Samuel is a miracle child, an answer to prayer. In gratitude his parents leave him in the care of Eli the High Priest to serve God in the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Eli has sons of his own but they disobey both their father and God. In the middle of the night, Samuel hears a voice calling his name and his life is changed forever.
In the town of Shiloh, in the very heart of the land of Israel, the day was just beginning. In the middle of the town stood the tabernacle, the enormous, beautiful tent where the people went to worship God. At the back of the tabernacle, hidden from sight by a long curtain that stretched from the ceiling down to the floor, was the golden box. It was the box that contained the Ten Commandments that God had written down for Moses on two pieces of stone. It was the same box that Joshua had used to cross the River Jordan and capture the city of Jericho and then the whole land of Israel. That was 400 years ago and the box had been kept here ever since.
Outside Phineas and Hophni, the two sons of Eli the high priest, opened the entrance of the tabernacle and looked at the long queue of people waiting to come in.
“Oh yes,” said Phineas, rubbing his hands together in delight, “it's going to be a very good day!”
“Right, in you come you lot,” Hophni barked at the people waiting outside, “one at a time, no pushing.”
As each person reached the entrance of the tabernacle, Phineas and Hophni took their bags from them and searched through them.
“Security check, you understand,” they told the people. But it was a lie; Phineas and Hophni were looking to see what the people had brought with them to give to God.
“Oh no, oh deary me no,” Phineas wailed, holding up a piece of meat that an old woman had brought with her. “You can't give that to God, it's covered in fat, it's no good at all, let me get rid of it for you.” And he put the piece of meat into his own bag.
As the old woman walked away Phineas winked at his brother Hophni and grinned. “That's tonight's dinner sorted out then.”
“You shouldn't do that, it's wrong!” came a voice from behind them.
Phineas and Hophni turned round.
“Oh look,” they scoffed, “It's Samuel, the miracle boy!”
Samuel didn't like it when Phineas and Hophni teased him, but it was true, he was a miracle boy. His parents had thought they couldn't have children until one day his mother had sat right here in the tabernacle praying. “If you'll just give me a son,” she'd said to God, “then I'll give him back to you and he'll serve you all his life.” God heard her prayer and he answered it. So when Samuel was old enough, instead of going to school with the other boys his age, he'd come to live at the tabernacle, so that Eli the high priest could teach him how to serve God.
“You mustn't take the things that people have brought for God,” Samuel told Phineas and Hophni, “it's stealing! You'll get into trouble!”
“Oh, we're so afraid,” said Phineas, “you're so scary!”
“It's not me you should be scared of,” Samuel replied, “it's God.”
“God!” Hophni smirked, “What's he going to do about it? Push off squirt.”
Well there was nothing Samuel could do, Phineas and Hophni were much bigger than him and there were two of them. So he went to see Eli and told him what his sons were doing. That night Eli spoke to Phineas and Hophni – it wasn't the first time he'd heard that they were doing wrong and it wasn't the first time he'd spoken to them about it. But Phineas and Hophni didn't listen, they never did, they didn't care about anyone or anything except themselves. They just shouted at their father and called him an old fool.
When the argument was over and everyone had gone to bed, Samuel was left all alone in the tabernacle. He didn't have a room of his own like the others; he just slept here, lying on a mat on the floor. Samuel lay down, closed his eyes and began to drift off to sleep and then ... he sat up straight and looked around in every direction. He was sure he'd heard a voice, a voice calling his name – “Samuel! Samuel!” – but there was no-one there. The lamps were still burning, if anyone else was in the room he'd be able to see them, there was nowhere to hide. No, the voice couldn't have come from inside the tabernacle; it must have been Eli calling from outside. So Samuel jumped to his feet and ran to Eli's room.
“Here I am; you called me,” he panted.
“What? What's that?” asked Eli, struggling to wake up, “No, I didn't call you. Go back to bed.”
So Samuel went back into the tabernacle and lay down on his mat. But just as he started to fall asleep, it happened again.
There definitely wasn't anyone else in the room, it had to be Eli calling, so Samuel leapt out of bed and ran back to Eli's room again.
“Here I am; you called me,” he said.
“I didn't call you,” Eli grumbled, “Go back to bed!”
So Samuel went back into the tabernacle and lay down on his mat again. He tried to stay awake but he just couldn't keep his eyes open and as soon as they closed ...
Poor Samuel didn't know what was going on, but he got out of bed and went back to Eli's room.
“Here I am; you called me,” he insisted.
“No,” Eli almost shouted, “I didn't call you, but either you've had the same dream three times ... or God is speaking to you. Go back to bed and if you hear the voice again say, speak God, I'm listening.”
So Samuel went back to the tabernacle, lay down on his mat and waited ... and the voice came again.
“Speak God,” Samuel called out as he sat up, “I'm listening.”
And God spoke to Samuel, in a voice that was loud and soft at the same time, as powerful as waves crashing on the shore but as gentle as a stream, as big as trumpets blasting out a fanfare but as small as a whisper.
“Samuel,” said God, “I am going to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. I am going to punish Phineas and Hophni for what they have done. I am going to punish Eli too. He is the high priest, I warned him to stop his sons from doing wrong but he did not listen, he cared more about them than about me.”
The next morning Samuel told Eli everything that God had said.
“He is the Lord,” Eli sighed, “whatever he does is right.”
Now some time later the people of Israel went to war with their old enemy, the Philistines. A mighty battle followed and the army of Israel was beaten. The commanders of the army were furious.
“Let's go to the tabernacle,” they suggested, “and fetch the golden box. It helped Joshua to defeat his enemies, now it will help us too.”
So they sent men to the town of Shiloh to fetch the box. When Phineas and Hophni heard what was happening they took charge of the box and led the men carrying it back to the battlefield.
“We'll be heroes!” said Phineas
“We'll be famous!” said Hophni.
“We'll be rich!” they chorused.
But they were wrong. The golden box did not help the army of Israel because God did not want to help them that day. He hadn't told them to fight the Philistines and he hadn't told them to take the box. The army was defeated, Phineas and Hophni were killed and the golden box was captured by the Philistines.
When Eli heard that both his sons had died on the same day and that the golden box had been lost he fell backwards from the chair he was sitting in and his neck snapped.
Everything that God had told Samuel he was going to do had happened. Now Israel needed a new high priest, one who would do what was right. God had already made his choice – he had chosen Samuel.