Ten-year-old Samuel looked down at the hem of his tunic with some annoyance. His mother Hannah had recently come to Shiloh with the rest of the family for their annual visit to the tabernacle of the Lord, to worship and offer sacrifice, and, as was her habit, to give him a new tunic. It was noticeably longer than the old one and he was always in danger of tripping on the hem. Hannah had told him not to worry; he would grow into it.
He kicked at a grasshopper, and it flew away. Why couldn’t he be at home with his brothers and sisters like other kids?
“Get out of the way, squirt!” bellowed Hophni, one of the sons of Eli the priest, as he led a young bull toward the altar. “You’re always in the way.”
Samuel scampered to one side, then snagged his hem and fell flat on his face.
Hophni laughed, then muttered, “Clumsy kid,” as Samuel got back up.
Samuel could feel his face burn as he brushed the dust off. He hated Hophni and his brother Phinehas. All they ever did was push him around and make fun of him. Old man Eli, their father, was okay, but he was nearly blind and couldn’t do much any more.
He wandered over to a corner of the tabernacle courtyard, out of the way near the entrance, and sat down, leaning against one of the posts of the curtain that fenced the area in. This was the last sacrifice of the day, so he waited until everyone was gone before getting up again and pulling the entrance curtains closed.
He went over to where Eli was seated, a bit back of the entrance. “Come on, Father. It’s getting dark.”
“The entrance is closed?”
“Good lad.” He stood, and Samuel took his hand to lead him over to the mat where he would spend the night.
Once Eli was settled, Samuel said, “Good night, Father.”
“Yes, good night.” He rolled over.
Samuel walked over to the tent in the centre of the courtyard and slipped through the curtain into the Holy Place. He kneeled down in front of the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant sat, hidden by curtains. The light from the lamp stand flickered at the other end of the tent, casting a gentle glow around it. There was a special peacefulness about this place that he had come to love, and it made the troubles of the day melt away. He recited a prayer that Eli had taught him once, then lay down on his mat by the doorway.
Samuel got up straight away and scampered outside, presuming that Eli needed to relieve himself or something. “I’m here, Father. You called me?”
“I did no such thing, lad.” He waved his hand to shoo the boy away. “Go back and lie down.”
“Yes, Father.” Samuel felt a little crushed. He lay back down and was just starting to puzzle out what had happened when ...
He sat bolt upright. There was no mistake. Since it was not like there was anyone else around to call him, he returned to Eli.
The old man turned to him, even though he couldn’t see him. “I didn’t call you, understand? Now, lie down.”
Samuel lay down, his head spinning. Was Eli trying to play tricks?
Now he was baffled, but he didn’t want to ignore the call in case Eli really needed something. After some hesitation, he went back out.
Eli didn’t reply right away. “Alright, lad, I’m not the one who’s been calling you, so go back and lie down. If you’re called again, don’t come to me. Just answer, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening’. Got that?”
“Yes, Father.” At the entrance to the Holy Place, Samuel stopped and clutched at the curtain. Did that mean there was somebody else here? Inside, he poked around all the corners to make sure before he lay back down.
His heart was in his throat and his hands were trembling as he sat up to look around. A man appeared at the entrance to the Most Holy Place, and a brightness that came from him filled the tent. Samuel scrambled to bow down. “Um.” What had Eli told him? “S-speak, Lord. I ... I’m listening.”
In the morning, as he pushed the entrance curtain open, he realized he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
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