Eli and His Sons

Two weeks ago, we studied Hannah, a woman of faithfulness and strength. She prayed to God for a child, and he gave her a son, Samuel. When Samuel was old enough she took him to the temple to be raised there and to learn the ways of God, under the tutelage of a man named Eli. Today we’re going to talk about Eli and his sons, and tangentially a little bit about Samuel.

Remember to be a priest in the Temple was no small matter. Only very specific people, directly descended from Aaron—Moses’s brother—could be the high priest who went to the most of Holy of Holies. Therefore these things tended to run in the family. If your dad was high priest, you were probably going to be high priest one day.

When Samuel is brought to the temple the current high priest is named Eli, and he had two sons named Hophni and Phinehas. Eli was the guy who saw Hannah praying in the temple and automatically assumed she was drunk instead of giving her the benefit of a doubt. Eli is at this time a very old man and his sons are full grown men, unlike Samuel who is a boy.

And that’s sort of how we open up this part of the story. Samuel is living in the temple, under the tutelage of Eli and the other priests. Can someone read 1 Samuel 2:11-17?

11 Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli.

12 Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord13 or for the duties of the priests to the people. When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14 and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. 15 Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the one who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast; for he will not accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” 16 And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take whatever you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now; if not, I will take it by force.” 17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.

To say the sons of Eli were scoundrels is probably a bit of understatement on the Bibles part. There are many aspects to what they are doing wrong here. First off, when they steal a piece of the sacrifice, they are stealing from God. The people were bringing their sacrifices for God, and the priests were taking parts of it for them. Secondly, the taking of the meat with the fat still on it is in direct contradiction to the laws given in Leviticus. In Leviticus 7:25 it says “If an one of you eats the fat from an animal of which an offering by fire may be made to the Lord, you who eat it shall be cut off from your kin.” Cut off from your kin, as in exiled from your family. That’s a big deal. But these priests are just ignoring that. Finally, it says that if a person tried to go against them and was like “no, we have to burn the fat first” these priests would threaten violence—and probably follow through with it—to force people to do it their way.

These two priests, Hophni and Phinehas, were abusing their position in every way they possibly could. Did they care that they were supposed to be working for God? No. They completely ignored God’s law, did whatever they wanted, and abused God’s people.

Do we think God is going to be happy with this? [Let them answer.] No he’s not.

Alright can someone read 1 Samuel 2:22-26?

22 Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23 He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. 25 If one person sins against another, someone can intercede for the sinner with the Lord; but if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father; for it was the will of the Lord to kill them.

26 Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.

Eli was old but he wasn’t stupid. He knew what his sons were doing. Turns out they weren’t just stealing but also were sleeping around with the women who came to serve at the temple. That’s just despicable. This would be an opportunity for Eli—as the head priest here—to do more than just yell at them. He could have fired them or at least given them some sort of punishment. Instead he just yells at them and he doesn’t even really yell at them about specific sins. Instead he’s more like “People are talking! We can’t have that!” Which sort of shows that even Eli is not as pure and faithful as we might like.

However, Eli does at least warn his sons, saying that there is no one to advocate for them between them and God. And then the passage makes it clear that God has already decided judgement on them. For their sins against God and Israel, Hophni and Phinehas will die.

Then we have verse 26, which is sort of all by itself and about something completely different. Here the writer is directly contrasting the evil behaviors of Hophni and Phinehas with Samuel. Where Hophni and Phinehas are destined to die, Samuel has found favor with God.

Alright can someone read 1 Samuel 2:27-36?

27 A man of God came to Eli and said to him, “Thus the Lord has said, ‘I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the house of Pharaoh. 28 I chose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to offer incense, to wear an ephod before me; and I gave to the family of your ancestor all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. 29 Why then look with greedy eye at my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ 30 Therefore the Lord the God of Israel declares: ‘I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor should go in and out before me forever’; but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me; for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be treated with contempt. 31 See, a time is coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestor’s family, so that no one in your family will live to old age. 32 Then in distress you will look with greedy eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed upon Israel; and no one in your family shall ever live to old age. 33 The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword. 34 The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day. 35 I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever. 36 Everyone who is left in your family shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread, and shall say, Please put me in one of the priest’s places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.’”

