This should shock us.
Hannah does not take mothering for granted. Instead, she prays passionately for a child. So passionately that our tradition’s founding sages tell all of us: pray like Hannah. Like Hannah, we should focus our hearts, move our lips, and make no sound as we pray.
Imagine the spiritual depth such a mother would teach her child!
But Hannah doesn’t. Instead, she sends her son Samuel away, to be raised by the priest Eli.
This much we know from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. On this first day of the year, Hannah’s story is our prophetic reading.
But Hannah’s story leaves us with questions. For example: What makes Hannah trust Eli to raise Samuel? What does Eli understand about spirituality?
Let’s read on, past the end of Hannah’s story. On into the story of Eli and Samuel.
Teenage Samuel serves God at the shrine in Shiloh. Samuel is guided by his mentor and foster father, the priest Eli. Culturally, this is a secular time. Prophetic vision is rare and unknown. Sure, people come to the shrine for holidays and family life cycle occasions. They have great fun, but, for them, religion is just what you do. Even Eli’s children aren’t religious. A few chapters back, Eli himself was surprised to see Hannah genuinely praying.
Eli is aging. His eyesight is failing. He cannot see well anymore. But this is a Hebrew Bible story, where familiar themes repeat, so we know what is coming next. Eli may not have sight – but he does have insight! His ordinary senses might not work well – but his spiritual senses do. He sees what others cannot. And, given what we’ve just learned about the secular culture around him, he’s going to have insight into prophecy.
So there’s Eli, asleep in his usual bed at the shrine. And we, the readers, think we know what’s coming next. Eli, we think, is going have a spiritual dream or a night vision. But that’s not what happens.
Instead, the scene shifts as we see teenage intern Samuel dozing in the sanctuary. Samuel is not a priest but he is really dedicated to his work. It’s late at night, but the daily altar fire has not quite gone out. So, for obvious safety reasons, Samuel is sleeping on a cot by the fire. It seems mundane and practical, but something else is at work. Samuel is also surrounded by symbols of God’s presence and power. Old symbols, symbols that used to inspire people. Like the ark of the covenant and the glow of the eternal altar fire.
Suddenly, Samuel hears someone call his name. He thinks it’s Eli. So, he shouts back, “I’m here!” and rushes to Eli’s bed. But Eli is fine. He doesn’t need anything, so he tells Samuel, “Go back to sleep. I didn’t call you.”
Samuel goes back to bed, hears Eli call, says, “I’m here!” He runs to see what Eli needs. But Eli says, “I’m fine, I didn’t call; so go back to sleep.”
It happens a third time. Samuel goes back to bed, hears Eli call, says, “I’m here!” He runs to see what Eli needs. But Eli says, “I’m fine, I didn’t call; so go back to sleep.”
Finally, Eli’s insight kicks in. He sees something that most other people in his time and place can’t. Samuel is having a spiritual experience. Eli knows that his response matters. With a word, he could encourage Samuel’s spirituality. Or he could brush it aside. And he has only a split second to decide.
So, Eli decides not to say, “It’s just a dream.” Or, “Stop staring at the flame; go meditate on the meaning of the ark.” Or, “It’s probably not significant; only ancient people had visions.”
Instead, Eli tells Samuel to dive into the experience. To see if it is a genuine spiritual experience. Eli says, “Go back to bed. If you hear the voice again, say, “Speak, God! Your servant is listening!”
Eli understands children’s spirituality. He knows that children may be open to dimensions of experience that adults have learned to tune out. Children may wake up in a room filled with coloured lights. Or insist they saw the tooth fairy flying around their pillow. Or be positive that a butterfly angel called to them from a bush.
Of course, most parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles understand that these are imaginative experiences. But often we don’t realize these are also spiritual experiences. That children are gathering the emotional memories of the extraordinary. Memories that make them hope for miracles. See into metaphors. Appreciate sacred stories. Feel spiritual presence. These are the memories that make adult spirituality possible. Eli knows this. So he doesn’t squash Samuel’s imagination. Instead, he encourages it.
Samuel takes Eli’s advice. He goes back to bed. And this time, he is actively listening for the voice. And what do you know: It calls! Not just once, but twice this time. “Samuel, Samuel!” Thus we, the readers, know instantly that Eli is right. Samuel has seen past the familiar symbols and heard something new. He will grow up into a spiritual leader, a seer of new things.
Do we hope to raise spiritual children? If so, like Hannah, we should trust Eli’s method.
Sources: Hannah’s story: I Samuel 1:1-2:10; Our sages on Hannah: Talmud, Berachot 31a; Eli & Samuel: I Samuel 3:1-10; Insight into children’s spirituality: Dr. Lionel Corbett; Ideas originally developed for: Mt. Seymour United Church; Image: thearrowhouse.com