Song of Prophets and Kings Series, Book 1
By Henry O. Arnold
A son of the vow…a voice for a nation
For many long years, Hannah prayed for a son; a son finally granted to her only when she promised him back to God. Samuel, son of the vow, grows up in the Tabernacle, his childhood spent in the company of priests and Levites, in service to a God who was always silent. Samuel watches in dismay as the sons of the High Priest flaunt their wicked behavior, yet he knows that Yahweh will eventually have a reckoning. It is not until he hears a Voice call to him from within the flames of the altar that he realizes he has a part to play in this drama.
This young man hears another voice from a maiden who captures his heart, and he begins to dream of a future beyond the confines of the Tabernacle. But when Israel’s enemies threaten to destroy his world, it appears as though everything Samuel ever held dear may come tumbling down around him.
Not even a great prophet, whose words never fall to the ground, can keep Israel from crying out for a king. The Lord calls upon Samuel to guide the nation and her new king through the years of turmoil they must face.
In this tale of triumph and scorn, deepest love and burning rivalries, the new epoch is given a voice…and it is a Song of Prophets and Kings.
Hannah looked into the clear water inside the laver and saw her shrouded reflection. She gently rapped her knuckles against the outside of the basin disturbing the water so that her liquid features became distorted, then began to walk around the laver. The bustle of preparations inside the outer court of the Tabernacle for the upcoming festival made her invisible. No one noticed or cared that she was moving around this beautiful object that contained the water of purification. This laver had been fashioned from individual pieces of polished brass and copper used as mirrors donated by the women of Israel who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle after the Exodus. It had survived nearly a century of the wanderings of her people. This was a gift to Yahweh from the sisters of her faith.
She moved around the laver like her ancestors did around the city of Jericho. At the end of seven days of marching, as the shouts of the people of Israel and the sounds of the shofars by the priests and Levites pierced the air, the hand of Yahweh crushed the city walls. Hannah reasoned, if the walls of this great city dropped after only seven days of marching, why then, after years of pleading with the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, to grant her one request, could He not favor her with a child?
Hannah wracked her mind for new language. Maybe there were new words she could use, words she had not thought of to convey her appeal; something that would strike Yahweh as a clever, new argument to get His favor. But her language skills were exhausted. She was verbally dry, only able to exhale vaporous sighs in hopes the sound of her grief would defy gravity, rise beyond the sky, and float into the ear of Yahweh.
Her fingertips caressed the outside of the basin as she put one plodding foot in front of the other, circling the laver. The dissonant sound of bleating sheep forced her to pause. Shepherds were herding flocks into temporary corrals set up inside the Tabernacle grounds. For those who could afford one of these unblemished lambs, they would be offered on the altars throughout the week celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Year after year Hannah and her family journeyed to the city of Shiloh for the holy days of this Feast.
Year after year her dear husband, Elkanah, would give Hannah a double portion for the proscribed offering for the family—two lambs, two baskets of fruit, two loaves of bread. Perhaps this double portion to honor Yahweh just might heal her aliment, they reasoned. But year after year, in spite of the same portions sacrificed, the same prayers uttered, the same sentiments expressed, these rituals yielded the same barren result. Her heart could only feel the grief of rejection, and there was no honor in such a human condition. How could the Almighty not hear and see? How could the Almighty not take pity? How could the Almighty ignore her?
The sheep broke through the fencing of an overcrowded corral and began racing around the outer court area. Shepherds leapt to repair the fencing while a group of priests tried to herd the frantic sheep back through the proper gates. Hannah might have found humor in the chaotic scene were it not for the state of her heart. The cries and the bleating only reminded her of the gossipy women in her village at home who, when not talking behind her back, were offering cures for her predicament: eat these vegetables, don’t eat those herbs, grind up a precious stone and drink the powder, take pleasure with your husband on certain days of the month—a full moon was always preferable. Even the rabbi had come to the house looking for infections, and after numerous inspections and ritual cleansings, he threw up his pristine, koshered hands in hopeless resignation.
Was it hopeless? Would Hannah give in to hopelessness? Like the rabbi? Like the women in her village? Like her husband if pressed to speak the secrets of his heart?
