Eli - Judge and High Priest

Profile of Eli, Whose Leniency Brought a Curse

Eli and Samuel
Eli and Samuel. Getty Images

God holds his clergy to a higher standard. When the Old Testament character Eli failed to heed that, the result was disastrous.

Eli was the next to last of the judges, and he also held the office of high priest. His life was marked by humility, service, and love of God, but he also had two sons who followed him into the priesthood who exploited the people they were supposed to serve. Eli's leniency with their sinful behavior brought God's wrath down on them.

The first appearance of Eli occurs in 1 Samuel 1, when he encountered Hannah at the tabernacle at Shiloh. This barren woman was praying for a baby, and Eli accused her of being drunk. When she explained her situation, he blessed her, asking God to grant her request.

Hannah miraculously gave birth to Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli as a boy, to become a servant of the Lord. Meanwhile, Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were abusing their privileges as priests. They greedily demanded the best portions of the meat sacrifices from the people and slept with the women who served at the tent of the meeting.

When Eli learned of his sons' offenses against God, he gave them only a mild rebuke instead of the severe discipline they deserved. Shortly after, an unnamed prophet came to Eli, warning him God planned to act. He said Eli's two sons would both die in the prime of life, on the same day.

The next time the Israelites fought the Philistines, the battle went badly, with 4,000 Israelites killed.

Thinking God was not with them, the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant from its resting place at Shiloh. Hophni and Phinehas went with it. The soldiers wrongly believed they could manipulate God into granting them victory.

Not only did the Philistines rally and slay 30,000 Israelites, but they captured the ark and killed Hophni and Phinehas.

Eli was sitting by the gate at Shiloh, waiting for news. When a survivor told him his sons had been killed and the ark had been lost, Eli fell backwards off his bench, broke his neck and died. He was 98 years old.

Accomplishments of Eli:

Eli served Israel as a judge for 40 years. He simultaneously served as high priest, a unique honor. He was a mentor to Samuel, teaching him Scriptures and molding him into a God-fearing man of righteousness.

Strengths of Eli:

Eli loved God, serving with humility and integrity. The Bible does not criticize his personal service.

Weaknesses of Eli:

Instead of ruling Israel with firmness, Eli, like many of the other judges, allowed sin to flourish. His weakness in raising his own sons led them to become "scoundrels." By failing to do the right thing when he should have, Eli brought down a curse upon his house.

Life Lessons:

  • Leadership brings with it great responsibility. When we let the desire to be liked override our duty, we invite trouble.
  • Sin always has bad consequences. Hophni and Phinehas caused their own punishment by their dishonorable behavior: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." (Galatians 6:7, NIV)

References to Eli in the Bible:

Eli's story is found in 1 Samuel 1-4 and in 1 Kings 2:27.

Occupation:

Judge, high priest.

Family Tree:

Ancestor: Ithamar, fourth son of Aaron.
Sons: Hophni, Phinehas
Grandson: Ichabod

Key Verses

1 Samuel 2:23-25
So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’S people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’S will to put them to death. (NIV)

1 Samuel 2:34
“ ‘And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day." (NIV)

1 Samuel 3:8-9
The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” (NIV)

Jack Zavada, a career writer and contributor for About.com, is host to a Christian website for singles. Never married, Jack feels that the hard-won lessons he has learned may help other Christian singles make sense of their lives. His articles and ebooks offer great hope and encouragement. To contact him or for more information, visit Jack's Bio Page.