When Parents Fail: The Bible Story of Samuel and the Evil Sons of Eli the Priest
One of the Bible’s most prominent examples of neglectful parenting is illustrated in First Samuel Chapter 2-3. This account is unique in its application to Christians because it revolves around a man who knew the Lord yet indulged the sins of his adult children and fell under God’s judgment for it. The Lord sent a prophet to rebuke Eli, the High Priest because he failed to discipline his two adult sons, yet Eli remained a passive parent to the end. God revealed Himself to Samuel and called him to be his prophet because Israel’s priesthood under Eli’s leadership grew increasingly corrupt. The wicked behavior of Eli’s two sons caused many Israelites to despise the Lord’s temple offerings.
Even before Samuel received his calling by God, God sent a man of God to Eli to rebuke him for allowing the wicked behavior of his two sons to go unchallenged. God said his failure brought dishonor to the name of God because he honored “your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel.” Despite this rebuke, Eli remained a passive parent right to the end. He took no action against his sons other than pass on weak warnings that they were in danger of provoking God’s wrath. By the time Eli warned his sons about their blatant sins, it was much too late to change their lifestyles. Eli’s sons had grown into hardened sinners. Like many modern parents, Eli and his wife had most likely begun overlooking their son’s disobedience and selfish behavior while they were still yet young. They grew up closely involved in Israel’s temple life, yet they did not know or respect the Lord!
“Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD. 13 The 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. 15 Moreover, 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.” 16 And 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.” 17 Thus 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. 18 Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy clothed with a linen ephod. 19 And his mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice. 20 Then Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, “May the LORD give you children by this woman for the petition she asked of the LORD.” So then they would return to their home. 21 Indeed the LORD visited Hannah, and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the LORD. 22 Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 23 And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. 24 No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. 25 If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.” 1 Samuel 2:12-36 ESV
Eli Honored His Sons more than the Lord
Below, in verse 29, God challenged Eli for despising the Lord’s sacrifices and offering. Eli honored his sons above the Lord. He enjoyed eating the choices parts of the offerings, which his sons stole, from the altar of God. Eli knew what his sons did was wrong. He spoke to his children about their sin, and warned them that they were sinning against God, but it was not enough to have warned them. He should have stopped them from doing these things. As the high priest, Eli was at the pinnacle of success in his personal vocation. He held the most important place of religious influence among the nation of Israel. He was not himself a wicked man, the narrative clearly showed he had a genuine concern for the things of God. He had a weakness towards his children that the Bible categorized as parental neglect, because he did not restrain his children from their evil behavior.
God was not satisfied with Eli’s weak verbal warnings to his sons. He expected more. Even after receiving the rebuke from the man of God, Eli remained passive and took no action against his sons. Eli is an example of many passive parents, who lack the courage and backbone to enforce their directions to their children. Passive parents ruin both their children and their personal testimony by their inaction and unwillingness to discipline their children forcefully:
“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man. 27 And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? 28 Did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me? I gave to the house of your father all my offerings by fire from the people of Israel. 29 Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ 30 Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. 31 Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. 32 Then in distress you will look with envious eye on all the prosperity that shall be bestowed on Israel, and there shall not be an old man in your house forever. 33 The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep his eyes out to grieve his heart, and all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men. 34 And this that shall come upon your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day. 35 And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever. 36 And everyone who is left in your house shall come to implore him for a piece of silver or a loaf of bread and shall say, “Please put me in one of the priests’ places, that I may eat a morsel of bread.”” 1 Samuel 2:26- 36
Eli weakly warned his children about their wicked conduct. His passive behavior towards his children contributed to their brazen attitude towards the temple offerings. God demonstrated his holiness by taking action against Eli for his failure as a parent, and against his wicked sons, for the contempt they showed for God’s offerings.