Hannah looked at the stream of people and livestock flowing in and out of the Tabernacle’s open gates. She should return to Elkanah who, even now, was overseeing the raising of the tent poles and setting up the family dwelling along the periphery of the bustling city square. He would want her opinion on the process. She folded her hands in front of her and felt the bracelet Elkanah had given her before the trip to Shiloh this year. She pulled back the sleeve and the gold band glistened in the sunlight.
Each year Hannah dreaded the trip to Shiloh. She dreaded the humiliation of having to enter the gates of the Tabernacle as the barren wife of Elkanah while his second wife with her boisterous brood of sons and daughters, scrubbed up for public display, clamored around them. Before Hannah had slipped away that morning to visit the Tabernacle, the second wife had said to her, “Who can know the mysterious ways of the Almighty?” It was a not so subtle reminder of her unproductive womb. Elkanah’s generous gift she wore on her wrist could not take away the humiliation of this week.
Hannah dropped the sleeve over the bracelet and looked once more into the laver. The water vibrated from frantic sheep and the pursuing priests racing around the outer courtyard. The rippling water in the basin reacted with distress; a mirrored condition of her soul. Yet she could not quite give up on the Almighty. She could not quite give in to utter hopelessness. Not yet. Not while she had breath.
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Elkanah enjoyed overseeing the construction of his family’s booth. The mini-tabernacle was always assembled on the premium real estate of Shiloh’s city square. Elkanah was a perfectionist. Every cubit was measured with precision, and if his fellow tent dwellers to the right or left encroached onto his designated property lines with their tent pegs, he would hold up the signed document he bargained for year after year with the city council. They did not argue—they adjusted.
Elkanah’s big family needed ample room for their creature comforts, including extra space for his servants, the livestock, and wagons of supplies parked behind the family encampment. While he might wince at the exorbitant price of the site, he was proud of the expansive plot his family required on the city square, proud to show off the increase of his bounty year after year from his vineyards and fields and his livestock, and yes, proud of his progeny.
He was a third generation landowner of the tribe of Levi. His grandfather had bought land outside of Ramah, the city where his family had been assigned to serve in the local synagogue and rabbinical school after the country was settled and the land divided up between the twelve tribes. His grandfather cultivated fields and raised herds of cattle, while his father had expanded the property and began breeding horses for the wealthy tribal chieftains. The weeks out of the year that Elkanah’s father served at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, Elkanah was in charge of the duties at home. He loved being in charge.
When it had been time for Elkanah to serve at the Tabernacle, he found the menial services assigned to him complete drudgery. Waste disposal, laundry services, and cleaning the barrack housing lacked inspiration. And he quickly learned that these duties were permanent assignments. There was no requesting different tasks or hope for advancement within the system of services, something his father neglected to tell him. City life was not for him. He thrived in the outdoors, and he preferred the smell of the barnyard over the pungent solutions concocted to wash the laundry or clean the barracks. Each year once his term of duty was finished, Elkanah could not get home fast enough.
Though he had retired from his years of Levitical service, he maintained the tradition of coming to Shiloh once a year for the annual sacrifice. From their encampment, the family had a front row view of the city center where the nightly festivities would happen. Elkanah never quibbled over the cost to rent the space. The shekels he paid into the city coffers for such pricey frontage was a luxury he could afford. The event brought excitement and pleasure to his family who looked forward to the festival year after year, pleasure to all except his first wife, Hannah.
Elkanah scanned the city square looking for Hannah. It would be difficult to spot her in the energetic crowd. Citizens of Israel, those living near and far, who were able to travel to Shiloh, made the yearly pilgrimage for the Feast of Tabernacles. The family encampments dominated the perimeter of the city square, and each year, a contest was held for the best booth decoration. The competition was fierce, and the city council took the opportunity to charge a high entry fee to all competitors. At the end of the seven-day festival, the council announced the winning booth to great fanfare. A dated and signed document provided the declared winner a lifetime of bragging rights.
The family arrived two days before the festival began, rumbling into Shiloh in multiple wagons. It took them that long to set up and decorate the dwellings before the opening day. The main road leading into the city was lined on either side with booths: merchants and farmers set up to sell their crafts and pagan idols, farming equipment, household wares, trinkets, and food to all pilgrims arriving for the celebration.
Elkanah did not see Hannah, so he turned around and backed up to get a better view of the tent raising.
