Close this search box.
The Error of the Priest Eli and the Sin of His Sons


God appears to the Prophets for a specific purpose. He wishes to give a specific message, which they must then pass on to particular people for their salvation.




The Content of the Revelation

God appears to the Prophets for a specific purpose. He wishes to give a specific message, which they must then pass on to particular people for their salvation. We see this in the case of Samuel, which we are considering. Samuel was counted worthy to hear God’s voice. The presence of God is linked with a serious matter. This revelation is not a chance event. But what is the content of this revelation? We shall see in the following analysis.

God’s Message

After the third time – when the Elder Eli had told Samuel to return to his place and sleep, and when he heard the voice again, to say, “Speak, for Your servant hears” – as a good disciple, Samuel went back to his place and fell asleep (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:9). Then it was that “The Lord came, and stood” and spoke to him, as He had before. Immediately he heard his name, Samuel replied, “Speak, for Your servant hears” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:10). He senses that God is Lord and that he is the servant of His Lord.

The purpose of the revelation of God was that Samuel had to convey to Eli the fact that God was displeased both with the conduct of his sons and with the indifference that Eli himself was showing to his sons’ behaviour. God said that He was not going to endure this situation any longer, but would punish the whole of Eli’s family. There was no way in which the sin of his sons would be wiped out (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:11-14).

It is important for us to look at particular phrases from God’s words, as we can analyse some noteworthy points.

“Behold! I shall execute My words in Israel” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:11). God promises that He will implement His words and make them a reality, even though it means being harsh. In fact, all Christ’s words are implemented. That is why we trust God and His promises. The Apostle Paul says repeatedly, “This is a faithful saying.” The word of God and God Himself are trustworthy in every respect. It follows that there is no era in which the words of God do not apply. Some people assert today that under present circumstances it is impossible to obey God’s word. This is not true, however, and it conceals serious disbelief in God’s providence and love.

“I will judge his house forever for the iniquity of his sons” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:13). God had announced earlier to Eli that He would punish his family eternally for the sins of his sons.

It is striking here that God appears as an avenger, dealing out punishment. We should note that these are anthropomorphic phrases attributing human emotions to God. They show that the individual has proved unworthy of God’s gift and His love. God does not punish man, but because he does not assimilate God’s gift, he punishes himself. This is the sense in which we can speak about punishment from God. It should also be understood as the withdrawal of God’s grace, which results in man’s destruction. Man is not an autonomous being. He must always refer to his archetype, to God. When he is far away from God, man is destroyed.

God gives an undertaking that the whole family will be punished. We are given the opportunity to see the consequences of sin. Just as the sin of Adam fell upon the whole creation, so every sin has consequences for society. Sin is never individual and personal. It has universal dimensions. In this sense we can talk about the inherited nature of sin. It is not hereditary guilt, but an illness that afflicts the whole human race. When the root of a tree is diseased, the whole tree withers. In the same way, one man’s sin makes human nature as a whole sick. We too experience the results of Adam’s Fall.

The saints are afraid of committing sin, lest they should distance themselves from God, Who is the God of love, but also lest the disease of sin should afflict the other members of the Church. We have responsibility for posterity as well. An ascetic on the Holy Mountain once told me that we should live good Christian lives, because we are responsible for those who will come after us. In the future, when people become disappointed and turn to monks to find the true Christian life, we will bear the responsibility if they do not find what they seek. This shows outstanding sensitivity. The saints sense the unity of the human race. They are sensitive to the point of being concerned in case their sin affects future generations of human beings.

God’s punishment on the priest Eli’s family was indeed severe. God had already announced to him previously, through another Prophet, the punishment that he was to suffer in the future. He told him that he would wipe out his descendants, his seed, and none of them would reach old age. Every descendant who was remarkable for his strength would fall by the sword. His two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who had committed the sin, would die together on the same day. God would proclaim another priest (an obvious reference to the Prophet Samuel) and any of Eli’s descendants who remained would prostrate themselves before this new man and serve him, asking for a little bread (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:31-36).

The Sin of Eli’s Sons

We must look at the sin committed by Eli’s sons, for which he was so severely punished by God.

