Meanwhile, the boy Samuel served the LORD by assisting Eli. Now in those days messages from the LORD were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.
One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had gone to bed. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God. Suddenly the LORD called out, “Samuel!”
“Yes?” Samuel replied. “What is it?” He got up and ran to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go back to bed.” So he did.
Then the LORD called out again, “Samuel!”
Again Samuel got up and went to Eli. “Here I am. Did you call me?”
“I didn’t call you, my son,” Eli said. “Go back to bed.”
Samuel did not yet know the LORD because he had never had a message from the LORD before. (1 Samuel 3:1-7)
God’s people hear his voice, but they don’t always recognize it. Samuel heard a voice in the night and responded, but he didn’t know who was calling him. Oddly, God did not identify himself. He let Samuel repeatedly run to Eli to wake him up.
Eli did not hear God’s voice, but he recognized it. This, despite the fact that he was not in the habit of listening to God.
Eli’s children were disobedient and unfaithful to God, demanding extra meat from those who came to sacrifice. Worse, they were sleeping with the priestesses of Asherah in the Tabernacle. Many Israelites had started worshipping other gods and goddesses, and the goddess Asherah was one of the most popular. Men worshipped her by doing what Eli’s sons did, thereby engaging in a form of sympathetic magic: Asherah was a fertility goddess and by so worshipping her she was supposed to grant fertility to crops, farm animals, and wives. Eli never did anything to stop his son’s wickedness.
God’s people still recognize him, no matter how far they’ve drifted or how long since the last time they talked to him. Like seeing an old friend after years of separation, Eli knew who Samuel had heard, even if he didn’t care to hear from him himself.