Eli & Sons: The Consequences of Failed Leadership

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT? Eli was both a priest and a judge in Israel for 40 years (1 Sam. 2:27-28; 4:18). Compared to the downward spiral of the previous judges (some of whom were deliverers and others were governors), Eli’s governorship may seem like a breath of fresh air. To his credit, Eli cares for and raises Samuel to minister before the LORD. The tragedy of Eli’s life, however, was that he had failed to properly train and restrain his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. His sons did not know the LORD (2:12), intimidated worshipers (2:16), stole from the LORD (2:16-17), disrespected the LORD (2:17), fornicated with women (2:22), possibly incorporated pagan sexual practices into worship at Shiloh (2:22), and were causing the people to stop worshiping at the tent of meeting (2:24). Eli’s ministry ended in disgrace because he refused to rebuke and restrain his sons who were blaspheming God (3:13).

It is important to notice that throughout this account the narrator compares Eli’s sons with Samuel (cf. 2:11-12; 2:17-18; 2:21-22). He continues to use these comparisons to demonstrate a significant transition in the type of leader that the LORD will use to unite His people. God will not allow compromised priests to lead His people, thus, He raises up Samuel to replace the corrupt leadership of Eli’s sons.

SO WHAT? Ministry begins in the home. This truth is expressed in the qualifications of a New Testament elder who must lead his home, love his wife, and teach his children (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Eli’s failures as a father did not only affect his family, it influenced all of Israel. Worship was corrupted, women were being sexually exploited, and people were crying out because of the actions of Eli’s son, yet he took no action. Our children are not our masters, and we must remember that we don’t serve them. The responsibility of godly parents is to raise their children to know, love, and honor the LORD, which will require both love and correction.


1. The era of failed leadership continues.

2. The apostate sons.

3. The young man in training.

4. The effects of corrupt leaders.

5. The sovereignty of God.

Now what? Although Eli and his sons fail to lead and unite Israel, the LORD’s plans will not fail. Amid the tenure of apostate leaders, the LORD was preparing the man who would lead His people, Samuel. The LORD commanded the people of Israel to raise their children to know Him (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Likewise, Christian parents have an obligation to teach their children how to know, love, and serve God.

Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord. 13The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14 and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. 15Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” 16And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force.” 17Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt (1 Samuel 2:12-17; cf. 2:18-4:22)

Study Questions (1 Samuel 2:12-4:22)

1. Compare Eli’s treatment of Hannah (1:12-14) with the treatment of his sons (3:13).

2. Describe the ways in which Eli’s sons corrupted the worship of the LORD (2:12-17; 2:22-25).

3. What is the significance of Eli’s grandson’s name (4:21)?

4. What was Samuel’s role in this narrative (2:11, 18, 26)?

5. What are the similarities between Eli’s sons and Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:1-3)?

6. What is the significance of the Ark of the Covenant being carried away by the Philistines (4:1-11)?

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