The Story of Eli: A Moral Tale on the Peril of Poor Parenting and Unfaithful Priestly Ministry


In the First Book of Samuel, we see are rather stunning portrait of poor parenting and poor priestly leadership in the person of of High Priest of the Sanctuary at Shiloh, Eli. Consider this line from the Scriptures:

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.” Samuel ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”“I did not call you,” Eli said. “Go back to sleep.” …..At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. (1 Sam 3:3-5).

Now let me ask you, how could it be that Samuel, a young boy living in the temple of the Lord and under the foster parentage of the High Priest was “not familiar” with the Lord? Some may argue he is but a young boy. Still, he is old enough to speak with Eli, to hear and heed Eli’s instructions. Has Eli told him nothing of the Lord? It would seem so. Ah, but you say, the text has indicated that Samuel knew nothing because the Lord had not yet revealed anything to him. The text seems to root the cause of his unfamiliarity in the Lord rather than Eli. But Eli is still without excuse for it remains true that God reveals himself to us not usually as a voice in the night, or some unusual Theophany. Rather, God reveals himself to us through parents, priests, religious and other elders. For a young and already talking Samuel to be unfamiliar with the Lord while living under the care of the High Priest supposedly ministering in the very House of The Lord is unconscionable. It is a dereliction of duty. Eli has failed thus far as a parent and a priest. Children should be taught of God from their first interactive moments. Among the first things they learn should be Bible stories and prayers. They should be made aware of and become familiar with the “still small voice” of God as he whispers his presence to them.

I have only a few memories of being a very young child of about 5 years of age. But one of the memories I most cherish is how plainly I heard the voice of God and felt his presence. There was a very beautiful statue of the Sacred Heart near my dresser and God surely spoke to me from there and I was familiar with his calming and loving presence. But I could understand what I was experiencing because my parents had made me familiar with the Lord. I knew who it was that was speaking to me in those quiet and calm whispers. It was the Lord. Sadly, as I grew older and the flesh became more alive I lost my ability to hear the “still, small voice” of the Lord. I have sought it ever since my conversion back to the Lord and am only in recent years beginning to experience it again in moments of contemplative prayer.

I knew who spoke to me and had been made familiar with him, but Samuel did not and this is a very serious dereliction of duty on the part of Eli. When asked he finally did tell Samuel of the Lord but Samuel should not have had to ask.

Perhaps you think I am being too hard on Eli or reading into the text a bit. Maybe Eli was a busy man being High Priest and all. Or perhaps I am just plain wrong and Eli was actually a good father figure for Samuel.

A Pattern – But I do not think I am wrong nor am I being too harsh for poor parenting and poor priestly leadership are a pattern for Eli. Consider another story about the two priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas:

Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Now it was the practice of the priests with the people that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would plunge it into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot, and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the servant of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.” If the man said to him, “Let the fat be burned up first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would then answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” This sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt……Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the LORD’s will to put them to death…..Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the LORD says: Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’ “Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: …those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line …” ‘And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day. I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his house, and he will minister before my anointed one always. (1 Sam 2:selected verses)

The basic facts are these:

  1. The priestly sons of Eli, Hophniand Phinehas, are wicked men. They violate the sacred liturgy and and take more than their portion, a portion that belongs to God. They scandalize the faithful, act unjustly toward them and have illicit sexual relations with the young women assigned to care for the Shrine at Shiloh.
  2. But Eli does nothing. When it is called to his attention he gives a verbal rebuke. But he must do more than this. They have acted so scandalously that they must be removed. They are a threat to others by their exploitative and opportunistic behavior. They should have been removed. It is a true fact that we struggled with this very same thing in the clergy sexual abuse scandal of recent years.
  3. God rebukes Eli for his weak rebuke and tells him that his weak response indicates that Eli favors his sons more than God and also scorns the sacred liturgy.
  4. God cannot allow Eli and his sons to minister at Shiloh any longer. He will bring Eli’s family down and replace him with a priest who is faithful and will do what is in God’s heart and mind. In a word, Eli has been replaced. Samuel will soon enough take up the holy priesthood. Hophni and Phinehas will die soon for their sins, and Eli’s line is at an end.

How has all this happened? Poor parenting and an unfaithful priestly ministry. In failing to raise his children in the fear of the Lord and in failing to punish wrongdoing Eli has brought grave harm upon himself, his family and his sons. In addition, when Samuel was placed in his care he continued with his pattern of failing to preach the Lord and make Samuel familiar with him.

This is a moral tale for our times as well. How many young people today have not been raised in the reverential fear of the Lord, have not been raised to be familiar with the Lord, have not been properly disciplined by parents and trained in righteousness? How many of them have not been instructed in God’s ways and have been allowed to fall deep into sinful habits and patterns.

In the Church too some have not at times been willing to discipline where necessary. Sin is often not rebuked from our pulpits, children are poorly instructed in the faith. We celebrate compassion but sometimes to a fault where sin is tolerated and grows very serious in people’s lives. Silence by many clergy and Church leaders in the face of serious sin can and is taken to be tacit approval of sin and has led to a widespread moral malaise. Disobedience in the clergy has sometimes been tolerated. Liturgical norms and the sacred liturgy have often been abused. And yes, as we sadly know there has been abusive and illicit sexual activity too.

Thank God there are signs of revival and renewal in many of these areas in the Church and in some of our families. But the story of Eli is an important moral tale for our times that God wants us to take serious our obligation to raise our children to know the Lord and walk in his ways. Through proper discipline and instruction we are summoned to have our children be familiar with the Lord at the very dawning of consciousness and reason. To fail in this regard is something God takes very seriously. Thank God for good parents, clergy and religious who have done their very best in this regard. Hopefully the story of Eli for most of us is simply an encouragement to do what we are already doing. But for those who fail to take seriously their obligations in this regard it should be seen for what it also is: a warning.

