Before Israel had a king, it was ruled by judges. The last two, Eli and Samuel, dominate the opening of the book of 1 Samuel. From all appearances, Eli, a senior priest, enjoyed high esteem during his lifetime, but no one admired his sons.
There does not seem to be anyone designated as high priest yet, but his seniority and the esteem he had as judge guaranteed him a great deal of authority and influence. It seems judgmental of him to accuse Hannah of drunkenness, but considering the times, he may have seen plenty of people treating the sacrifice as a party and getting drunk. He was quick to offer a priestly blessing and to add his prayers to hers. He seems very pious, very dedicated, and very conscientious.
But being judge and priest was not the highest calling on Eli’s life. He utterly failed at fatherhood. God had provided that priests would help the people offer up sacrifices. In return, they were allowed to eat a portion of the sacrifice. It appears that the ritual called for the fat to be burned on the altar and then the meat was cooked. The priest would come along later, stick a fork in whatever cooking utensil was being used, and eat whatever came up on the fork.
That was not good enough for Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. First, they did not come themselves; they sent servants. Second they did not even wait for the food to be cooked; they demanded it raw. Third, and most shocking, they did not even wait for the fat to be burned on the altar, and it was in the burning of the fat that people experienced their communication with God. That was the central act of worship. The priests’ bullying made it impossible for people to have a good worship experience. They compounded the sin by demanding sexual favors from the women who served at the temple.
Eli never took action when his sons were young enough to be subject to his influence. When he was very old, he still scolded them, but by that time they had tuned him out completely. I notice that every time we meet Eli, he was either sitting or lying down. He never actually got up and did anything. He was all talk and no action.
All of the previous judges heard directly from God and acted on what he told them. Eli was quite capable of discerning spiritual things, but if he ever heard the inner witness of the Spirit speaking to him about his sons, he ignored it. This is the first time I know of that God had to speak to a judge through a prophet.
He charged Eli personally with scorning the sacrifices and offerings by honoring his sons more than he honored God. Not only were Hophni and Phinehas getting fat by abusing the sacrifices, Eli, too, was fat. Considering the difficult conditions under which people lived at the time, there must not have been very many fat people. At the time, no one could get fat without oppressing someone else.
The sign of judgment for Eli was that both of his sons would die the same day, but as always with God, there was still time to repent and avoid judgment. The prophet told Eli exactly what to do, and I suspect that Eli had heard the same thing before in the inner witness of the Spirit. He could have–should have–withheld priestly office from them until they agreed to behave.
Eli ignored the inner witness, ignored the prophet, ignored the law, and so God spoke to him again through Samuel. We see that Eli could discern spiritual things, because he recognized that God was speaking to Samuel and told Samuel how to answer. God told Samuel that no sacrifice would ever atone for the guilt of Eli’s house. Not even the sacrifice of Jesus? Samuel delivered a very serious message Eli’s response shows resignation, but not confession or repentance.
The judgment befell Eli’s family when the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. More than likely, it was a defensive fight against Philistine aggression. The oppressors won the first battle, so the Israelites got the bright idea to take the ark of the covenant into battle with them, as if it were some kind of magic charm. Hophni and Phinehas carried the ark.
Eli sat by the side of the road, waiting for news. He must have been concerned for the safety of his sons, but the Bible says he feared for the ark of God. When he heard the bad news, he collapsed and died.
Eli’s failure as a father disappointed the nation. Perhaps no one missed Hophni and Phinehas, but the loss of the ark was a national disaster. Shiloh forever ceased to be an important worship center. Eli’s family continued for several more generations, but in accordance with the prophecy, it did not prosper.
It’s easy to see the judgment in this story. Where’s the grace? God entrusted Eli, in his disgraced old age, to raise Samuel to succeed him. Plague broke out wherever the Philistines took the ark until they decided to return it. It ended up in the Israelite town of Kiriath Jearim, where again a priest ministered before it.
God continued to bless his chosen people and his priesthood. Centuries passed before any priest acted as disgracefully as Eli’s sons. And if Eli’s descendants did not prosper, they served honorably.