GOD’S OWN TRAINING SCHOOL
A man of God by any means possible …or impossible.
(1 Samuel 2:12 – 26)
If, like me, your heart is beating somewhat for a little three year old so far away from his parents, and in the care of an extremely old man who has two extremely nasty miscreants as sons; let me put you at rest. Samuel turns out O.K. I know. I’ve read the book.
That still does not set aside our need to look into the full depths of the environment that Samuel was plunged into. The fact that he turned out so well is amazing to some. It also proves that, “attitude,” in a bad environment can be infinitely more important than the environment itself. It’s an additional point in the, “nature or nurture,” debate. Social Services of the twenty-first century, clearly, would not have allowed Eli or his sons near such an innocent.
Elkanah went back home to the rustic routine of farming and family life in Ramah. The little lad was left ministering before the Lord with all that a toddler has to minister with. He was undoubtedly given a course in Israelite history and traditions. The old High Priest would have spelled it all out to him. It’s a scantily told narrative as it stands. I for one would love to know more about little Sam’s upbringing with Eli. I would have asked the biblical authors for a lengthy diatribe that homed in on the “whys” and “wherefores” of Samuel’s childhood. Dream on Lannon!
But the scriptures do a swap here. The narrative changes, and we have quite a lengthy section telling us about what went on at Shiloh, with only passing phrases that glimpse the future prophet and kingmaker. The book shows us the other side of life as it was around the environs of the tabernacle itself and Shiloh the city. The scene of the narrative shockingly cuts from sweet youth, to evil adults, as we are solemnly told, “The sons of Eli were sons of Belial,” “Belial” being an alternative name for the devil. We all have a dual parenthood. We are of God, or of Belial, as well as of our human parents. However the general biblical concept of being, “in Christ,” or, “in sin,” is not what this verse means to purvey. The author is telling us that Hophni and Phinehas were a pair of villains. Seriously so! Heavy duty criminality.
The conduct of the duo reveals that they were utterly Godless. Their unbelief was the source of their moral bankruptcy. They were audacious, covetous, despotic, adulterous and blasphemous. The grasping and worldly religious leader is here forever exemplified in its ugliest caricature. They were the very nastiest picture of the lawlessness of the age in which they lived. Not only did every man do that which was right in his own eyes, but these two priests also did whatever their rapacious lusts desired. Any seniority they had amongst the Levites was based on nothing else but their sonship to Eli. Ministerial abuse peaks here. The most “high profile” position of religious service next to Eli himself was theirs, and they were as corrupt as it is possible to be.
There are two crimes specifically mentioned that they continually perpetrated. The one explained here sounds to the western bible readers as a bit of a storm in a teacup. Abuse of the the sacrificial system. It has to be seen through the filter of the eastern paradigm to grasp how heinous their conduct was. Moses set down laws for conducting sacrifices. First the sacrificed animal was killed, and boiled. The fat of any offering had to be waved before the Lord by the one making the sacrifice, then the fat was to be cut away and burnt. The fat belonged to God. That was how Yahweh instructed Moses concerning the method and principle of sacrifice. After that, only certain parts of the sacrificed beast were for the priest. The breast was for the high priest and his family; and the right shoulder for the other priests. This way the one doing the sacrificing could eat as well as the priest who ministered for him. However, before the animal was waved before the Lord, which meant swinging it to and fro before the Tabernacle, while the meat was still seething, Hophni and Phinehas sent out their servants to take what they desired as a priestly portion from the worshipping public. They came with a three pronged fork an item that speaks to many of demons, devils and things. Whether or not the devil and his hordes carry three pronged forks I very much doubt, but the association of ideas here is an appropriate one. They would submerge the fork in the pot and run away with whatever it pulled out. If the worshippers sought to correct the crime by reproving the criminals they were threatened with brutish violence. Moses stated in Leviticus 7:25 that whoever eats of the fat of the sacrificial beast would be cut off from the people. That statement lets the reader know how important this issue was to Yahweh and the God fearing Israelite. So not only were they taking more than they should have done, they were taking the fat as well; i.e. they also took the forbidden raw meat for roasting.
