Eli (Hebrew עֵלִ֖י, my God) (1220 BC–fl. 1162 BC–October 22, 1122 BC) was a High Priest of Israel and in fact the first of a limited line of high priests who were descended from Ithamar. He is best remembered as the tutor of Samuel and also for having two wicked sons and for dying on the day that the Ark of the Covenant was captured by an enemy.
Family and early career
Eli was born in 1220 BC, during the career of Gideon. In 1190 BC, during the career of Tola, he was old enough to become a priest. He took the office of high priest in 1162 BC, during the career of Jair and the period of the combined Philistine-Ammonite oppression of Israel. How and why he, and not a descendant of Eleazar, became high priest, the Bible does not say.
Eli had two sons, named Hophni and Phinehas.
The sins of Hophni and Phinehas
Hophni and Phinehas conducted their duties in an extremely offensive manner. This included misappropriating offered sacrificial meat and even demanding favors from the women who served at the doorway to the Tabernacle tent, favors of the sort that would be called "sexual harassment" of the highest order in modern workplaces. (1_Samuel 2:12-17,22
Hophni and Phinehas misappropriated the meat in two ways. First, the proper method of making a peace offering to God was to burn the fat completely, and offer the breast to the high priest and the right thigh to whichever priest would burn the fat and sprinkle the blood. (Leviticus 7:29-34 ) Instead, Hophni and Phinehas would send their servant to take a three-pronged fork and thrust it into the cauldron into which the person bringing the offering had placed the meat for boiling, and would appropriate whatever meat was impaled on the fork for Hophni and Phinehas to eat.
Furthermore, the proper procedure was to burn all of the fat, including the mesentery, the omentum, the kidneys, the adrenal glands, and a lobe of the liver. (Leviticus 3:3-5 ) The Divine directive was clear: all fat belonged to God. (Leviticus 3:16 ). Instead, the henchman of Hophni and Phinehas would demand meat with fat still on it, saying that the priests would take raw meat only. Sometimes the man offering the sacrifice would try to compromise: if the henchman would wait until all the fat was burned, then he could have all the meat he wanted. (Even this would not have been the correct procedure, as the priest's portion was the breast and the right thigh.) The henchman would typically reply that if the other person did not furnish the raw meat at once, then the henchman would take it by force.
Eli tried to remonstrate with his sons, and reminded them that if a man committed a sin against God Himself, then he would have no one to mediate for him. The sons would not listen. Finally an unnamed prophet warned Eli that eventually both his sons would die on the same day.
Training of Samuel
In about 1153 BC, Hannah, wife of Elkanah, came to see Eli at Shiloh. When Eli first saw this strange Levite woman from Ephraimite country, he noticed that her lips were moving, but she was not saying anything out loud. He thought that she was intoxicated and told her to stop drinking. Then Hannah told him that she was not intoxicated, but was praying earnestly to God. Eli told her to go in peace, and added his own wish that God grant her petition. (1_Samuel 1:9-18 )
Eli probably did not know it, but Hannah's petition was that she have a son. About six years later Hannah came to Eli again and brought her five-year-old son, Samuel, with her. Hannah asked Eli to take charge of the boy and train him for a lifetime of dedication to God. (1_Samuel 1:24-28 )
On or about the year 2864 AM, Samuel, aged twelve, waked Eli three times from his sleep. Each time the boy said that he had heard Eli calling him. Eli had not called him, and when Samuel woke him the third time, Eli advised him to answer the voice that was calling him as if it were God Himself speaking.
The next morning, Eli was curious and uneasy. He demanded that Samuel tell him everything that God had told him. Samuel then gave Eli his most dire warning yet: that God was going to hold the sons of Eli to answer for their crimes, and hold Eli himself to answer for failing to correct their behavior. Samuel also related God's declaration that what God was about to do would make every man's ears tingle. (1_Samuel 3:17 )
On or about October 22, 1122 BC, the two sons of Eli, at the request of the elders of Israel, carried the Ark of the Covenant into a major battlefield. Israel had recently suffered a humiliating defeat by the Philistines, with four thousand casualties. (1_Samuel 4:1-4 )
Eli, now old and blind, later received a shocking report from a Benjamite who had escaped the battlefield: the Philistines had inflicted another thirty thousand casualties on Israel, Hophni and Phinehas had both died in the battle, and the Ark of the Covenant had been captured.
The Bible says that Eli "judged" Israel for forty years. This refers to his term of service as high priest. In this sense, every high priest in the era of the Judges, from Moses to Samuel, was an associate Judge. Furthermore, one of the functions of a high priest in the regal era was to "judge" the conduct of the king, as Azariah needed to do when Uzziah tried to offer incense in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Hirsch and König, in The Jewish Encyclopedia, state that Eli died after the death of Samson. But the Philistines were not likely to have lost the initiative solely after Samson's revenge, awesome though it was. Only another major military reverse could have ended the Philistine dominion definitively. So the most likely sequence of events involves the Battle of Mizpah taking place shortly after the fall of the Temple of Dagon, and both events occurring in the last year of the forty-year Philistine dominion.
The Bible (1_Samuel 7:2 ) states that the Ark of the Covenant, once recovered, remained for twenty years at Kiriath Jearim. This period is large enough to span exactly the career of Samson. Therefore, Samson likely began his career in the year of the recovery of the ark, and so Eli must have died seven months before the recovery.
Eli's line lived on, and his grandson Ahitub, son of Phinehas, succeeded him as high priest. The last high priest of the Ithamarite line was Abiathar, whom Solomon removed from office after his treason with Adonijah the Usurper.
- Jones, Floyd N., The Chronology of the Old Testament, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004, p. 279 and Chart 4
- Konig G, "Eli," AboutBibleProphecy.com, 2001. Accessed December 21, 2008.
- Blank, Wayne, "Eli," Daily Bible Study, n.d. Accessed December 21, 2008.
- Easton, Matthew George. "Entry for Eli". Easton's Bible Dictionary. <http://www.biblestudytools.net/Dictionaries/EastonBibleDictionary/ebd.cgi?number=T1155>. Accessed December 21, 2008.
- Jones, op. cit., pp. 81-82.
- Hirsch EG and König E, "Eli," The Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. Accessed December 21, 2008.
- Jones, op. cit., p. 84