God said characteristically to Samuel, “For his sons reviled God, and he did not correct them in any way” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:13). Eli’s sons reviled God, that is, they blasphemed, and Eli did not correct or advise them, as he ought to have done. Elsewhere the Book of Kings describes the double sin of Eli’s sons.

Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are described in Holy Scripture as “sons of scoundrels, not knowing the Lord” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:12). The expression “sons of scoundrels” in Greek literally means “sons of plague, sons of sickness”. In order to comprehend the sin they committed we need to know that people used to offer various animals for sacrifice. While the fat was burning on the altar of whole burnt offerings, they kept back from the remaining meat, as the priest’s privilege, certain portions, such as the front leg, the jaw and the stomach. The two errors of Eli’s sons were, firstly, that they took meat before it had been separated from the fatty substances, that is to say, before it had been sacrificed to God, and, secondly, that they took more portions of the remaining meat than those referred to in the rules governing sacrifices (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:12-17).

This sin was serious because it violated the commandment of God, Who decreed that things should be done differently from their way of doing them. They also usurped God’s rights for themselves. They expressed their ungodliness by appropriating God’s privileges. Whether they did so out of contempt for God, out of greed, or for any other reason, the fact is that they broke God’s commandment, and in a manner that was offensive and provocative to the people.

That is why they are described as “sons of scoundrels, not knowing the Lord” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:12). Although they ministered to God and were Eli’s sons, they did not know God. They did not have inner communion with Him or obey His will. If they had revered God, they would not have acted in this way. The phrase “not knowing the Lord” is of great significance. Patristic teaching makes clear that it is not only someone who denies God who is an atheist, but also anyone who does not know God personally or have personal knowledge of divine grace. St Symeon the New Theologian is eloquent on this point. Writing about his life before he acquired personal communion with God, he says, “I was like a blind man in the world, and like an atheist, not knowing my God.” Impersonal knowledge of God is really atheism.

What matters is that we should not simply be filled with the desire to serve God. We must also conduct ourselves in a way that is pleasing to God and worthy of Him, because spiritual errors give rise to terrible dangers. When we do not behave appropriately, this has awful consequences in our lives. Spiritual mistakes are paid for very dearly. They have an effect on one’s life.

We mentioned earlier that it was very important for children’s upbringing in the Church that they should be present in church and take part in divine worship. Here we should take the opportunity to emphasise that children need to be guided by both the clergy and their parents so that they behave correctly when they enter the sanctuary to assist the priest. Unfortunately we see many children behaving irreverently even during the most sacred moments of divine worship. Devout priests are worried, not so much that they cannot impose order and silence in the sanctuary, as that the children by their inappropriate behaviour bring down God’s punishment upon themselves.

Regrettably, because many people have grown accustomed to divine worship and attending church services has become a habit, we observe that they do not behave well. We see the phenomenon of young men who have passed through Church training-colleges becoming the greatest opponents of the Church and God. Therefore particular attention is needed, because “God is not mocked” (Gal. 6:7). We must learn “How …to conduct [ourselves] in the house of God” (1 Tim. 3:15).

The Priest Eli’s Error

Eli made a grave mistake with regard to his sons and was punished for it by God. We ought to look at what he did wrong.

Firstly, we should say that Eli was no ordinary man. He was High Priest and Judge of the people of Israel. He was devout towards God and strove to learn God’s will and to put it into practice. We have seen how he acted with regard to Samuel. He realised that God was calling him and showed him how to respond.

His paternal love, as well as his piety, are clear from the way in which he faced this revelation from God. The next day, when Samuel was afraid to announce to Eli what God had told him, Eli called Samuel, saying, “Samuel, my child” (1 Kg./I Sam. 3:16). When Samuel answered, Eli asked him to reveal the message that God had given him. In fact he urged him: “Please do not hide it from me.” He added that God would punish Samuel, if he were to conceal anything that He had revealed to him. This is how true spiritual fathers act. They do not strive to hide anything or attempt to live in the dark. They want to hear the word of God clearly.

