Tzav: Samuel’s Childhood, Amid Priestly Corruption at the Shiloh Shrine, c. 1050 BCE


The Rabbi’s Commentary this week is based on the story of the Sons of Eli the High Priest in the First Book of Samuel, Chap. 2 & 4, who corrupted the sacrificial system at the Holy Shrine at Shiloh, during the pre-Holy Temple Period (c. 1050 BCE).

Scene: The Holy Shrine in the town of Shiloh, a town centrally located in the Mt. Ephraim area, chosen for its location, convenient for all the tribes to reach and make sacrifices at the building housing the Holy Ark, the Menorah, the Altar, and other sacrificial equipment. It is a bright, sunny day in early spring, with a steady stream of worshipers leading livestock for slaughter and presentation before God in thanks for the fruits of harvest.

A line of worshipers stands informally, patiently waiting their turn to enter the Shrine. Off to one side, in a high-backed, softly cushioned chair, sits the old, retired High Priest, Eli. He is nearly blind, but is able to hear most of what is going on around him. By his right hand stands the young Samuel, wearing a clean, white new ephod, an apron-like linen garment, sewn by his mother Hannah’s loving hands.
The air is full of goats and sheep meh- and baa-ing, an occasional rooster’s crow or baby’s cry until its mother is able to shush it, and people talking happily and softly about the forthcoming Passover Feast.

Eli (to no one in particular): This early-morning sun feels good on an old man’s face and hands—perhaps it will still my elder’s palsy. O Lord! What reward is this, to take away a man’s sight in his old age, and reward him with sons such as I have? O Lord—El na, r’fa lee na—O God, heal me please God, O God…. (his voice trails away, lips moving silently in a whispered prayer)

Samuel (to Eli): My Grandfather? Grandpa Eli? Grandpa? (The old man does not answer; Samuel tugs at his sleeve).

Eli (as if from a daze): What? Eh? What’s that? Oh, Samuel! What’s that, my son?

Samuel: It is a fine spring day—why do your sons, Hophni and Pinchas, not come out to choose which animals should come in first? There would go the spotted, and there the speckled; here the goats, there the sheep. I know what to do: I have seen it all done before. Shall I organize it?

Eli (gently): It is no work for a boy, my son; you are but a child, yet. They will be along soon.

Samuel: But what are they doing?

Eli (hesitating): Why, they are—they are—praying, doubtless. Or out for a walk. Or, cleaning the altar, between sacrifices. Yes, that’s it! They must be cleaning. (Noises within the building) Ah! Here they come! They will be along directly.

(Enter Hophni and Pinchas, two bright-eyed, dark-haired young men, short-beared, alert to everything. They are in their mid-twenties, happy and eager to assert their authority. Their robes are expensively cut, but disheveled and stained from food; Hophni is wiping beef-grease off his lips with a sacred altar-cloth as they emerge, while Pinchas tosses a half-empty wine-cup behind a pile of sacred scrolls in a corner. They are laughing and nudging one another, oblivious to the line of worshipers.)

Hophni: What, Brother, did you get a bite of that tender mutton I lifted from that hayseed cattleman from the Negev? That was a piece worth tasting.

Pinchas: Indeed, delicious. I stashed some steaks away for later, when he left—a bit more than we priests are entitled to, but God won’t mind. Should He desire it back, I’ve no doubt He will send an angel to fetch it. (They nudge each other, and laugh, sharing secrets of their thefts.)

Hophni (Eyeing the line of worshipers): Nor is that the only mutton we are entitled to, if you get my drift (Both laugh, but fall silent when they feel Eli’s blind eyes upon them, before the naïve worshipers, who only stare at the two unpriestly-looking priests.).

Eli: My sons, my sons—where have you been? What have you been doing?

Both (ad lib): Nothing, Father. Nothing that we are not supposed to be doing. How are you today, Father? Etc.

Eli: My sons—I heard yesterday from a Man of God, a wandering prophet, of your deeds, your wrongdoings, your malfeasances. I am worried. I have heard that the Priesthood is to pass from our house to another—he was not certain whom it would be, but I wonder. Will you reform? Will you correct your mistakes? Please, Boys, for my sake, and your dead mother’s, rest her soul—

Both: Father—I—that is, we—

(Enter Messenger Soldier)

Soldier: By order of the Elders of Israel! A contingent of our Volunteer Border Guard of Israel is now under attack by a Philistine Horde, who have penetrated from their base at Aphek to our center of operations in Ebenezer. Our troops are doing their best, but they are losing heart.
And so, the Elders have sent me to this Holy Place to fetch any and all Priests who are instructed to convey God’s Holy Ark to the battlefield to muster up the courage of our embattled troops, and strike both fear into the ranks of the beastly Philistines, as well as, we hope, a plague among them, as did God in the days of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, when we struck out boldly during our Exodus from Egypt. (Strikes his chest) By order of the Elders of Israel!

Eli (to Hophni and Pinchas): At once, My Boys! You know what to do. (The peaceful crowd scatters and the two young priests scramble to fetch the carrying-poles of the Holy Ark. Samuel crouches down, hiding behind Eli’s throne.)

To be Continued….

About the Author
David was born and raised on NYC's Lower East Side, and attended Hebrew Day School, Yeshiva Univ. HS, and Yeshiva Univ., where he learned English, Bible, and Jewish Education degrees. He attended the CUNY Graduate Center, and received both an MA and M.Phil. in English Literature, with a concentration in 17th Century, John Milton, and the Romantic Poets. David also received semicha/rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY. He has also attended the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA, where he received a Certificate in Advanced Hebrew School Administration. David serves Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL; prior, he served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH. He is married, with two grown children and a Shih Tzu. He recently published a book of his Torah stories, "The Torah Book: New Stories of Bible People & God."