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Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas demonstrate eternal lessons
I Samuel 2:12 introduces us to the sons of Eli and informs us that they were "sons of Belial," that is, worthless men. We are appalled to discover that they developed a custom concerning the offering of a sacrifice which was clearly and obviously against the instructions laid down for the priesthood for, when they learnt that someone was preparing to cook meat for a sacrifice, these priests would send a servant around with a large three-pronged fork which he would stick deep into the kettle and select some choice meat which the priests would take for themselves! They would also take the fat before it was burned and the servant would also demand that the worshipper give him the meat raw, because the priest wanted it roasted rather than boiled. If the worshipper insisted that the fat must be burned first according to the law, the servant threatened to take it by force (v17). Translators handle verse 175 in different ways. Some render the verse to indicate that, as a result of the corruption of the priests' ministry, the people likewise begin to follow their leaders in disdaining the sacrifices:
17 Wherefore the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord: for men abhorred the offering of the Lord (King James Version).
Others translate it to indicate that the priests' sin was very great, because they (the priests) abhor the offering of the Lord:
17 Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt (New Revised Standard Version).
Both are probably true for, clearly, the priests do not esteem the sacrifices and offerings which they offer on men's behalf at Shiloh and, as a result, many people come to disdain them as well. This is indeed a very grave sin, for the priests who lead others into sin and for those who follow them as well. This indeed is a very sad day in Israel's history. How well these later words of Malachi apply to the days of the Judges (Malachi 2:1-94):
1 "And now, this commandment is for you, O priests. 2 "If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name," says the Lord of hosts, "then I will send the curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart. 3 "Behold, I am going to rebuke your offspring, and I will spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your feasts; and you will be taken away with it. 4 "Then you will know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant may continue with Levi," says the Lord of hosts. 5 "My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me, and stood in awe of My name. 6 "True instruction was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7 "For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. 8 "But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi," says the Lord of hosts. 9 "So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways, but are showing partiality in the instruction"
It had been only a little over three hundred years since the law was given, for the year is 1095-1090 B.C., yet already the priestly family and their servants were disregarding God's specific instructions. Leviticus 3 clearly describes the preparation of various sacrificial animals with special attention to the removal of the fat, and concludes by saying (v16-171):
And the priest shall burn them upon the altar. It is the food of the offering made by fire for a sweet savour, all the fat is the Lord's. It shall be a perpetual statute for your generations throughout all your dwellings, that ye eat neither fat nor blood.
But the wicked priests had no regard for this law and took the fat for themselves and we learn later that Eli must have shared in their greed for at his death he was "a heavy man" (I Samuel 4:18). Thus they held the offerings of the Lord in contempt and caused others to despise them also for we can imagine the negative impact of all this on the worship of God at Shiloh. Godly Israelites making the annual trek to Shiloh to worship God at the tabernacle did not find devout priests who facilitated their worship, but devouring priests who frustrated true worship. The priests functioned in a way which completely disregarded the sacred office of the Old Testament priest, and which was bound to cause some Israelites to entirely give up their attempts to worship at the tabernacle. Once again, the verse from Judges 21v25 is entirely appropriate: "In those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes" - this clearly included the priests who were supposed to teach and judge Israel according to God's law.
Eli is revealed as one of the most pitiable of characters in the Old Testament for, according to verse 221: Now Eli was very old, and heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, how they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. This is a description of profanation of the worship of God and much deeper than licentious sexual behaviour for, in the Canaanite religion, the worship of Baal involved male prostitution and the sons of Eli had taken the concept of male prostitution and introduced it into the tabernacle of the Lord. They had mimicked the evil practice of the surrounding nations and used their positions as priests of God to coerce women who came to worship into following the practices of the Baal worshippers of the land. The women would have been familiar with the practice and many would succumb to having sexual relations with the sons of Eli in a belief that it was a religious duty and pleasing to their God. We can consider the wickedness of Eli's sons in the light of God's promise to the Levitical priests:
42 "It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 "And I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by My glory. 44 "And I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to Me. 45 "And I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God. 46 "And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God." (Exodus 29:42-46,4 emphasis mine).