An angel appears to Eli. In the past when we’ve seen angels they’ve generally been the bearers of good news. Telling Abraham he will have a son in his old age! Or blessing Jacob! But in this case, this angel does not have good news for Eli. He tells him that God has seen the wickedness of his sons, and that Eli will live to see his sons die—both on the same day. And that Eli’s house will fall, none of his descendants or relatives will be priests anymore, and instead a new priestly line will be raised.

However for Samuel things are different. Can someone read 1 Samuel 3:1-9?

3 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Samuel is a boy living in a temple. He’s sleeping where the ark of the covenant is, which seems strange to me because that’s a rather holy place to be sleeping in! At this time Samuel is still a boy, a kid, so probably under the age of 13, and probably near to many of you in age. So Samuel is dozing and he here’s someone call his name. He runs to Eli because who else is around to call for him? And Eli is like “I didn’t call you, go back to sleep.” Eli is probably cranky that Samuel even woke him up.

Why doesn’t Samuel recognize it’s the voice of God? Well the section opened with telling us that the word of God was rare in those days, and remember anyone who heard the voice of God was considered a prophet, so it would be few people indeed who could claim such a thing. Samuel probably never met a prophet, and may not even known it was possible to hear such an audible call. It’s completely rational for him to assume it’s his master and teacher Eli who is calling him.

Samuel goes back to sleep and it happens again! Once again he runs to Eli, once again Eli sends him away. Then it happens again, and once again Samuel goes to Eli! That’s three times Samuel heard his name called and three times he responded.

Now I think most of us, if it was the middle of the night and our parents called us out of bed, we would grumble and moan and complain. And then if we responded and they said “No I didn’t call you” and then we heard our name again? What would you do? IF you kept hearing your name and your parents kept sending you back to bed? [Let them answer it.]

Frankly I would ignore it probably the first time and my parents would have to come physically get me out of bed. If I did respond the first time and they said it wasn’t them? And then it happened again? I would definitely ignore it. So Samuel already is demonstrating way more obedience, promptness, and respect than I probably demonstrated on a daily basis as a kid. Samuel is ready and willing to serve—even when he doesn’t know it’s God calling him.

The third time Samuel goes to Eli, Eli realizes what’ sharpening. Eli tells Samuel it’s God calling, and that he doesn’t need to get up, he just needs to respond to God and see what he has to say.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 3:10-18?

10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.

16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

God calls Samuel again and this time Samuel answers as Eli told him to “Your servant is listening.” Then God tells Samuel what’s up with the house of Eli. Literally the first thing God tells Samuel is that Eli’s family is doomed.

Now it’s unclear how much Samuel might have interacted with the corrupt priests or even known they were corrupt. He’s a kid, and as you guys know, adults try to shield kids from a lot of stuff. So Samuel may have been completely oblivious to what was happening with Hophni and Phinehas. On the other hand, it’s not a large temple he’s living in, so maybe he knew exactly what was happening. Either way, it is no wonder he would be scared to tell Eli.

Samuel is just a kid, Eli is his master. And God really expects him to go before Eli and be like “Hey Eli, just fyi, your family is corrupt and God will never forgive you. You’re all doomed.”

Yeah, not exactly a cheery message. I would be scared to tell Eli that myself, even as an adult. Being a kid in his care, I would be scared out of my mind. Cuz even though we know an angel has already told Eli all of this, Samuel doesn’t necessarily know that.

So if Eli already knows this information, why does God require Samuel to tell it to him? [Let them answer.]

Well as a prophet of Israel, Samuel will have to be strong. He will have to tell very powerful men bad news. As we’re later going to see, Samuel is going to be instrumental in both setting up kings and taking them down. This is a man who can’t be afraid of the reaction of a king when he goes to tell him God’s news. So I think this isn’t a test so much as it’s good training. Samuel is afraid, God knows that, and God created this safe environment for Samuel to work through that fear of telling an authority figure bad news.

