Under the Old Covenant, priests functioned like gatekeepers of salvation, as they were the only ones authorized to process sin offerings for the people. Without offerings, Yahweh said there was no atonement for sin, which meant you were unacceptable in His sight. Yahweh didn’t make offerings a negotiable issue–He demanded them, and this put sincere seekers in a difficult bind when the priests became corrupt.
Not just anyone could become a priest. Out of the thirteen tribes of Israel, Yahweh chose out the tribe of Levi to be set apart as His special servants. Normally you only hear about there being twelve tribes of Israel. The man Israel had twelve sons. One was Joseph, the guy with the colorful coat. There is no tribe of Joseph, but Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh are each counted as a tribe. This is like counting Joseph twice, which brings us to a total of thirteen tribes. Yet after God chose the tribe of Levi to be His, He also said they would not get a share of the Promised Land, since God Himself was their inheritance. This meant that the land was only divided into twelve parts, hence the common reference to “the twelve tribes of Israel” which is excluding the tribe of Levi. If we really count all the tribes, there are thirteen: Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Dan, Benjamin, Gad, Ephraim and Manasseh (the two tribes of Joseph), Issachar, Zebulun, Naphtali, Asher, and Levi.
While God chose the Levites out as His special tribe, not all of them could be priests. Only male descendants of Aaron were authorized to be priests. Other Levites could assist the priests with the duties of taking care of the holy things and the tabernacle, but they weren’t authorized to present sacrifices.
Serving God as a priest was serious business. Since you were working for God and not men, you had no salary, which meant you had no way to make a living. God took care of this issue by allowing priests to have a share of the offerings that were brought to them by the people. These offerings included food and money which the priests could use to live off of. People were commanded by God to present many different kinds of tithes and offerings—this ensured that the priests were well provided for.
Now this symbiotic relationship between the priests and the people was very vulnerable to falling apart if either party failed to hold up their end of the deal. Throughout the Old Testament and in the Gospels, we find continuous abuse happening. Sometimes the people shafted the priests by withholding tithes. The priests would then retaliate by abandoning their posts, thus shutting down the entire sacrificial system. We see this happen in the book of Nehemiah.
“I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field.” (Neh. 13:10)
Then there are plenty of other times when the priests abused the people with how they processed sacrifices. In the Gospels, it was a common game for priests to announce that a perfectly good lamb was “unacceptable”, and then grossly overcharge people for an “acceptable” animal which could be conveniently purchased on the Temple grounds. Then there was a Temple tax, which had to be paid in special Temple currency, and in the changing of currencies, more profit could be made. The priests found many ways to cheat people, and we find shady shenanigans going on in the book of 1 Samuel. This is in the days before Israel became a monarchy. She has no king right now, but there is a high priest who has a lot of clout. His name is Eli, and he has two sons who are functioning as regular priests. Their names are Hophni and Phinehas. All three of these men are descendants of Aaron—that special family line who Yahweh gave special privileges to. They are all operating as priests out of the town of Shiloh where the Tabernacle is set up.
Now as part of their salary, Yahweh allowed His priests to eat portions of people’s offerings, but He was very particular about which portions. A priest couldn’t just hog down all the best parts. One very firm rule that Yahweh had was that all fat was His. Everyone understood this, which is why people were very upset when they brought their animal sacrifices to Eli’s two evil sons, only to have the priests take some of the fat portions for themselves.
But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”
If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” (1 Sam. 2:15-16)
If you believe that your entire relationship with God is dependent on perfect sacrifices and you have a priest who is mangling your offerings, you would be extremely upset. It’s like trying to mail someone a beautiful gift only to have it arrive at their house all smashed and broken. These priests were messing up people’s communication with God. Now happily we know that God looks on the heart and He didn’t punish sincere people just because some jerky priest ruined their offering. While Yahweh demanded sacrifices in His laws, in real life, He judged people only by their soul’s response to Him, thus anyone could succeed with Him. But still, imagine the great angst that this ruining of sacrifices caused. Many people would have been very upset and worried to think that Yahweh was only getting part of the offering they were trying to bring Him. They might even fear that He would reject their offering altogether because it wasn’t being processed correctly.
