What becomes of an unrepentant priest? The sad story of Eli

Hannah prays as Eli watches

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

Jonah is the story of a disobedient prophet who repented. Eli is the story of a disobedient priest who did not. Jonah comes across as petulant even when he finally did God’s bidding. Eli seems in nearly all of his dealings as a very godly man. Jonah’s story is familiar enough that I won’t summarize it here, but I suppose many fewer readers even know who Eli was.

We first encounter Eli in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, where he is a bit player. Hannah, a barren woman taunted by her husband’s other wife, prayed silently, but in great anguish, at the tabernacle. Eli, the priest, noticed her mouth moving, but hearing no sound from her, supposed she was drunk and scolded her.

When Hannah replied that she was pouring out her heart to the Lord, we can almost see the expression on Eli’s face soften. He added his prayer to hers, that the Lord would grant whatever petition she had. Hannah returned to her family with joy.

By the time the family returned to Shiloh for the annual sacrifice, Hannah had a son, Samuel, and decided to devote him to the Lord’s service. That meant leaving him at the tabernacle for Eli to raise as his own son. 

Eli’s history and character

According to 1 Samuel 4:18, Eli had judged Israel for 40 years. All of the judges named in the book of Judges were warriors who freed at least some Israelite tribes from oppression. Eli was 90 years old by the time he died, so I have a hard time seeing him as a military hero. But the Bible has described stranger things.

The earlier judges had been a diverse lot. None of them had been priests. Few if any were otherwise noteworthy in their communities before beginning their exploits.

Some of them (Samson in particular) seem to have had rather questionable character, but given the length of time they served as judge, they must have all been scrupulously honest as they heard whatever disputes people brought to them.  Whatever civil leadership they offered must have been entirely acceptable, for there is no record of rebellion against them.

Eli appears to have been totally devoted to his calling as a priest and judge. The cranky judgmentalism he showed when he first saw Hannah doesn’t present readers of the Bible with a good first impression, but he certainly had tremendous respect for the priesthood, for the priests’ role in accepting sacrifices and interceding for the people. Surely he believed he loved God with all his heart.

The Bible points out two failings. The least serious is that he was fat. Now before anyone gets offended, let’s consider how anyone could possibly get fat in the society in which he lived.

Cattle were the measure of a family’s wealth. Ordinary people did not eat meat every day.  Leviticus calls for a variety of sacrifices, and the person offering the sacrifice shares the meat with his family for one of them. That is why Hannah’s story entails an annual feast.

Priests were allowed to eat the meat from certain sacrifices, apparently only those at which they personally officiated. The priesthood was hereditary. All priests descended from one of Aaron’s two surviving sons.

So many generations later, there must have been enough priests that no one of them should have had the opportunity to officiate at enough of them to become notably fat. I also notice that in every scene where he is described, Eli is either sitting or in bed. True, he must have been past 80 when we first meet him, but he may have had a lifelong habit of indolence.

Eli’s greatest failing: fatherhood

Hannah giving Samuel to Eli

Hannah Giving Her Son Samuel to the Priest / Jan Victors (1645)

When Hannah and her husband left Samuel at Shiloh, the Bible puts two verses in a very dramatic juxtaposition: “Then Elkanah returned home to Ramah without Samuel. And the boy served the Lord by assisting Eli the priest. Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels who had no respect for the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:11-12, New Living Translation).

Eli had not raised godly sons, but they were priests by heredity. When they officiated at a sacrifice, it was nothing but a meal to them. They would send servants to select morsels from the pot before the sacrifice was finished. If they had no taste for boiled meat, they demanded raw meat for roasting.

The law commanded that the fat was the Lord’s portion. It was supposed to be burned. Eli’s son’s didn’t care about that. They demanded the fat, too. The servants seized it by force if worshippers didn’t give it up voluntarily. No surprise, therefore, that Scripture calls them fat, too. They exercised Eli’s self-indulgence with even less restraint.

It gets even worse. They didn’t offer any more restraint in their sexual appetites. They seduced the young women who assisted in the tabernacle services.

Eli knew what was going on. He scolded his sons. (See 1 Samuel 2:23-25.) He reminded them that God heavily punishes sin, and especially sin committed directly against the Lord.

But the sons had learned that whatever they did, Eli wouldn’t do anything but lecture them. Why should they treat him with any less contempt than they treated God?

God’s judgment against Eli and all his descendants

Eli and Samuel

Samuel Learning from Eli / John Singleton Copley (1780)

God sent a prophet to give Eli a final warning.  Actually, the King James says “man of God.” God sent a man of God to someone who thought he was a man of God! That phrase appears only four times earlier in the Bible: twice to describe Moses, and twice to describe the angel that visited Samson’s parents.

Otherwise, God had always spoken directly to his designated leaders. Eli certainly knew the voice of God. He just hadn’t done anything about it.  As it turns out, he responded to the prophet’s message—that his two sons would die on the same day– with resignation, but again failed to act. And what could he have done?

The prophet’s final words say exactly what he could have done all along. After telling Eli that God had rejected his entire family and that his descendants would eventually die out, he said, “Then all of your surviving family will bow before him, begging for money and food. ‘Please,’ they will say, ‘give us jobs among the priests so we will have enough to eat.’” (1 Samuel 2:36)

Eli had devoted himself entirely to the priesthood, but priesthood is a less high calling than fatherhood. Having failed to raise sons who loved the Lord, he continued to assign them priestly work, knowing that they would disgrace themselves.

Eli honored sons he knew to be scoundrels above the God he professed to love.  He could have excluded them from the duty roster until they shaped up. That would have made him both a more faithful priest and a better parent.

Finally, God sent Eli another message through the young Samuel, concluding, “So I have vowed that the sins of Eli and his sons will never be forgiven by sacrifices or offerings.” (1 Samuel 3:14)

I had a conversation about Eli with an old preacher years ago. He quoted that verse and declared that Eli, for all of his apparent godliness, was damned for all eternity. After all, he said, if Eli and his sons will never be forgiven by sacrifices, that must mean not even Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross!

But I see plenty of grace in this story. God gave Eli, the supremely incompetent father, the opportunity and joy of raising Samuel to be a spiritual giant. He gave Eli warning after warning, probably beginning decades earlier than we first meet him in Scripture.

It was never too late for Eli to act until the day his sons foolishly decided to take the ark of the covenant into battle. They were killed, and the Philistines captured the ark. And Eli? He sat anxiously awaiting news of the battle. When he heard, he fell off the chair, broke his neck and died.

Let’s not be concerned with Eli’s eternal fate. That’s none of our business. We should pay close attention to the completeness of our own obedience. After all, at least according to Protestant doctrine, we believers are all priests. I for one want no experience in learning what becomes of an unrepentant priest!

Photo credits:
Hannah’s Prayer in the Temple. Public domain
Hannah Giving Her Son Samuel to the Priest. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hannah_VICTORS,_Jan.jpg
Samuel Learning from Eli Public domain from Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eli_and_Samuel.jpg

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