Hannah spread her hands to the sky and her son clutched her legs as she prayed.
“My heart rejoices in the Lord!
The Lord has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
I rejoice because You rescued me.
No one is holy like the Lord!
There is no one besides You;
there is no Rock like our God.
Stop acting so proud and haughty!
Don’t speak with such arrogance!
For the Lord is a God who knows what you have done;
He will judge your actions.
The bow of the mighty is now broken,
and those who stumbled are now strong.
Those who were well fed are now starving,
and those who were starving are now full.
The childless woman now has seven children,
and the woman with many children wastes away.
The Lord gives both death and life;
He brings some down to the grave but raises others up.
The Lord makes some poor and others rich;
He brings some down and lifts others up.
He lifts the poor from the dust
and the needy from the garbage dump.
He sets them among princes,
placing them in seats of honor.
For all the earth is the Lord’s,
and He has set the world in order.
He will protect His faithful ones,
but the wicked will disappear in darkness.
No one will succeed by strength alone.
Those who fight against the Lord will be shattered.
He thunders against them from heaven;
the Lord judges throughout the earth.
He gives power to His king;
He increases the strength of His anointed one.”
The boy glanced up at Hannah, and she crouched down and hugged him tightly. “Listen to everything the priest tells you to do. Promise me?”
He nodded over her shoulder, his hair flopping a bit with every nod.
She leaned back, adjusted the tunic on his shoulders, and then held him out at arm’s length, smiling broadly and fighting back the tears waiting to trickle down her face. “I’ll come back every year. And I’ll bring you something. But you have to wait and see. It’ll be a surprise.”
“Okay,” the boy said, smiling back at her, and then glancing up as Eli the priest waddled up behind him.
“May Yahweh give you other children to take the place of this one she gave to Him.” Eli dipped his head to Elkanah, who dipped his head back.
Hannah stood and wrapped her arms around her husband. The two of them waved to the little boy as they slowly turned and walked away. And with each step, Hannah planned the robe she would bring to her son when they returned the next year. It would be wonderful. As amazing as the robe Father Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Colors, stitching, the very best. She thought about it the entire way back to Ramah. It would be amazing, and she couldn’t wait to see her son again with a robe in hand.
Another man stepped up to the Tabernacle entrance, a gray and white goat tied to a rope and trotting along behind him. The man pushed wiped the sweat away from his brow, tipping forward the dark covering over his head. Sweat dripped into his beard, and he blew out a long breath as he pulled the goat forward a bit more.
Samuel slipped out of the entrance, wearing a linen ephod, white with a small matching sash tied tight around his waist. He stood before the man. “May I take the rope, sir?”
The man nodded, handing the coarse rope to the boy. “Thank you, son. Where is Eli?”
“He’s attending to matters,” Samuel replied. “I’ll hold the goat here.” He glanced over his shoulder. “I think his sons will be here soon.”
The boy bit his lip, waiting. Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two sons were supposed to be waiting by the Tabernacle entrance to help people bringing offerings, but Samuel had not seen them all morning long. They did this sometimes. Disappearing from the Tabernacle for hours on end, leaving Samuel to tell people they would have to wait until someone returned.
The sun blazed across the dusty landscape, and the man promptly sat down in the dirt, wiping at his face with his arm. Samuel shifted from foot to foot as the goat munched its cud and stared at him with wide eyes.
“Shouldn’t be too much longer,” Samuel said.
The man waved a hand at him. “It’s no worry, son. It was a long journey here, so I’m grateful for a moment of rest.”
A scream echoed from somewhere behind the boy. His eyes went wide, and he felt his heart drop. He handed the rope back to the man. “Please, hold this, sir. I’ll return shortly.” Samuel spun around and walked briskly through the Tabernacle courtyard, past the altar and toward the bronze basin sitting right by the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Two women stood beside the basin, hands covering their mouths. Tears slipped down their faces, and they turned away as Samuel walked up to them.
Hophni and Phinehas circled around the edge of the Tent of Meeting then. They both looked like their father Eli, with a little less around the waist, but the same drooping faces and double chins. They adjusted their headpieces roughly. Samuel wasn’t sure, but he thought they both glanced back at the two women serving by the entrance, licking their mouths and wiping a hand across their faces.
