Eli and His House

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Jdgs 21:25).  The book of Judges concludes with this phrase.  Government is in disarray, political unrest and upheaval are the modus operandi, and the religious leadership in Israel is inept and ineffective.  There is a continuous cycle throughout the book of Judges: Israel becomes apostate and falls into the hands of an oppressor nation, God sends a judge to deliver his people, the leader rescues Israel (usually from the Philistines), and then the cycle repeats after time has passed.  It is a vicious cycle that only denigrates, snowballing as the story advances.  The text of Judges ends on a grim note, scanning the horizon for hope and salvation.

It is into this atmosphere of apostasy and disobedience that we enter in the story of 1 Samuel.  Israel is still without king.  We wonder if “everyone does as they see fit” within Israel or have learned from their previous circumstances.  Curiously, the story of 1 Samuel does not immediately open with the story of the spiritual and governmental leadership of Israel as seen in the person of Eli.  Rather, Elkanah and Hannah, truly faithful and obedient observers of Torah, introduce us to our narrative concerning Israel’s leadership and its relationship with the sovereign Yahweh (1 Sam. 1:1-3).

We quickly learn that Hannah is barren (vv 5-6).  She bitterly weeps and prays year after year for a child (vv 3-7).  As with so many before her, Hannah’s womb is opened up to be the faithful bearer of God’s promise and deliverance for his people.  Although we do not immediately know this fact, we have sufficient canonical narratives to bolster this claim: Sarah and Isaac, Rachel and Joseph, Manoah’s wife and Samson.  Each of these barren women’s wombs is given life by God.  Each of these previously mentioned sons becomes the community leader, the heir of promise, or the herald deliverance.  The author of 1 Samuel utilizes this tradition to inform us of the significance of Samuel’s birth, born to Hannah despite unlikely circumstances.  We are tuned in to the promise of future deliverance that lies within Samuel’s leadership.  But, we are left questioning the state of Eli and his leadership.  What does this say about the house of Eli?

Having been introduced to the picture of faithfulness, the author of 1 Samuel has established the standard by which we might weigh Elide leadership.  Hannah and Eli stand juxtaposed as contrasting characters.  And, it is ultimately Hannah, not Samuel, whom begins to unveil the true character of Israel’s current rulers.  We must honestly inquire upon the effectiveness of Israel’s administration.  Is Eli a faithful man, victimized by abusive sons?  Or, are the sons of Eli following in their father’s corrupted footsteps?  It is to these questions we turn.

The Seat

            The first actual canonical appearance of Eli mentions him as Hophni and Phinehas’ father, but it only serves as a connection that will later bring clarity to chapter one.  The first significant introduction we get to Eli occurs in 1 Samuel 1:9b.  We are quickly clued in to Eli’s importance in the community in this narrative.  Eli is seated upon “a chair” in the doorway of the “Lord’s house” (v 9).  In 1 Samuel 1-4, three times it is mentioned that Eli was perched on “the seat (hakkissē’)” (Spina 67).  In chapter 4, Eli is residing upon “the seat” when he receives word about his sons’ death and the capture of the Ark.  Presumably, this is the seat of judgment from which Eli would pronounce his ruling over disputes and important matters in the community.  It is from this precarious perch that Eli plummets to his death in 1 Samuel 4:18.

Interestingly, the kissē’ is not a neutral or insignificant stool or chair.  Rather, it is a seat indicating leadership and authority.  Most typically in the Bible, kissē’ is utilized to mean “human royal throne” or “divine royal throne.”  Although there are other instances where kissē’ is not meant as a royal throne, it no less seems to imply a seat of importance and power.  It is debated whether Eli is being cast as a royal figure; Frank A. Spina does not suppose this is the case.  Instead, Spina asserts that “the seat” is a symbol and sign of Eli’s judicial and sacerdotal office.

“Eli’s leadership derived from his being simultaneously a ‘judge’ and a specially called priest.  In some ways, Eli was actually superior to the other judges.  Yahweh raised up the judges when a crisis arose, but in Eli’s case his exercise of office was rooted in Yahweh’s election” (71).  Despite this divine election, we soon find out that the office the Elides occupy has become corrupt and decadent (2:12-36).  It would seem that the Elides have carried on the tradition of failed leadership portrayed in the book of Judges.

