A Godly Priest who Neglected Sin

Posted on December 21, 2021


By David Ettinger

A Baffling Circumstance
Sometimes biblical accounts can be heartbreaking.

Such is the case of the faithful priest Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. If you are unfamiliar with this disturbing episode, you can read it in 1 Samuel Chapters 1 through 4. It is well worth your time.

dark moon

It is baffling to consider just how negligent Eli was as a father.

In saying this, I note that Eli was not an evil man. In fact, scripture views him as a righteous man who loved the Lord, though he was rather insensitive in his dealings with the grieving Hannah (1 Samuel 1:12-14). However, after she explained herself, Eli revealed a much kinder and sensitive side of himself.

However, when it came to his sons Hophni and Phinehas, Eli was ineffective and incompetent.

The Bible refers to Hophni and Phinehas as “scoundrels,” which means they had no regard for God. And yet, they served as priests of the Lord at the Tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:3).

Though it was customary for sons to succeed their fathers as priests, there was no mandate in God’s law requiring Eli to permit his sons to do so. Knowing their character, he should have appointed relatives to serve, instead.

Once Hophni and Phinehas established themselves as the primary priests – their aging father became less able to perform his duties – they began making unholy changes to the God-ordained protocol of the sacrificial system.

Abusing the Priesthood
First, they abused their privileges. God permitted priests to eat certain portions of the offerings: “The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast belongs to Aaron and his sons. You are to give the right thigh of your fellowship offerings to the priest as a contribution” (Leviticus 7:31-32).

Note the requirement: before the priest could eat the meat, he must first burn its fat.

1 samuel

Hophni and Phinehas paid no attention. We read that,

the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. … 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” (1 Samuel 2:13-15).

Not allowing the fat to be burned deprived God of what was rightfully His: “The priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering, a pleasing aroma. All the fat is the LORD’s” (Leviticus 3:16).

Second, Hophni and Phinehas engaged in reprehensible moral conduct as “they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Samuel 2:22).

These women in question are mentioned but twice, here and Exodus 38:8. It is uncertain what their duties were.

The brothers sleeping with these women mirrored a practice of the Canaanites, who employed women as shrine prostitutes for fertility rituals. Hophni and Phinehas violated God’s commandments by engaging in sexual relations with women whose duty it was to serve at the entrance to the Tabernacle.

Failure to Discipline
Though Eli never participated in such vile behavior, he tolerated it, and God held him accountable. Speaking to Eli’s protégé, Samuel, God said:

For I told [Eli] that I would judge his family forever because of
the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God,
and he failed to restrain them. Therefore I swore to the
house of Eli, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned
for by sacrifice or offering” (1 Samuel 3:13-14).

Failing to restrain his sons was Eli’s great sin, one for which God would punish him.

ark covenant

As God had promised, Hophni and Phinehas died on the same day.

The Philistines attacked Israel and killed 4,000 Hebrew soldiers. In desperation, the Israelite army asked Hophni and Phinehas to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield as a good-luck charm of sorts.

Though a complete abuse of the ark, the brothers acquiesced, but to no avail. Israel was again routed by the Philistines, the Ark was captured, “and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (1 Samuel 4:11).

When Eli heard about the capturing of the Ark – following the news of his sons’ deaths – he “fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years” (1 Samuel 4:18).

It was a dismal finish for a faithful servant of the Lord, his life embittered by the depravation of his two sons.

The lesson for Christians is that sin cannot be tolerated. We must stamp it out of our lives as best as possible, turning our temptations and desires over to the Lord. When we do sin, we are to confess our sins and pray for the Lord’s forgiveness (1 John 1:9).