I am the high priest, but you don't want to talk about me. I'm an old man now, portly and cranky. I have dwelt on this earth some 98 years, and I've long outlived my sight.
Yes, I am a Levite. I am a descendant of Ithamar, youngest son of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Therefore I am a priest of Yahweh, the God of Israel. It's the family occupation. I serve here in Shiloh at the Tabernacle of the Congregation.
Even my name, Eli, is pious. El means God, you know, so my name is God-I. I like nicknames. When I was a boy, I sometimes called myself Goddy. Heh-heh! My family didn't care for that.
Being a priest is an easy life, though. All the people treat us with deference and respect, and we get to wear fancy ephods and conduct impressive ceremonies. We don't even have to raise our own food. The people bring food to us, in the form of sacrifices and offerings.
I have been told that in the old days, Yahweh spoke directly to His priests to give us rules and regulations and such, but I myself have never heard any such voices in my head. Nowadays we just follow the traditional procedures. If an important public question arises and the people come to us for an answer, we flip a coin.
No, I'm kidding! There's more to it than that; we bring out the Urim and Thummim and make a big show of casting lots to let Yahweh decide. But it's simply a matter of chance.
Of course, if a particular outcome is required, we can rig the lottery. The people will still think that the decision came from Yahweh. Just between you and me, my boy Sam knows a few tricks in that regard. (Editor's note: see I Samuel 10:1, 17-24.)
But I don't want to talk about my life as a priest. I'd rather talk about Sam and my other two sons my real sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
Sons and Wives
Hoffy and Phinney are priests like me, serving at the Tabernacle. I sired those boys myself, one by each of my wives.
If you will permit an old codger to digress, let me say something in favor of the traditional concept of marriage. Nowadays we hear that anyone ought to be able to wed anyone. But that does not accord with the ancient scriptures. No, marriage should only be between one man and two women!
Did not our patriarch Jacob have two wives, Leah and Rachel? Has that not been the case with the majority of our priests and judges down through the centuries? Why should we threaten the sanctity of marriage by allowing arrangements contrary to what God has ordained?
Well, enough of that.
The third young man whom I claim as mine is not really my son. But he was brought up in my household, and I think of him as my little boy, even though he's all grown up now. His name is Samuel.
How Samuel Came to Live at Shiloh
Sam's real father was Elkanah. I called him Elky. He was a good man. He lived in Ramah, in the hill country west of here, and every year he brought his family to Shiloh to offer the annual sacrifice.
It was a fairly large family: Elky, his two wives, and six or eight children. But I learned that all of the children belonged to one of the wives, Peninnah. Penny wasn't a very nice woman, in my opinion. The other wife, Hannah, seemed to be her husband's favorite, but she had no children of her own.
Hannah told me years later that she used to get depressed over her inability to have children, and Elky would order her to stop crying about it. He would joke, After all, you've got me, and I'm better than ten sons! Hee-hee! At least I think he was joking.
When Elky sacrificed, he gave several shares of the meat to Penny so that she could distribute it to her children, but he gave only one share to Hannah. And Penny made sure to point this out. She taunted Hannah for being childless. Hannah was reduced to tears by all this disparagement from her rival.
Once, after the eating and drinking were over, Hannah came back to the tabernacle. I was sitting in my usual seat by the door. She stood beside the door for a long time. That annoyed me. I thought she was drunk. Her lips were moving but no sound was coming out. I finally ordered her to go sober up. But she explained that she wasn't drunk. She was distressed, and she had been praying silently.
I didn't know what she had been praying about, of course, so I just said, Well, best wishes for whatever's bothering you. Now stop bothering me. Get out of here.
No, I'm kidding! That's what I told her, but I didn't use those words. Instead, I solemnly recited the generic blessing: May the God of Israel grant whatever you have asked of Him. Go in peace. Of course, that means nothing more than Good luck, and go away. But my pious phrasing seemed to make her feel better. She left and rejoined her family.
