful thing!”
When the ark arrived at the camp of the Israelite army, along with Hophni and Phinehas, a thunderous cheer went up from the waiting soldiers. The shouting was so loud that it was plainly heard in the Philistine camp a few miles to the south. Alarmed officers feared that it meant that powerful reinforcements had arrived for Israel (I Sam. 4:3-5).
“We should have attacked again instead of retiring,” some of them bitterly observed. “Now it may be too late for another victory.”
A little later they learned from spies just what had caused the Israelites to cheer so wildly.
“The God of Israel has come into the camp of the enemy!” the spies excitedly declared. “We learned that He is in a box, and that his box was brought from Shiloh tonight! The enemy troops were so pleased to learn that their God had come to help them that they shouted like madmen with glee!”
“I have heard of that mysterious box,” a Philistine officer said. “It is said to be the dwelling place of a powerful God – the one who long ago brought some horrible plagues on Egypt so that the Israelites could escape.”
“I have heard that when the God of Israel is angered, he is more powerful than any other god,” another Philistine added. “If that is true, we might be wise to return to our country.”
The superstitious Philistines filled with growing fear and futility, were on the verge of agreeing to give up their war on Israel. Then one of the leading officers demanded to be heard.
“We brought our army here for a purpose!” he shouted angrily. “Now what is all this cowardly talk about running back to our homes? Why are we imagining that we are destined to lose to Israel? We are strong and we must use that strength to make certain that the Israelites continue to be servants to us. If we give in, we will become servants to them! We must fight! We must prove to all that we are men determined to do what we have set out to do” (I Sam. 4:6-9).
This short speech was so inspiring to the Philistines that they decided to set out even before dawn for Israel’s camp. The Israelites were depending on the ark to keep them safe, and weren’t as prepared as they should have been. The Philistines suddenly swarmed in among them with such savage force that within minutes the ground was strewn with dead and dying Israelites. Many were trapped in their own tents. Others who were out in the open foolishly tried to escape by dashing into their shelters.The shouts, the scream of pain, the clashing of metal against metal produced more noise than had gone up from the cheering men only a few hours previously.
On slashing into one of the larger tents, Philistine soldiers came upon two men crouching close to a large box-shaped object covered with a fancy cloth. Spears hurtled into the two men, killing them at once. The Philistine soldiers had no way of knowing that they had just put to death two priesst of Israel – Phinehas and Hophni. They strode toward the covered object to see what it was (I Sam. 4:10-11).
“Don’t touch that!” one of the soldiers barked. “That must be the box where Israel’s God dwells!”
The soldiers froze in their tracks, then backed off a few steps.
“Why should we be afraid of that thing?” another solider muttered. “It didn’t keep us from killing these two fellows who must have been here to guard it!”
Anxious to show his courage, the solder stepped up and touched one of the poles by which the ark was carried.
“See?” he triumphantly asked. “Let’s take this to our commander. We’ll receive some special favors for being the one to capture the God of the Israelites!”
By that time the fighting was over. The only Israelites in the camp were dead or wounded. All others, and that didn’t include every man, were either fleeing or hiding.
Israel had been defeated to the amount of 30,000 dead soldiers. If there had been obedience to God instead of reliance on the ark, matters would have turned out differently (Lev. 26:3-8).
Killing 30,000 Israelites was a great triumph to the Philistines. But, in a way, the capture of the ark was even a greater one, inasmuch as many of them really believed they had captured a god. The ark was taken to their camp, where a noisy celebration took place. There was great curiosity and speculation as to what was inside the object, but somehow no one dared to try to open it. Most of the Philistine soldiers, having heard wild rumors about the ark, chose to stay away from it. They were superstitious.
A few hours later a tattered Benjamite soldier who had escaped from the Philistines staggered wearily into the main streets of Shiloh.
“Our army has been wiped out!” he shouted as he scooped up a handful of dirt and tossed it on his head (I Sam. 4:12).
As the bad news spread through town the people began groaning and shrieking. The depressed high priest, sitting at his usual outdoor place where the people could easily contact him, wondered at the cause of the noise. It was then that the exhausted Benjamite trudged up to him and announce that he had run all the way from the Israelites camp to bring news.
Trembling, Eli anxiously asked what had happened.
“The Philistines attacked our camp this morning,” the Benjamite muttered hoarsely. “Only a small part of us escaped. The rest are dead, including your two sons. They died when the ark was captured.”
This was too much for the old priest. He knew that when God removed His protection from Israel and let the ark be taken, He had forsaken His people. Eli reeled backward, and toppled off his elevated chair.
The soldier ran to him, but Eli was already dead. He was a very heavy man, and the fall had broken his neck (I Sam 4:13-18).
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. Learn how the ark returns to Israel.