Despite Spina’s proposition that Eli is not cast as a royal figure, there are circumstances that make us question this position.  Eli has established his sons as priests and leaders in the community; King David does this as well (2 Sam. 8:18).  Eli’s occupation of the seat of power and his establishment of his house as leaders causes one to wonder if Eli’s form of government had not been modeled after the other nations more than it resembled a theocracy.  It is possible Eli’s sons were trying to establish themselves as rulers, as was the case with Ahimelek, Gideon’s son (Jdgs 9).  Despite Gideon’s decline to rule over Israel, Ahimelek sought to consolidate power as Israel’s leader.  Was Eli trying to bring about stability or establish a type of monarchy over Israel by installing his sons as priests?

The narrative clearly describes Eli’s sons as scoundrels abusing the power entrusted to them.  The result culminates in a denouncement from God through the lips of a “man of God” and later Samuel (2:27-36; 3:11-18).  This pronouncement of judgment comes despite a previous promise from God that Eli’s family would serve before the Lord always.  Yahweh confronts Eli, stating, “Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel” (2:29b)?  Eli, not only his sons, is implicated in this accusation.  It can be argued that Eli was unaware of his sons’ greed, but it apparently is not an excuse that holds any weight for our author.

Yahweh is fed up with the abuse of power, status, and wealth accumulated at the community’s expense.  It is fitting, therefore, that Eli topples from his “throne” symbolizing his family’s deposition from authority.  Eli’s neck is snapped, not only from the plummet, from the literal weight embodied in the Elide leadership’s greedy practices (4:18b).  It is God’s judgment upon Israel and its corrupted leadership.  It is through this void of leadership that we will soon have a different leader along with a new form of leadership in the prophet-priest, Samuel.

Peculiarly, the story of Samuel and Saul both never mention occupation of or enthronement upon the kissē’.  This is especially strange in the Saul narratives.  The one who is king has no throne.  It is not until 2 Samuel 7:13 that the kissē’ again surfaces.  It is only after the Davidic dynasty is established that there is mention of this “seat.”  Eli’s occupation of the seat is always cast in a negative light, showing Elide leadership to be ineffective and illegitimate.  However, the idyllic kingship, possibly embodied by David, will someday legitimately sit upon the kissē’.  “Perhaps only in the eschatological future could a priestly and messianic figure both occupy the kissē’ (Zech 6.13) and exercise legitimate, co-operative and complementary authority.  But for DH that day has not yet come.  Eli’s empty kissē’ testifies to that” (75).

Life and Death

The birth of new leadership inevitably means the death of the prior regime.  Janzen compares 1 Samuel 1 and 1 Samuel 3 as parallel birth narratives of Samuel.  First Samuel 1 records the physical birth of Samuel but 1 Samuel 3 records a spiritual birth of sorts for the young boy.  However, good news for some means bad news for others.  Although these passages can be categorized as a birth narrative for Samuel, it is surely a death narrative for Eli and his house.

It should come as no shock that birthing language would be employed in 1 Samuel 3.  For instance, Jacob was “re-birthed” on the night he wrestled with the mysterious man the very same way he wrestled with Esau in the womb.  Hannah’s womb opening up and the doors of the house of Yahweh opening up may be more than incidental.  In fact, Robert Alter suggests that there are no “free motifs.”  All words are necessary to the narrative; the connections are intentional.

The word of Yahweh was “precious” or rare in those days.  In some sense, Yahweh’s presence is closed off from His people.  The people are entombed by their blindness caused by their disobedience.  Revelation of God to the people is scarce.  1 Samuel 3:1 tells us that there is no “vision.”  The Hebrew word for “vision” is typically employed as birthing language (meaning “to burst forth”).  When Eli questions Samuel about Yahweh’s revelation, he is told not to hide anything from Eli.  Samuel tells or reveals everything Yahweh said and hides nothing.  If there is indeed “good” spiritual leadership in place with Eli, why would Yahweh’s revelation be such a rare occasion?

Victor Hurowitz makes a case that Eli’s badgering Samuel for details of Yahweh’s word is more than merely worried ramblings.  Rather, it is the reminder of a sacred and binding oath to reveal the divine word.

The convergence of these two texts [Samuel’s story and the Mari diviners’ oath] raises the possibility that, in Israel too, on certain occasions, prophets would be called upon formally to swear allegiance to the king and obligate themselves to provide crucial information without reservation (491).


If there is no kingship and such oaths are employed, this strongly suggests that Eli is operating in monarchical sorts of ways within the community.  Samuel is not merely fulfilling his duties but a binding oath to Eli.

The passage also tells us that Samuel does not “know” the Lord and Yahweh’s word had not yet been revealed to him (3:7).  First Samuel 3 is the point where Samuel comes to “know” Yahweh.  This is potentially connected to Elkanah’s “knowing” Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.  “Knowing” opens up what was previously closed, both for Hannah and Samuel.  Ironically, Eli, who should “know” Yahweh, is unable to immediately recognize God’s calling Samuel (3:4-9).