When Samuel reported to Eli everything that God had said, and that God was going to punish his family, Eli did not complain against God, become annoyed or raise his voice. He submitted to God’s verdict. The words that he pronounced then are very characteristic: “He is the Lord. He will do what seems good to Him” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:18). He humbly accepts God’s decision. This shows his piety.

It is very significant – and shows not only Eli’s piety but also his entire personality – that, when he heard God’s verdict on his sons, he was not greatly troubled, but when he learned that the enemy had captured the Ark of the Lord he was struck with unimaginable grief and died. As soon as Eli heard about the capture of the Ark, he fell into deep distress. Holy Scripture records, “His heart was bewildered about the ark of God” (1 Kg./l Sam. 4:13). In fact, Holy Scripture writes, “It came to pass, as Eli remembered the ark of God, he fell backward from the seat by the side of the gate and broke his back and died (1 Kg./l Sam. 4:18). When told about the punishment of his sons by God, Eli does not complain or express annoyance. When, however, the Ark is captured by the enemy his distress is boundless and results in his death. This incident shows his great devotion to God.

This important figure, however, is punished by God and hears a harsh message from Him because of his error with regard to his sons. Why is he punished by God for his children’s transgression? Without a doubt Eli, too, did something wrong in this case. His mistake was that he, as a father, Judge and High Priest, ought, when he saw his sons’ misconduct, to have punished them and removed them from their duties. Instead, he showed excessive tolerance and leniency, after making a few ineffectual comments.

In the beginning Eli said to them, What is this that I hear that you are doing? “No, my sons! For the report I hear is not good. Do not act in this manner, for the reports I hear are not good, causing the people not to serve God” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:24). Then he told them, If one man sins against another, he can ask forgiveness of God, but if someone sins against the Lord, who will pray for him? Eli responded to the issue in a spiritual way. He made comments to them and pointed out their mistake. He did not, however, take stern measures or punish them for their conduct.

God saw the deeper aspect of the matter, whereas we see the surface and not what lies below. He had made known to Eli through a Prophet his error with regard to his sons. One of the phrases that Prophet had uttered was, “You… honour your sons more than Me” (1 Kg./l Sam. 2:29). In other words, Eli preferred his sons to God. The problem, therefore, went deeper. Eli did not want to upset his sons. He did not want to annoy them, so he went no further than making mild remarks. This was his error, so the punishment was severe, in spite of his obvious piety towards God.

This throws light on the conduct of parents towards their children, but also of priests towards their spiritual children and the young people who assist in church. They should be more concerned about the children’s salvation and the glory of God than about love for the children.

There are some parents who do not point out the Law of God to their children or remind them of God’s rights in their lives, because they do not want, as they put it, to give their children complexes. They let their children sin and behave irreverently, without being concerned about their eternal future. Such parents, however, who are not interested in keeping God’s Law and do not train their children according to God’s will, are called infanticides by St John Chrysostom. Children are gifts from God and are bestowed on parents so that they can prepare them for the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately there are some parents today who behave like Eli. Although they see their children sinning and being irreverent towards God, they do not say anything to them, so as not to upset them. They do not wake them up on Sunday morning for church, on the pretext that they ought to rest, or that it is cold outside and their health will suffer. In this way they deprive them of the possibility of going to church and learning to pray with the whole community. At other times they put them off going to church services, when the children themselves want to attend. They discourage them from Holy Communion on the grounds that they will catch various illnesses from partaking of the Most Pure Mysteries. There are even parents who encourage their children to commit sin, because they consider it natural nowadays. In general, when they see them behaving irreverently towards God and unfairly towards others, they make excuses for them, because they worship their children and do not want to distress them.

These responses are appalling. Of course parents should love their children. But precisely on account of this love, their very first concern should be obedience to God’s will. They must take care that their children become living icons of God. Love towards God is required over and above love for the children.

Parents, and also spiritual fathers, are responsible before God if they neglect the training of their children. St Neilos the Ascetic says that, if Eli did not escape God’s punishment on account of his venerable old age or his previous boldness or his priestly dignity, because he neglected to correct his children, how much more will those be punished who take upon themselves the dangerous task of training the souls of Christians out of love of praise, without having proved trustworthy in their previous life and without knowing either how someone falls into sin or the method by which this is corrected. Spiritual guidance is a very important and serious task. One must take on this responsible ministry with fear and trembling. But parents too have great responsibility for nurturing their children.