“Just tie it off, Mushi,” Elkanah said to his house steward. “Hannah will want the peak to be as high as possible.” There was no city restriction or penalty for tent height, so he would take full advantage of the airspace above this temporary dwelling. It could be an advantage to have the tallest structure on the square when it came to the competition. Elkanah signaled Mushi to stop.
“Tie it off at that height. I want Hannah’s opinion.”
Mushi ordered the servants to tie off the end of the rope onto a wagon wheel.
Elkanah wanted his wife’s opinion in all things, especially when it came to beautifying a space. He trusted her artistic eye and the skills to execute an effect.
He looked back into the square, stretched up on his toes and craned his neck to see over the heads of the people in the crowd. When he saw her approach, she was not even looking at him, but instead, at the top of their tent. She stopped and turned in a circle, her hands placed above her brow to shield her eyes from the glare of the sunlight as she scrutinized the tops of the tents of the competition aligning the periphery of the square. Elkanah’s face brightened when he saw the gold bracelet he had given her before they had departed on their journey hanging from her wrist.
“Two cubits more and our tent will tower above the others.” Her hazel eyes were gleaming when she finally turned back to look at him.
“Another two cubits higher it is,” Elkanah proclaimed.
Mushi clapped his hands for the servants to carry out the master’s order.
Elkanah opened his arms for Hannah to ease into his embrace.
“You’re determined to win.” Elkanah chuckled and gently hugged her.
“This is my year.” She gasped slightly at Elkanah’s embrace.
They watched as the servants tugged on the rope and the center of the tent rose higher into the sky. Elkanah waited patiently for his wife’s approval. It was not given until she had once more observed the other tents.
“It must be perfect.”
Elkanah opened his arms for Hannah to make one last comparison of height of the other tents in the square. With one final look at the top of her tent, she smiled and nodded, and Elkanah told Mushi to secure the center pole at that elevation, and what he hoped would be an advantageous level.
“I believe this is your year.” Elkanah gave Hannah a vigorous kiss on her cheek.
Elkanah knew that by the end of the day, his wife would have adorned the entire façade of the tent, top to bottom, with produce, flowers, and tree branches harvested from his bountiful vineyards and olive groves. Then she would fill in the empty spaces with cloth fabric and animal skins covered with crafted flags, banners, and ornaments all in keeping with the spirit of the Feast of Ingathering and the dwelling in provisional tabernacles. He had listened to her verbalize her plans for the tent’s outside décor for weeks now, revising it every few days when she had a new idea or considered one of his suggestions. She made countless sketches right up to the day of their departure for Shiloh, but Elkanah knew that all her creative energy and artistic designs was only an attempt to mask the anxiety and dread Hannah felt year after year at this event.
Elkanah took a deep breath and began to cough. He pointed to the refreshment table Mushi had set up in front of the tent, and Hannah scooted over to fetch him a skin of water. Dust and smoke filled the air, thanks to the abundance of camp fires and thousands of feet stirring up the streets.
He took a deep swallow once Hannah handed him the skin of water. “Once the sacrificing begins tomorrow the air will only get worse.”
Elkanah took a second swallow, and then offered the pouch to his wife.
The pair looked out over the bustling city square.
“Let’s hope for a cool, steady breeze.” Hannah grasped the water skin and took a few sips before stuffing the top back into the neck.
“Do you see Peninnah and the children in this madness?” Elkanah waved his hand over the teeming, human masses in the square.
“Odds are we won’t see them until dark.”
“Patronizing every shopkeeper in Shiloh.” Elkanah sighed, his head dipping forward in annoyance. “I’ll need to hire an extra cart to get everything home.”
Mushi waved to them after tying off the front entrance into the family tent. “My lady, the tent is now stable.”
“Thank you, Mushi. Have the cart with the decorations brought to the front.”
Elkanah smiled at how the brightness of the early afternoon sun made Hannah’s bronze skin shine. He ran a finger underneath an errant strand of curly hair hanging between her eyes and tucked it into the silk headband. A decade of marriage and his love for Hannah had only grown; a reality that was a constant mystery for him. Perhaps his love was fueled in part by the harsh reality that their union had produced no children…another mystery.
