This is a reflection on the first four chapters of the First Book of Samuel.
There was a man named Eli. He’ll become relevant shortly…
There was a man named Elkanah.
Elkanah had two wives. One was named Hannah, the other Peninnah. And the scripture says, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.”
Elkanah loved Hannah more, so when the family went to the temple to give their offerings, he would give Hannah a double portion.
The scripture continues:
[Peninnah] used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.
Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After they all had lunch, Hannah went to the temple to pray.
Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently…
Now, in the ancient world, all prayer was audible. Praying silently wasn’t something you did, so the writer has to explain what praying silently means.
…only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard…
Ah, her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. couldn’t have figured that out on our own. Thanks for the clarification.
Now, Eli wasn’t the wisest priest, which will become important shortly
…therefore Eli thought she was drunk.
Eli, a priest to the temple, didn’t realize Hannah was praying silently. He just thought she must be drunk.
So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.
Remember, she’s been praying because she wants to be able to give her husband a child.
Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
To his credit, Eli corrected himself and said,
“Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.”
Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
I want to make something clear that we modern readers might easily miss. Whenever scripture says something like “her countenance was sad no longer,” it doesn’t simply mean she was happy. It’s a euphemism. It means she had sex with her husband. That would change anyone’s countenance.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord;
then they went back to their house at Ramah.
Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her.
Saying he “knew” his wife, is an extremely common euphemism in the Bible that indicates when two people had an encounter of a sexual nature.
Maybe you still don’t believe me, but here’s what it says next to clear up any doubt:
In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
This will become important shortly.
Hannah raises Samuel, and when he’s old enough offers him into service at the temple.
And she prayed.
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God…”
Now, let’s turn our attention back to Eli, the foolish priest. Eli had two sons, and this is what the scripture says about them:
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels;
they had no regard for the Lord
or for the duties of the priests to the people.
You can read the details on your own in First Samuel chapter two; suffice to say Eli confronted them, but he didn’t do enough to stop them from abusing their power.
So a prophet comes to Eli and warns him that this is not going to end well. People are angry, and they’re not just going to petition the bishop to have these bad priests removed, they’re going to kill them.
This will become important shortly, but let’s turn our focus back to the boy Samuel, who is growing up as a servant in the temple, learning to read the Hebrew scriptures and all about the duties of the priests.
Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
In other words, whether or not Samuel had any other place to sleep (which he probably didn’t) he was sleeping in the worship space.
Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And you’ve already heard what happens next.
Samuel thinks Eli is calling for him. The voice of God sounds like a voice calling from another room, another place, the voice of someone he looks up to.
Isn’t that often how God speaks to us today? Like a voice from another place or in the voice of someone we look up to?
Thankfully, Eli had a moment of wisdom.
Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”
So… good news, bad news. The good news is that the people won’t have to suffer under these bad priests much longer. The bad news is that all the bad things we fear are going to happen to Eli and his sons are going to happen.
Samuel did exactly what I would do if I were a kid who’d just heard that something bad about someone I care about.
Samuel lay there until morning;
then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.
Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.
But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
By this point, Eli has realized his errors. He has accepted his faults, and that there will be consequences.
Eli raised Samuel, and when Samuel was old enough to become a priest, it happened.
An enemy army attacked.
The army of Israel was desperate, so they asked for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to them from the temple–a visible sign of God’s spiritual presence with them.
Eli’s two sons brought the Ark, but the enemy still defeated them. They killed thousands of men, including Eli’s sons, and stole the Ark of the Covenant.
After it was all over, a survivor ran to the temple to tell Eli what had happened.
Now, just so you understand the context, the distance from Ebenezer, where the Israelite army was, to Shiloh, where the temple was, is a little over 26 miles–a marathon–and it’s uphill most of the way with a total elevation change of 2000 feet, like running from Newcastle to Grass Valley.
A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with earth upon his head.
When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.
When the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?”
Then the man came quickly and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see.
In his old age, Eli was physically blind.
The man said to Eli, “I have just come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” He said, “How did it go, my son?” The messenger replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”
When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward…and he died.
There’s a lot in this story to talk about, but I want to focus on Eli–Eli, who’d lived a long life full of guilt for his former foolishness both as a priest who failed to uphold the honor of the temple, and as a parent who failed to intervene in his sons’ abuses of power.
I think Eli blamed himself for his sons’ behavior, not just because there may have been something in hindsight that he could have done, but because the people laid their blame on him for his sons’ wrongdoing. He bore the guilt and the shame, and it robbed him of the power to act with justice, kindness, and humility. Instead, he confused humility with humiliation, and closed his mouth to the injustice and the unkindness around him.
I think of Eli, sitting in his chair, physically and spiritually blind, with all that mattered to him in the world gone to war–the holy ark of God, and his two sons. Anxiously he waits in his chair, straining his ears to hear a voice in the distance that would declare whether those foundations of his life had survived… or not.
And when the word came, he fell over dead. But I don’t think the point of the story is Eli getting what he deserved for his sins. I think it actually shows us how God loved Eli, and how God always loves us, even when we screw up, when we fail, no matter how foolish, because we are all beloved children of God.
This entire story began with God giving a child to a barren woman, a child who would become a prophet, who would eventually anoint the first kings of Israel and usher in Israel’s golden age, but whose first prophetic work was to give a message to Eli–a difficult message to be sure, for it was a message of consequences that would come to pass, but nonetheless a message.
The word came to Eli, through Samuel, whose name means “God has heard.”
And in the place where Hannah once prayed silently, offering her plea even as she listened for a word from God, in this same place, Eli sat and silently waited for another word from God. And at the moment when Eli’s world was finally shattered, God herself cradled his broken spirit and carried him into the next life.
Even the worst screw-up, on the worst day of his life, is never abandoned by God.
Whatever disappointment you feel, whatever guilt or self-hatred you carry, whatever burden of blame or unworthiness you bear, God is with you. No matter what curse you act like you deserve, no matter what punishment you passively accept from those who are not God, you are loved by God and God is with you. Your sins are not fatal, only life is fatal. Each of us may die, we may leave our bodies behind, but we will always be in the presence of God.
God is with you in the daytime of your life and in your nighttime, in your celebration and in your lamentation, in your wisdom and your weakness–God will speak to you from another place, perhaps through a familiar voice–God is with you and God will remain with you always.