Not only did Eli have the familial authority to restrain his sons, he also had the civil authority to do so. Remember, Eli was the High Priest, in charge, and yet, he chose not to restrain his sons and because of that the people of God were hurt. Eli knew what his sons were doing, he even confronted them, but he did not restrain them, until eventually he couldn’t.
Growing up, I regularly spent time with the Berenstein Bears. You may have really loved those books—I certainly did, and do—but you may or may not be aware that the Berenstein Bears series caught a lot of controversy for being some of the first children’s books that displayed what has been called “The Doofus Dad,” the prototypical display of the dad character as being a sort of fumbling, passive, lazy, incompetent dad, a depiction of the dad character that later became all the rage in the 90’s family sitcoms. My family almost every night turned in for one of these Doofus Dads: King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, the Simpsons, Family Guy, and–of course–Home Improvement with Tim the Tool Man Taylor.
The Doofus Dad makes great Comedy. I remember just howling in laughter with my family as we watched King of Queens and Home Improvement, but it makes for a really bad reality. We love the passive/dumb dad of the sitcoms…until you have one. That’s not the dad you want, and, as a dad, that’s not the dad I want to be! And, I will add, I was blessed, myself to have the opposite.
Life is not meant to be a fumbling, lazy, passive experience; it is made and crafted to be an involved experience, to be lived with intentionality. Our role as Christians is not just to get saved and wait to die. No, God calls us to intentional living. Alas, the Bible teaches by both positive and negative example, and in the pages of the book of 1 Samuel, we meet Eli, a priest and father, who is passive, indulgent, somewhat lazy, and rather content with the status quo.
Eli was a priest. The Old Testament shows us Israel, a community of people whose social identity, religious beliefs, and ritual practices were deeply enmeshed in matters related to the priesthood. Simply put, a priest was supposed to serve God and the people of God by acting as the official mediator between God and his people. Jews, from an early age, were ingrained into the reality that they, as human beings, were separated from God by sin. The sacrificial system reminded them again and again of this separation, and the priests were entrusted with a sacred duty: ensuring that this sacrificial system was done properly. They were to be the leaders of God’s people as it related to knowing and following God. In that way (but not every way!) they are similar to pastors today. Pastors don’t mediate a sacrificial system, but rather we teach God’s Word and ultimately point the Church to Christ, who is the ultimate and final sacrifice on our behalf.
To understand Eli’s story better, we must know four things about priests in Israel. First, the priests were important. The people went to them in order to understand God and his will for their lives, and they functioned as leaders in their community and even as judges at certain points on Israel’s history. Second, their rule was hereditary. They were of the line of Aaron; their sons would serve God as priests after them; and so on and so on through the generations. Third, they handled the holy things, the sacrifices, the altar, tabernacle, local shrines, and later the temple in Jerusalem. And fourth, they cared for the people. In both their words and lives, the priests were to teach and care for the God’s people, to model before them a godly life, to demonstrate the process of following God.
The first time in the Bible that we meet Eli the Priest is in 1 Samuel 1:3, where we are told not directly about him but about his sons and the city in which he was a priest, Shiloh. Shiloh was an ancient city in the region of Samaria, itself the central region of ancient Israel. The present Shilo, still called by the same name, is a small Israeli settlement (of about 4,356 residents) in the northern West Bank, located 28 miles north of Jerusalem. In Eli’s day, however, Shiloh was the main center of Israelite worship, the location of the tabernacle (Joshua 18:1). In other words, Eli wasn’t simply a priest, he was the High Priest, the most prominent representative of God in the most important religious city of the country. Under his charge were two other priests, his sons, Hophni and Phinehas.^
The main issue with Eli in not only ministry, but his entire life, was that he was simply “going through the motions” of his religious duties. We see this in 1 Samuel, chapter 1. Far more important than Eli in the overall narrative of this chapter, are two other characters, Elkanah and Hannah. Elkanah, and Israelite man, had taken two wives (something that never ends well in the Bible). As verse 2 states, “He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.”
Elkanah would go up year after year from his city to worship and sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. This reveals that Elkanah was a devoted Jew, not simply worshipping in his local shrine up in the hill country of Ephraim, but coming down to the main hub of Shiloh to worship and sacrifice every year.
After the sacrifice, Elkanah would give portions for the sacrificial meal to his two wives, but verse 5 reports Hannah as his favorite: “But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” One can imagine the rivalry, and the Bible reports it. Not only does Hannah have her own sadness, but, predictably, it reports conflict between her and Peninnah: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore, Hannah wept and would not eat” (v.6-7).
Hannah was grieved, not only could she not have children, but she was mocked by her husband’s other wife! Hannah’s heart was wrecked: