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

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Old Testament
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            In 1 Samuel 1-4, three times it is mentioned that Eli was perched on “the seat (hakkissē’)” (67).  First, he is sitting by the sanctuary doorposts while Hannah is praying.  And in chapter 4, Eli is residing upon the seat when he receives word about his sons’ death and the capture of the Ark.  It is from this precarious perch that Eli plummets to his death.

            Interestingly, this is not a neutral type of stool or chair.  Rather, it is a seat that implies leadership and authority.  Most typically in the Bible, kissē’ is used 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 mean a seat of importance.  It is debated whether Eli is being cast as a royal figure; Spina does not think this is the case.  Rather, the seat indicates 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 that the Elides occupy has become corrupt and decadent.  The result is a denouncement from God through the lips of Samuel.  It is fitting, therefore, that Eli topples from his “throne” symbolizing literally and metaphorically his family’s deposition from leadership.  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 and a new form of leadership emerges in the prophet-priest, Samuel.

The story of Samuel and Saul both never mention them occupying the kissē’.  This is especially strange in the Saul narrative.  The one who is king has no throne.  It is not until 2 Samuel 7:13 that we hear again of the kissē’.  It is only after the Davidic dynasty is established that there is mentioned of this seat.  Eli’s occupation of the seat is always cast in a negative light, showing the Elide leadership to be ineffective and illegitimate.  However, it is the ideal of kingship, as characterized by David, that legitimately sits 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).

This was a very good and interesting article.  It was an interesting study to see that the Elides were more than priests.  Polzin went so far as to say that Eli was a royal figure, which Spina denies.  Although Eli may not be a royal figure, it is hard to say that there is no connection with the royal leadership embodied by Saul.  The empty seat, to me, begs the question: “Who is worthy to sit on the throne?”  Although it can be used as something other than a royal throne, there are other terms that could be employed to underline the chair’s ordinariness, if so desired.  Yet, it kissē’ is no ordinary chair.  It is significant because it at least indicates leadership, if not royalty (whether legitimate or not).

I am slightly partial to Polzin’s understanding of the seat meaning kingship.  Although Eli is not explicitly a monarch, he is supposed to lead in ways similar to the expectations of kingship.  Obviously, this does not happen.  If 1 Samuel 1-4 does not foreshadow or parallel the stories of Saul and David, it is difficult to surmise their function.  It would seem inconsequential to introduce Samuel and Eli without there being some connection to what follows in the greater scheme of kingship.  In my opinion, Eli acts as king, but ultimately fails pathetically.


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