“It’s not her fault. It’s not her fault,” he declared to anyone who wagged their head in sorrow at their plight. Once after a Sabbath service, Elkanah nearly came to blows with an insensitive rabbi who hinted that this problem could be a sign of Yahweh’s disfavor against Hannah. “How dare the fool suggest such a thing?” Elkanah said as he pressed his sobbing wife close to his side on their way back home.
By the end of their third year of marriage, the inevitable had to be faced, yet Elkanah refused the alternative of a second wife. It was Hannah herself who changed his mind by asking him to agree to this arrangement for her sake. “Think of Jacob’s wife, Rachel. If a second wife can bear you children, then perhaps I might have Rachel’s joy and have my own with you.”
So the matchmaker found Peninnah, the second daughter of a good Levitical family from Mizpah with all the right pedigree. The additional marriage bond served a purpose, yet the transaction was empty of romance. Within seven years, Peninnah had provided three sons and two daughters while Hannah waited patiently to see if Yahweh might remember her.
“I must get to work.” Hannah kissed her husband’s hand before heading off to meet the cart loaded with decorations rumbling around the corner of the family tent.
From her position on the ground in front of the tent’s entrance, Hannah could see Mushi struggling to maintain his balance on the top rung of the ladder. Sweat was pouring from him, creating large rings of moisture under his arms and stains around the rim of his headdress. He kept wiping his eyes while struggling to secure the multicolored flag bearing the family and tribal insignia on top of the tent’s center beam. This completed the finishing touch on the outside of the family tent. At this hazardous moment, Hannah wondered why she had not ordered one of the more agile, less rotund servants to climb the ladder to the top of the tent and tie off this banner. But Mushi had insisted on completing the last of the decorations. He had done it every year. And Hannah had always trusted him with the job.
Hannah pulled back the tent flap and stepped just inside the opening. She saw Peninnah and her children sprawled on carpets and cushions eating their evening meal. They were transfixed as they looked up and watched the tinctured form of Mushi’s extended body making its bulging impression through the canvas as he lay across the top of the tent. Hannah noticed when it dawned on Peninnah that any second Mushi might crash down on top of her and her children, she ordered her brood to take their plates of food and scoot out of range of the impending human boulder that might fall from above.
An impending disaster forced Hannah to call out to Mushi from inside the tent.
“Mushi, are you close to finishing?” She tried to keep her voice free of concern. She would never want to imply that Mushi might no longer be able to do this job. But still there was the chance for catastrophe.
“About to tie off the banner now, my lady.”
She could hear him gasp and grunt as he inched his body closer to the tent pole. Any sudden or extraneous move might loosen the security lines and unearth the tent pegs holding the family tabernacle in place. Hannah held her breath and willed him on. She tried not to imagine the tent collapsing and crushing an innocent child below with his bulky figure, or for Mushi to tumble backward off the ladder and his corpulent rump land on her husband who was bracing the ladder below him.
Hannah stepped back outside the tent. She watched Mushi stretch his arms almost out of their sockets and tie the leather straps around the tent pole. When Mushi finished knotting the straps around the top of the pole, she breathed in relief.
Mushi carefully turned his head toward his mistress. “My lady, the banner is secure.” It was impossible for him not to wheeze when he tried to take a deep breath.
There was no way Hannah was not going to be pleased even if Mushi had tied the banner upside down. His legs were shaking uncontrollably, but she had to take a few steps back to take in the full view of the tent for Mushi’s sake so that he might know that he had fully satisfied his mistress’s eye for artistic perfection. She quickly viewed the whole and pronounced it perfect.
“Yahweh be praised.” The relief in Mushi’s voice was explosive.
“Excellent, Mushi.” Hannah added applause to the pronouncement. “Now come down and let’s have our supper.”
Just as Mushi began his descent, a gentle gust of wind from the north brought the banner to life.
Hannah scooted over to the ladder to hail the hero. She gripped the opposite side of the ladder from her husband. The ladder wobbled as Mushi descended.
“Yahweh, don’t let him fall.” Hannah spoke only for her husband’s hearing.
She would not look up. The indignity would embarrass them both if Mushi knew she were watching. The bouncing ladder was difficult for her to grip.
“This is the last year for him to do this.”
Elkanah nodded his head in agreement, and then he waved for her to step away from the ladder.