The doorway of the tent of meeting is the place where God meets with the Levitical priests, the place where God reveals His glory, and there Aaron and his sons were consecrated, set apart, for their priestly service. Now, not that many years later, this becomes a very different kind of meeting place, a place where Eli's sons rendezvous with the women with whom they commit sexual immorality. We are never really told that Eli rebuked his sons and he certainly did nothing to restrain his sons or to hinder them in their sinful conduct. Eli's words had no impact on his wayward sons and, even worse, his words are self-condemning. His statement to them seems designed to cause them to feel guilty, which obviously does not work. However, Eli's words underscore his guilt for we read that he "heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel." It is not out of ignorance that Eli fails to act more decisively. He knows everything they are doing, and he also knows they are doing it high-handedly, to all Israel. Their sins are not momentary lapses in character or conduct; they are a habitual pattern of conduct, a lifestyle.
Interestingly, while Eli expresses his strong disapproval of their sexual immorality, there is no mention in the text of their sins regarding the sacrificial meats. To top matters off, Eli's words to his sons reveal that he understands the gravity of his sons' sins. Their sins are not sins against man, but sins against God. These are presumptuous sins for which there is no provision. These sons of Belial shake their fists in God's face; they know it and Eli has made it clear to them that he knows it too. Yet, in spite of all Eli knows, he does not follow through to the point of actually doing anything about it. Dale Ralph Davis6 comments on this portion of the text:
Eli had rebuked his sons for their moral offenses (vv. 22-25); perhaps - though we can't tell from verses 23-25 - he also reproved them for their liturgical offenses (vv. 13-17). In any case, he had taken no action to expel Hophni and Phinehas from the priestly office. Eli might protest, but his sons suffered no unemployment. There was no church discipline." (p.35)
In this way the sons of Eli perverted the religious system and the pure worship of Jehovah. Worst of all, they were carrying out these practices right in the tabernacle and therefore brought Baalism into the tabernacle of God and the women accepted it because they saw it taking place in the Baal temples around them. We remember again God's disregarded command to kill all the Canaanites because of their vile practices. Truly, Israel had reaped a whirlwind. One would think that Eli, as the High Priest, would do everything in his power to bring such evil and corruption to an end, to rebuke and punish his sons, possibly even to have them stoned. But he only goes to them and says, in verses 23-241:
Why do ye such things? for I hear of your evil dealings by all this people. Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord's people to transgress.
Eli was clearly a pitiable character, a "spineless milquetoast," and, because of his cowardly indifference and despite his words here, we know that his sons were unrepentant and therefore unchanged. God knew that this would be the outcome and we are not surprised to learn later (v25) that the Lord desired to put Eli's sons to death. Dale Ralph Davis6 comments on this behaviour in strong terms:
"Hence the man of God [the prophet of verses 27-36] rebukes the sin of sweet reasonableness, the willingness to tolerate sin, to allow God's honor to take a back seat, to prefer 'my boys' to 'my God.' For Eli, blood was thicker than fidelity." (p. 36)
"How easy it is to practice a gutless compassion that never wants to offend anyone, that equates niceness with love and thereby ignores God's law and essentially despises his holiness. We do not necessarily seek God's honor when we spare human feelings." (p. 37.)
When we consider the history of the Levitical priests we recognise that the sons of Eli were not the first to dishonour God through their actions as priests. Aaron and his sons were first designated by God to serve as priests and Nadab and Abihu, the two oldest sons of Aaron, failed to exercise their priesthood correctly when they offered "strange fire" and were put to death for this sin, but the family was given a second chance when they were replaced by Aaron's other sons, Eleazar and Ithamar (Leviticus 10:1-3; Numbers 3:4; 26:60-61). The death of Eli and his two sons (1 Samuel 4) is a clear word of warning about the high price parent's pay for failing to heed God's instructions to them regarding the rearing of their children. We must take this text most seriously and strive to understand what God says to us here about the awesome task of raising our children.
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