Those who are familiar with the Old Testament may know Eli better by his association with Samuel.
But what about Eli—the man who took care of Samuel after Samuel’s mother had dedicated him to the temple (1 Samuel 1:21-28)? What do we know about Eli, his sons, and his legacy?
We don’t often hear of Eli in a good context. Usually, any sermon that will speak about him does so in a negative way, and there’s a reason for that.
Although the Old Testament has a plethora of examples of what NOT to do in leadership, Eli exemplifies poor leadership through his passivity, among other vices.
In this article, we’ll dive into how Eli fails his calling to leadership, and how he serves as a foil to Samuel and how Samuel exemplifies strong, godly leadership.
Where Is Eli Mentioned in the Bible?
We first read about Eli in 1 Samuel 1 when a woman named Hannah is bitterly praying to the Lord that she may be granted a son. She offers, that if she is given a son, she will dedicate her son to temple service. This means that he would live and work in the temple under the leadership of Eli, and that no razor would touch his head. In other words, like Samson, he would live a Nazarite lifestyle.
Eli at first thinks Hannah is drunk because she’s moving her lips in prayer but no words are coming out. But after she explains the situation, he sends her away with a blessing.
We continue to read about Eli through 1 Samuel 4. In four short chapters, we see a man who had the best intentions but fell away from the path of godly leadership.
What Is the Context of the Story of Eli?
During the time period of 1 Samuel 1-4, Israel is under attack from foreign enemies, especially a group known as the Philistines. If we recall the story of Samson, the Philistines were by far one of Israel’s most formidable enemies.
With this in mind, Israel needs strong leadership to guide them against these armies. However, Eli does not fit like a puzzle piece very well into the job. Even though God has appointed him as high priest over Israel, he abuses the role by not taking action when he should.
First, we see problems right away in 1 Samuel 2. Although Eli may recognize the voice of God and the importance of obeying the law, his two sons do not. They mistreat the offerings to the Lord, sleep around with the women who work at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and have no regard for the holiness and glory of the Lord.
Even though Eli gives his own two sons a talking-to, he doesn’t take definitive action against his sons and their disregard for the Lord. They go as far as blaspheming God, but Eli doesn’t really give them more than a mere slap to the wrist. You can read about this in 1 Samuel 3.
Because of his passivity, the Lord cuts off the leadership in Eli’s family line, allows for the Philistines to capture the Ark of the Covenant, which was designed under divine direction as a housing vessel for the Lord in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. Eli and his two sons all die on the same day of this battle.
His two sons appear to be struck down by the Philistines, and when Eli hears the news of the Ark of the Covenant, he falls back in his chair (which is stationed on a roof) and breaks his neck.
3 Things Christians Can Learn from Eli’s Leadership
Eli’s leadership can have a lot of parallels with a parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25:14-30. In this parable, a master gives his servants something known as a talent. A talent would’ve been roughly $400,000 in today’s economy.
Two of the servants invest the amount of talents the master has given and manage to double it. But one of the servants buries his talent. The master chastises the servant for doing so, by doing nothing with his talent, and gives the talent away to another one of the servants who had done something with the gift he had been given.
In the same way, God gave Eli a “talent.” He was blessed with an important role of leadership over Israel. But Eli didn’t use it properly and didn’t invest in his sons. He buried his potential to lead them toward the path of righteousness.
Because of this, God takes away Eli’s talent and gives it to Samuel instead. Let’s look at three things we can learn about leadership from Eli:
1. God Takes Parenting Very Seriously
Through our children, we have the ability to impart upon them Gospel truths and through them and their legacies, bring others to Christ. Sometimes, when our children go astray, we have to guide them back to the Lord.
Eli had found his sons had gone extremely astray from the Lord. However, his response is weak. Other than issuing a sort of “Hey, you should probably stop” warning, he doesn’t take any action to correct and guide them.
Because of this, God removes priesthood from his family line.
There’s a reason Jesus treasured children during his ministry (Matthew 19:14). Bad parenting and lack of establishing the importance of the Gospel in a home can cause children to stray far from God. And when they do so, it is an enormous task to convince them to come back home.
2. Passivity is Not the Way in the Kingdom of God
Throughout most of the Old Testament, we see many leaders actively working for evil instead of good. But through Eli’s example, we can also witness the dangers of passively allowing for evil to happen.
As the old mantra goes, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
No doubt Eli had his hands full with his sons, but because he plays a passive role for most of his leadership, God deems him and his family unfit to continue to lead Israel.
Going back to the parable of talents mentioned above, God gave Eli an opportunity to do good through an influential platform, and Eli blew it. After all, to whomever is given much, much is expected (Luke 12:48).
3. Good Can Come From Evil Families
Nevertheless, although Eli’s story ends on a sour note, it gives birth to a brighter story: the story of Samuel. Although far from perfect, Samuel leads Israel well and follows the paths of righteousness.
Once weaned, Hannah places him under Eli’s care. Samuel would have been exposed to the wickedness of Eli’s sons and the passivity of Eli. But even in the company of potentially ill influence, we still see a strong and godly leader emerge after Eli and his two sons die.
No matter what family legacy we come from, God can still redeem it and guide us through the ways of life.
The Bible shows us many cautionary tales, and Eli’s story stands amongst those. Although God gifted Eli with a powerful role, he chose not to use it well and allowed for his sons to participate in wicked acts for far too long.
Eli’s story doesn’t end there, though. Through Samuel, we can see a man who trusts God and takes an active role in leadership, instead of a passive one.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Ivan Balvan
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 600 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) Den (releasing July 2020), Dear Hero (releasing September 2020), and Dear Henchman (releasing 2021) Find out more about her here.