Samuel’s Attitude

At this point we should also consider Samuel’s attitude to Eli. He proves himself to be truly noble and wise, sanctified from his mother’s womb.

After receiving God’s revelation and being told its purpose, Samuel went back to sleep until the morning. Holy Scripture says, “Samuel fell asleep and rose early in the morning. He opened the doors of the Lord’s house” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:15). He remains in his natural state even after God has appeared to him. He does not feel proud and nothing changes in his life. Many of us, if we were in Samuel’s position, would be gripped by self-importance and arrogance. Samuel sleeps the sleep of the just, and he wakes up in the morning to continue his service.

He behaves wisely, not only as regards God’s great gift to him, but also towards Eli, who was, in a way, his spiritual father. God commands him to tell Eli how he will be punished on account of his sons. Samuel behaves humbly, with extreme respect for the priest. Holy Scripture says, “Samuel was afraid to tell Eli the vision” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:15). He is not pleased about the punishment. He does not become arrogant or laugh or feel satisfaction. He is not proud of the fact that God honours him more than Eli. He does not despise Eli because of the honour that God has reserved for him (Samuel). He reveres Eli, and out of fear and respect he does not want to tell him this momentous message. He knows that Eli will be distressed, so he hesitates to continue.

This is how grace-filled young people act towards those who are older, including their spiritual fathers, even if they manage to acquire greater understanding, wisdom and spiritual experience. They do not show off their intelligence. Paul the Apostle says, “Do not rebuke an older man” (1 Tim. 5:1). Samuel’s reverence and humility are characteristic and exemplary.

Finally, when Eli himself asks him to tell him what God has made known to him, Samuel “told him everything and hid nothing from him” (1 Kg./l Sam. 3:18). We can be certain that Samuel said exactly what God revealed to him, without adding or subtracting anything, but very humbly and respectfully. The man of God is reverent in all his behaviour. He is moderate and balanced. He does not try to be clever. He does not say much, but if he is asked to speak, he obeys and speaks reverently and humbly. I mention this, because often, out of supposed courtesy, we are disobedient and refuse to obey an instruction. But the greatest courtesy is obedience. We should not show off our intelligence, but when people ask us to do something, we should do it very humbly and simply. Ultimately, we need to learn that obedience is superior even to prayer and fasting. Prayer, fasting and, in general, living the spiritual life outside the climate of true obedience can lead to states of delusion, to self-conceit and various psychological disorders.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this whole analysis is that we must be truthful, wherever we are and whatever our way of life. Then our work will be fruitful and blessed, and will last for ever. It is not so important whether one is a priest or a layperson, a monk or someone living in the world, a theologian or illiterate, a man or a woman, an academic or a manual worker. But whatever one does must be done rightly, with humility, obedience, love and, above all, according to God’s will. Whatever is done must be done with personal integrity. A theologian, for instance, must really experience God. His theology should not be a sterile thought process, historical research or rational concepts, but life that rises up and pours forth from crucifixion. First one is crucified for God, then one speaks about God. First one puts one’s passions to death, then one theologises.

The spiritual life that we live ought not to be something superficial, a sterile study of the virtues, but an expression of humility and love. People today are weary of superficial Christians. They want fullness and truthfulness.

Pursuing our salvation should not be an individual effort, but an awareness of the unity of the Church. Liturgical life and worship should not be regarded as an opportunity to cultivate emotions, but as a means of experiencing the whole life of Christ, within the context of our therapeutic treatment. We must be cured of our passions in order to attain to unity with God.

The aim of bringing up children is not to fulfil certain obligations, but to create temples of the All-Holy Spirit.

Anyone who does not really live, is not alive at all. Fragmentation is death, the loss of life. May Samuel’s humility and simplicity teach us. May we also learn from the punishment of Eli and his sons. And may we begin to live humbly, in Christ and to the glory of Christ.



by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Saint Vlassios

(The Seer, The Life of the Prophet Samuel and its Relevance today, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery)