Were You Raised in a Barn?

A Character Study of Eli

Eli was the great-grandson of Aaron (Exo 6:23-24 shows Eli’s father, Elkanah, in the Aaronic line) and so, being in that priestly lineage, we find him as both Judge and Priest at Shiloh when he is first mentioned in Scripture (1Sa 1:3). This introduction is one of an old priest, since his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, had taken over the priestly duties and since 1Sa 2:22 states “Eli was very old.” Still, he really must have been “very old” by the time Elkanah and Hannah have had six children. This would have been perhaps a decade following this introduction. Perhaps, since we find out in 1Sa 2:12 that Eli’s sons were “worthless men” that perhaps they had forced Eli into a diminished role while he was old but not too old to perform his ministry. Perhaps doing what duties might still be allowed him, he sat at the doorway of the temple where he observed a woman named Hannah crying and inaudibly mouthing words. He mistook her for being drunk. This is not too surprising, based on his sons’ behavior and his collusion in their priesthood, Eli was no great judge of character. Nor was he one to reprove a wrongdoer (at least not Hophni and Phinehas) so it is a little surprising that he had no problem correcting Hannah. When she set the matter straight, he was quick to give her a blessing, if only perhaps to get her out of the temple. It is interesting, if this is the case, since decorum in the temple did not seem to be of much concern to Eli. Surely his sons had caused more disrespect and trouble to the temple than Hannah did that evening. This is not flattering behavior on Eli’s part.

Hannah and Elkanah had their first child and named him Samuel. They later dedicated Samuel to the Lord’s service with Eli. Conceivably, because they had made such a sacrifice in giving up their son to the Lord’s ministry (1Sa 2:11) or perhaps in order to make up for his errant accusation of Samuel’s mother, Eli would bless the parents each year, asking God to give them more children (1Sa 2:20).

By the time we are certain Eli is “very old” (1Sa 2:22) he has been hearing of the sins of his sons against Israel. Though Eli would have understood his sons were not merely sinning against the young women by having sex with them (1Sa 2:22) or against God by treating his sacrifices with contempt (1Sa 2:17), he did not attempt to run them off as he had tried with Hannah. He did, however, make an effort to cajole them. Such efforts are futile when there are no “ears to hear.” Yet Eli heard, even if his sons could not, for the rumors were widespread. The people were informing Eli about his ill-behaved offspring. Still, all Eli had in him was to scold them in such a way as to insinuate his disappointment: I didn’t raise you to be like this. Their behavior was a sin against the whole of Israel and if it was not dealt with, all would pay for their sin. This is clearly seen in that Eli was called to account for his poor fathering skills, vis-à-vis his wayward sons. A man of God came to tell Eli in straightforward fashion that Eli loved and honored his sons with their sinful, faithless, and abusive character more than he esteemed the Lord (1Sa 2:29). Either Eli was associated with the actions of his boys or their uncorrected sins had at least spread to their father’s doorstep.

When Eli sat in the entrance of the temple and spied a young woman that he could easily correct, he was instead corrected by her. He quickly recanted and this paved the way for Samuel to become priest. But while he sat in that doorway, had Eli only looked within his own home, he would have found two men, also priests, who were sorely in need of correction. Eli spent that night on the outside of his home because he was not able to manage what was on the inside. Eli’s legacy is one of complicit corruption, disregard for the things of God, and a father who was incapable of raising and disciplining his children. This is a sad heritage for a priest who should have done better than raise a couple of selfish animals (Deut 6:7). As a result, his priestly line will be cut off altogether during the reign of Solomon (1Kgs 2:27).

What we fail to deal with, God will eventually straighten out. He didn’t raise us to act like this and he won’t put up with worthless, animal behavior forever.

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