(13) The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground – 1 Samuel 3:19

The only bright spot in the time of the Judges comes from the little book of Ruth which comes after Judges and tells the story of a Moabite woman who, after being widowed from an Israelite man at a young age, opts to move to Israel where she adopts Israel’s God and marries a good man called Boaz. Understood within the culture of its time, this is a love story and the result is the birth of Obed, who in turn is the father of Jesse, the father of David, the future king of Israel.

The next four books of the Bible – 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings – tell the story of the people of Israel from the time of the first king, around 1050 BC, through to the exile in 586 BC. Take a look at the Bible Bookcase to see how these books slot in after the books of the Law.

1 Samuel opens with the account of the last Judge, Samuel, who became one of Israel’s greatest prophets. His story begins, as all our stories do, with his parents. Elkanah, his father, has two wives, Peninnah who has children, and Hannah who has the pleasure of being his favourite wife but the pain of being childless. The opening of 1 Samuel focuses on Hannah’s desperate desire to have a child. When Elkanah finds her weeping he offers the comfort that he is worth more to her than ten sons – a typically male perspective – so she takes her distress to God and prays in the temple where she makes a vow that if God gives her a son she will give him back to the Lord.

There is nothing surprising about a desperate woman making such a promise to God. What is surprising is that when she has a son she fulfils her vow and takes the young boy Samuel to the temple and leaves him there to be a servant for Eli the priest. Hannah only sees her son once a year at the annual pilgrimage when she takes him a new robe that she makes for him.

Moses had created a tent (sometimes called a tabernacle) in the desert which was where the people came to worship God and offer him sacrifices. This housed the Ark of the Covenant, a wooden box overlaid with gold which symbolised the presence of God himself living at the heart of the nation. When they settled in the nation the Ark was housed in a temple at a place called Shiloh and this is where Samuel grew up, sleeping close to the Ark of the Covenant.

At an early age Samuel learns to hear God’s voice. One night he is woken up by a voice calling his name. He assumes that it is Eli calling, but after going to Eli three times the old man tells him to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9). God then gives him a hard message for Eli. The culture that “everyone did as he saw fit” had reached right into the priest’s family where Eli’s sons are disreputable men who take the meat from the people’s sacrifices and sleep with the women who served in the temple. They showed contempt for God’s laws and disregard for the people. Those who wanted to offer true worship to God in the time of the Judges found their offerings violated in the temple.

Eli tells Samuel to report God’s message to him and Samuel tells him that disaster will come on his household and his sons will die. This is a hard message for a young man to relay to the man who has been a father to him all his life.

From this start, Samuel, who has been trained in the Law by Eli, becomes a prophet, someone who brings God’s word to people’s situations. His reputation was known “from Dan to Beersheba” (1 Samuel 3:20) – equivalent to saying “from Lands End to John o’Groats” in Great Britain – as someone who was known to be so reliable that, in the word of the Hebrew writer, the Lord “let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground” (1 Samuel 3:19).

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