We start off with a fellow from the hill country of Ephraim named Elkanah, who had two wives: Hannah, and Peninnah. Peninnah had borne children, but Hannah had not because “God had closed her womb.” Elkanah loved Hannah, but Peninnah was constantly giving her shit about being barren.
So one year when they went to Shiloh (that’s where the tabernacle and ark and stuff were staying) to do the annual sacrificing stuff, she went to the temple where the high priest Eli and his two sons Hophni and Phinehas ministered, to pray. And her prayer was a promise that if God would let her bear a son then she would give the child to God and never shave his head (I believe this is promising to make him a lifelong Nazarite just like Samson was).
She was weeping and mouthing her prayers silently, so at first Eli thought she was drunk and berated her for it. But when she explained that she was just deeply upset and praying, he blessed her instead.
So Hannah and her family returned home, and before too long she got pregnant and did, indeed, have a son whom she named Samuel. Once the baby was weaned, she returned with him to the temple at Shiloh and “lent” him to God for the rest of his life by giving him to the priests. This is followed by twelve verses of Hannah chapping God’s buttocks with her lips. See 1 Samuel Chapter 2 if you really want to read the details – it is some rather poetic ass kissing.
Every year after that, Hannah would bring her son a new robe when the family returned to do their sacrifices. And she continued to have more children – three sons and two daughters (though it’s not clear whether that’s including Samuel, or in addition to Samuel).
Then we’re told about how Eli’s sons were a couple of jackasses, who would use their positions as priests to coerce people into giving them the best part of their offerings to eat and sleep around with the serving girls. Eli heard about it, and bitched them out, but since he was old and feeble they didn’t pay him any mind.
But no matter. God’s got it covered with his patented one-size-fits-all solution to problems: kill the fuck out of it, and then go after its family. But, y’know… lovingly.
So he sends a “man of God” to deliver his message (why he can’t tell Eli directly, him being the high priest and all, the author makes no attempt to explain) to tell Eli that God is pissed about his sons behavior and Eli’s own failure to rein them in. And that even though he’d promised Aaron that his descendants would be his priests forever, now he’s decided to destroy them and raise up a new priest because Eli’s kids are such shits. So Eli’s family will be cursed, in that none of his descendants will ever live to be an old man, and God’s sign to Eli that the curse has started will be for both of his sons to die on the same day.
After this, we return to Samuel, who’s grown into a young man. And one day while he’s lying down in the temple, God calls Samuel. Though in an uncharacteristic burst of subtlety, he does so in such a way that Samuel has no idea it’s him, but instead thinks it’s Eli. So he runs in to where Eli is lying down and asks why he called for him. Eli says he didn’t, and that Samuel should go back to rest.
This goes on a couple more times before Eli clues in that maybe God is trying to talk to Samuel. So he tells the boy that the next time he hears the voice, he should respond “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” Samuel does just this, at which point God tells him that he’s about to curse Eli’s household. And the phrasing is interesting.
“1 Sam 3:13 ‘And I declare to 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. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.’”
Just a thought, but if Jesus’ sacrifice was supposed to atone for all of humanity’s sins, doesn’t the above verse kind of imply that Eli’s descendants are ineligible for the supposed benefits of that sacrifice? That’s kind of a shitty deal. Wonder when we can expect a Hollywood apocalypse movie based on that idea.
Anyway, in the morning Eli wanted to know what God had told Samuel. At first Samuel didn’t want to say, but Eli eventually gets it out of him. As bad as the news is, Eli’s reaction is basically resignation.
From this point on, Samuel becomes a prophet and minister, and his fame begins to spread throughout Israel.
In due time, Israel and the Philistines come to blows as seems to be their wont. And in the initial engagement the Israelites are soundly defeated. So the elders came up with the brilliant idea that what they really needed to turn the tide was to have the ark of the covenant with them. So they sent to Shiloh to have the ark brought to them, and Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas came with it.
When the ark arrived, the Israelite army started cheering and celebrating. The Philistines were curious about what the hubbub was about, and when they checked it out and discovered that the ark was in camp they had a little freak-out session. “Oh no! They have a god in their camp! Nothing like this has ever happened before!”
Seriously? Nobody had ever carried an icon of their tribal spook into battle before? I find that hard to believe, but whatever.
As it turns out, the Philistines needn’t have worried. They handily beat the Israelites, and killed Hophni and Phinehas (plus about 30,000 soldiers) in the process of capturing the ark. So I guess Raiders of the Lost Ark lied to us: an army that carries the ark can be defeated.
You know… it occurs to me that this story wasn’t refaced with the usual crap about how the Israelites had turned wicked and started worshipping other gods. So if God wasn’t particularly angry with the Israelites at this point in history, I guess we’re just supposed to assume that he let 30,000 of his followers get killed just to prove a point to Eli?
When one of the soldiers returned to Shiloh to tell the news of the defeat, he found old Eli (who was ninety-eight years old and blind) sitting on a rock. When the soldier told him that the ark was captured and his sons both dead, Eli fell over in shock and broke his frail old neck. The shock also sent Phinehas’ pregnant widow into labor, and she gave birth to a son who she named Ichabod. She died shortly thereafter.
So, with the end of Eli’s part in the story, I think we’ll call it a day here. We’ll pick up next time with the story of the ark’s journey through the land of the Philistines.
Until then, be well!