The Failure of Eli
Text: I Samuel 2:12-4:22
Eli’s Sons - I Samuel 2:12-17
Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were mentioned earlier in I Samuel 1:3 but now we are told more about them. The Hebrew phrase bene veliya’al is translated in a variety of ways: “worthless,” “corrupt,” “wicked,” or “base.” The phrase literally means “sons of Belial.” Belial was one of the false gods of Canaan. The name “Belial” literally means “worthless.” It "denotes those who are useless or good-for-nothing. Specifically, it refers to those who deliberately deprive others of justice or good, through false testimony, defamation, oppression, etc." [The Complete Biblical Library].
Thus, the phrase "sons of Belial" referred to anyone who was particularly wicked, such as the men in Gibeah. "As they were enjoying themselves, suddenly certain men of the city, perverted men, surrounded the house and beat on the door. They spoke to the master of the house, the old man, saying, "Bring out the man who came to your house, that we may know him carnally!"" (Judges 19:22). "Perverted men" in this translation is literally "sons of Belial." Eli's sons were of this sort as well. They were corrupt, evil, and, therefore, held no true value.
Shiloh was where the Tabernacle resided for many years after Israel conquered Canaan (Joshua 18:1). The ark of the covenant was there. God’s presence was there. Over the years, the people came to believe that so long as the ark was there, they were invincible, even if they lived immorally. Idolatry spread through the land (Judges 18:31). And now we learn that priests were serving who did not know God.
Priests were given specific portions of the sacrifices (Leviticus 7:31-32; Deuteronomy 18:3). However, Hophni and Phinehas’s servants were using a trident to take meat that was being boiled for themselves. Sometimes the servants would insist on taking cuts of raw meat before the fat was burned (Exodus 29:22-28). If the worshiper objected, the servant would threaten to use force. It became so bad that people didn’t like to come to offer sacrifices. God considered it a great sin because it impacted so many people.
The Contrast of Samuel - I Samuel 2:18-21
An ephod is a linen garment. Samuel wore one when he was a boy (I Samuel 2:18) as did David when he brought the ark to Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:14). It was the required garment for priests when they were working in the Tabernacle and later the temple (I Samuel 2:28). There is some uncertainty about what an ephod looks like. We know it was composed of two panels of fabric, joined at the shoulders and then tied at the waist with a sash. How long the ephod was or how wide it was is unknown. That Samuel wore an ephod indicated that he was serving as a priest even as a child.
Each year, Hannah would bring Samuel a new robe since he would be growing into a man. On those visits, Eli would bless Elkanah and Hannah for dedicating Samuel to God and he prayed that God would grant them more children to replace the one she vowed to God. Over time, Hannah gave birth to three more sons and two more daughters.
- How were Hophni and Phinehas different from Samuel?
Eli’s Rebuke of His Sons - I Samuel 2:22-25
Eli was not guilty of any great sin, but his sons were. Eli was aware of all that his sons were doing. Not only were they stealing from the sacrifices but they were having sex with the women who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle.
Women were serving in the Tabernacle in some fashion. "Moreover, he made the layer of bronze ... from the mirrors of the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8). The Hebrew word translated as “serve,” literally refers to those who assemble "by troop," or "by rank," indicating not only that they were numerous, but that they had regular duties assigned them. The frequent sacrifices at the Tabernacle must have occupied a large number of people in cleaning the utensils and cooking food. From John 18:16-17 and other ancient sources, it appears that women were frequently employed as doorkeepers. Some believe that women, vowed to God, became the source of these workers. There is also mention of the widow Anna who stayed at the temple and served the Lord with fasting and prayers (Luke 2:36-37), like those mentioned in Psalm 134.
Eli scolds his sons, pointing out that sinning against God leaves them with no one to plead their case before God. But the sons refused to listen to Eli. Thus, God determined to put these two men to death.
The Growth of Samuel - I Samuel 2:26
Meanwhile, Samuel continued to grow and had the favor of God and men. Interestingly, the same phrase is used of Jesus during his childhood (Luke 2:52).
Note the stark contrast with Eli’s sons who had lost both God’s and men’s respect.
God’s Rebuke of Eli - I Samuel 2:27-36
An unnamed prophet visits Eli with a message from God.
God reminds Eli that his position as High Priest was a gift from God. It was God who brought the tribe of Levi along with the rest of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. It was God who selected Aaron’s family to serve as priests and God had seen to their care by giving the priests a share of the offerings. But Eli showed contempt for God by putting his sons before God. They had grown fat from stealing from Israel’s offerings to God. It was Eli’s lack of honor that caused God to no longer esteem him.
Eli was not guilty of the sins of his sons. His failure was in not following up his scoldings with action. His sons should have been thrown out of the priesthood. Their sins of adultery were worthy of death by stoning under the Law. Yet, Eli was too easy toward his own children. No doubt Eli loved his sons, but he didn’t love them enough to restrain them (Proverbs 3:12; 13:24; 29:15-17). Because he valued his sons more than upholding God’s law, Eli demonstrated disrespect for God.