When Mushi stepped down off the bottom rung, Hannah and Elkanah each took an arm to help him regain his balance.
Hannah smiled at Mushi’s brave face, proud of his daring and pleased to see the approval he had brought to his mistress. She removed the scarf from her neck and began to pat his perspiring face.
“I am so proud of you, Mushi.” She would not show any concern for his well-being, or inform him that this would be the last time he would do this task. She would not hurt him in any way. She would not let Mushi ever believe that she thought he was no longer capable of performing any request for her. It was another year before the next festival, and she would give Mushi time to realize on his own that this laborious task could be handed off to another.
“Glad to be of service, my lady.”
Hannah gave Mushi another short round of applause before kissing him on the cheek. It was a great relief to all to have Mushi back on solid ground.
Elkanah gave Mushi a slap on the back for a job well-done. The two men were the same age and had become fast friends. Mushi and his family were city dwellers in Ramah. Impressed with him as a young man, Elkanah’s father had hired Mushi and began grooming him to become the house steward. Elkanah and Mushi had developed a strong bond over the years, and when Hannah had been brought into the family as Elkanah’s wife, Mushi greeted her with joyful welcome. The bond he had with her husband was instantly extended to her, and it had only grown in the time since.
“I’ll put the ladder back in the supply wagon, my lady.”
Mushi reached for the ladder.
“The ladder can wait.” Hannah tucked her arm under Mushi’s and escorted him into the tent.
Elkanah and his family heard the sound of the shofars from inside their tent. The evening’s festivities were about to begin. The shouts and cheers of greeting from the crowd began to fill the air. All but Elkanah leapt from their cushions and rushed out the entrance of the tent. He was the last one to exit as the volume of excitement from the crowd rose to greet the contingent making its way into the city square. All eyes were turned toward the road leading up to the entrance of the Tabernacle. Elkanah meandered up behind his family while the servants dashed to the edge of their rented space facing the square to watch the festivities. Elkanah looked down at his youngest daughter, Dinah, hopping around her father’s feet begging to be picked up to get a better view. He bent down and lifted the little girl onto his shoulders.
A company of Tabernacle guards armed with polished shields and spears cleared the last of the pedestrians from the street for the double line of musicians leading the parade. The sound was more the staccato noise of drum, cymbals, and tambourine piercing the ears than any sort of pleasing musical cadence as they marched into the city square. Eli, the High Priest, carried upon a litter, followed behind the company of musicians. He wore a seamless blue robe over his bulky frame. Tufts of white hair flowed from beneath the flat gold cloth turban on his head and down the sides of his face. He sat on an elaborately carved wooden throne and barely acknowledged the crowd as six stout Levites lugged him through the multitude toward the city center.
“Looks like his holiness has been pilfering extra fat from Yahweh’s altar.” He did not bother to muffle his voice or disguise his disgust.
People in closest proximity turned their heads toward him.
“Last year it only took four Levites to carry him on his throne.”
Elkanah saw Hannah’s finger race toward his lips to silence him, but he jerked his head away, unfazed by the scornful stares caused by his words.
Elkanah’s sneer turned to a scowl as Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two sons, rode behind their father, each on a milk-white stallion and dressed in silk garments with purple mantles flowing down their backs and covering the flanks of their steeds. Ornate gold chains hung around their necks and bounced off their chests, and on their heads they wore turbans of gold and crimson.
“And look where our hard-earned offerings go. To clothe two peacocks.”
The stern look Hannah gave him did nothing to silence him.
“They pretend to be noblemen and not priests of Yahweh.” He pointed directly at the two brothers. “Yes, I served in menial positions at the Tabernacle in my time as a Levite, but I served well and with honor, even when these two sons had me empty their slop bowls each morning. They have grown in power over the citizens of Shiloh and wield their religious authority over the faithful who try to serve Yahweh. And the old man does nothing to stop them.”
Elkanah plucked Dinah from off his shoulders and set her in front of Peninnah before storming back inside the family tent.