The entire existence of Israel was on the basis of God’s choice of them as His people, His removing of them from Egypt, and the sacrificial system around the Tabernacle. No matter how intricate and religious the system seems to us now in the twenty first century, they were under divine orders to run with what God had given them, exactly as Moses relayed it. We have to understand that it was the equivalent to getting drunk with the communion wine, and eating the bread that was meant for the church body – only much worse. They were detrimentally interfering with the conscience and faith of the people of Israel. It has to be added that prior to their misconduct, the nation was not exactly at an all time high of spiritual fervour. The sons of Eli were twisting the devils knife in the demonic wound of national unbelief and widespread idolatry. “Because of this” says the book, “the sin of these young men was extreme before the Lord; for people hated the offering of the Lord.” As usual, when the people that lead worshippers do not worship themselves, we have a major sociological, psychological, and for the believer, even a soteriological issue.
We have no idea how many people there were of the tribes of Israel worshipping at Shiloh during these days but many abhorred what went on there. Unless people of that generation were different from today, these facts meant that many simply stayed away and forgot about what went on at the Tabernacle, as well as the God who was behind the whole concept. So in the midst of the darkness of a black Chiffon sheet of oppression over the nation, thicker blacker quilts of sin were shrouded over the population of God’s chosen people by Eli’s sons. Darkness in the people of light! Famine in the land of milk and honey! Filth amongst the hearts of the cleansed! Lack in the land of plenty! There was something rotten in the state of Israel. It pervaded the very spirit of the nation. The spring of the decomposition was from the altar of God itself, and festering in the ministers of the Tabernacle.
Having painted the picture of depression, violence and muggings going on in the worship of God, the author of scripture swaps scenes again, obviously to make a point. Preachers have lots of little sayings and illustrations that enforce the concept of the ability of “purity” to stay clean in an evil environment. Think of the best of them and then read First Samuel 2:18. “But Samuel ministered before the Lord, a child clothed with a linen ephod.”
The proposition is that whilst an evil murky cloud of sin was spreading its greasy tentacles on the spiritual throat of the nation through two men in particular, the brightest and best that righteousness could produce at that time was also developing, probably, literally, next door. While demons were having a rave up. God’s instrument of righteousness was developing in the womb of the Tabernacles’ own Holy Place. This is God’s way.
When the Bible was first translated into English nobody knew what an “Ephod” was. The translators took the easy way out and simply anglicised the mysterious Hebrew word. Even today, our understanding of the word is simply the result of a lot of deduction and guesswork. It is generally understood that the ephod was a priestly “dress – like” garment made of linen. Normally priests were not allowed to start service until they were thirty years old. Once in service no activity was to be entered into without their linen ephod – the stereotypical eastern long white gown. They had to wear white boxer shorts of the same material while in harness.
The importance of us being told that the growing Samuel wore the linen ephod is to impact the reader that this little boy was now actually serving – as a priest. All this occurred and was done, seemingly with Eli’s blessing, and obviously in the high profile spotlight of public service at the Tabernacle, where all true worshippers would become more and more acquainted with the youth. It seems to me more than probable that he attended immediately to Eli’s person. He was ready to fetch and bring as he had occasion: and that also is called, “ministering to the Lord.” He could light a candle, or hold a dish, or run an errand, or shut a door, and because he did it with such a pious disposition of mind, it is called, “Ministering to the Lord.” I call it, “character development.”
There was no mass media, or even broadsheet newspapers. Only word of mouth. In that context the little boy whose name was Samuel would have been nationally known, and widely loved. A serious and grave child, working hard, before the Lord at the Tabernacle itself.
I suspect that there were clashes and crossing of swords between Samuel and the evil pair in the progressing years of childhood. We are not, however, told of any. Hophni and Phinehas were actually dead before Samuel had fully matured. I also suspect that Eli tried to keep Samuel out of his sons influence throughout his childhood. It could, of course, be that Samuel was strong minded enough to watch the evil actions of the two and simply steer clear. I wish I had a time machine to visit and see. Samuel grew strong and righteous in the midst of all this going on. God’s school is often the hardest, but always the best.
The years began to pass. Routine set in. Elkanah still attended the annual sacrifice, and of course, always came with Hannah. Every year she came with, what the King James Bible calls, a coat. The word, Anglicised is a “m’il.” The High Priest carried a “m’il” with his ephod. It was a square item that was hung on the chest having twelve precious stones attached to it. Each stone represented one of the tribes. Obviously, Hannah, making a new one each year suggests that the “m’il” she made was without the stones. But it allowed the worshipping Israelites to see that Samuel was a virtual, “High Priest in training,” not that Samuel could actually ever become High Priest, his family line would have utterly prohibited such a thing. To be frank, although he was in charge, the book does not ever refer to the Tabernacle “head-man”as the High Priest, either. Samuel, however, was clearly a leader of men in development – as perceived from his very early years. Eli would not allow his sons to bear the Holy garments, so he was training a successor for when he passed on. It was clear that Samuel’s potential role would be equally important and equivalent to Eli’s role after Eli’s demise, in power and status, in later years. Samuel. It must be repeated, is never referred to as the High Priest, and there is no indications given as to exactly what was in Eli’s mind at this time.
