The book of Judges ends with Samson, but Samson is not the last of the judges. The last judge of Israel is also the first prophet of Israel: Samuel. Most kids know the basic story of Samuel, so I opted to tell his story from the point of view of Eli, the priest who raised him. It is often useful to come at an overly-familiar story from a different direction.
My name is Eli. I was a high priest in Israel during the days of the Judges. This was before the temple was built; the only place of worship was the tabernacle—the tent that Moses had made in the wilderness before we even came to this land. When I became priest, there were few righteous people left in Israel. Everyone did what seemed right to them, instead of asking God what was really right. Do you think that if people just do what they think is right, that they will actually do what is right? No, of course they don’t! People are sinners and their thoughts and actions are fallen. Only God knows what’s right.
There were so few people left in Israel who knew right from wrong that when I saw a woman weeping in the tabernacle, I assumed the worst at once. I thought she must be drunk. But no, she was earnestly praying, and so broken down with grief that she was weeping with true sorrow. She told me her name was Hannah and that she was unable to have children. More than anything, she wanted to have a son. I understood why she was so sad, then, because having children is very important to our people. She wanted a son so much that she promised to give the child forever to God when he was born. I told her that I hoped her prayer would be answered. I felt certain it would be, for Hannah was a truly righteous woman in a sinful land. Surely God would bless her.
I didn’t see Hannah again for almost five years. Then one day, there she was with a four-year old boy named Samuel. She wanted to give the boy to God, so she left him there at the tabernacle with me. Now, I was already an old man and my own children were all grown. Actually, I had not been such a great father; my own sons had not turned out so well, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if Hannah had not dared to leave her precious son with the likes of me! But she trusted God to take care of her son and protect him. So little Samuel lived with me and helped me do little jobs in the tabernacle.
But, as I said, my sons were very wicked men. I was very old, and they were doing most of the work of sacrificing. It’s very hard work and I was too weak to do it. But unfortunately, they were stealing the people’s sacrifices for themselves. Worse, they were stealing the sacrifices right in front of the people. I can imagine how angry and sorrowful these poor people felt. They came to the tabernacle to worship God and brought with them their best lamb or goats to give to God. And instead, they have to hand over their sacrifices to the greedy priests and watch my wicked sons eat their lambs for dinner. I tried to tell them to stop, but they refused to listen to me. I should have sent them away, for the sake of the people, but I was too weak to stand up to them. I guess I was afraid of them.
One day, a man of God came to me and told me that God was disgusted with my sons’ behavior and that since I was not doing my job and taking care of the situation, He was about to take care of it Himself. Both my sons would die on the same day, and then I would also die. After that, God would set up a new high priest who would honor Him as He ought to be honored. What could I say? He was right, of course! My sons were wicked and I was letting them get away with it. God’s people deserved a high priest who would treat God with proper respect!
One night after that, when I was sound asleep, the boy Samuel woke me up. He was about twelve years old by that time and smart as could be! More importantly, he loved God with all his heart and wanted to serve Him with all his heart. Anyway, he woke me up and said, “What did you want? You called me.”
“No, I didn’t,” I replied. “I was fast asleep. Go back to bed.”
I had just managed to fall asleep again when the boy returned. “Here I am, you needed something?” he asked.
“My son, I did not call you. Go back to sleep,” I told him.
The third time Samuel woke me up, I suddenly understood what was happening. He was a truthful boy and not one to imagine voices, so he obviously was hearing a voice calling to him. It wasn’t me, and it certainly wasn’t my worthless sons! Who else could it be but God!
I said, “It is God who is calling you. Next time you hear His voice, say: ‘speak Lord, your servant is listening.’ Then listen to what He has to tell you.”
Of course, Samuel did exactly as I told him. He was such an obedient boy! The next day, I asked him to tell me what God had said to him. Poor Samuel! He did not want to tell me, because it was such bad news! He didn’t know that the man of God has already told me this news: that my sons would be killed and then I would die, and no one of my line would ever be a priest again. “God knows best. Let Him do what He will,” I sighed.
That was only the first time that God spoke directly to Samuel. After that, God was talking to Samuel all the time. Soon he because famous throughout the land as a prophet, because God was always giving him messages.
But as Samuel was drawing closer to God, most of Israel was drawing further away. At that time, we were fighting with the Philistines, and losing badly! Then some of the soldiers got the bright idea of carrying the ark of the covenant into battle with them, like some kind of big good-luck charm! Do you think that God wanted them to use His holy ark for such a purpose? The ark represented God’s presence in the tabernacle. It was so holy, no one was allowed to look at it except for the high priest, and even the high priest was only to see it once a year, and not without offering many sacrifices first. I ought to have stopped them, but just like so many things I ought to have done, I didn’t do it. The soldiers carried the ark into the battle and my sons both went with it.
I was so worried about the ark and about my sons I couldn’t stay inside the tabernacle. I carried a chair out to the outside gate and sat looking towards the battle field, waiting impatiently for news. I feared the worst, and the worst soon came! A soldier, fleeing for his life from the battle, stopped long enough to tell me that my sons had both been killed and the ark had been captured by the enemy. How could the news have been worse? I was so upset, I fell out of my chair and broke my neck and died!
You might wonder what happened to the ark after that. The Philistine town it was taken to was struck with a plague, so it was sent to another town, which also was struck with a plague. And so it went, spreading plague where ever it went, until the Philistines decided it would be best to send it back to us! So they put it on a cart and hitched a pair of cows to it. These cows had just had baby calves, and if you know anything about cows you know they will not leave their calves for anything. But they left their calves this time, crying the whole while, and carried the ark back to Israel. And what happened to Samuel? You’ll have to find out next week!