Nobodies of the Bible: Eli, a priest God reprimanded

Eli was a priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh who did nearly everything right. His reputation came to nothing because of his failure to deal with other priests' scandalous behavior.

Joe Paterno was a football coach who did nearly everything right. Paterno wasn't content to use students to win championships. He championed academics. How other universities named the library for the football coach? Unfortunately, his reputation will be forever tarnished because of his failure to deal with an assistant coach who was a sexual predator.

With Paterno in mind, let's take a look at an ancient priest whose life took the same trajectory. We meet Eli in 1 Samuel 1 as the priest who first scolded Hannah and then ratified her prayer. He was not at his best that day, but as we read further, we see a very conscientious priest who loved the Lord and had tremendous respect for his office. What went wrong?

Hannah’s Prayer in the Temple / Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (mid 19th century)
Hannah’s Prayer in the Temple / Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (mid 19th century)

At the time of his death, Eli had judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). In the book of Judges, every judge was at one time some kind of military hero. The Bible says no such thing of Eli, but his untold youth and young manhood may well have included some tremendous act of courage.

But while the Bible tells the stories of military heroics, its mention of the number of years each judge judged Israel points to a less dramatic role. People would bring their disputes to the judge. Surely they would not have continued to approach the same person year after year unless they found him trustworthy.

Whether Eli had been a hero or not, therefore, the nation trusted him to guide Israel with equity and justice. He probably also had a very good reputation for his conduct as a priest.

Samuel Learning from Eli / John Singleton Copley (1780)
Samuel Learning from Eli / John Singleton Copley (1780)

Eli and Samuel

Eli appears in the Bible mostly to introduce Samuel. Hannah, of course, had long been barren and emotionally devastated. She promised God that if she could have a son, she would dedicate him to God's service. And so when he was weaned, she gave him to Eli to rear at the tabernacle.

Over the years Samuel learned how to conduct all of the various tasks of service at the tabernacle except, probably, offering sacrifices. Like Eli, he came to have tremendous respect for the Lord's service and his role in conducting worship.

Samuel's years under Eli's tutelage were the start of a long and distinguished career of one of the true giants of the Old Testament. Eli must have been as conscientious and thorough in his instruction as Samuel was in his learning.

The Bible records only one vignette of their relationship. One night, as recorded in 1 Samuel 3, God called to Samuel. Samuel didn't know God yet. He had no idea that God would call him or anyone else. So naturally he assumed that Eli was calling. He went to Eli three times.

The Lord did not often speak in those days. He probably did speak through an inner witness that people experienced as their own thoughts. Eli had probably never experienced anything overtly supernatural. Yet the old priest had enough spiritual sensitivity to discern that God himself was calling to Samuel. He told the boy how to respond.

God entrusted a message to Samuel that was harshly critical of Eli. Why?

Eli and his sons

Eli had not successfully passed his reverence on to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were scoundrels. Priests by heredity, they disgraced their office whenever they served at the altar. The Bible describes two serious sins.

First, they regarded offering sacrifices only as a means of obtaining meat. They would send servants to seize it for them. They would not even wait for the fat to be burned on the altar, as proper ritual demanded. And if Hophni and Phinehas had no taste for boiled meat, they'd send servants to demand raw meat for roasting.

Second, they, like Jerry Sandusky, were sexual predators. They forced their attention on the young women who served at the tabernacle. Their behavior scandalized the whole nation. Eli scolded them and warned them of the consequence of their sin, but his words went in one ear and out the other.

Eli failed as a father through sheer negligence. He had never commanded respect either for himself as their father or for God himself. God held Eli personally responsible for their behavior.

Eli knew God's ways enough to know that it was God speaking to Samuel, but had never heard God's voice himself. God must have spoken to Eli. He had always spoken directly to the leaders of his people Israel. When Eli ignored his message, God sent a "man of God" to reprimand him.

There are no pictures of Eli,  Hophni, or Phinehas. So here's the statue of Joe Paterno, which is now in storage instead of public view.
There are no pictures of Eli, Hophni, or Phinehas. So here's the statue of Joe Paterno, which is now in storage instead of public view.

The consequences of Eli's negligence

Imagine! Sending a man of God to speak to someone who certainly thought of himself as a man of God! Many modern Christian leaders ought to take that as a personal warning!

The man of God rebuked Eli for favoring his sons more than he favored God. As judgment, both sons would die on the same day. None of their offspring would live to be an old man. In conclusion, he said,

I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his priestly house, and they will minister before my anointed one always. Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him for a piece of silver and a loaf of bread and plead, “Appoint me to some priestly office so I can have food to eat.” (1 Samuel 2:35-36, NIV)

That last sentence reveals exactly what Eli should have done the moment he realized how morally bankrupt his sons were. The office of high priest did not yet exist, but someone had to serve as administrator and assign when priests would serve at the altar.

If anyone else besides his own sons had disgraced the altar, would they have worked very much? And would they have offered enough sacrifices to become fat?

Compare Eli with any of the earlier judges. He did not commit any of their spectacular missteps. He may have been personally beloved by the whole nation. He could have been the greatest judge of them all. He neglected just one thing. And it destroyed his reputation.

See also What becomes of an unrepentant priest? The sad story of Eliin my blog Grace and Judgment.

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