Had Eli enforced his commands to his children when they were little, he would have spared them from severe judgment as adults. From Eli’s interactions with his adult children, we can safely assume he was passive parent when his children were little. His young boys undoubtedly learned that Eli gave warnings but did not enforce them, as do most permissive parents. Because Eli was weak in the face of his children’s disobedience, they grew up believing God was also passive. Eli’s children concluded God was just like their father and would not take any action against their blatant sin. They did not fear God, because as young children, they never learned to respect their father, Eli. How else would they be so bold as to blaspheme the name of Lord by their shameless conduct as priests before the nation of Israel?
Samuel Called by God to Rebuke Eli for his Passivity
This story shows how God protected his holiness by intervening to eliminate the corruption that was spreading in the priesthood. God chose the boy Samuel to be his prophetic instrument and gave Eli his final warning of the coming judgment:
”Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called Samuel, and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6 And the LORD called again, “Samuel!” and Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 And the LORD called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant hears.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 And the LORD came and stood, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant hears.” 11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.” 15 Samuel lay until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.” 17 And Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the LORD. Let him do what seems good to him.” 19 And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD. 21 And the LORD appeared again at Shiloh, for the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD.” 1 Samuel 3:1-21 ESV
A key lesson to take from this passage is found in verse 13: “And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
In reviewing Eli’s failures, there are several important points. First, Eli knew his sons were behaving wickedly but he did nothing but talk to them about it. Just like many modern and self-indulgent parents, he verbally challenged his sons, but God rebuked Eli because “he did not restrain them.”
Parenting must be Forceful in the Face of Disobedience
The word “restrain” implies application of both will and physical force. Certainly, Eli’s failure to restrain his children did not start when they were adults; it surely began with a lack of willpower when they were young. Eli’s neglectful behavior with his sons became a pattern of conduct beginning very early in their lives. The account of Eli’s family is a Bible warning to all parents who tell their young children what is right, but do not follow up their directives with appropriate consequences. Passive parents train their children to hold contempt towards authority. Weak and ineffective parenting encourages children to be selfish, and ultimately, leads to unrestrained evil conduct.
We can imagine Eli’s interactions with his children when they were little: He undoubtedly told them what to do but, when they did not take heed, he took no action to enforce his word. Eli may have thought that he had done his duty by simply warning them, but God said that he would judge Eli’s household because “his sons were blaspheming God.” Eli’s sin was to tolerate their sin and talk to them when he should have taken action to restrain them and have them removed from the priesthood. Parents must be forceful in exercising their authority over their children.
As adults, Eli’s sons were unmoved by their father’s warnings. They continued to blaspheme God by their blatant sexual immorality and the outright theft of the Israelite’s offerings. Eli allowed his adult children to display contempt for the priesthood and the name of God. His verbal reproof was inadequate and showed no backbone. His sons did not respect him, and the seeds for this disrespect must have begun when they were still young and teachable children.
The story of Eli and his sons is in the Bible as a lesson to parents for all time. A holy God will not tolerate sin. Parents have spiritual responsibility and are accountable for both their actions and their inaction. Eli’s entire family came to a tragic end because Eli was a passive parent. Eli laid the foundation for his sons’ destruction through his neglect of personal leadership and instruction when they were young and teachable. From his conduct when they were adults, we can justly conclude Eli had not restrained his young children from their natural selfish inclinations. Perhaps Eli and his wife thought their little headstrong boys were cute, and laughed together about their antics when they were little boys. However, when selfish, self-centered children grow up to become adults without love and reverence for God, there is nothing cute about it. Eli’s entire family was disgraced, and his children died in battle. Eli’s sons blasphemed the Lord’s name by their evil behavior; God is a holy, but avenging God.
Parenting is an awesome responsibility and parents must vigorously enforce their commands. Permissively raised children learn to despise both their parents’ and God’s authority. God holds parents accountable for how they raise their children. The Bible account of Eli provides a clear warning to modern parents against being passive about the discipline of their children.