[Editor’s note: This article was taken, with slight modification, from The New Answers Book 2.]
How could the young Samuel have been sleeping in the Temple when the Temple was not built until much later?
There are two allegations referred to 1 Samuel 3:3. The verse is quoted below from the KJV, the NIV, and the NKJV.
And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep (KJV).
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 (NIV).
And before the lamp of God went out in the tabernacle of the Lord where the ark of God was, and while Samuel was lying down (NKJV).
The translation used by the NKJV gives a clue as to where the first misunderstanding comes from. The Hebrew word is hekäl. This word is used of the temple, but the word is literally a large building or edifice. Commentators1 have suggested that before the building of the temple the word was often applied to the sacred tabernacle. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for Samuel to have been asleep in this tabernacle. This alleged discrepancy is not so much a mistranslation as a misunderstanding.
The other alleged discrepancy with this verse is that Samuel was sleeping in the sacred portion of this tabernacle, the holy of holies, where the ark of God was. The NKJV gets it correct by pointing out that light went out where the holy of holies was while Samuel was lying down, not that he was lying down in this very holy place. This shows the difficulty of translating Hebrew into English when not careful.