When the Israelites had made their home in the promised land of Canaan, they did not forget the God of their great ancestor Jacob; but they set up on a hill called Shiloh a tabernacle, or place of worship, where they came to offer sacrifice to the God of their fathers.
Here the priests of the tabernacle killed bullocks and rams and goats, and burnt their flesh on the great altars, believing that these offerings were pleasing to God; and here the people came also to the chief of the priests whenever they had disputes with their neighbours, for the |high priest| was a judge in Israel.
Now, at one time there lived in a little cottage on the hill of Ramah, not far from what is now Jerusalem, a certain man named Elkanah, whose wife Hannah had a little boy named Samuel. The child was dearly loved by his parents, and especially by his mother, who had made up her mind that her son, when he grew up, should become a priest of the God of Israel.
The child Samuel grew, amid sunshine and wind, at his father's home on the hill of Ramah, watched by his mother with loving care; for when the time came, he was to be given to the priests in the great tent of the tabernacle on the hill of Shiloh. Three times the mother and child saw the blossoms cover the twisted branches of the olive trees and fade again; three times the valley was filled with golden wheat swaying in the wind, and the song of the reaper was heard in the fields.
Three happy years in Ramah, and the little child could run about, and talk, and shout, and take care of himself when the camels and oxen were near; then Hannah said she must how give him up to the priests. So with her husband she rode away upon a sure-footed ass, down the hills to the great festival at Shiloh, through rocky passes and across foaming streams; and her face was sad, for the little child of three sitting in her lap she would not bring back again.
She took with her a sack of meal and a leather bottle of wine, while a servant led a young bull. The animal was to be killed and burnt, while the meal and wine were to be given to the priest at the tabernacle; for these things were all to be offered as gifts to God.
Before long they saw the tabernacle on the hill of Shiloh, with its broad tent-roof of red sheepskins, as well as the hundreds of little black tents of the tribesmen, some grouped into camps with a flag, others clustered round the springs and pools of water under the trees; and soon Hannah and her boy mingled with the crowds thronging into the walled space about the tabernacle.
With beating heart the mother saw the bull killed and her meal and wine given to the busy priests. Taking her child by the hand, she led him forward to the doorway of the tabernacle, where sat Eli, the aged chief priest. The little child clung to his mother's dark-red robe as he stood with naked feet before the old man, the hem of his sleeveless tunic scarce reaching to his knees, and his head uncovered.
|Oh my lord,| said the mother, |I prayed for this child as a gift from God, and God gave me my desire; and now I give him again to God as long as he shall live.|
Then she pushed forward her beautiful boy; and as Eli looked at the mother and child he was pleased, and drawing the little child to himself, he blessed the waiting woman. With bowed head and falling tears she went out at the tent door, leaving behind her the greatest treasure of her life.
Before long the black tents were taken down by the women of the tribes, the crowds of men and animals passed away through the openings in the hills, and the festival was over. And Hannah rode up with her people back to Ramah, but not before she had kissed her sweet boy once more, weeping as she did so, and telling him in soft Hebrew words that she would come again to see him.
The priests took the little child, and over his short blue tunic they drew a white linen dress like their own. After that he lived with them in one of the houses near the tabernacle on the hill of Shiloh, and they taught him how to read from the old yellow rolls of the Bible; and he served them, doing what he was told, as a little child should. And there were other brown-eyed boys of Israel there, left by their mothers, and all beautiful as little angels without wings.
Four times a year the Israelite tribes gathered round this hill of Shiloh, to bring gifts, and offer worship to God, and hold councils of war. Then little Samuel was glad, for his mother came to see him; and he ran gaily about, now looking at the leaping fires on the brass altar, now watching the clouds of sweet smoke rolling out from behind the blue curtains of the holy place of the tabernacle.
Sometimes he was told to pour olive oil into a flickering lamp; sometimes he would sing in the choir, or carry a golden bowl or a priest's shoes; but he was never allowed to go in behind the thick veil of purple, blue, crimson, gold, and white, which hid the sacred place known as the Holy of Holies, where the gold-winged cherubs were.
