Eli was the high priest of God at the end of a dark and difficult time in Israel’s history. The time of the Judges was drawing to a close; a time when;
“There was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
A time when human rights were out the window and faithfulness to God – in fact any semblance of obedience to the covenant - had been pretty much abandoned. The writer of 1 Samuel tells us from the outset that;
“The word of the Lord was rare in those times and visions were not widespread.”
So Eli was an old man, still trying to serve the LORD at Shiloh (the place where the ark was kept) in a time when the people of God...well, weren’t really the people of God at all!
What Israel needed was a strong leader, a dynamic man or woman of God who would haul them back to the vows they had made and get them out of the mess they were in. Sadly, Eli was not the man for that job. Eli was a man who – although he was faithful to the Lord himself, just couldn’t bring himself to pick a side – and when faced with opposition wouldn’t stand his ground. So rather than a story to inspire us, this is more of a salutary warning – of what happens when we won’t pick a side, or stick to our guns.
This story takes place over a considerable period of time and Eli is usually the ‘supporting actor’ rather than the lead role in these chapters, so we are going to track through and see what we can learn from the sorry story of a man with authority, responsibility, power – and yet no courage to use them.
We first meet Eli in the opening story of Hannah – a childless woman who is desperate for a baby. She, her husband and his other wife (!) have come to worship at Shiloh as all faithful Jews did.
Tells us that Eli had two sons – Phinehas and Hophni- who functioned as priests, a responsible and vital role in the community.
1 Sam 1.3
Our first encounter with Eli is not a great one to be honest. Hannah, in great distress comes to the temple and pours out her heart silently before the Lord, making a vow to give her baby to serve there – if the LORD will only give her a child. We’re told she was ‘deeply distressed’ and ‘wept bitterly’ as she prayed; her lips moving in silent prayer – but making no sound.
1 Sam 1.9
Eli is sitting by the doorpost at the entrance to the temple and joins the dots up wrongly – assuming she’s drunk!
1 Sam 1.12
Now, to be fair – Israel is a fairly debauched place at this time. If you read the end of Judges you’ll see what I mean. So we might want to be gracious and forgive Eli for his lack of pastoral sensitivity. Perhaps there have been plenty of occasions when drunken women have staggered into the temple mumbling incoherently. However on this occasion an honourable woman is making a serious vow before God – and Eli.... well he says,
1 Sam 1.14
“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine!”
That’s a fair old rebuke in my opinion, pulls no punches – ‘calls a spade a spade’. “Sober up woman!” Eli seems to have no qualms about asserting his authority over a distressed woman of no status. This however, as we’ll see isn’t how he always responds.
However, when she responds; explains the situation, he does have the grace to be pretty shame faced about his mistake and blesses her.
1 Sam 1.17
“Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
She goes home, delighted, certain that now the high priest has blessed her God will answer her prayer – which indeed he does! Her baby – Samuel is brought to Eli – who essentially becomes a father for him, as he grows up in the temple – according to Hannah’s vow.
Now, there is plenty we could say about Hannah, and about Samuel – they are the headliners in these chapters. But this is Eli’s story so we will jump forward.
1 Sam 2.12
We discover that Eli’s sons – Hophni and Phinehas – “were scoundrels!” That’s not a word we hear very often, but it’s a great one in my opinion. These two were leaders of the community, priests in the temple and yet they were disreputable, dishonest, downright dastardly. We are told that they encouraged the temple servants to exploit those who came to make offerings, helping themselves to whatever part of the sacrifice the ‘brothers grim’ fancied, including the best part – the fat – which was always to be offered to the LORD.
Think BBQ, that’s sort of how temple sacrifices worked. You brought your animal up – the priests slaughtered it on your behalf before God, and then you ate it with your family – giving the priests a chunk of steak! These two were helping themselves to the prime cuts, exploiting their power to get the luxury portions – in fact even the portion no human was supposed to eat!
The writer describes this practise as,
1 Sam 2.17
“They treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.”
Clearly this doesn’t bode well, but it gets worse – we are told later on that they
1 Sam 2.22
“Lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.”
Yep, you heard right – 2 priests, sons of the HIGH priest are living the life of riley! They are acting like Caananites, using maidservants as temple prostitutes, doing whatever they feel the urge to.... literally! And we are told that all Israel knew what was going on. Everyone knew what a mockery they were making of the Worship of YAHWEH.
Now, here’s the rub for me.
He is not only their father, but also high priest! This is taking place on his watch. It is HIS responsibility to lead the people to God, and his own sons are effectively using the temple as a brothel! You might expect a man who was quite so direct with Hannah to have no qualms about sorting this out. However he says,
1 Sam 2.23-25
“Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the LORD, but if someone sins against the Lord who can make intercessions?”
Let’s not worry about the theology of this little statement – given that ALL sin is actually against God one way or another. But look at how far Eli squirms when dealing with his boys. There’s none of the directness he used with Hannah. None of the “buck up & sort it out, how dare you act like this!” this is “Come on boys – what are you playing at? It’s not big or clever you know, I wish you wouldn’t!”
1 Sam 2.25
And true to form, his sons show him no respect, no honour – either as a father or as high priest. They ignore him. And so he does............
Nothing! Nada, zip, zilch! He appears to just shrug, roll his eyes and walk away.