Then the statement in 3.15 that ‘Samuel lay until the morning’ may also be taken… as indicating an organic passage of time between reception and publication of the divine word, with overtones of the temporal reference in 1.20, ‘in due time,’ literally ‘at the completion of the days,’ the time of Hannah’s pregnancy. The parallel is intensified in the fact that, in both instances, it is Samuel who lies in the dark enclosure until the time of bursting forth or ‘utterance.’  Finally, one may note that, just as Hannah had several children after Samuel (2.21), analogously after Samuel’s initial word to Eli the word came often through him to Israel at Shiloh (3.20-4.1 a) (Janzen 92-93).


It is this “completion of days” that serves as a gestation period.  The insemination of the word in Samuel then issues forth in a new birth.  The rumination of the word in Samuel changes him from acolyte to spiritual leader in the community.  The word in Samuel thus becomes a germinating seed in the community.  As Samuel transitions increasingly into the role of spiritual leader, Elide influence correspondingly fades into obscurity.  “Similarly, Samuel’s reputation among the people increases (2:26; 3:19-4:1a),while the opinion of Eli’s sons declines (2:12-17, 22-25)” (Willis 291).

While Samuel is lying in the room containing the light of the presence, Eli is in the next room enshrouded by darkness.  Eli’s eyesight is failing.  It is the acolyte, not the priest, tending to the light of the presence near the Ark.  This not only signifies Samuel’s responsibilities as an acolyte.  Rather, it depicts Eli’s neglect of his priestly duties.  In the same way, when Eli’s sons are taking advantage of the virgins at the tent of meeting, Eli only hears a report about it.  This is problematic because Eli should be serving at the tent of meeting, not merely hearing reports about what is happening there.  Eli has become neglectful of the priestly responsibilities he was called to shoulder.  Eli’s journey into darkness is accentuated by Samuel’s journey toward the light of God’s presence.  Samuel’s womb is Eli’s tomb.

Concerning the neglect of Eli’s priestly office, Eugene Peterson writes:

Religious office does not exempt a person from righteous responsibilities… Not only do God’s world and God’s sanctuary require constant vigilance, but all of us (everybody is included!) who have responsibilities in exercising vigilance require vigilance.  And so Eli is called on the carpet for his sloppiness as both parent and priest (36).

Despite the need for vigilance, Eli’s attempt to control his sons is pitiable.  His plea to them falls on deaf ears.  Walter Brueggemann suggests this confrontation shows fidelity on Eli’s part, “a man of responsible faith” (23).  Would Yahweh punish a faithful response to evil?  However, as mentioned earlier, Yahweh still holds Eli personally accountable.  Then is Yahweh vindictive?  Yet, Yahweh’s accusation is not that Eli was unable to control his sons, but that Eli loved his sons more than he loved Yahweh!  This is no small, incidental moral failure.  Eli’s lip service has no power in his family or in the community any longer.  There is a form of “godliness without power” at the shrine in Shiloh.

Throughout the narrative of 1 Samuel 1-4, there is a mounting awareness of Eli’s growing difficulty seeing and hearing.

There seems to be a progression of statements involving Eli’s poor eyesight. He mistakes Hannah’s praying for drunkenness (1:12-13). He fails to see his sons’ wickedness, and learns of it initially by hearing rumors about them (2:22-24). 3:2 states that Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see. Finally, 4:15 says that his eyes were set, so that he could not see (302).

He is the last to find out about important events and only hears about his boys’ infidelity through others in the community.  When he does see something, he wrongly interprets what he perceives (i.e. Hannah’s prayer).  When Eli does finally hear a report about his sons’ dishonorable conduct, he is an ineffective leader unable to quell his rebellious children.  It is a barren religious landscape.  Eli, who should be Israel’s spiritual leader and primary communicator of Yahweh’s word, is reduced to relying on Samuel, the acolyte child, to hear from Yahweh.

It is only through Samuel that the self-disclosure of God becomes a regular event for the people of God.  Yahweh’s self-disclosure issues forth a new reality for his people.  God’s presence is revealed from the “house of Yahweh” spilling out into the community.  The word of the Lord flowing into the community brings new life possibilities where barrenness had previously been the only possibility.

Protecting the Community

In his article, “Narrative Patterns and Oral Tradition in Judges and Samuel”, D. M. Gunn makes a convincing argument for common threads weaving through both Judges and 1-2 Samuel.  As mentioned previously, the book of Judges records the constant struggle between Israel and the Philistines and Amalekites.  These latter two nations typically rise up against Israel due to its lack of obedience to Yahweh.  God sends judgment upon the people by relinquishing them to foreign captivity.  The people eventually cry out for deliverance from the hand of their oppressors.  Yahweh responds by sending a judge to bring Israel out of bondage and to restore them back to right relationship.