Did his mother forget little Samuel? Other little children were born to her, but still she remembered him, away among bearded men in that large, dark tent; and this is how she showed her love for him. She gathered of the finest of the lamb's wool, and having dyed it purple, spun it into threads; and with her loom of strings hanging from the roof she wove a little blue gown without a seam and without sleeves, to reach from his chin to his knees; and she worked it round the broad hem with flowers and bells, and fruit of red and yellow and brown.
And each time she went to the great yearly festival she took a little blue coat with her, making it longer and longer as the child grew into a boy, and the boy became a ruddy youth; and with it, too, would go a little white willow basket with honey-comb and cheese, sweet cakes and pressed figs, such as she knew that Samuel loved.
Thus she showed her constant love for the child who had left her side, but would never leave her heart. And the child-priest grew, not only in stature, but in favour with God and men.
The great tent of the tabernacle on the hill of Shiloh had thick curtains woven in colours of blue, purple, and scarlet, and a high roof covered over with red and brown skins to keep it warm and dry; the sides were of stone, and the doors of wood, with carved wooden pillars. A thick curtain of purple, scarlet, and gold hung down inside, dividing off the Holy of Holies at the end from the rest of the place, where the priests went about every day, attending to the altar of incense and the golden lamps. And there was a special golden lamp, with seven branches, which always stood close to this great purple curtain.
All was dark in the Holy of Holies behind that heavy curtain, and there stood the Ark, a box about a yard long, plated with gold and having a wreath of gold round it, under the outspread wings of two golden angels. Inside that box were two flat stones, on which were written the Commandments that God had given to His people, the children of Israel. The priests had charge of the tabernacle, and of all that was in it; and they took special care of the Ark, which was the chief treasure of the nation.
Now it was Samuel's duty to shut the wooden doors of the tabernacle at night, and sleep close to the great purple curtain and watch -- a very trying thing for one so young in such a large, silent place. One night as he lay there asleep on his mat before the purple curtain, with the great lamp burning low and red, and shadows flickering about the silent place, he was suddenly roused by what sounded like Eli's voice calling him. At once he answered, |Here am I,| and ran to the side of the aged priest. But the old man told the wondering boy that he had not called him, and with gentle words bade him lie down again, calling him his son.
Samuel went back to his mat, but after a while he heard the voice once more; and again he thought it was Eli, and ran to his bedside, saying that he did call him. Eli now saw that God was calling the boy, and told him to go and lie down, and if he heard the voice again, to answer, |Speak, Lord; for Thy servant heareth.| Then the boy Samuel, in wonder and fear, returned to his sleeping-mat before the great purple curtain, and lay down with the light shining upon him. Once more he heard the voice calling, --
|Speak, Lord; for Thy servant heareth,| he replied in a trembling voice. Then Samuel heard a voice, which told him that God meant to punish Eli for not checking his sons, who were very wicked men, and had done many things which were wrong in His sight; also that He had chosen him to be the leader and judge of the people of Israel after Eli.
The boy slept again, the temple lamp burned low before the great curtain, and the place was silent until the gray light of morning stole in. Then Samuel rose, and as he unbarred the wooden doors of the tabernacle and opened them wide, the dawn was breaking over the hills in clouds of crimson and gold, filling the holy place with the light of a new day.
The breath of morning was in his face as he looked out to the east and the rising sun; and he felt a changed boy, for he had received a message from God Himself -- a call to lead the people of Israel; yet he feared to tell Eli of his vision, so great and so terrible. But after a while the old priest awoke, and calling him to his bedside put questions to him; and when he heard that he had had a vision, he bade the boy tell him all, both good and bad, and Samuel did so.
[Illustration: The child Samuel.]
The story grieved the old man, but even yet he did not check his sons, who were now too strong for him; and for some years more they went on in their wicked ways, and he still remained the chief priest. But as he grew older and weaker Samuel grew stronger; and when he became a man, he became known through all the land for his wisdom, and the people said that Samuel was a friend of God, who had guidance from the Most High for His people. So he continued to live at Shiloh as Eli's chief helper until the old man passed away; and so the little boy of the tabernacle became in due time the chief prophet, the ruler, and the judge of Israel.