Old Testament

Eli and His Sons

By Elder Paulo R. Grahl

Area Authority Seventy

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Tragedy resulted when this priest and judge of Israel honored his children more than the Lord.

Should parents be responsible for the unrighteous acts of their children? The Lord has said that parents have a duty and are accountable before Him to “bring up [their] children in light and truth” and “to set in order” their families (see D&C 93:40–43). The story of this Old Testament family reminds us that no matter how well we may perform our duties in the Church, sorrow will come if we neglect to correct our children in righteousness.

Of the House of Aaron

Throughout most of the approximately 450-year period of leadership by judges over Israel (between Joshua and Saul), the descendants of Eleazar, Aaron’s oldest son, presided as high priests at the tabernacle and represented Israel before the Lord. With the ordination of Eli, however, the Lord passed the office of high priest to a descendant of Ithamar, the fourth and youngest son of Aaron (see Num. 3:2). Eli was a devoted high priest who served 40 years as judge of Israel, the first of priestly descent also to regulate the affairs of the people (see 1 Sam. 4:18; Bible Dictionary, “Eli,” 663).

Eli was a good man who gave kind consideration to Hannah in her hour of great agony (see 1 Sam. 1:1–18; 1 Sam. 2:20–21) and paid careful attention to the upbringing and spiritual training of Hannah’s son Samuel (see 1 Sam. 1:24–28; 1 Sam. 2:18, 26; 1 Sam. 3:1–19).

Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Together the three of them labored as priests at Shiloh in the tabernacle, where the ark of the covenant was housed (see 1 Sam. 1:3). In keeping with the requirements of the law of Moses, all Israelite males were required to appear before the Lord yearly on each of the great national festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Tabernacles (see Bible Dictionary, “Feasts,” 672–74). At Shiloh, Eli also officiated in the judgment seat (see 1 Sam. 1:9). Hophni and Phinehas’s role as priests was to function as mediators between God and His people in their worship and offering of sacrifices (see Bible Dictionary, “Priests,” 753–54).

Sons of Belial

“Now the sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:12). The term Belial means “worthless” or “wicked” (see Bible Dictionary, “Belial,” 620). They were men of greed and lust. They used their authority as priests to extort from the people the best of the meat brought before them for sacrifice (see 1 Sam. 2:13–16). In essence they were taking their portion before giving a portion to God! They were also committing immoral acts with the women who gathered at the tabernacle (see 1 Sam. 2:22). Eli knew what they were doing, and when the people saw that the priesthood at Shiloh was corrupt, they “abhorred the offering of the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:17). What was a father to do?

Eli confronted his sons, “Why do ye such things? … Nay, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord’s people to transgress” (1 Sam. 2:23–24). Hophni and Phinehas ignored the pleading words of their father. They continued in their evil ways; Eli’s warning was too late, and Eli did nothing to remove them from office.

The Lord Warns Eli

A man of God soon visited Eli at Shiloh and delivered a stern rebuke from the Lord: “Why kick ye at [treat with scorn] my sacrifice? … Honourest thy sons above me? … Them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed. … And this shall be a sign unto thee, that shall come upon thy two sons, … in one day they shall die both of them” (1 Sam. 2:29–34). The Lord had spoken plainly to Eli: restrain or remove your sons or they will die. So did Eli act? No. He continued to allow his sons to work at the tabernacle (see 1 Sam. 4:1–5).

Samuel, who was being reared by Eli to serve in the tabernacle, soon became a young man and Eli grew old. The Lord called to Samuel in the night, directing him to deliver another warning to Eli. It was a sacred moment for Samuel who “did not yet know the Lord, neither was the word of the Lord yet revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7). Samuel was to tell Eli the Lord was profoundly dissatisfied with the vile acts of Hophni and Phinehas, and since Eli had failed to use his parental and judicial authority to curb them, the Lord would remove them (see 1 Sam. 3:11–14).

