Discover more from That Zion May Go Forth
Priesthood Corruption: Eli's Sons and the Prophet Samuel's Bid for Power
Thus far, the previous posts concerning Ephraim’s political intrigue and shenanigans derived their details mainly from the Book of Judges account offered in the Bible. Repeatedly, the Judges’ narrative reveals the cyclical rise and fall of Israelite civilization, with the decline emanating from the duplicitous actions of Ephraim at certain key points. Moving beyond the Book of Judges to subsequent texts within the Bible reveals other instances of political turmoil catalyzed by the tribe of Ephraim, or at least a chief representative of the tribe fomenting such. The Book of Samuel gives readers more glimpses into the destabilizing factors following in the wake of Ephraimite meddling.
The Extortionists: Hophni and Phinehas
The author of the 1 Samuel account commences his history with details evoking motifs of evil and corruption persistent throughout Israelite society, which led to the Lord's raising up of messianic figures to deliver the people when their childish leaders entangled their political affairs with the surrounding nations and their gods. The personification of evil and corruption appeared in the persons of Hophni and Phinehas, sons of the high priest Eli at Shiloh. Like their father, these two men, being descendants of Aaron, served as priests at the tabernacle, officiating on behalf of the people within the holy confines housing the ark of the covenant. Though consecrated for sacred duties, Hophni and Phinehas extorted the people through their preeminent positions that held great sway over the Israelites’ minds.
Thanks for reading That Zion May Go Forth! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
One method of extortion resorted to involved the sacrificial meat offerings brought by the people. The customary practice of a sacrifice required the sacrificer to bring the very best animal from among his flocks, slay it, and then sear off the fat. The fat represented the Lord’s portion. Then a lesser portion of the meat was removed and set aside for the Levitical priests. And the remaining flesh fell to the sacrificer to take home to his family for a feast. Yet Eli’s sons did not follow the protocols stipulated under the Mosaic Law; rather, whenever any Israelite brought forth their offering Hophni and Phinehas “would thrust into the cauldron or the pot or the vat or the kettle,” and “whatever the fork would pick up, the priest would take away.”Notice here the correct apportioning never took place; the narrative describes these priests’ frenzied and gluttonous pursuit of food by poking their forks indiscriminately into the sacrificer's pots without even considering the Israelite’s requisite portion for he and his family.
But they went even further in their greed, for they also stole from the Lord. The account depicts these priests stifling the sacrifice necessary by approaching each Israelite saying, “hand over the meat to roast for the priest, for he won't take boiled meat from you, only raw.”These men brazenly snubbed not only the sacrificer but also the Lord, robbing the latter of the fat that rightfully belonged to Him under the Mosaic Law. Hophni and Phinehas took the fat and all for themselves, fleecing the Lord and the people of that which was due them under the law. If any one complained, asserting their right to perform a pure sacrifice by burning the fat off, they denied them with this command, “No! For you shall hand it over now, and if not,” we'll “take it by force.” These priests were lawless.
What has been recounted represents only one level of extortion Eli’s son used in their quests for self-aggrandizement and placating their hedonism. The second reveals their manipulation of others through the prestige and authority they held via their sacred offices. Reports concerning the debased actions of Hophni and Phinehas swirled about the Israelite community, reaching Eli’s ears. His sons had committed heinous sexual deeds “with the women who flocked to the entrance of the Tent of Assembly.”Eli, shocked, warned them not to commit such misconduct. Yet, caring nothing for the words of their father, they continued in their ways and set a poor example of godliness before the people.
This was problematic for several reasons, but foremost among these perhaps needs some unpacking. Religion in the ancient world served as a necessary and interconnected role within the political framework of society, for it organized and oriented the people towards caring for their souls and those of others. These two priests’ action caused a fray in this framework because the people soon began to question their obedience to such persons and some began to doubt the law itself. People felt spiteful as a result of the injustices heaped upon them by those whom they supposed the most trustworthy. And Eli knew the societal ramifications of his sons’ misdeeds but used only words to stifle their behavior. Instead, this father’s nepotism caused him to refrain from taking legal action against his children at the expense of the whole community.
Why do you trample on My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded, and you honor your sons more than Me, to batten upon the first portions of each offering of Israel My people?
The scriptures show that Eli endorsed the individual rights of his sons above the entire House of Israel.
