Who Was Eli In The Bible?

Even the most secular of us in the Western world likely have a basic knowledge of many biblical stories. Noah, Moses, David and Goliath, Jonah, Jesus, and others are so embedded into the fabric of Western culture that it would be nearly impossible to not learn about them. Even lesser-known figures from the Bible penetrate into our lives, if only through their names. Take Eli for example, which as of 2022 was the 69th most popular name for boys in the United States, according to Behind the Name.

But who is Eli exactly? He gave his name to no book of the Bible, nor is he the central character in any of them. Instead, Eli was the mentor of Samuel, the prophet who led Israel to victory over the Philistines and anointed both Saul and David as kings. Eli's teachings helped prepare Samuel for his religious role, but his life, and that of his children, were also a cautionary tale — his sons' wickedness and Eli's passivity ended their lives and cursed their lineage.

Eli was a priest and teacher

In the Book of Samuel, Eli was an elderly priest in the city of Shiloh who was sitting in the temple when a woman named Hannah came to pray. Hannah was one of the wives of Elkanah, who loved her dearly but had no children with her. His other wife, Peninnah, had many children and enjoyed gloating over her rival. Hannah prayed to God for a son and promised that should she be so blessed, she would give her son over to the Lord.

Because she prayed silently, Eli at first assumed Hannah was drunk and reprimanded her. But when he saw that Hannah was in earnest, Eli blessed her. Soon after, Hannah gave birth to Samuel, and once her son was weaned, she turned him over to Eli's care — to be taught and raised as a priest to the Lord as she promised. For this, she and Elkanah were blessed with five more children.

Prophetic visions were supposedly rare at this time in Israel, but while studying under Eli, Samuel heard the voice of God. At first, he mistook it for Eli's voice, and it was Eli who realized what was happening. He told Samuel to heed the Lord's voice, and it told the boy that Eli's family was doomed. Samuel was afraid for his master, but when he heard the words of God, Eli said (via BibleGateway), "He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes."

He did nothing to stop his wicked sons

The message through Samuel was not the first sign of displeasure that God gave Eli. Earlier in the Book of Samuel, a nameless prophet brought this warning from God to the priest (via BibleGateway): "The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling."

The reason for God's anger was the behavior of Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were also priests in Shiloh. They stole choice portions of meat meant as sacrifices to the Lord — in violation of the practice that priests would only take what they happened to spear on a fork as the offerings boiled. They also cavorted with women who came to serve the Lord. For this, they were judged to have no regard for God, in contrast to Samuel. Eli did little to curtail his sons. According to The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, he is commonly interpreted as a lazy, passive father who puts his own comfort before his duty to God. He was judged complicit and included in the Lord's curse.

Eli was descended from Aaron, and Aaron's lineage had been promised the priesthood for eternity. But Eli's family was marked for their sins. His sons died in battle with the Philistines, and Eli was struck down when he learned of their fate. His descendants were destined to never reach old age.

Eli and the Ark of the Covenant

Besides mentoring Samuel, Eli played a role in the story of the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Book of Samuel, the Ark was kept at Shiloh at the time of Samuel's birth, and it was while he was in the presence of the Ark that he first heard the voice of God calling to him. Later, when Israel came to war with the Philistines, the Ark was brought from Shiloh to be carried before the Israelites in battle. After an initial defeat, it was thought that the Ark would guarantee their triumph. But while the Philistines were initially afraid of the Ark, they resolved not to fall before it. They killed 30,000 men, including Eli's sons Hophni and Phinehas, and captured the Ark. It was as much on account of the Ark's fate as his sons' that Eli fell over and died.

It wasn't the Ark's final fate to remain in the hands of the Philistines. Their own priests advised that it be returned to Israel, and so it was. It eventually found its way into Solomon's Temple — or the First Temple — before vanishing from the Bible and from history. As for Eli, the last mention of him in the Bible comes in the Book of Kings (per Christianity.com): "So Solomon removed Abiathar from the priesthood of the Lord, fulfilling the word the Lord had spoken at Shiloh about the house of Eli."