First Samuel 4 recounts the story of two successive battles between Israel and the Philistines.  The battle does not bode well for the Israelites.  Hophni and Phinehas are killed and the Ark is taken by the Philistines to be placed in the temple of their god, Dagon.  The use of the Ark as a secret weapon ultimately fails because Yahweh will not be manipulated by false piety.  Eli’s sons pay for it with their lives.  Eli and Phinehas’ wife also perish upon hearing the report of the death of Eli’s sons and the capture of the Ark.

With the defeat of Israel in battle by the Philistines, we are further led to believe that Israel and its leadership have been anything but faithful.  Eugene Peterson comments:

When the Philistines captured the ark they were carrying out God’s judgment against the rotten religious corruption that was flourishing in Shiloh… The role of the ark was central in giving content to this judgment, for if the ark was supposed by the people to give sanction to whoever was in charge of it, how better to disabuse them of the superstition than to make worthless as a weapon of war, it was surely also useless as a tool of religion (44).

The victory of the Philistines over Israel emphasizes the infidelity and ineffective ability of Elide leadership for the community of Israel.  Yahweh will not be relegated to the sidelines.  Furthermore, Yahweh will not stand for Israel to become another Egypt, bringing about oppression upon the powerless.

A Lens for Understanding

The story of Eli may seem like a rather obscure and pointless narrative to introduce the larger story of Israel’s monarchy.  Eli plays a minimal role of influence upon Saul or David.  It is only through Eli’s influence upon Samuel that there is any connection to the future leadership of the nation.  So then what place does this pericope hold for the larger narrative?

First, the narrative of 1 Samuel 1-4 provides a hinge point, connecting the book of Judges with the Succession Narrative and the Court Narrative found in 1-2 Samuel.  This bridge is contained within the person of Eli.  Eli is the judge and priest over Israel.  He carries the tradition of past leadership, including its flaws and temporary time frame.  Eli comes to embody this form of leadership and its final failure to protect and implement a theocratic government that safeguards the religious life of the community.  This provides the fundamental storyline for burgeoning new leadership.

The characters of Eli and Samuel are the lens by which we read the rest of what follows in the tales of Saul and David.  There are more than coincidental parallels shared by these leaders.  In fact, it is quite possible to read the story of Saulide destitution and destruction in light of Elide demise.  Eli serves as a caution to those who reign in positions of power.  Even those who might start out idyllic and with good intent can become corrupted by the temptation of greed, power, and lust.


            The author of 1 Samuel seeks to make it evident that Elide leadership is utterly desolate and dead.  Though it had set itself up as a house of priests, it is revealed to be a den of thieves.  Living lavishly at the expense of the community, flaunting its power in empire-like fashion, and neglecting its service to God before the people conclude in the denouncement and deposition of Elide dominion.  Eli is characterized as blind and deaf.  The inept leadership of a broken house is crushed by the weight of its own sinfulness.  The Deuteronomist cautions his audience that lasting leadership is godly leadership lived out in obedience to Torah.  It is power wielded for the sake of the community.  And, it is authority in service to the house of Yahweh, not simply to establish an earthly, human house.


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. First and Second Samuel. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990. Print.

Gunn, David M. “Narrative Patterns and Oral Tradition in Judges and Samuel.” Vetus

testamentum 24.3 (1974): 286-317. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO.

Web. 8 May 2011.

Hurowitz, Victor. “Eli’s Adjuration of Samuel (1 Samuel iii 17-18) in the Light of a ‘Diviner’s

Protocol’ from Mari (AEM I/1, 1).” Vetus testamentum 44.4 (1994): 483-497. ATLA

Religion Database with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 8 May 2011.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “Samuel Opened the Doors of the House of Yahweh” (1 Samuel 3:15).”

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 26 (1983): 89-96. ATLA Religion Database

with ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 8 May 2011.

Peterson, Eugene H. First and Second Samuel. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999. Print.

Spina, Frank A. “Eli’s Seat: The Transition from Priest to Prophet in 1 Samuel 1-4.” Journal for

the Study of the Old Testament 62 (1994): 67-75. ATLA Religion Database with

ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 8 May 2011.

Willis, John T. “Anti-Elide Narrative Tradition from a Prophetic Circle at the Ramah Sanctuary.”

Journal of Biblical Literature 90.3 (1971): 288-308. ATLA Religion Database with

ATLASerials. EBSCO. Web. 8 May 2011.






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