Eli clutched the lion heads carved onto the front of each armrest with his arthritic fingers. He knew his hands would pay a painful price once the Levites set the litter down and he could free his grip. Eli looked into the strained faces of his litter-bearers. He was sure they resented having to bear this burden. It had not been so long ago that he refused such cumbersome duties, that he walked in the parade on his own two legs. But his sons’ rise in power among the citizens of Shiloh and the slow aging betrayal of his body had forced him upon the litter to be transported for any distance.
Eli looked behind him at the smaller contingent of Tabernacle guards marching behind his sons followed by the seven-member city council straggling in last place in the parade. He may be the High Priest of Yahweh, the direct descendant of the priesthood of Aaron, but he knew all eyes were on the brothers as the procession spilled into the city center, and that he was only a figurehead.
He turned back around to see the musicians gathering in the performance area in front of the stage. The first group of Tabernacle guards split into two lines and surrounded the elevated platform in the middle of the square facing the crowd. The stage was adorned with brightly colored draperies along its bottom. Positioned on each of its four corners, stood a decorative column with a large iron basin perched on top of its flat base. A fire burned in each basin, providing illumination and spectacle.
Eli’s throne was set on the ground to the side of the stage, his burden-bearers forming a semi-circle behind him. Hophni and Phinehas rode right in front of him and dismounted from their steeds right onto the stage not bothering to take the stairs. They began waving to the cheering masses. It was no accident that the sons always maneuvered to have their positions elevated above their father. It was a constant reminder to Eli that the older generation would acquiescence to the younger.
The seven members of the council scrambled up the steps behind Eli to join the brothers on the platform. The chief of the council of seven stepped forward, welcomed the pilgrims to Shiloh for the Feast of Tabernacles, and announced that the judging for individual booth decorations would begin tomorrow, the first day of sacrifice, with the winner declared on the last day of the festival. Everyone knew that whoever received the coveted prize had probably spent more in bribes to the city council than on decorations for their dwellings.
The chief of the council finished, and the crowd became silent. Eli dreaded this moment when all eyes would turn to him. He had not yet released his hold on the lion heads. He would not let go. Nothing would happen until he let go, but he waited, if for nothing else than to frustrate his sons. He would force them to turn in his direction and glare at him for his peevish stubbornness. It may be the only power he had over his sons. When they finally did turn to him with twin masks of frustration on their faces, Eli raised his arm into the air but paused. He had to drop it before the festivities could continue. He smiled at the consternation pinching the faces of his sons. After he had waited long enough to build the anticipation, Eli dropped his arm and offered his sons a satisfied smile for milking his one moment of power longer than was prescribed. At the signal from the High Priest, the entertainment began. Eli knew he would be completely ignored for the duration.
The drummers began a driving beat, and the guards twirled their spears into a horizontal position and pushed the crowd away from the stage, clearing a space in front. Dancers and acrobats leapt out from behind the stage and began the dance in celebration of bounty. Women carried baskets overflowing with fruit and vegetables above their veiled faces. Their sheer billowy skirts allowed the freedom of movement for their rounded thighs and curved hips, which they playfully exposed. Their bodices were clusters of grapes barely covering their flesh. The young female dancers gave special attention to the men and boys in the front row, flirting and teasing them with items from their baskets. This intentional torment brought laughter and cheers from the crowd. Whenever an unruly young man attempted to reach for a female dancer, he found himself knocked to the ground with the shaft of a guard’s spear.
The male dancers carried sheaves of wheat bound in twine and branches of olive, willows, and palm trees into the center of the circle. After passing in front of the stage and receiving a wave of approval from Hophni and Phinehas, they weaved their way through the female dancers and began to deposit their produce on the ground.
Acrobats raced up to the columns on the stage and lit their torches from the fires in the basins. Then they circled back around the heap of produce and began to hurl the torches into the air lighting up the night sky, catching them just before they hit the ground. One-by-one the acrobats tossed their torches onto the pile of wheat. The flames began to consume the offering and the dancers and acrobats circled the pyre, their limbs and body a frenzy of motion, enthralling the audience by the spectacle.
Eli could remember when this festival was a solemn expression of thankfulness for a bountiful ingathering of harvested produce. Slowly under his leadership it had devolved into a pagan entertainment devoid of all ceremonial worship. He had listened to his sons’ reasoning that the majority of the people no longer wanted dry, stale ceremonies. They wanted amusement, diversion.