That's what we priests do for a living, you know. We say magic words and conduct time-honored ceremonies. We let the people believe that we've convinced the mighty Yahweh to be on their side. They're grateful for our services.
The next year, Elky returned for the sacrifice, but he told me that Hannah didn't make the trip this time because she was back home nursing her new baby. She'd named him Samuel, which means asked of God. Elky thanked me for giving my blessing to her. It had been no trouble, let me assure you.
The year after that, here came Hannah with her little boy. She also brought flour, wine, and a bull to be slaughtered. And she handed her only child to me!
She said, Sir, I'm the woman who stood here beside you praying to Yahweh. It was this boy that I prayed for, and Yahweh has granted what I asked. Now I make him over to Yahweh. For his whole life, he is lent to God.
I was dumbfounded. Why would she give away the child that she had wanted so desperately? And what was I supposed to do with a toddler only 15 months old? How could he be of any service in the Tabernacle?
But it all worked out for the best. Hannah returned each year with a present, a new coat for her growing boy. I said to Elky, May Yahweh grant you children by this woman in place of the son whom you made over to Him. And indeed, Hannah had three more sons and two daughters.
A Voice in the Night
I live in the house next to the Tabernacle, of course. But when Samuel was growing up, he often slept inside the Tabernacle itself, guarding the Ark of God. As you know, the Ark is the sacred box that is supposed to contain Moses's tablets of the Ten Commandments, though no one alive today has ever dared to open it and look inside. The cherubim spread their wings above it, and the invisible Yahweh is said to be enthroned upon the cherubim.
One night I was asleep in my room when Samuel came running in. Here I am, he said.
I roused myself. Sam, what are you doing here? I asked.
You called me, he replied.
No, I didn't.
Yes, you did. I heard you.
You must have been dreaming. Go back to bed. So he did.
A few minutes later he was back. Here I am! I'm sure that you called me.
I did not call, my son, I told him. Get out of here.
I was beginning to wonder whether I had made a mistake in taking custody of this bright but brash young boy, who thought nothing of barging into an old man's house and waking him up just because of some dream.
Sure enough, Sam came back a third time, insisting You did call me.
Enough of this, I thought. I told him it wasn't me calling him, so therefore it must be the great and mysterious God. Oooh! He should go back to bed, and if someone called again, he should answer Speak, Yahweh! Your servant is listening. That ought to keep the boy out of my bedroom, I thought. And that was the last I saw of Sam that night.
The next morning, when he opened the doors of the Tabernacle as usual, I asked him, Well, did God speak to you last night? He didn't want to talk about it. But I insisted on knowing what was going on in his little mind. What did Yahweh say? Don't try to hide it from me! God's curse be upon you if you conceal from me one word. So he told me, reluctantly.
According to Samuel, Yahweh had said to him, Soon I shall do something in Israel that will ring in the ears of all who hear it. When that day comes, I shall make good every word that I have spoken against Eli and his family. You are to tell him this: My judgment on his house will stand forever, because he knew of his sons' blasphemies against God and did not restrain them. Therefore I have sworn to the family of Eli that their abuse of sacrifices and offerings will never be forgiven.
This was unexpected. Apparently Sam had heard complaints about the way our family conducts its priestly business. A prophet had already accused me of honoring my sons more than Yahweh by allowing them to fatten themselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel. I don't like that word fatten, by the way; it implies that my sons and I are overweight. We're just naturally large people.
Anyway, the accusations were weighing upon Sam's mind. He felt somehow guilty and couldn't sleep, so he came up with his dire prophecy, vague though it was. God's going to do something.
How could I reply in my defense? I could only say, Yahweh must do what is good in His eyes. What will be, will be.
What are these blasphemies that I supposedly have condoned? Well, the people have grumbled for years against my sons Hophni and Phinehas, claiming that they abuse their offices as priests. It's said that they force themselves on the women who serve at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and that they demand more than their share of the sacrifices.
You see, the people offer sacrifices to Yahweh, and He smells the sweet odor. But of course He has no need to eat or drink. He doesn't actually consume the food that is offered to Him. So we priests take a portion for ourselves before returning the rest to the people. It's how we make our living. It's our payment for the services that we render.
