Samuel watched the last tip of sun drift behind the hills to the west. Purple fingers traced over each rivet in the grassy knolls, and Samuel closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and then turning to step back inside the Tabernacle.
He shut the door behind him. Candlelight flickered from the golden lampstand, casting tiny dancing shadows throughout the chamber. Samuel had always liked the lampstand – it had seven “branches,” with small almond shaped buds at the end of each one. The flames trickled out of the buds, always lit, always reminding him of Yahweh’s light.
“Samuel,” a voice rasped at him from across the way.
Eli stood, hunched over, squinting his eyes, a grizzled white beard wafting over his large frame. The old man held out a shaking hand, covered in spots, wrinkled and gnarled from opening and closing the sanctuary doors so many, many times. How many sacrifices had rested under those withering fingers? How many blessings had he passed through his feeble mouth?
The boy hurried to Eli’s side and took his hand.
“Take me to my bed, child.”
“Yes, Eli.” Samuel led the old priest across the room, through another doorway, and into a side chamber with a small bed and a scratchy blanket. He put Eli’s hand on the side of the bed and then took his other hand and helped him to sit.
“Thank you,” Eli whispered.
Samuel nodded and waited until Eli had brought his legs up onto the bed and laid his head against a small roll of a pillow. “Good night, Eli.”
“Good night, now.”
Eli closed his weary eyes and soon, a gentle snore rattled past his beard.
The boy walked back out of the bed chamber, closed the wood door behind him and took another deep breath. Standing inside the Tabernacle was not something many people did. Being this close to Yahweh’s presence was not something everyone valued. Not many people even came to the Tabernacle. Nearly not as many as should have been coming at least. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t understand.
Samuel sat, pulling his knees up to his chest and hugging them tightly. He stared at the golden Ark of Yahweh sitting at the end of the room. Two cherubim – angels – bowed across the top of the wooden box. Eli had called it the mercy seat. Samuel wasn’t sure yet why it was called a seat because he never saw anyone sit on it, but he knew it was important. It had to be.
The candlelight glinted off the Ark. Samuel yawned, rubbing both eyes and then crawling over to lean his head down near the Ark’s resting place. He pulled a thin blanket up to his shoulders and closed his eyes, soon drifting into a deep, peaceful sleep. Dreams of cherubim flying from one end of the sky to the other filled his mind, and he smiled, thinking how incredible it would be to actually stand before Yahweh and hear–
The voice echoed through the Tabernacle, filling his ears. His eyes flipped open and he stared at Eli’s door. “Yes? What is it?”
Eli must need something. He didn’t see very well anymore, and he sometimes needed help finding his way if he woke up during the night. Samuel pushed off the blanket and hurried over to the door, placing his ear against it to listen. He didn’t hear anything inside, so he slid the wooden door open and poked his head in.
Dim orange light drifted through the crack, lighting Eli’s weathered face.
“I’m here,” Samuel whispered. Eli didn’t stir. “Did you call me?”
The old man creaked open one eyelid. “I didn’t call you,” he mumbled. “Go back to bed.”
Samuel nodded and shut the door. Maybe someone was outside the Tabernacle? Maybe one of Eli’s sons? He hurried to the main door to listen but didn’t hear a single thing except the cicadas cricketing and chirping through the night.
The boy returned to his place by the Ark and slipped back under the blanket, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. The moment they blinked shut, he heard the voice again.
He whipped his eyes open, sat up, and watched Eli’s door. Maybe the old priest was calling him in his sleep? Or dreaming? Samuel yawned, stretched, and then darted to the bedchamber door, yanking it open again. “I’m here,” he said. “Did you call me?”
Eli snorted and rolled to his side, the bed creaking in protest. “I didn’t call you, my son. Go back to bed, now.”
The boy bit his lip, shrugged his little shoulders, and then shut the door behind him. He stood, both hands on top of his head, watching the Tabernacle, the lampstand lights flickering, the Ark resting solidly, quiet and solemn. Maybe he was dreaming.