It is all logical really, when Eli’s long term options are vaguely perceived. This little boy would be working in the courts of the Tabernacle with a child’s High Priest’s costume. Something like a little boy dressing like Superman or Batman. But this was no game, nor was it fiction. The High Priestly position and role was no fantasy. It seems sound to assume that Eli sanctioned all these confirmatory significant items in order to establish the lad in his interest and his direction. The action was in contravention of the dead letter of Moses’ law, yet vindicated as part of God’s purpose as the years unraveled.
The entire worship of Jehovah revolved around the Ark, which was surrounded by the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was overseen by the role of the High Priest. Even at the time of Christ the position of the High Priest was accepted as a function of great importance on God’s economy. Eli was old and feeble and, perceptibly, about to pass on. His sons, by right, should succeed him in the role. But his sons were so famously and infamously godless it was unacceptable to both public and Eli to pass on the baton to them. Now there was this little boy on the scene of time. He ministered before the Lord, and to the Lord. He obviously obeyed Eli.
If Eli had an errand, Samuel would run the job. If Eli had a door to be opened, Samuel would turn the latch. We are talking of endearing ways and mannerisms that nestled in and found a place not only in Eli’s heart, but in all that saw him, while attending on God in the Tabernacle. He was accepted and loved. Twentieth century “heroes” and “heroine’s” like the Beatles, Pele, and Princess Diana show the need of the masses for stars and icons. Samuel filled that sort of role one thousand B.C. for back-slidden and debauched Israel.
Eli was fulfilling what we would today call a PR. Function in exposing Samuel and his character to the nation. There was one question of course. How would the two sons take it, if and when Eli was to die, and Samuel assumed the role of the senior minister of the nation? How could Samuel step in as an unconstitutional High Priest? The answer to that vital issue was to be resolved by God Himself.
How Hannah knew the right size through the years of adolescence is a slightly offending mystery to my own experience of teenage children. I have brought up a son who is now in his thirties, and while in adolescence I couldn’t judge his growth rate from week to week, never mind on an annual “one off” visit. Familial love was still there for Samuel. Warmth and affection were so warm towards his family that in his later life Samuel returned to Ramah to live. In fact, he died and was buried there.
The family picture thus painted is a glowing one. Samuel was content with his lot in life, as was Hannah. The annual visit was a joyous high point. Having settled down to this routine and his parents annual sojourn, something startling occurred on one particular visit that has a distinct lesson for us all.
It was Eli’s prophetic gift again. Hannah’s annual stopover with the new sized “m’il” was met with an outburst from Eli that was another release of God’s word. It was a “happening”. An occurrence. A taking place of the spoken word of God. He addressed Elkanah this time and said, “The Lord give you children from this woman for the petition she made to the Lord.”
It surely doesn’t sound much does it. You or I could have said that. The point is that Eli spoke those words at the specific prompting of God the Holy Spirit. As God pushed, so Eli spoke. The Spirit of God spoke via Eli. When God speaks there is a definite performance of what is spoken.
The eternal mystery is that when the word of God is not received in the heart and mixed with faith it does not “take place.” Not so on this occasion. True to character, Hannah believed the word. Elkanah believed also. Over the next few years Hannah had three sons and two daughters to grace their home. No further mention is made of Peninnah.
As a comment on the pronouncement that Eli made over Elkanah and Hannah, we need to ensure that childless couples are made aware of what the bible teaches. God gives life and takes it. It is He that grants conception, not the gynaecologist. There is no other lengthily proven issue in scripture more encouraging, I believe, next to the resurrection of Christ, than the fact that God answers the cries of barren women for children.
While five brothers and sisters were growing before mother and father at Ramah, the scripture adds: “And the child Samuel grew before the Lord.”