While God had promised to have Aaron’s family serve Him forever, but Eli’s lack of honor has forced God to cancel His blessings on Eli’s family. His family would not reach old age. Eli would live to see distress. Not everyone would die immediately but they will die in the prime of life. To prove His words, God declares that Hophni and Phinehas will die on the same day. God will replace them with a faithful priest of His choosing. But Eli’s descendants will be reduced to begging for work so they can eat.
Samuel’s Vision - I Samuel 3:1-18
Because the Bible is a condensed book of history, we sometimes forget that God did not interact constantly with people. In this period of time, it was rare for a message to come from God, though Eli received one through a prophet.
By this point, Eli was growing old and was unable to see well.
At the dawn of each morning, the lamps in the tabernacle were put out, refilled, and relit one by one (Exodus 27:21). This event takes place late at night, before dawn. Samuel is sleeping in the Tabernacle. Three times the voice of God calls out wakening Samuel and three times Samuel runs to Eli to find out what he needed.
Samuel would not assume that it was God calling him, since he had never had God speak to him before. Because God was rarely sending messages, Samuel would not have seen anyone else hearing God’s voice. But on the third time, Eli concludes that God is speaking to Samuel and instructs the boy to respond that he is listening.
God tells Samuel that he is going to do something that would make everyone take notice. He is about to carry out the prophecies that He earlier made against Eli and his family.
Eli was not guilty of the sins of his sons, they “brought a curse on themselves.” His guilt lay in the fact that he did not restrain them (I Samuel 3:13). The verb “restrain” literally means to grow weak. Eli did not weaken their actions, he didn’t stand in their way, and he didn’t put a stop to what they were doing. He was accountable because he was God’s High Priest, but he was also accountable because he was their father. Even though they were grown men with their own families (I Samuel 4:19) and they were responsible for their sins, their father was responsible for not standing in their way. This is why Eli, his household, and his descendants were cut off. God wasn’t going to put it off any longer. Sacrifices would not atone for sins that continue.
Notice that twice God refused to speak to Eli directly. Apparently, Eli had not told others about his earlier message from God. Samuel was reluctant to bring this bad news to Eli. However, in the morning, Eli called Samuel to him and insisted that he tell him God’s message. Eli’s response is oddly neutral. He confirmed that Samuel had a message from God, but Eli doesn’t make any attempt to change his situation or to ask God to change His plans. He simply accepts that what is to come will come.
Samuel Is Recognized as a Prophet - I Samuel 3:19-21
Samuel continues to mature and makes more prophecies. Word spreads through all of Israel that Samuel is a prophet of God.
The Defeat of Israel - I Samuel 4:1-11
The Philistines came out for battle in the center of Israel's territory at Aphek. Israel gathers an army to meet them at Ebenezer. Israel lost the battle and lost 4,000 men.
They concluded that bringing the Ark of the Covenant into battle would turn the tide because the Lord would fight for them. Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the ark as it was carried into battle. At first, the Philistines were afraid. They knew of the reputation of Israel’s God. And never before was the ark brought out into battle. Even though they thought they would lose, they decided to fight rather than become slaves to the people they had enslaved.
Though the Israelites thought they could force God to fight, God wouldn’t be so used by men. Israel lost with an additional 30,000 soldiers killed. The Ark was captured and Hophni and Phinehas were killed.
The Death of Eli - I Samuel 4:12-18
A messenger runs from the battle back to Shiloh to deliver the terrible news. He reached Shiloh the same day, with dust on his head and his clothes torn to indicate great grief. Eli was sitting by the edge of the road waiting for the ark to return. He feared no good would result from the ark being carried into battle.
The messenger told the city and there was an uproar, but Eli did not understand what was going on. The messenger then hurriedly repeated his message to Eli. Each statement became more dreadful. Israel lost the battle, a large number had been killed, Eli’s two sons were killed, and the Ark of the Covenant was taken. At the mention of the loss of the Ark, Eli fell backward from the stone he was sitting on, broke his neck, and died at the age of 98.
There are many things to admire about the man Eli. He judged Israel for 40 years; during which time he was God’s spokesman. He wasn’t a perfect man. He put his family before his duties to God. Most people would overlook such neglect, but God did not. When Eli learns that the priesthood would be removed from his family, Eli does not rebel, grow bitter, become envious, or spiteful. Instead, Eli spends his time teaching Samuel.
The Misery of Eli’s Family - I Samuel 4:19-22
Phinehas’ wife was pregnant at the time. When she heard the bad news, she went into labor and died shortly after giving birth to a son. The people attending her tried to cheer her with the news that she had a son, but she did not answer. Instead, she named the boy Ichabod (“no glory”) because the glory in Israel had been removed. The glory of Israel was God, but His withdrawn support of Israel was demonstrated by the loss of the Ark.
- Years later, God warned the people of Jeremiah’s day to remember what happened at Shiloh (Jeremiah 7:13-15). What lessons should we learn from these events?