Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord. (1 Samuel 2:12)
The story of the miraculous birth of Samuel appears as a ray of light during a very dark time in Israel’s history. Going back to the death of Gideon some 50 years earlier, the Israelites fell into idolatry (Judges 8:33-35) and were ruled by a series of wicked judges. Chapters 9-16 of Judges tells us the stories of men who judged Israel who were characterized by increasing greed, lust, and corruption; they led Israel into a time of judgment and darkness. Judges concludes with the murder and dismemberment of a Levite whose body parts are dispersed among the tribes, emphasizing the moral decay and spiritual emptiness of the nation. If you want to get an idea of the darkness of this period, read the last four chapters of the book of Judges.
When we read about the birth of Samuel in the first chapter and a half of 1 Samuel, we can come away with the idea that from this point on, things will get better as the boy is left to minister in the house of the Lord (1 Sam 2:11). But the very next words in verse 12 remind us that we are still in a time of darkness; we are introduced to Samuel’s counterparts, Hophni and Phinehas, and the narrator tells us of these young men, the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord (1 Sam 2:12). From the beautiful story of a godly, humble woman’s prayer for a son, we return to a gross description of the evil practices of Eli’s sons and the consequence of their ungodly acts. Hophni and Phinehas committed both religious and moral abominations by appropriating the best portion of sacrifices for themselves and having sexual relations with servants right in the tabernacle of God. The opening narration of chapter 3 repeats images of the decrease of light – the rarity of God speaking, no frequent vision (v. 1), diminution of eyesight, not being able to see (v. 2); however, verse 3 of chapter 3 leaves us with a glimmer of hope: The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
Read 1 Samuel 2:12-3:3. As you do, take note of how the author volleys back and forth between descriptions of the wretched sons of Eli and of the boy, Samuel. As we wait for the sun to rise upon the kingdom of Israel in the book of 1 Samuel, we will see this struggle between night and light, illustrated in the coming of dawn, throughout the book.