The House of Eli

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

The House of Eli

Scripture: 1 Samuel 3:1-20

The people we find in the Hebrew scriptures are wonderful. Not like comic book figures: exaggerated examples of good or evil, but real people, complex and contradictory.

Eli, the high priest is one of these. Our lesson was about the call of the prophet Samuel but I would like to look closely at Eli, who made it all possible.

Eli was high priest at Shiloh, a holy place which contained the ark of the covenant. Samuel had lived there under Eli’s care since he was a small child, dedicated to purity and God’s service by his mother, Hannah. He was to become a Nazirite, as it was called, who would never drink alcohol and never cut his hair. The Judge Samson had been a bad example of this. Eli, who followed Samson in the duties of a judge, agreed to raise the boy in the tabernacle.

That’s remarkable since only the priests were supposed to enter the tabernacle. The Priests were all members of the tribe of Levi and Samuel was of the tribe of Ephraim; but there he was, living in the same tent as the ark of the covenant and serving the high priest.

Eli wasn’t a perfect man. When Hannah prayed outside the tabernacle to have a son, she prayed silently, her lips moving. Eli assumed she was drunk and told her off for making a spectacle of herself and disgracing a holy place. He relented when she told her story and why she was praying, and so he blessed her. When she returned some years later with this little boy, Eli accepted him into God’s service.

Eli was high priest because he was descended from Aaron. There are a lot of stories of how he replaced another high priest and the Samaritans and the Jews disagree even today about who was the legitimate high priest in those days.

But according to scripture, Eli was renowned for not keeping control of his sons who were to inherit the high-priestly duties when Eli died. They were self-indulgent; taking the best cuts of the sacrifices for themselves and committing adultery with the women who served at the temple entrance.

In other words, Hophni and Phinehas were corrupt. They were using their status as leaders to indulge themselves and they showed no respect either for the God they represented or the people they misused. Eli was condemned by God for failing to restrain them – basically, for making this high office a mockery by not training his sons to be good priests.

We heard the judgement of God on the house of Eli and it’s no wonder Samuel was reluctant to tell the old priest.

Within a couple of chapters we read where Hophni and Phinehas were killed in battle by the Philistines. They had brought the Ark of the Covenant to the battle, but instead of bringing victory, they were killed, the Hebrews routed, and the Ark captured.

When Eli heard the news of the battle from a survivor, he fell backwards off the rock he was sitting on and died of a broken neck. A grandson was born to the household that same day and named Ichabod which means “the glory has departed”.

With all that bad stuff happening, that curse fulfilled in such dramatic ways,

you would think that Eli had no redeeming characteristics. But what I find so remarkable is that this elderly high priest, who was cynical enough not to restrain his corrupt sons, who was self-indulgent enough that scripture says his great weight contributed to his broken neck; this very imperfect servant of God was able to guide young Samuel to make a clear and powerful connection to God.

For all his failures as a religious leader, Eli recognized the voice of God speaking to Samuel and gave him exactly the guidance he needed to start his journey as a prophet and the final judge of Israel.

I don’t get the sense that either of his sons could have shown the same wisdom or understanding. But Eli himself did and he was courageous enough to insist on hearing God’s message.

He must have had a sense that bad news was possible. After all, if the voice of God is speaking in the Tabernacle, why isn’t it to one of the anointed religious leaders? Why is it to this child of another tribe? And suspecting this, he insisted on knowing what God said. Actually, it’s pretty obvious that it was bad news since he had to threaten Samuel with additional divine curses if he held back any of the message.

This suggests to me that here is a man who knew what was supposed to happen; who knew what was right from wrong, but he’d become comfortable with the luxuries of his position and he’d indulged his sons in their own abusive behaviour.

With Samuel, he recognized the presence of God and he did what was right in showing the boy the right way to respond to God. And then he was courageous enough to demand to hear the truth, however painful it might be.

I suppose Eli could be held up as an example of the way God is able to work through all kinds of people, even very imperfect ones. The church has believed that for a long time, even developing a policy centuries ago that what happens in a sacrament does not depend on the worthiness of the priest, but on the action of God even through a faulty vessel.

That particular policy has become a real issue in recent years as priests who have committed abusive acts have been protected from criminal prosecution despite some very destructive behaviour.

Notice that God’s judgement stands: despite Eli’s help for Samuel, the house of Eli is cleansed of its corruption and his descendants banned from ever being High Priests again.

God has always made it clear that great position demands great responsibility.

Biblical prophets always saved their harshest words for those who abused their positions and took advantage of people in their power. And those who were in the highest places of all might end up personally redeemed but still faced the consequences of their bad actions.

Eli and his house are the prime example of this for religious leaders but the same point is eventually made with King Saul and King David. In all cases these were people who abused their positions and beyond that, set a bad example for the people who followed them; an example that said that God’s principals didn’t matter or maybe just didn’t apply to them because they were privileged.

It’s not hard these days to pick a leader we can apply this lesson to, but this isn’t included in the Bible just for rulers to hear. We are each in a position to serve as an example for someone. We are each better off than someone else. We all have people who work in our service, whether we know them personally, or whether they are part of the system that provides us with our food or the luxuries we enjoy.

In that way this lesson is for each of us to remember how we relate to others. In modern language: to acknowledge our privilege and to consider the principles God has given us: for how to treat others, how not to be selfish, and how to avoid hurting and abusing others.

None of us want to consider ourselves bad and we can each point to good things we have done. Eli could too: he showed wisdom and courage. We all need to do better than that.

Our daily lives should reflect our best lives. As we strive to follow Jesus, living out what Paul called the Law of Love, then our care for those who are in our power will be the true measure of our goodness and will become the example we set for others.


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