The High Priest Eli
For some time the Jews lived in peace and were not troubled by the Philistines in the west. Their religious life was centered about Shiloh, where the Mishkan (Sanctuary) stood. There, Eli, the High Priest, had assumed the leadership after Samson's death. In the unbroken chain of Oral Law (Massorah), beginning with Moses and continued through Joshua and Pinehas, Eli was the fourth to receive the teachings of the Oral Law from Pinehas, Aaron's grandson, A kind man by nature, Eli was beloved by all the people who looked to him for spiritual guidance. His two sons, Hophni and Pinehas, however, did not follow in their father's footsteps. Taking advantage of their privileged position, they degraded the priesthood in the eyes of the masses by bribery and corruption.
At this time there lived in Ramathaim-Zophim of Mount Ephraim a man by the name of Elkanah of the tribe of Levi, who helped greatly in focusing the attention of the Jews on their spiritual center. As prescribed in the Torah, he made a pilgrimage to Shiloh during each of the three annual festival seasons. Together with him, his family spent the holiday in a religious atmosphere at Shiloh. When the people saw Elkanah's caravan making its way to Shiloh, many of them joined him. A closer bond thus developed between Israel and their Religious Center, thanks to Elkanah's influence.
Early Years of Samuel
Of Elkanah's two wives, Hannah was childless. Silently she suffered many humiliations at the hands of the more fortunate Peninnah, who did have children. Once, while in Shiloh, Hannah vowed that if she had a son, she would consecrate his whole life to G‑d. That year her prayer was heard. A son was born whom she named Samuel.
Hannah's joy knew no bounds. The first few years Hannah kept him at home. Then true to her promise, she took him to Shiloh where she turned him over to Eli. From time to time she would come to visit her son. Under Eli's guidance, Samuel grew up in a wholly religious environment and soon showed himself an apt pupil.
Samuel received his first Divine revelation when he was still very young. One evening, when he lay down to rest at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, he heard a voice calling his name. He sprang up and ran to the aged Eli, thinking he had called him. But Eli told him to go back, for he had not called him. This was repeated three times, and then Eli became aware that it was a Divine summons. He then told the lad that when he heard the voice again, he should reply, "Speak, O L-rd, for Thy servant hears.'
The message Samuel received was a very sad one; 'Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both ears of every one that hears it shall tingle. In that day I shall perform against Eli all the things which I have spoken concerning his house... I will punish his house for ever, for the offense that he knew that his sons made themselves accursed, and restrained them not... The iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever.' Reluctantly, Samuel related the Divine message to Eli, and the old man humbly replied, 'It is the L-rd, let Him do what seems good to him.'
Samuel grew up full of faith and courage, strengthened by the spirit G‑d bestowed upon him. The people recognized a future leader in him. Eli, too, had no doubt that his own two sons were not worthy to succeed him in carrying on the tradition. Eli was now old and could not exert any influence over them. He knew that his successor would be Samuel.
War with the Philistines
Again there were rumblings of war, and again it was with the Philistines. At Aphek, a battle was waged, and the Jews were driven back after losing four thousand men. Now the elders of Israel remembered that in the days of Joshua, the Ark of the L-rd had been triumphantly carried at the head of the army and had always ensured success. So they went to Shiloh and demanded that the Ark should be brought to them out of the Tabernacle. Hophni and Pinehas, the two priests, came themselves to the camp, accompanying the sacred shrine. Its presence wonderfully restored the drooping courage of the Israelites. As soon as they beheld it they raised a great cry, so that the earth rang and seemed to tremble. The Philistines heard the shouting and were sorely afraid. Yet they ventured out in battle, and fought with desperate courage. The Israelites were again routed; this time thirty thousand of their soldiers were slain and the rest fled in wild confusion to their tents. Hophni and Pinehas were among the dead, and the pride of Israel, the Ark of the Covenant, was in the hands of their heathen enemy.
The people, assembled at Shiloh, were awaiting news of the battle. At last there came swiftly running from the camp to the city a Benjaminite, with his clothes rent and earth upon his head. Eli sat watching by the wayside as the messenger entered the gates of the town; he heard a loud wail arise. "What does the voice of this tumult mean?" the old man asked, full of evil forebodings. His failing sight did not let him perceive the messenger's rent clothes and his earth-covered head, which told their own tale. Then the Benjaminite approached him and said, "I come out from the battlefield, and I have fled today from the battlefield." Eli, anxiously interrupting him inquired, "What is there done, my son?" Then the messenger related fully his sad tidings: "Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Pinehas, are dead, and the Ark of G‑d is taken." When Eli heard of the fate of the Holy Ark, he fell backwards from his seat, overcome with grief, and there died, ninety-eight years old, after having judged the Hebrews for forty years.
The Holy Ark in Captivity
Meanwhile the Philistines carried the Ark of the Covenant exultingly to Ashdod, and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. On the following morning, they found the image of the idol fallen prostrate upon his face before the Ark. They lifted up the statue and replaced it; but on the next day Dagon had again fallen before the Ark: this time his head and hands were broken off and were lying upon the threshold.
But greater trials were in store for the people of Ashdod. They were severely afflicted with boils and ulcers; and they knew that this was their punishment for trying to keep the Ark of the L-rd. Therefore they sent it from Ashdod to Gath; but it had scarcely arrived when the people of Gath were smitten with the same diseases. It was next taken to Ekron, another great city of the Philistines. The inhabitants of Ekron, warned by the troubles of Ashdod and Gath, were terrified when they saw the Ark. They anxiously desired to send it away at once.
Return of the Holy Ark
When the Philistines had been in possession of the Ark for seven months and had been visited with calamities and misfortunes, they determined to restore the Ark to the Israelites. The Ark was, therefore, carried out and placed upon a new cart drawn by two cows which had never borne the yoke before. The priests ordered their countrymen to let the kine go on by themselves.
The animals proceeded, lowing as they went, taking the straight road to Beth-Shemesh, never turning either to the right or to the left. The chiefs of the Philistines followed after them. The wheat-harvest had commenced, and the reapers of Judah who were at work among the corn, saw the procession as it came winding from afar. As they beheld the Ark, they were full of rejoicing; it was as if the glory of their G‑d were returning to them. The beasts stopped in the field of Joshua, a Bethshemite. The Levites lifted the Ark from the cart, and placed it on a great stone that was in the field. They speedily prepared a sacrifice, breaking up the cart for firewood and slaughtering the kine as a burnt-offering. When the Philistine chiefs had witnessed all this, they returned to Ekron.
From Beth-Shemesh, the Ark was removed to Kiryath Ye'arim, where it stayed until the time of King David.