The custom used to be that when anyone offered a sacrifice, the fat would be burned for Yahweh, and then the meat would be boiled. While it was stewing, one of our servants would come along with a three-pronged fork and stick it into the pot. Whatever the fork brought out would be the priests' portion.
Phinney feels, and Hoffy agrees with him, that we priests deserve better cuts of meat than mere scraps pulled from a stewpot. So they've instructed the servants to approach the person before he makes the sacrifice and say, Give me meat to roast for the priest. A nice cut, with the fat still on it. He won't accept what has already been cooked, only raw meat. Often the person protests, At least let us perform the ceremony of the burning of the fat first. But God doesn't need burnt fat. If the raw meat isn't handed over immediately, the servants take it by force.
Does this amount to cheating God? Perhaps. And I admit that maybe our customers should be treated with more courtesy. A little tact wouldn't hurt, as I've explained to Hoffy and Phinney. Do stop it, my sons, I pleaded. This is not a good report that I hear spreading among Yahweh's people. And you can't claim any alleged divine protection. If someone sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if someone sins against Yahweh, who can intercede for him?
A King Would Be Worse
However, I have one question. As you know, there's talk that Israel should have a king. All the other nations have kings to lead them into war. My question is this: If the people grumble now about priests taking too much, how much more angry will they be if they get a king and he also takes a portion of their goods?
The people are accustomed to giving a tenth to God, but not another tenth to government. Indeed, a king's government could demand two or three tenths, with armed men to enforce the assessments.
Samuel agrees with me. He's opposed to having a monarchy. He's a judge now, and he visits Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah every year to dispense justice. He feels that Israel needs only judges and priests and Yahweh. Those who demand a king don't respect Yahweh's rule. They want to replace Him with a mere mortal on a gilded chair! Nor do they respect our traditions, including the Levites' essential role as Yahweh's priests.
Sam made a speech once against the idea of a king. Let facts be submitted to a candid world. He will take your sons and make them serve in his chariots. Some he will draft into the army; others will plow his fields and reap his harvest; others again will make weapons of war. He will take your daughters for perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will seize the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to the members of his court. The best of your cattle and your donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if Israel does need a single leader of some kind not a king, maybe, but a wise decider to direct our war against the Palestinians.
News from the Front
You've heard the latest, I presume. The Palestinian army has moved against us. They're encamped at Aphek, and our Israeli army is near Ebenezer. A couple of days ago there was a battle, and we lost 4,000 men on the field.
Afterwards, the elders asked themselves why Yahweh had allowed His chosen people to be defeated. Someone suggested that if the Ark of the Covenant had been on the scene, Yahweh would have prevailed. So a platoon of soldiers came up here to Shiloh and took the Ark! They marched right into the Tabernacle, picked up the Ark by its poles, loaded it onto an oxcart, and transported it all the way to the army camp at Ebenezer. Of course my sons Hophni and Phinehas, as Yahweh's representatives, didn't let the Ark out of their sight. They followed it to the camp, though they are no longer young men.
The Ark has never been removed from the Tabernacle of Yahweh, never since that day more than a century ago when Joshua brought it into the Promised Land. I must confess that I have a bad feeling about this.
Other nations don't carry their gods into battle. The Palestinians keep Dagon safely inside his temple down in Ashdod. Perhaps the Ark will inspire our forces with Yahweh's presence. But it could actually hurt our chances. If the Palestinians hear that we've brought our god to the battlefield, they'll try to overcome that presence by attacking us even more fiercely.
And what if Yahweh declines to fight for our side? He's already upset with me and my sons or so I've been told.
If the army of Israel should fail again, and the Palestinians overrun the field, not only might tens of thousands of our foot soldiers perish but the precious Ark might be captured by our enemies! It might be taken far away, never to return here to Shiloh.
That would be too much for an old man like me to bear.
(a retelling of I Samuel, chapters 1 through 8)
Click here for other Bible stories I've retold in the first person.