“There’s a man waiting to make a sacrifice,” Samuel offered, brushing his hair out of his eyes and to the side.
Hophni smirked and clapped both hands together. “Wonderful. I’ll send one of my servants over to help him.”
Phinehas laughed, glanced at one of the women again and then pointed around the side of the Tent. “I’ll be ready for you, Hophni.”
Hophni nodded and gave a short chuckle. He called for a servant, and a moment later, the man’s goat was led into the courtyard and to the north side of the altar. Samuel hurried over and stood beside the man, as the servant, dressed in a simple white robe with a purple head covering, took the goat and a knife in hand. The servant slit the goat across its throat, and the animal brayed once and then slumped to the ground.
Samuel had winced the first time he’d seen a sacrifice. But he soon knew this was what must be done. There were so many kinds of sacrifices, peace offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings. Each one had so many specifics Yahweh had asked for. Samuel sometimes stayed up a little later than he probably should repeating to himself the proper order of each sacrifice. Eli helped him when he had questions, but Eli… he was getting older and older. It was harder for the large man to move much from his chair. And when he did, Samuel knew to help him carefully.
Hophni, wearing the ephod of the high priest, walked over to the goat, dipped a small bowl into the goat’s running blood and then sprinkled it around the altar. Next, he removed a few of the inner parts of the goat. Samuel was sure he recognized the liver and the kidneys and then something else he couldn’t remember the name of at the moment. These were set aside. The servant carefully lifted the goat and placed it on the altar.
“Bring me my portion,” Hophni said, sticking a three-pronged fork into the servant’s hand. The servant nodded as Hophni marched away to the bronze basin near the Tent of Meeting, glancing at the women standing there. They turned their faces to the side.
The man who had brought the goat held up a hand. “Wait. Take as much as you want, but the fat should be burned first.”
The servant turned to the man and narrowed both eyes. “No. If it’s not given to me now, then I’ll take it by force.”
The man’s face dropped and he squinched his mouth to the side. Samuel took a deep breath and glanced between the man and the servant. Something about this seemed wrong. The fat was supposed to be burnt first. He knew it.
“Bring me the portion!” Hophni yelled from across the courtyard.
The servant stabbed the goat meat, ripped away a couple pieces of fat, and then promptly marched away from the altar, juice dribbling from the sides of the meat he had taken. Samuel took another deep breath. This seemed wrong. The fat was supposed to be burned with the offering before anything was taken. He knew Eli had told him that.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispered to the man, who stared sadly at the goat.
Samuel darted out of the courtyard and hurried down the dusty road, his ephod flapping in the breeze as he ran. A small hill rose ahead of him, and he passed by a family walking together, talking joyfully and carrying two woven baskets between them. Two boys circled around their parents, and they waved at Samuel as he ran past.
A raven cawed overhead, but Samuel didn’t even glance its direction. He just kept running.
Eli sat in his chair beside the road ahead, leaning heavily on a stick, and nodding his head as people traveled by. The old man had grown fatter over the years, and Samuel wondered how long it would be before the little chair beneath him snapped in two.
He panted as he slid to a stop next to Eli. “Sir, it’s Samuel. Please, you have to come with me.”
“Come with you?” the old man squinted up at Samuel. “What’s the matter, boy?”
“Your sons… they… they’re taking fat from the peace offering before its even being offered, and aren’t they… supposed to leave the fat to burn?”
Eli closed his eyes and let his breath rattle through his lips. The old man raised his head up to the clouds, whispering silent words. Samuel stood by, patient, watching, waiting. Eli held out his hand to the boy, and Samuel took it, helping the old man to stand up. He leaned heavily on his stick. “Take me back, Samuel.”
Samuel nodded and started off, holding Eli’s weathered hand, now covered in spots from his age. The old man’s beard swayed from side to side with each heaving step. A small column of smoke wafted into the air above the courtyard, and even from up the rise, Samuel could smell the burning goat meat down below.
They reached the courtyard, and Eli took a deep sniff. “Take me to my sons, Samuel.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy led Eli around the altar and around the side of the Tent of Meeting until they came to the last peg in the dirt, tied with a rope arching up to the covering for the Tent. Behind the structure, Hophni and Phinehas had set up a small round table with two short stools. A pile of steaming goat fat sat in the middle of the table, and both of the men dug forks into the food, gobbling up pieces of meat and wiping their mouths off with their sleeves.
