The sons of Levi
Have you ever had something go “bad” in your refrigerator? It hits you as soon as you open the door. You know what to do: you throw it away. But what do you do when part of your family becomes “spoiled”?
What actions should you take when your children start to act “rotten”? That’s the issue we are going to be looking at in the story of Eli and his sons. This story takes place about 80 or 90 years before David became king and captured Jerusalem, so the Tabernacle was still in the city of Shiloh. Eli had been the priest of Israel at Shiloh for about 40 years, but he had not been an entirely successful father. “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord” (1Sam 2:12, ESV).1
How do you have a priest for a father and not know the Lord?
“It was not that they had no knowledge of God in theory, or were real atheists, but they were so practically; they denied Him in works, they had no love to Him, nor fear of Him, and departed from His ways and worship, as much as if they were entirely ignorant of Him.”2
So, what were the sons of Eli doing that was so evil? We read,
“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, 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” (1Sam 2:13-17).
That’s not what the Law of Moses specified for the priest’s portion…
“The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast shall be for Aaron and his sons. And the right thigh you shall give to the priest as a contribution from the sacrifice of your peace offerings” (Lev 7:31-32).
There were specific portions that the priest and his family were allowed to partake of — the breast and the right thigh, not whatever comes up on the fork.
The fat of the offering
But, the fat of the offering was the most important part — and it was absolutely forbidden to eat. It was God’s portion and had to be completely burned on the altar.
“And he shall offer of the sacrifice of the peace offering an offering made by fire unto the Lord; the fat that covereth the inwards, and all the fat that is upon the inwards, And the two kidneys, and the fat that is on them, which is by the flanks, and the caul above the liver, with the kidneys, it shall he take away. And Aaron’s sons shall burn it on the altar upon the burnt sacrifice, which is upon the wood that is on the fire: it is an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord… And the priest shall burn them upon the altar: it is the food of the offering made by fire for a sweet savour: all the fat is the LORD’s” (Lev 3:3-5, 16).
Why was the fat so important? Because it represented giving our very best to God. In fact, the Hebrew word “cheleb” is used figuratively to mean the richest, choicest part — as in Numbers, where it describes the portion of Israel’s offerings that were to be given to the priests…
“All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the firstfruits of what they give to the Lord, I give to you” (Num 18:12).
That principle was recognized right from the beginning, by Abel. “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Heb 11:4).
Why was Abel’s sacrifice so excellent? Because there was a full understanding and recognition of the principles involved in his sacrifice. And what did he offer?
“And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof” (Gen 4:4), which was the very best that could be given. It was the fat around the internal organs. It represented what was in your heart — that’s what matters to God.
The Lord Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of that — we know that all the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. But, in the Psalms we see God’s portion of the offerings…
“In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart’ ” (Psa 40:6-8).
That was the fat of the offering that Jesus made. He gave his very best to God — he kept His law within his heart. And, isn’t that what God wants from us? God wants to see the character of His son growing in our hearts — that’s His portion — all the fat is the Lord’s.
When we come to Samuel, we see the importance of this when we learn what it means to tamper with the portion that belongs to God.
“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.’ 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.’ 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” (1Sam 2:15-17).
Eli as a father
That was the sin of Eli’s sons. They robbed God of his portion. And, how did Eli deal with them? What kind of father was he?
“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. And he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?’ ” (1Sam 2:22-25).
What difference did Eli’s words make in the lives of his children? None whatsoever.
“But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (1Sam 2:25).
Eli could have done something… But he didn’t do anything. He just gave them a “good talking to.” And ultimately his inaction led to their tragic deaths.
The Bible tells us that if we want what is best for our children when they’re rebellious and disobedient, we have got to do more than talk. “Discipline your son, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to his death” (Prov 19:18). Eli never got the hang of disciplining his kids, so he became a willing party to sons’ deaths.
But Eli didn’t cause his sons destruction ONLY because he didn’t discipline them. He led his sons to destruction because of his own example. We learn this from the words of the prophet which God sent to warn Eli of his condemnation.
“And there came a man of God to Eli and said to him, ‘Thus the Lord has said, ‘Did I indeed reveal myself to the house of your father when they were in Egypt subject to the house of Pharaoh? 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. Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?’ ” (1Sam 2:27-29).
Eli himself was getting fat from the meat that was stolen from the people — and he was a fat man. We learn this where Eli is told of the outcome of the battle with the Philistines…
“As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy” (1Sam 4:18).
Eli KNEW his sons were robbing the sacrifices, and he partook of their sin. He may have even done it himself as they were growing up.
Lessons for us
It’s hard to rebuke your kids for sins you don’t want to confront in yourself.
How do you confront a child for lying when you lie yourself?
How do you control a child with attitude problems if you can’t control your own temper?
How do you teach your child to speak kindly when you use foul language yourself?
Now, we need to be honest with ourselves here. None of us are without sin. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And, we are all going to mess up as parents (or grandparents, or uncles and aunts), or as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The problem is not that we have faults — it’s that we do not own up to our faults.
The best way to disarm the destructive nature of your own shortcomings is to own up to the fact that you have been wrong, admit that your actions were sinful, and then ask for forgiveness.
“He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (Prov 28:13).
But Eli didn’t do that. He didn’t admit his error. He didn’t forsake his own sins. Eli probably just made excuses for why he was like he was, instead of confronting his own failings. And so his sons followed in their father’s footsteps… and they all ended up facing the wrath of God.
Eli failed his sons because he refused to discipline them and because he’d already set a bad example for them. But ultimately, Eli’s biggest problem was that he loved his kids MORE than he loved God, for in 1 Samuel 2:29 God’s prophet asks Eli “…Why do you honor your sons more than me…?”
Jesus said “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).
The example of Hannah
What a contrast with the story of Hannah and Samuel in this same chapter!
“And [Hannah] vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head’… And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the Lord… Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord’ ” (1Sam 1:11, 20, 28).
Eli was what we would call today an “enabler” and he honored his sons more than God, but Hannah was willing to give her son to God.
Eli’s sons died, and they lost their homes and families to the wrath of God.
Hannah’s son — Samuel — became one of the greatest prophets and leaders of Israel in all the Old Testament.
We read the words of Hannah’s prayer:
“And Hannah prayed and said, ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is none holy like the Lord; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God’ ” (1Sam 2:1-2).
She doesn’t brag about how handsome Samuel is, or how smart he is, or how neat it is that he can say prayers at his young age. She overlooks the gift and gives praise to the Giver. She put God first… she gave Him the fat of the offering, the very best of what she could give, her only son.
God offered His son for us. And we come to remember him now in the bread and the wine. The one who gave his whole life to God, whose law was within his heart, the one who poured out his soul unto death so that we can call God our Father, so that we, like Hannah, can rejoice in his salvation saying…
“There is none holy like the Lord; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1Sam 2:2).
Randy Davenport (Orlando, FL)
1. All References are from the ESV.
2. Gill’s Commentary.