Three, four and five. Samuel was beautiful to observe, as all toddlers are when assuming adult importance in what they do. Six, seven and eight. Height in inches as well as spirit. Concepts of understanding and responsibility are dawning on him in the most practical of ways. I can only deduce that he was like a doting grandson to an equally doting grandfather. The little lad leading, nursing and serving the old gent in a demeanour of humility and servanthood that endeared him to all that saw him. It must have been so. How else could it later say that the nation acknowledged his position and role as a prophet when he was a grown man. Nine, ten and eleven. The first rumblings of pubescence and the hormone release that we refer to as adolescence were commencing their earthquake of eruption in the youth. Twelve, thirteen and fourteen. Perhaps even, eighteen, nineteen and twenty. We are left, at this point, to make frustrating guesses. So the picture painted by the scriptures in the silence of these years, the little peeps through the curtains with brief, “one liners” every so often, is very telling. Hophni an Phinehas degenerated. Samuel was clearly regenerated in God’s character and goodness. It is not stated so: but clearly implied.
While the years were passing, and Samuel was somewhere in this range of years, another scene is presented to us that we can only imagine was either witnessed by Samuel, or explained to Samuel by Eli. I make a basic assumption, here: that Eli would have been quite private in his attempts at disciplining his sons. The two priests, undoubtedly grown men, were summoned before him to suffer their father’s feeble parenting.
Eli was too late, and too inadequate with words. It was a collective discipline, and not individual. He should have spoken to each alone. It was interrogative without having hooked them in to willful participation of dialogue. It was assertive and argumentative. Unfortunately, with their well learned philosophy and practice of evil, now a lifestyle, a one off speech would accomplish little. And God held Eli responsible for his son’s upbringing. They answered to Yahweh for themselves, of course. They refused to listen to their father. The reason for this insolence is given: it was because, “the Lord would kill them.” Their evil ambitions had found an unstoppable momentum. They left the interview with a determination to continue in their wicked ways.
The now familiar contrast is made yet again. We picture the young man Samuel, growing so clearly and vividly; yet all we have with our present progress is five lines of insight.
“…and he worshipped the Lord there.” 1 v 28
“…and the child did minister unto the Lord, before Eli the Priest.” 2 v 11.
“… but Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child with a linen ephod.” 2 v 18
“And the child Samuel grew before the Lord.” 2 v 21 And now it says:
“And the child Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the Lord and with men.” 2 v 26
These insight packed words were plagiarised under divine inspiration by Luke when describing Christ’s childhood development. He “grew on.” His physical demeanour as well as his character firmed and matured with the approval of God Almighty and His people. His growth was visible and obvious. The physical and the spiritual; the mental and the brute strength; all were developing, growing and maturing. The phrase “grew on” suggests slightly that he was now a young adult.
The latter phrase also explains how much of a public profile he had while acting as Eli’s servant. Favour with people is an amazing thing. This was the favour of followers looking to a leader. This was the favour of an acknowledgement of godliness. This was the favour of expectation. When the people approved of the youth that strengthened and nursed the elderly leader, the future was perceived as bright.
Surely the mind of Eli was beginning to be realised. The people’s approval of Samuel would surely bring Hophni and Phinehas into line. Or perhaps Eli unrealistically opted against the hope that the duo would change.
It seems psychologically obvious that having two reprobate sons, as a surrogate father he could bask in the obvious favour that Samuel was enjoying, by doing all he could to ensure that Samuel followed in his footsteps, and not Hophni, or Phinehas. Little did Eli know at this time that God had plans that would put his two sons out of the running anyway.
But somehow, in some way, it was known and seen that Samuel was under the shadow of the favour of the Almighty. And that favour grew with his own stature. Was it the startling pleasantness of a youth trained with the right responses to God and life? Was it his smile? His gait? There must have been some mannerism, or some observable tangible characteristic that people could look and see that this was a person condemned to victory, life and godliness under the pressure and drive of God’s favour. The exceptional character of Samuel, if Hannah was still alive to see him, was emerging as the pride of Israel. Sadly, we read no more of Hannah or Elkanah from this point on.
- On 1 Samuel 1-4 (reflectingchristian.wordpress.com)
- 1 Samuel 1-3 (whatshotn.wordpress.com)
- 1 Samuel 1 (sisterspray4me.com)
- A Tale of Two Fathers (jamespaulgaard.wordpress.com)
- Preface (lannononsamuel.wordpress.com)
- Glory of the Lord appeared (motherlandhomewaresblog.com)
- The Names of God (shareaverse.wordpress.com)