Eli: Priest and Judge

Recently we went through the book of Judges in a series of articles. But there are a few judges after that which are recorded in a different book, 1 Samuel. The last of the judges of Israel are Eli, Samuel, Joel, and Abijah. When we begin reading about Eli in 1 Samuel, he doesn’t appear to be a judge, only a priest of Israel; however, at his death, we learn that he had judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18). We are introduced to Eli in 1 Samuel 1:9, and in the context, he seems to be a nice enough fellow, although it is odd that he was unable to discern that Hannah was praying silently with tears when she came to the house of the Lord; instead, he thought she was drunk. You would think that he could discern between a fervent prayer and drunken foolishness, but he could not. Maybe this is an indication of the times in which Eli lived, where a fervent prayer could be confused as something more common to his eyes. Whatever the case, once this situation is cleared up, Eli appears to be a nice man. In the next chapter we hear of his two sons, who were also priests of the Tabernacle, we are told this: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD” (ESV, 1 Samuel 2:12). For “worthless” the NKJV says “corrupt”, and the KJV says “Belial”. The word means without profit, wicked, and destruction. Added to this word, the verse states that “they did not know the LORD”. For these two priests who labor daily in the house of God, how is it possible for them not to know God? This is not an uncommon situation, for even today there are certainly many Christians and religious leaders who also do not know God. The new testament gives a simple and direct identification of those who do not know God, “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:9). John distinguished that those who know God simply abide (stay, live) in the teachings of Christ. Those who do not know God are comfortable with transgressing the teachings of Christ; they go beyond what is written and do/teach things that are not found in the words of Christ. Certainly many people today fit this description, in fact, entire “Christian” denominations practice traditions of men beyond what is written. So it is not far-fetched to hear that Eli’s sons could be in a high religious position while not knowing God. To know not God means to not have a relationship with Him. Remember that John spoke of such as those who transgress, go onward, past the word of God, and this is exactly what Eli’s sons did. 1 Samuel 2:13-16 records Hophni and Phinehas (Eli’s sons) taking a hook and pulling up as much as they could from the boiled meat for the sacrifices. This was a transgression of the law which permitted the priests to partake of the breast and right thigh (Leviticus 7:31-35), but Eli’s sons made no such distinction. They also took of the meat with the fat for roasting and eating instead of burning the fat in the burnt offering. This is in violation of Leviticus 7:23-25, which condemns the act of eating the fat, saying, “the person who eats it shall be cut off from his people.” Their wickedness was seen not only in the sacrifices of the people, but the record also states that they would “lay with the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle of meeting.” These were the women who were devoted servants for the tabernacle (Exodus 38:8). These are the actions we know of that rightly identify Eli’s sons among those who do not know God.

The wickedness of Hophni and Phinehas and their disregard for God’s word had a large-scale impact on the people of Israel. 1 Samuel 2:17 explains: “the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for men abhorred the offering of the LORD.” The greatness of their sins is found in the fact that they caused Israel to hate worshipping God. Have you ever been in a situation where someone in the church is acting with such wickedness that it causes you to lose your desire to assemble? Hopefully, you have not experienced that and will never have to, but it does happen. Hophni and Phinehas had that effect on Israel. Those who desired to abide by the law and bring their worship and their offerings to the priest of God at the Tabernacle would find themselves in an argument with the servants of Hophni and Phinehas concerning the proper manner of the offering (1 Samuel 2:15-16), and the offering would be taken “by force” if they didn’t willingly hand it over. Few things anger me more than serpents among the sheep who take away the joy of the sheep. When a situation causes an abhorrence to come and worship God, there is a problem that must be immediately remedied. Unfortunately, for Israel’s sake, Hophni and Phinehas were allowed to continue in their wicked ways until the Lord killed them in battle.

The sins of Hophni and Phinehas were not ignored, for Eli had a conversation with them and warned them of their transgressions. In 1 Samuel 2:23-25, Eli said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons! For it is not a good report that I hear. You make the LORD’s people transgress. If one man sins against another, God will judge him. But if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the LORD desired to kill them.” While it was a wonderful thing for Eli to speak to his sons concerning their sins, for some parents do not go that far, it was still not enough. Later, God spoke to Eli, saying, “Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?‘” (1 Samuel 2:29). Even though Eli had spoken to his sons, God said that his actions showed more honor to his sons than to God. Eli could have done more; he should have done more. As a father, as a priest, and as judge of Israel, Eli could have removed his sons from the service of God, but he did not, thus aiding in causing Israel to abhor the Tabernacle services. God did not accept that Eli only talked to them, God expected Eli to act.

In 1 Samuel 2:30, God stated to Eli, “those who honor Me I will honor.” In an examination of our own lives, are we honoring God in what we do? Have we placed priority on eternal matters? Have we done enough? Remember, what is enough is what God has given us to do by His word; so then, have we performed the word of the Lord? The account of Eli and his sons causes much reflection upon our lives; if we see that we are lacking, we must act. In this manner, we give honor to the Lord.

Article by Tanner Campbell