Eli stamped the stick into the dirt. “What is this I keep hearing about the two of you?”
Hophni and Phinehas paused mid-bite, glancing up at their old father. They smiled. “What is that, Father?”
“I’ve been hearing about the wicked things you’re doing!” Eli pointed a finger at the plate of fat sitting between his sons. “Why do you keep sinning? You must stop, my sons! If someone sins against another person, God can mediate for the guilty party. But if someone sins against Yahweh, who can step in then?”
The two sons glanced at Eli, then glanced at each other and the plate of meat. For a moment, Samuel wondered if they would drop to their knees before the Tent of Meeting and plead for Yahweh to forgive them. They swallowed what was in their mouths and then smirked. “Yes, Father. We know.” And then they dug their forks back into the fat, greedily slurping up another bite while watching Eli from the corners of their eyes.
A single tear slid down Samuel’s face. Meanwhile, the goat still burned.
Samuel watched the stars from the top of the rise poke out into the sky one by one. He watched them, sparking and fading out of the light blue and deep blue and then purple of the night. He wrapped his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth.
His stomach had hurt all day long, and his heart felt worse. It had been a busy day. Many people had come with their offerings, and every time, he had watched Hophni and Phinehas steal the best pieces of fat and meat from the offerings. Eli had stood by for a time but then marched back out of the courtyard, stumbling over the rocks and brush.
And Samuel had prayed for Yahweh to intervene. But so far, Yahweh had been quite silent on the matter.
A footstep crunched in the dirt nearby. Samuel turned, leaning back on his hands to see a man wearing a brown robe with a matching head covering arching over his graying hair. The man didn’t seem quite as old as Eli, but he was definitely old. His gray beard hung down his chest, and the man held a staff in one hand that he held straight up on the dirt beside him.
The man was coming Samuel’s direction.
A hand fell on Samuel’s shoulder. The boy looked up to see Eli standing over him, much as he had the day his mother had offered him to Yahweh.
“Who is that?” Samuel whispered.
Eli squinted into the darkness. “A man of God. He has a message for me.”
They watched the man approach, using his staff to help him climb the hill, one hand on his knee with each step. Crickets chirped nearby, filling the silence and the hills with Yahweh’s chorus of life. Once the man of God had reached the top of the hill, he stood before the old man and the boy, nodding to both of them, but then setting his jaw and staring at Eli for a time.
“I have a message for you, Eli, from Yahweh.”
Eli nodded. Samuel stood and took the old man’s hand, holding it tightly. He felt the man’s fingers tremble, and he wrapped his hand around them.
“Yahweh says, ‘I revealed Myself to your ancestors when they were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. I chose your ancestor Aaron from among all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer sacrifices on My altar, to burn incense, and to wear the priestly vest as he served Me. And I assigned the sacrificial offerings to you priests. So why do you scorn My sacrifices and offerings? Why do you give your sons more honor than you give Me – for you and they have become fat from the best offerings of My people Israel!
“’Therefore, Yahweh, the God of Israel, says: I promised that your branch of the tribe of Levi would always be My priests. But I will honor those who honor Me, and I will despise those who think lightly of Me. The time is coming when I will put an end to your family, so it will no longer serve as My priests. All the members of your family will die before their time. None will reach old age. You will watch with envy as I pour out prosperity on the people of Israel. But no members of your family will ever live out their days. The few not cut off from serving at My altar will survive, but only so their eyes can go blind and their hearts break, and their children will die a violent death. And to prove that what I have said will come true, I will cause your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to die on the same day!
“’Then I will raise up a faithful priest who will serve Me and do what I desire. I will establish his family, and they will be priests to My anointed kings forever. Then all of your surviving family will bow before him, begging for money and food. “Please,” they will say, “give us jobs among the priests so we will have food to eat.”’”
Eli trembled. He trembled and trembled, his feet shaking beneath him. Samuel could almost feel the earth moving with Yahweh’s words, stirring and swirling as Yahweh worked His will amongst them.
The man of God glanced Samuel’s direction, and then turned, and walked back down the rise, down the road, and across a line of boulders until he was completely out of sight.
(c) 2016 by Shaun Stevenson.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright (c) 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.