The following morning Samuel was apprehensive and “feared to shew Eli the vision” (1 Sam. 3:15). At Eli’s insistence, Samuel told him everything. Eli assured and calmed Samuel, saying, “It is the Lord: let him do what seemeth him good” (1 Sam. 3:18). There is a sense of resignation and submission to God in these words. Eli knew he had sinned and that the fate of his sons was certain. Eli also now knew the Lord had chosen Samuel, not one of his sons, as the new prophet for Israel (see 1 Sam. 3:19–21).

Death Visits the House of Eli

The army of the Israelites soon went out to war against the Philistines. In the first battle Israel was severely beaten, losing “about four thousand men” (1 Sam. 4:2). The elders of the people, apparently including Eli, supposed that the presence of the ark of the covenant on the field of battle would save them. The ark was brought to the battlefront by its caretakers, Hophni and Phinehas, from Shiloh, a distance of about 20 miles,1 and “all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again” (1 Sam. 4:5). A new and tenacious battle ensued. Israel fled in defeat, suffering the death of 30,000 footmen and the capture of the ark. Hophni and Phinehas were also killed (see 1 Sam. 4:10–11).

A messenger was sent to Shiloh with the terrible news. From his chair by the gate of the tabernacle, Eli heard an uproar in the distance and feared for the safety of the ark, for there was great risk in removing the ark from the tabernacle except when directed by the Lord (see Ex. 26:34; Josh. 18:1). “What is there done, my son?” Eli asked the messenger. “Thy two sons … are dead,” the messenger replied. Then when Eli heard that the ark had been lost, “he fell from off the seat backward,” breaking his neck, and died (see 1 Sam. 4:16–18).

Parental Accountability

The unhappy events that befell Eli and his sons can be instructive to parents today. It is a case of parental negligence by one who had the sacred and nontransferable responsibility to teach, encourage, correct, and restrain his children in righteousness. Eli gave Hophni and Phinehas the freedom to commit serious sins without the necessary corrective action. The results of this omission were disastrous for him, his sons, and the nation.

The Lord has placed on the shoulders of fathers and mothers the primary responsibility to rear their children. King Benjamin taught the parents of his day: “Ye will not suffer your children … that they transgress the laws of God … and serve the devil. … But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness” (Mosiah 4:14–15).

Some fundamental ways to make parental teaching effective are (1) constant and caring communication between parents and children, with parents being aware day by day of what their children do and learn; (2) regular and well-prepared family meetings, such as family home evening, councils, prayer, and scripture study; (3) frequent family activities; (4) careful supervision and vigilance concerning the contents of movies, television programs, the Internet, books, magazines, music, and other materials so that children can be alerted and guided past the ambushes and dangers found in the media.

A colleague from work told me that not long ago he was driving his car along a busy avenue when he heard another driver behind him honking his horn and flashing his lights. Thinking it was just another impatient driver, he continued down the road. Soon the other driver pulled up beside him and, shouting, asked him to pull over because he had something important to tell him. When they had both stopped, the stranger pointed to the bumper sticker in the back window of my friend’s car and said, “I know that that is true!” The bumper sticker read, “No other success in life can compensate for failure in the home.”2 In tears this man proceeded to tell my friend how he had compromised his values, neglected his family, and lost what he now knew was the most precious blessing in his life.

Help for Parents

Like the ancient children of Israel who journeyed to Shiloh to worship and find spiritual strength and renewal, we may also turn to the Savior, our “Shiloh” (see Bible Dictionary, “Shiloh,” 773), for mercy, patience, and long-suffering in our imperfections as parents. By diligently seeking to know Him through scripture study, prayer, pondering, Church meetings, and temple attendance, our knowledge and wisdom as parents will be expanded. Our desire to “live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God” (D&C 84:44) will enable us to make Jesus Christ the center of our lives and the model for all our choices, actions, and reactions as parents. Just as the ark of the covenant was a symbol for the presence of the Lord among the Israelites of old, the Holy Ghost will be with us as an evidence that God is near, that He is attentive to and interested in our happiness, and that He will help us succeed with our children.

Illustrated by Robert Barrett

Show References


  1. 1.

    See Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (1985), 110.

  2. 2.

    See David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Apr. 1935, 116; quoting J. E. McCulloch, Home: The Savior of Civilization (1924), 42.