My guess is that this is pretty much Eli’s pattern of dealing with difficult things – let’s be honest – he’s let it get to this point, this should have been nipped in the bud way back. The first time there was even a hint of exploitation he should have jumped on it right then but now he’s old, it’s tiring, he’s probably just had enough – so once again Eli lets the behaviour of his sons slide.
God however, unsurprisingly, doesn’t.
The writer’s statement in V25 is pretty bald. God had had enough. God had tolerated this for long enough. God knew their hearts, their character, and their complete unrepentance. God intended to punish them for exploiting and abusing those they were called to serve and lead. God intended to kill them.
1 Sam 2.27-36
People often look at abusive, violent situations and ask ‘why doesn’t God do something?’ Well, he’s about to on this occasion. However, he does Eli the honour? Service? Warning? Of informing him what the consequences of his lack of responsibility towards his sons will be. And God certainly pulls no punches!
“Why then look with greedy eyes at my offering?
Why do you honour your sons more than me?”
There’s a double sting in here – because we are told later on that Eli was fat; a sign of wealth & blessing in the ancient world. Eli may not have been exploiting his position, but he certainly wasn’t going without. Eli was having a good old share of the rich living – and he absolutely had NOT taken his sons in hand. He hadn’t chosen a side, he’d let them get away with it all!
The consequence of this is that God is about to take the status away from his family line, in fact he’s going to wipe them out; the 2 sons in one day. And he is going to raise up another line; another family who will accept the honour AND responsibility that comes with leading God’s people.
1 Sam 3.16
We now take an interlude in the story of the sorry sons to look at another son; Samuel. This is the Sunday school story many of us know. Of God calling Samuel as he lay in bed and it taking 3 goes before he (and Eli!) realised it was indeed the voice of God. To be fair to Eli he does realise in the end that it is God speaking, and want to know what God says to Samuel...regardless of the content of the message – which is grim!
1 Sam 3.18
Eli, for all his faults, accepts that he deserves this punishment. That he has let God down, not lived up to his responsibilities. He holds his hands up and accepts the justice of God’s punishment.
“It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”
I really feel for him at this point – Eli is not all bad, he’s just weak. A man without the conviction or character to live up to the responsibility he has.
1 Sam 4.1-10
And indeed, what God has twice warned comes to pass.
Israel calls out the ark of God like a lucky charm in a battle against the Philistines and Phinehas and Hophni parade out with it – no doubt in their priestly finery – anticipating victory now the ‘lucky ark’ is on the front line.
1 Sam 4.11
Sadly for them God is not playing, and the battle backfires – the ark is captured and the priests killed alongside many Israelites.
But – this is Eli’s story...
1 Sam 4.13
Eli is too old to have gone into battle; he is sitting by the roadside, at the gate of Shiloh – waiting for news. But not of his sons,
“His heart trembled for the ark of the LORD.”
Despite everything Eli’s heart IS for the LORD. He does understand what is really going on here; he knows that the state of the nation, the covenant, the reputation of the LORD is at stake. This is bigger than his boys, than himself – this is the ARK; the sign of God’s presence – without it, Israel are in deep, deep trouble. And – indeed, it HAS been captured.
On hearing, this old (98!), blind, overweight priest,
1 Sam 4.18
“fell over backward from his seat by the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had judged Israel 40 years.”
It is the capture of the Ark that kills Eli; the shock, the realisation of what he has allowed to happen; the way he has NOT taken responsibility.
Eli’s ending is a sorry one – for a man who DID love the LORD at one level, who did bring up Samuel; seeing him grow into a man of God; who accepted the consequences of his actions and the rebuke’s God gave him. It’s not easy to pigeon hole Eli into ‘hero’ or ‘villain.’ He’s a mixed character – like so many of us. He had a faith for sure – he knew what God wanted, the right thing to do. He just didn’t have the courage to do it!
Eli was essentially a weak man; a man who wouldn’t stand up against his sons; a man who took the easy life, the soft option; a man who’d prefer to avoid the conflict and keep the peace -rather than rock the boat and cause conflict.
How many of us is that true of?
But how often do we duck ‘the right thing’? Hedge our bets? Take the easy way out rather than stand and speak up for what we know God would want. Yes, it might cause conflict to expose abuse or corruption, but if we don’t speak up for those who are powerless – who will?
It might make us unpopular, that is a risk; one Eli wasn’t prepared to take. The consequences were much bigger than he could have known. Isn’t it interesting that cowardice has consequences as well as courage? We don’t know the consequences of our actions – or our LACK or actions...but God does. God sees. And picking a side – his side; standing our ground – his ground; being as faithful as we know how has ripples through eternity that we cannot know this side of glory.
I wonder what Eli would say to us – with hindsight? I’m willing to bet it would be ‘don’t follow my footsteps’. He did love the LORD, but he didn’t ask for help, didn’t cry for forgiveness, didn’t throw himself on God’s mercy as so many others did – Eli was passive – let’s not be passive people. The world needs people passionate for Jesus, empowered by his spirit and brave enough to do the right thing, not those who have a token faith and duck away from what they know is right when things get tricky. It does take God’s power to give us that courage – but it’s available for anyone who puts their faith in Jesus – including you!
© Ruth Perrin 2011. Last revised on 4 February 2011
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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