Eli already knows this news. So when Samuel goes before him and tells him what God told him, Eli is not going to get angry. He already knows. Samuel isn’t the bearer of bad news so much as he’s the bearer of redundant news. But this helped Samuel get over that fear of being a bearer of bad news in a safe environment where the authority figure isn’t going to get mad at him. We’ll see this training come into use much later.

The end is near for Eli’s family. Can someone read 1 Samuel 3-19-4:4?

19 As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord. 4 1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek.2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

So Samuel grows up, God is with him and let’s “none of his words fall to the ground.” What does that mean? My Jewish Bible translates that sentence as “He did not leave any of Samuel’s predictions unfulfilled” and my NIV translation commentary says that it means that Samuel’s words were authoritative and trustworthy because they were God’s words. I think these things basically mean the same things. If Samuel predicted something, it happened. If Samuel said something was a certain way, it was that way. Because Samuel was trustworthy and relied on God, and God had his back.

Shiloh—the place referred to here—is just the location of where the current temple—which I believe is the tabernacle—resides. It’s a city. At this time the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle were in Shiloh and not Jerusalem as they would come to be later.

But basically this little section is set up. Samuel grows up and continues to have God’s favor, the Lord continues to reveal himself to Samuel, and meanwhile a war is brewing between the Philistines and the Israelites. Remember the Philistines are the guys who conquered Israel way back in Samson’s time, so they would have been fighting on and off with the Israelites for a while. So the two have a little skirmish, and the Israelites lose. They’re all like “Why would God let the Israelites win???” And then suddenly, they remember they have a silver bullet—a nuclear option. If they bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle surely they will win! Just as Joshua won all those battles back in the day, and Moses, and even more recently the Judges. Because if the Ark of the Covenant is with you than God is with you!

Right here they’re treating the Ark of the Covenant like it’s a magical object that if brought into any battle, without direction or guidance from God, will result in an auto-magical win for the Israelites. But that’s not how the Ark works. It’s not a magical object. It’s a symbol of God’s presence. And if there is one thing we know in this story it’s that God is not with Hophni and Phinehas, the priests who bring the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites.

Can someone read 1 Samuel 4:10-11?

10 So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

The Israelites don’t just lose, they lose bad. 30,000 men die, including Hophni and Phinehas, who the angel said both died on the same day here in this battle. Worst of all though, the ark of the convenant is captured. The thing that symbolizes God’s presence in Israel is gone.

Now had God left Israel? No. The Ark of the Covenant in the end is just an object, and God was using this defeat to his purposes. The deaths of Hophni and Phinehas were punishment for their wickedness, and likely the defeat for Israel’s wickedness as well as their pride in thinking the Ark would magically save them.

I think this is the first time the Ark of the Covenant is captured by enemies, but I could be mistaken. That would mean this is the first time the Ark is out of Israelite possession, so this would be a huge blow, and as we’ll see people did not take it well.

Someone read 1 Samuel 4:13-18. The “he” arriving in the first sentence here is an Israelite man who ran from the battle to deliver the news of what happened to the city of Shiloh.

13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. When the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man came quickly and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see. 16 The man said to Eli, “I have just come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” He said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 The messenger replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.

As the man spreads the news, the people cry out. When the man tells the news to Eli, he is so shocked he falls backwards and breaks his neck and dies.

This is all as God predicted, God’s judgement on the house of Eli.

Samuel’s rise and faithfulness here is directly contrasted with the wickedness and fall of Eli’s family. It didn’t matter that Eli’s family had been in that job for a long time and Samuel was a nobody. Eli’s family had disobeyed God.  God doesn’t care who your parents are, or if you’re born into a powerful job. He cares that you are faithful and true, obedient to him and good to his people, like Samuel.

Next week we’ll continue this story—see what happens to the Ark of the Covenant and Samuel.