The voice. He stared up at the ceiling, the walls, the doors. It had to be Eli. With one quick turn, he pulled the door open again and leaned in. “Did you need me?” he asked.
Eli harrumphed, and pushed himself up to both elbows, squinting at the light drifting through the doorway. “Son. I didn’t call you this time or the last two times. I have been sleeping here until you woke me up and–” Eli’s mouth clamped shut.
“What is it?” Samuel asked.
The old priest held up a single finger and then he tapped his forehead. “Samuel. Go and lie down again. If someone says your name again, then say, ‘Speak, Yahweh. Your servant is listening.’ Can you do that?”
Samuel scrunched up his forehead but nodded. “Yes, sir.” He wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a spark zap from one of the old man’s eyes to the other, and for a moment, it was as if the priest could see everything clearly again, as simple as a snap of the fingers.
The boy whispered good night and then closed the door behind him. He found his scratchy blanket right where he’d left it. After he had lain down again, he pulled the blanket up to his chin, his eyes wide and watching the ceiling over his head. The firelight blinked across the wood beams above him, and he smiled, listening and wondering if the voice would call him again.
He waited a moment more, his eyelids drooping heavily. Maybe it had all been a dream. Maybe he was–
He sucked a sharp breath through his nose. The voice. It was back. Calling for him. Saying his name. Samuel. He licked his lips and whispered, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
Another moment. And then, it was as if someone had stepped up right beside him, standing tall and strong and radiating warmth, peace, love, and presence. A weight filled the air, thickening every breath, and leaving Samuel taking slow steady breaths. One name flickered through his head: Yahweh. Yahweh was standing beside him now, speaking to him.
“I am about to do something shocking in Israel. I am going to carry out all of my threats against Eli and his family, from beginning to end. I’ve warned him that judgment is coming upon his family forever because his sons are blaspheming Yahweh and he hasn’t disciplined them. So I’ve vowed that the sins of Eli and his sons will never be forgiven by sacrifices or offerings.”
Samuel closed his eyes and let the words surround him, course through his bones, trapping themselves inside his very core and housing there until they felt like a fire burning through his heart. He stayed there until morning, waiting for any more words, afraid to move even a finger lest he miss Yahweh’s message.
Hours had passed, and the boy picked his head off the ground, his long dark hair resting on his shoulders. He took another deep breath and then stood to open the doors of the Tabernacle like he always did every morning.
A small pebble seemed to have stuck to the back of his throat, and no matter how many times he tried to swallow it away, it stuck. The words Yahweh had spoken weren’t exactly ones he wanted to share with Eli. He bit his lip and stood by the doorway, sunlight streaming onto his face.
A cough behind him. “Samuel, my son.”
Samuel let out a slow breath and spun on his heel. “I’m here.”
Eli leaned over on a long staff, notches carved up the side. The old man’s beard trailed near his large belly, the tips yellowed with age and time. “What did Yahweh say to you? Tell me everything. And may Yahweh strike you and kill you if you hide anything from me!”
The boy shifted from foot to foot, resting one hand on the open door. “I…” Eli’s face had grown cold. The wispy beard around his chin bristled.
And then Samuel planted his feet, straightened his shoulders, and spoke. Every word he had been told. “Yahweh told me that He is going to do everything He said He would. Against you, your family, from beginning to end. He said that… He warned you judgment was coming on your family forever, because of everything Phinehas and Hophni have been doing and you never disciplined them. Your sins and the sins of your sons won’t ever be forgiven no matter how many sacrifices and offerings you make.”
Eli stared at the harsh sunlight, rocking slowly back and forth. “It’s Yahweh’s will,” he muttered. “Let Him do whatever He thinks best.”
Samuel nodded and watched the old man totter through the open doors to his stool, where he plopped down, held his staff, and stared off at the hills. Eli didn’t move.
(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.