Thus the sin of the young men was very great in Yahweh’s sight, for they were treating Yahweh’s offering with contempt. (1 Sam. 2:17)
Now Eli was the father of these two evil priests and he knew exactly what his sons were doing. Messing up the sacrifices wasn’t their only crime. They were also having illicit sex with some of their female assistants. Talk about bad role models. As the high priest and as the father of these two men, it was Eli’s responsibility to immediately correct this situation. He should have confronted his sons the very first time they stepped out of line. If they ignored his rebuke, he was supposed to kill them. This was what Yahweh had commanded through Moses.
Anyone who shows contempt for the judge or for the priest who stands ministering there to Yahweh your God is to be put to death. You must purge the evil from Israel. (Deut. 17:12)
Serving as a priest was very serious business to God. At this point in Israel’s history, Yahweh has already killed priests for not following His Laws to the letter. But Eli shows his shocking lack of concern for God’s principles by the weak way in which he confronts his sons.
Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they had sexual relations with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting. He said to them, “Why do you do such things, the evil things that I hear from all these people? No, my sons; for the report is not good which I hear Yahweh’s people circulating. If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against Yahweh, who can intercede for him?” (1 Sam. 2:22-25)
The outrageous crimes these men are committing deserves a lot more than this pathetic little slap on the wrist. Eli’s sons blow him off of course, and Eli lets the matter drop. Wow. This is another violation of God’s Law.
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear. (Deut. 21:18-21)
Eli is now rebelling against God on two counts. As a priest and as a father, he should be recognizing that his sons deserve execution for their defiance. Instead, he’s going along with their crimes and even sharing in the spoils that they are stealing from God. What does God do when we are refusing to respond to His direct convictions? He finds another human being to come along and get in our face. The next thing we know, along comes an unnamed prophet of God who confronts Eli with a very harsh message.
Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what Yahweh says: ‘Did I not clearly reveal Myself to your ancestor’s family when they were in Egypt under Pharaoh? I chose your ancestor Aaron out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to go up to My altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in My Presence. I also gave your ancestor’s family all the food offerings presented by the Israelites. Why do you scorn My sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for My dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than Me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by My people Israel?’
Therefore Yahweh, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before Me forever.’ But now Yahweh declares: ‘Far be it from Me! Those who honor Me I will honor, but those who despise Me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in My dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at My altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life. And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day.” (1 Sam. 2:34-36)
In this speech, Yahweh revokes all the special privileges that Eli and his sons inherited by being descendants of Aaron. He is furious with these three priests for their blatant defiance of Him. He is furious with Eli for elevating his sons above God in importance by refusing to correct their bad behavior. That last point is one we don’t want to miss: anytime we embrace rebellion we are elevating ourselves above God. A rebellious heart is one that says, “What I want is more important than what God wants. I matter more than He does.” Such an attitude is certain to bring discipline down on our heads, regardless of which Covenant we are living under.
Notice how God separates the priests from the people they are abusing. He says that “good will be done in Israel” yet He will punish Eli’s family. Even when good times are happening around them, this one family line will be too miserable to enjoy them because God has set His face against them.
In this long cursing speech, God says that instead of killing off Eli’s family line, He will intentionally preserve it just so someone can be around to witness how cursed their family is by God. Men will die in the prime of life. Those who still serve as priests will have personal miseries inflicted on them by God.
Eli is not the only descendant of Aaron, so there are other priestly lines who are continuing forward under Yahweh’s promise to bless all of Aaron’s descendants. But Eli and the rest of his descendants have now been yanked out of that favored group and placed under a curse instead. Things are looking very grim, yet Yahweh is about to make them a whole lot worse.