When Hophni and Phinehas brought their proposals before the council they quickly silenced all protests by those citizens concerned with the moral decline in the festivities; those who wanted to return to more of a sense of holiness to the celebrations. This was an opportunity to expand the concept of the Feast beyond the religious to include competitions, parades, and nightly entertainments in the city center—all designed to infuse the glut of shekels into the coffers of the Tabernacle, the brothers argued, as well as their own private accounts. The economy from the inflated taxes and fees the pilgrims had to pay for remaining in the city for the required seven days would grow beyond what anyone could believe.
And when Eli saw that this was so, when the shekels increased with each year’s financial success, the High Priest knew the complaints against the commercialization of the Feast of Tabernacles would become whimpers and finally cease altogether. Such revels had become acceptable practice, turning the worship of Yahweh into meaningless words and hollow theatrics.
Eli kept his head lowered. He did not want to fill his eyes with the sensual displays of jubilation happening in the city square. He rubbed his sore fingers, swollen from clutching the armrests to keep from being thrown from the litter as he was carried from the Tabernacle and placed beside the stage. He did not know which was more painful, the joints of his fingers or the throbbing ache ballooning inside his skull. He cast his eyes at Hophni and Phinehas prancing around the stage and leading the crowd in raucous applause as the music and dancing reached its crescendo. His sons led these people like they were blind and stupid lambs.
Eli could not pinpoint one moment in his memory when his sons’ took control of the Tabernacle. It had been gradual, even trivial, just under the surface, then picking up speed until it convulsed the sea, drowning the High Priest in misery. Eli had been unable to see it, then unable to stop it. He had been silent until his preference became silence. He preferred having little or no responsibility. He preferred complacency over conflict. And if the people preferred his sons’ leadership, then let them have what they deserved. While it disgusted him, it also exhausted him, so let his sons have free rein. Let them deal with the people. Let them carry out the duties for Yahweh. He knew in his soul the flame for Yahweh had burned out, and he couldn’t remember when or how it happened. It just went out. His heart went silent. Now he just wanted to be alone in the silence of his chambers. The next seven days would be grueling, and he wanted solitude more than anything.
From his throne, Eli waved to his Levitical burden-bearers. He was not going to sit through any more of this high spirited choreography and ordered them to take him back to the Tabernacle. Eli was indifferent to Hophni and Phinehas and disgusted by the revelry. The rest of the throng hardly noticed his departure. Perhaps he could feel some relief in the silence and solitude of his chambers.
Each morning, Hannah was awakened by a band of Levitical musicians blowing their silver trumpets, announcing the beginning of the sacrifices. With the englut of people swarming into Shiloh there would be an excess of sacrifices beginning at dawn and continuing nonstop until sunset as each family brought their offering before Yahweh. The families who could afford the premium spots for their booth in the city center were automatically entered into a lottery. For an additional fee, this drawing gave those families the opportunity to be first in line each morning and avoid the midday crush with its seething mass of people and the pungent odor of animal offal, blood, and thick smoke from the sacrificial fires choking the air. The eldest son of Peninnah drew for the family and secured an early morning spot on the second day of the festival.
Hannah dreaded this day. She carried her year-round sorrow for being childless with a degree of dignity and resolve, and for the weeks leading up to the festival, she distracted herself by creating designs for the family booth in hopes of winning the competition. But when the day came for the family sacrifice and her precious husband honored her with a double portion to offer Yahweh; his generosity broke her heart. Double the offering and double the chances of finding favor with the Almighty, Elkanah had told her. Year after year Hannah’s hopes were raised that Yahweh might be inclined to grant her favor, and year after year, her hopes were dashed. Winning the coveted “Best Decorated Booth” seemed more likely than being favored with a child.
She stood before the altar, her soul trembling as she watched the Levites slaughter her double portion, separate the breast and the right leg, the allotted portions for the priesthood, toss the remaining parts upon the altar fire, and see the smoke rising into the air. She wondered if this sweet aroma would be pleasant to the nostrils of Yahweh.
Hannah felt faint as she leaned her body against her husband. She had hardly eaten in the days leading up to this moment. She had no hunger; all hunger itself devoured by hope. The sight of the streams of blood running down the sides of the altar, drenching the rock piles at each corner and pooling around its base made her nauseous. She wrapped her arms around Elkanah’s waist and dug her head into his chest, finding his strength a comfort to her trembling body.
