By Debbonnaire Kovacs, posted Nov. 11, 2015 Based on events depicted in 1 Samuel 1.
[Author’s note: I believe the age of weaning in ancient times was far later than we in modern western nations think—most likely at least five or six years. I have personally known people from eastern countries who continue to nurse their children to that age. They often have a baby nursing for all its sustenance, a toddler who still nurses perhaps morning, noon, afternoon nap time, and bedtime, and the older child only at naptime and bedtime, though I have seen one five-year-old Vietnamese child who, even during church in the Parents’ Room would occasionally come to his mother for a moment of nursing, which she gave. I find it highly unlikely that Hannah turned over a toddler to an old priest to have to take care of. I like to think Samuel was perhaps seven, just because that’s the famous “perfect number” in the Bible. He had to be old enough to perform duties in the temple, and old enough to understand what was happening and why. I’ve tried to imagine what he might have thought when his mother brought him to the temple.]
Samuel’s heart was beating so hard it almost hurt his chest. He stood on the pass between two hills, which they had just climbed, but only part of his breathlessness was from that. Immi held his hand tightly, but Samuel didn’t protest—he clung, too. They gazed at the great walled city of Shiloh, spread out on a slightly lower hill below them. There were so many buildings, all piled together like stones on a cairn. Samuel thought there might be a hundred buildings! But the one thing that drew all eyes was the ancient, skin-covered tabernacle in the middle. Moses and Aaron had sacrificed and talked to Yahweh in that tabernacle! And now, he would live there. Samuel’s throat felt dry.
The trip had been exciting, traveling through the hills with Abba, Peninnah and all her children (plus some of their families), Immi, and him. Lots of servants, too, and of course the animals for the sacrifices. Samuel kept looking at the big three-year-old bull that he knew was a very special sacrifice.
Immi had kept the Samuel close to her most of the journey, and he had been glad, because he knew this would be the last time they would be together for a long time. He gazed down at the tabernacle and blinked his eyes very fast. He was a big boy. He was not afraid.
“Is that it, Immi? That’s where High Priest Eli thought you were drunk because you prayed so hard to God to have me?”
“That’s it, my boy. That will be your home now.”
The group started to move down the hill. Samuel still clung to his mother’s hand, even though he was much too big to do so. Behind the fear was a feeling of excitement, something important about to happen. Several of his friends, those that were a couple of years older, had already begun their apprenticeships. Levi was going to be a shoemaker, Dan a wheelwright, and Shimei a shepherd. Of course, Shimei had been going out with the sheep and his dad since he was small, but now he was allowed to take the sheep out on the hill all by himself. The other boys were mostly still fetching and carrying for their masters, but they watched carefully and learned all they could, determined to become masters at their arts. Samuel wondered what kind of errands and jobs a boy working at the tabernacle might do.
His friends had been envious of them ever since his mother had explained to him, more than a year ago, that he was going to apprentice to Eli, the high priest. Samuel had heard many, many times the story of his birth. Now, for a whole year, he had heard many, many times about how he was to be dedicated to God and stay at the tabernacle. He had asked many, many questions, too, but Immi had not been able to answer most of them.
“It’s almost like apprenticing to the Holy One Himself, son!” Hannah had explained. “You will not be a priest, of course; you are an Ephraimite, not a Levite. You will be a helper, doing whatever Eli asks. I believe Yahweh has a plan, possibly a great plan, for your life. You must be faithful to Him no matter what.”
Samuel felt pride and excitement, especially since he was going to his apprenticeship younger than most of the other boys. But now that the time was almost here, the fear that had always been under the pride was a lot bigger. Nobody else he knew had to go far away from his family to work. Samuel knew it happened, of course. Some boys went to work on sailing ships, and some went with trading caravans. But almost always, there was a member of their family, a father, a brother, at least an uncle, who went along, too. Samuel was going to stay with people he had never met, and he didn’t even know what they did. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to do his work and please the priests.
They were most of the way down the hill now, and the pile of square stones had resolved into a city. There were so many people! Maybe hundreds—maybe the whole world! The family caravan tried to stay close together, and Abba came close to Samuel on his other side. He looked up, and saw his parents exchange a glance. Did Abba have tears in his eyes?!
Samuel looked down quickly and kept walking through the narrow alleyways that led to the great tabernacle with its curtained courtyard. Abba pointed out the small houses around the ancient courtyard, where priests and Levites lived. Perhaps he would live in one of them.
The services were both loud and solemn. There were the sacrifices, and wailing shofars, and people and animals milling around. Some babies were being presented to the Lord, and some people were weeping over their sin offerings. Samuel watched everything with big eyes. He saw another young boy bringing coals of fire in a hanging firepot, and taking away ashes.
The great feast with the family was a joyous affair, but Samuel couldn’t eat much. Afterwards, Abba and Immi and Samuel took the priest’s portion and went to seek Eli. A younger priest led them to the old man. Samuel bowed as he had been taught, but kept stealing glances at the high priest’s wrinkled face as his mother, keeping her head bowed, explained, “Oh, my lord! As your soul lives, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you, praying to Yahweh. For this boy I prayed, and Yahweh has given me my petition which I asked of Him. So I have also dedicated him to Yahweh; as long as he lives he is dedicated to Yahweh.”
Eli looked at Samuel. Samuel hesitantly lifted his head, and what he saw in the old man’s eyes made him keep his head up and meet the eyes studying him intensely. “Is it your will to serve Yahweh with all your heart and soul and mind and strength?” Eli asked.
Samuel swallowed. The first word squeaked a little. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Yes, my lord.”
Eli looked at him for another moment, then gave a decisive nod. “It is well.” He looked at Hannah and Elkanah and raised his hands. “Go in peace. God will bless you.” You may say your farewells, and then Mahlon, here, will take you to find a place for you.”
He turned away, and the younger man who had led them to the high priest moved back a few feet and looked away to give the little family privacy.
Samuel felt as if he were choking. Abba hugged him fiercely and whispered, “I am proud of you, my son. We will come to see you every single year. Be faithful.”
Then Samuel and Immi fell into each other’s arms. Immi was weeping so she could hardly speak, but she managed to choke out words of encouragement and love. “We will miss each other, and it will be hard for you at first, Samuel, my prayed-for boy, but you will be comforted knowing you are doing what Yahweh has called you to do. And every single day of your life, at the times of the morning and evening sacrifices, look up to heaven and know that your mother and father are praying for you.”
Samuel could no longer hold back his tears. He wanted terribly to say, “No! Don’t leave me! Let me go back home and be a little boy again!” But instead, he rubbed his eyes with his fists and gulped, “I will be faithful. I will make you proud of me. And I will pray for you, too.”
Resolutely, he pulled away, looked one last time on his mother’s and father’s faces, then turned to follow the Levite called Mahlon.
Samuel was almost a man now. And he was going to serve the Holy One, Yahweh, most high God of heaven.