Since this was a rather heavy post, perhaps you’ll allow me to post a humorous video. As I have pointed out, Parents and priests should teach Children to pray. But this video by Tim Hawkins tells us what to avoid when teaching children to pray. In a phrase: “Don’t be spooky!”

Tim Hawkins Scary Bedtime Prayer from crownentertainment on GodTube.

10 Replies to “The Story of Eli: A Moral Tale on the Peril of Poor Parenting and Unfaithful Priestly Ministry”

  1. I do wonder if the Scripture also means that God has not revealed Himself to the soul of Samuel? For I remember my own days as a child. My parents had me attend the protestant church and Sunday school (this was before I converted on my own the Catholic Church). I, thus, was familiar with God and the Bible but it all went through me–as if I read it but did not understand it or take it to heart. Later, when I found God through personal prayers and came into the Church, I truly think it was ONLY possible by God’s grace. Only HE was able to reveal Himself to me in prayer and truly find Him. He was the Good Shepard who rescued me. Now, years later, I watch my husband who has no faith or religion. I have prayed to God to show him the Truth but so far, nothing has happened. I feel that perhaps it is not his time. God has not allowed Himself to be revealed to him. It truly takes grace to know God fully.

    1. Mei –
      I waited 18 years for God to convert my husband, and to a certain extent you are correct that God has to reveal himself to the person before faith becomes real. However, what the author is pointing out is that Eli hadn’t even taught Samuel how to recognize the Lord when He did come.

      As for your husband, believe me when I tell you that he is watching and listening to you far more than you are aware of. Know that the more stubborn he may seem about being unwilling to convert – that’s the moment he’s really weakening toward God. Keep believing, keep praying, and engage everyone you know at church to pray with you. What I tried to do alone for 18 years was accomplished in 4 months with the help of two different groups of people praying for him. Never give up. You are never closer to victory in this matter than when you are most tempted to quit trying.

      1. I don’t suppose you’ll see this, but this comment inspired me to keep praying for my boyfriend. Thank you.

  2. Your blog made me realize how grateful I am to my parents for their constant teaching and example. I often marvel at the faith of of converts and am amazed at their conversion stories; but and as I have grown older, I have become profoundly grateful to be a cradle Catholic. Having lived in the house of the Lord since birth, knowning his voice from my earliest days, and to be swaddled in the protective mantle of our Blessed Mother is a rich blessing indeed.

    1. That’s beautiful Mary! I am a convert myself but what you said here would apply to my children now. I pray I can bring the Faith to them, as it is hard (my husband is not Catholic which makes it really, really hard). Please pray that I can be the one witness they need so they may learn (we have 6 children too). I’ve already seen the effects of the world upon my children. They do not seem to truly understand the Faith despite going to Mass and receiving instruction–in fact they quickly forget what they learn unless I constantly harp about it!

  3. I can’t recall for sure, but I think Samuel’s sons were wicked too. Maybe this is the evidence for priestly celibacy: too difficult to be a father to both sons and a community. I don’t envy parents or priests who our obliged to morally upbuild people.

    1. I have always thought the celibacy vow was so important for the priesthood because as a married man and father, he would have little time to care for his parish and spiritual duties! A parent is constantly busy, especially a Catholic parent who may have many children.
      I have often hoped priests would view the parish as their spiritual children. I’m sure they do or some do, but that is what the laity really are. I know of a lay woman who is not Catholic but she and her husband are unable to have children. When I see her, I think of her as a spiritual mother to her own relatives and those she might take under her wing. And we are all spiritual parents to the aborted unborn. So much needs to change in this country.

  4. Quite a challenge getting hold of this commentary on the interacting story(s) of Samuel and Eli. Since being brought from bondage in Egypt the Children of Israel turned to many forms of more comfortable worship. That is comfortable in the short term as the long term was lost. Witness how many times invaders put them into bondage when they truned away from God.
    What was so comfortable anyhow. Well, idols could be perceived with all five senses while the Most High God hid His face. Deuteronomy 31:17&18
    His anger is mentioned as a motive but, when considering His infinite aspect, could there be much more? The idolatry indulged in by those of His chosen inheritance is also mentioned. They seem to have an exaggerated desire for the tangeable and may need to accept God’s distance (out of reach of the five senses but proveable through cause and effect) By hiding His face until they are re-established their education in the intangeable and a proper usage of is both inspired and encouraged.
    As an aside, in Ezekial 39:25-29 God says that He will bring back His people from where they are scattered and no longer hide His face. Considering what’s been happening in Israel since WWII this may well be imminant.
    At any rate, there are more forms of a short term comfortable escape from long term lessons than idolatry. Ancestor worship provides a tangeable grasp of people who have been personally known by many of the worshippers and not just by a few who are selected to give a worthy report.
    Perhaps Eli was looking to become a notable figure in a pantheon of ancestors, even if he wasn’t consciously thinking about it. Promoting his sons, while giving a token censure for their misdeeds, but not even hinting at replacing them, could well keep a family line of progressively more imperfect descendants to glorify his (Eli’s) memory.
    The House of David was preserved for many generations to be the line who were chosen to bring God the Word to us as God the Son however the successive generation were not an enduring line of kings but were spread through the social levels. David, and his son Solomon, were honoured in memory but were held to have imperfections which could serve as an example for all of us to strive for personal improvement. They were not de-ified (literally or symbollically) as many philosophers with a batch of quotes and founders of long standing dynasties have been.

  5. You are beautiful monsigneur. The fact you were raised with the sacred heart image shows

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