At this point, Eli is the mentor/caretaker/teacher for the young boy Samuel. Samuel will grow up to become that famous judge and prophet who anoints Saul and David as kings of Israel. Unlike Eli, Samuel will be faithful to God. Just like Eli, Samuel’s own sons will turn out to be major lemons. But at this point in the story, Samuel is just a boy who has a lot to learn about how Yahweh works. When Samuel hears a Voice calling his name in the night, he thinks he’s hearing Eli and runs to ask what the priest wants. After this happens three times, Eli figures out the boy must be hearing the Voice of God—a clear sign that this boy is being picked out for some kind of special assignment. Eli sends the boy back to bed and says, “if He calls you again, say ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’” Samuel does, and Yahweh gives him a very disturbing message about Eli—one that completes our understanding of just how furious Yahweh is by this violation of His sacred offerings.
Then Yahweh said to Samuel, “I am going to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ring. On that day I am going to do to Eli and his family everything I said from beginning to end. I told him that I would hand down a permanent judgment against his household because he knew about his sons’ sin—that they made themselves contemptible to God—but he didn’t try to stop them. That is why I have taken an oath concerning Eli’s family line: No offering or sacrifice will ever be able to atone for the sins that Eli’s family committed.” (1 Sam. 3:11-14)
That last sentence is one of the most terrifying verses in the Bible. Using Old Covenant language, God has just said that Eli and his sons are going to Hell. They have committed sins which God will never pardon. The next morning, young Samuel is understandably nervous about telling Eli what God said, yet the priest threatens to curse him if he doesn’t come forward with the truth. Since these people were big believers in “the power of th spoken word,” the threat scares Samuel so he tells Eli everything. How does Eli respond to this horrifying news?
Then Eli said, “It is Yahweh; let Him do what seems good to Him.” (1 Sam. 3:18)
This is it? Where’s the terror and panic? Why isn’t Eli falling on his face and pleading for Yahweh to forgive him? Why isn’t he weeping and tearing his clothes and pouring ashes on his head to show how sorry he is? Because he isn’t sorry. Eli and his sons give us a chilling example of the callous attitude that overtakes those who are eternally condemned by God. They aren’t intimidated by His threats. They simply don’t care.
Time passes and Samuel grows up into a dedicated man of God whose words become respected throughout all of Israel. Then comes a war. The Philistines attack Israel and score a devastating victory over them, capturing the Ark of the Covenant. The people are stunned. It feels like the enemy has just taken Yahweh prisoner. Back in Shiloh, a 98-year-old Eli is sitting by the road, anxiously awaiting news of how the war is going. He has lost his eyesight, but his hearing is still intact and he’s quite concerned over the Ark of the Covenant being taken onto the battlefield. Along comes a breathless Israelite soldier with torn clothes and dust on his head.
Then the one who brought the news replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has also been a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been taken.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy. (1 Sam. 4:17-18)
Now all three of these priests are dead. Next we’re told that Eli was about to become a grandfather, for his son Phinehas had a wife who was very pregnant. When the woman is told that both her husband and father-in-law had died in one day, plus the Ark had been captured, she instantly goes into labor and the pain is too much for her. Just before she dies, she names her newborn son Ichabod, which means “no glory” because:
“The glory has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God was taken” (1 Sam. 5:22).
And so begins the cursing of Eli’s descendants: a boy is birthed in sorrow, named after a tragedy, and has no father or mother. As for Eli and his sons, God made it clear which side of eternity they ended up on. Yikes.
So what can we Christians learn from this story today? Well, under both Covenants, God has always made it clear that no one can come to Him unless He invites them. Several times throughout the Old Testament, we hear Yahweh talk about intentionally withholding the illumination souls need to understand truth. Why? Because He doesn’t want them to repent and be saved (see Cancelled Invitation). Later on in the Gospels, Jesus also blocks people from coming to God. He tells His disciples that the reason He speaks in parables is to prevent people from understanding truth—again, so that they will not understand the error of their ways and be motivated to repent (see Jesus: the Bewildering Teacher). These are very disturbing passages, and today many Christians will fight hard against the idea that God cuts people off while they are still alive on the earth. Yet we just can’t get around the chilling story of Eli and his sons, with Yahweh announcing that they have committed unpardonable sins.