“May Yahweh, the Almighty remember you and bless you, small and great alike,” intoned Eli as his two sons stood at either side with their hands raised in their direction as if channeling the blessing directly from heaven. “May the Lord make you increase, both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth.”
Hannah wept as she listened to the rote, priestly blessing. How foolish to expect the Almighty to remember, to make her fruitful like the land her husband cultivated, or like Peninnah whose babies appeared as regular as the seasons. This was a sterile incantation uttered from the lips of the High Priest. Hannah pressed the side of her head deeper against Elkanah’s chest and put her hand over her other ear. She could not bear to hear the prayer spoken for another year.
Elkanah guided Hannah away from the altar and headed straight for the entrance of the Tabernacle, ignoring the rest of his family and pushing his way through the crowd. He would spare his wife further grief. It was not a lack of piety that made Elkanah disgruntled or his sorrow for Hannah. He loved Yahweh with all his heart and had been faithful in his service when his rotation had come up and required his time at the Tabernacle. What Elkanah despised was the fact that the Feast of Tabernacles was little more than a lucrative commercial enterprise for the entrenched system of Levitical power. Eli and his sons had manipulated this structure to their benefit. All sacrifices had to meet the Mosaic standard to be acceptable to Yahweh, and only the Levites could appraise such standards. They offered the “unblemished” creatures conveniently for sale at highly inflated prices in the makeshift corrals at the entrance to the Tabernacle.
Under the leadership of Eli and his sons, these holy days had become a meaningless repetition of sacrifice and empty prayers, with the desired effect of an overflowing treasury. Eli might wear the robes of the High Priest and bear the twelve-gem breastplate with its pouch containing the precious stones of lights and perfections that were supposed to reveal the mind and heart of the Almighty, but it was obvious to Elkanah and any other observant, discerning eye, that Eli and his sons had long since given up any communion with or commitment to the Almighty. The forms and rituals were consistent with the religious traditions, but absent of any real presence of Yahweh.
When Hannah saw Mushi waiting at the entrance of the family tent, she let go of her husband and rushed toward him, falling into his embrace. She began to heave as if trying to expel some unnameable toxin buried deep within her heart. She knew she might soon faint, so Mushi lifted Hannah into his arms and carried her limp body inside the tent, laying her upon a couch. Without requesting it, she heard Mushi set up the dressing screen to shield her from view. Then Hannah listened as Mushi ushered Elkanah and the family out of the tent, suggesting he take them on a guided tour of the city or hire a wagon for an outing in the surrounding countryside. Their absence was a mercy for all.
Mushi knew what to do to care for her. He always had. Each day while the family took their sightseeing excursions, Mushi was never out of earshot of his mistress. He doted on her, and did not allow Peninnah or her boisterous children to disturb Hannah when they returned to the family tent in the evenings. Mushi suffered with her. When Hannah would crack open her eyes after a fitful sleep, often she would find Mushi quietly whispering his prayers to the Almighty on her behalf as she lay on her couch.
After days of not eating, Mushi finally got Hannah to drink some broth, gradually adding bits of fruit and honey cakes to her diet. Mushi had witnessed Hannah’s infrequent bouts of low spirits for years and had always been able to restore her to her cheerful, engaging self. “This might be the worst we’ve seen, dear friend.” Hannah had said, but Mushi just patted her hand, softly shushing her and encouraging sleep.
On the last day of the festival, when the city council announced that the tabernacle of Elkanah, of the tribe of Levi, from the hill country of Ramah, had won the “Best Decorated Booth,” even this prize failed to revive her.
Hannah asked Mushi to stand beside her as she peeked through a crack in the screen to watch Peninnah skipping through the tent. She had accepted the award on behalf of the family, and she waved the scroll tied with colored ribbons in the air, chortling with glee as if she had won the award.
“I know who won the prize, my lady.” His whispered words were gently spoken, but brought her heart no comfort. Even his sensitive touch upon her shoulder brought no positive effect. Hannah moved away from his hand, lay back down on her couch, and silently wept. She felt Mushi drape a silk covering over her before he slipped around the screen to join the rest of the family.
A Voice Within the Flame$4.99 – $15.99