Now there are plenty of evil people in the Bible who seem to do worse things than munch on some sacred fat and sleep around. As we read, we’ll come across stories of Jewish kings who worship idols and even desecrate God’s Temple with demonic gods. Manasseh was one of the worst kings in Israel’s history and he did all these things, yet when he repented of his sins, Yahweh was still willing to forgive him. He didn’t forgive the nation of Israel for desecrating His Temple. In fact, it was because of all that Manasseh did that Yahweh decided to destroy Jerusalem and His Temple and send the Jews into exile. But the king himself was not personally condemned to Hell as Eli and his sons were. He was allowed to repent (see Know Your Bible Lesson 26: The Last Straw).
What’s the difference between Manasseh and Eli? Yahweh. He gave Manasseh more chances than He gave Eli. He’s God. He gets to. This theory we Christians have that “you can still come to God until the day you die” sounds nice, but it isn’t really true. God never promised that He would be willing to take us all right up until the last moment. Instead, He urges us to repent and come to Him while He is still willing to take us. “Seek Yahweh while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” we read in Isaiah 55:6. God has always been clear that our window of opportunity to come to Him is very limited. It begins the first time the Holy Spirit gives us illumination about God, and it ends when God decides His patience with us is exhausted. That moment might coincide with our physical death on earth or it might come earlier. We have a lot of examples in the Old Testament of it coming earlier. This is a very real, very sobering truth. God does not wait forever.
When the Covenants changed, the concept of God’s limited patience did not. He still doesn’t wait forever for souls to come to Him. He still gives them up while they are still living. But He doesn’t always announce His decision in a public way as He did with Eli and His sons. More often, the Holy Spirit simply stops speaking to someone and they don’t even notice His silence because they are so entrenched in rebellion. This is a terrifying place to be in, yet those who are in it don’t feel terrified. If someone were to explain to them how lost they are, they would have Eli’s same “whatever” attitude. People who God has given up are unable to repent. They have no desire to be right with God.
It’s important that we Christians be aware of this principle so that we can treat God’s salvation with proper respect. God doesn’t owe it to us to be gracious. We need to be careful with our prayers in this area. It is disrespectful for us to constantly harangue God about saving someone who is spitting in His face. As Christians, our loyalty should be with our Gods, not people. Yes, we desire for all to be saved just as God does. But like God, our desire should have limits (see The Enemies of God).
Eli and his sons ended up eternally condemned because they elevated themselves over Yahweh and refused to sincerely submit to Him. These are the same reasons that souls are condemned today: because they refuse submit to their Makers. Under the current Covenant, we must submit to three Gods: Yahweh and Jesus and the Holy Spirit in order to obtain salvation. But salvation doesn’t give us a free pass to rebel without consequences. When we embrace rebellion in our hearts for too long, our Gods stop drawing us closer to Them and allow us to settle for a fraction of the relationship we could have had with Them. This is a very sad loss (see The Eternal Cost of Defying God: A Warning for Christians).
Eli’s sad story reminds us that just having a holy office and a holy title doesn’t make a man right with God. God judges us by our internal response to Him–not by our position in society or by our bloodlines. While it’s easy to think that merely being immersed in religious activities will keep us on track with God, this simply isn’t true. Eli’s sons turned their sacred duties into new opportunities to sin, and we do the same today. When people are looking up to us and depending on us, it’s easy to abuse that power. When we lose our reverence for God and forget that He is the One we’ll be answering to in life, rebellion becomes a fun game instead of a fearful concept (see The Benefits of Reverence: Keeping Us Close to a Loving God). But happily God can steer us clear of this whole mess if we are willing to fully submit to Him. We certainly can’t keep ourselves on track, but we can decide to hold nothing back in the submission department and ask God to make us all that He wants us to be. This is what He wants from us, and this is the attitude that He richly rewards.