For this, the Lord would ensure that justice would unseat these thieves. Prior to these events, the Lord had promised that Eli’s house, and that of his ancestors, would “walk before” the Lord “forever.”In the wake of these events and Eli’s refusal to do anything to correct the situation, all the promises granted to Eli’s house now stood null and void, “For those who honor Me will I honor, and my spurners shall be dishonored.” Dishonor for Eli’s house came in the form of annihilation, meaning no future prosperity would live long to maintain his heritage. Eli’s house would vanish; this should serve as a warning to all who change the ordinances of the Lord for scheming and diabolical purposes.
But there still remains the question what exactly did the dishonors Eli and his sons committed equate to. Robert Alter’s commentary offers a startling clue, which points to the “man of God” sent to reprimand Eli.
This enunciation of a curse on the house of Eli, at the very beginning of the Samuel story, is introduced at precisely the corresponding place in the narrative as the denunciation and admonition of the divine messenger at the beginning of Judges.
Reviewing the contents of Judges chapter 2 creates a parallel structure denoting a synonymous relationship between the deeds of Eli’s family and those of the Israelites upon entering the promised land. The latter failed to drive out the Canaanites from the land; rather, they adopted their practices and manner of worship. From the Samuel account, Eli and his sons had retained Baal worship not only in their hearts but also implemented and enforced it in the holy confines of the tabernacle. They had become the sons of Belial.
The Ephraimite Samuel and His Political Maneuvering
Intermixed at the outset of 1 Samuel is the narrative describing the events that led up to the prophet Samuel’s birth. Important as many of the details inherent in the story are, some are more so than others. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, desired to concentrate her son and “give him to the Lord all the days of his life.”Giving her son into the service of the Lord meant that he would serve in the tabernacle alongside the priests, who happened to be Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas. These priests officiate therein because of their being descendants of Aaron and Levites. Samuel, however, was not a Levite, but the narrative informs the reader that he descended through the tribe of Ephraim, as indicated by the location of his father’s residence in “Ramathaim-zophim.” The account specified this township being among “the high country of Ephraim.”
There’s something potentially significant about Samuel’s installation at the tabernacle. Given the tribe of Ephraim’s birthright and the corruption of the chief priest and his sons, the Lord seems to have decided upon granting Ephraim the responsibility of tending to the sacerdotal duties on behalf of the House of Israel. This becomes more apparent once the Lord fulfilled a partial blow to the house of Eli with the death of the father and his two sons during the Philistine invasion, for only Samuel remained, so it appears. And this bestowal of priesthood duties on Ephraim makes sense, since the birthright duty of administering the spiritual blessings fell upon this tribe when Jacob conferred it in Genesis 48 (JST). Note that, despite Ephraim’s past treachery against his countrymen, the Lord still deemed this tribe fit to have another go at it in the man Samuel; yet this man followed the nepotism displayed by his predecessor.
In the twilight of life, Samuel conferred priesthood authority on his sons, Joel and Abijah, establishing them as judges, but, like Eli’s sons, these men corrupted themselves and perverted the right ways of the Lord, for they “took bribes and twisted justice.”But the sons represent only one part of the problem. Alter describes Samuel’s ploy to empower his sons as crafty political maneuvering aimed at the establishment of a dynastic ruler under the house of Samuel, or, more accurately, under Ephraim. Accruing much clout among the people perhaps imbued the prophet with the reassurance that the people would not challenge him in this transfer of priesthood and political power to corrupt men; rather, he believed they would submit willingly—you know, “follow the prophet.”
The people, however, did not conform to Samuel’s wishes, and, perhaps recalling the past history of Ephraim and the house of Eli, resisted the prophet because of the potential, destructive consequences such a dynastic rule under corrupt priesthood leaders would bring. They went even further in undermining his authority and demanded that their political government be replaced with a monarchy.
And all the elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah. And they said to him, “Look, you yourself have grown old and your sons have not gone in your ways. So now, set over us a king to rule us, like all the nations.” And the thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes when they said, “Give us a king to rule us.”
The people’s request, as gleaned from this passage, infuriated Samuel. The prophet had lost favor with the people as a result of what appears to be his poor judgement in selecting his corrupt sons to rule. But was it really poor judgement, or just the evidence of an ulterior motive? There are clues that seem to indicate the latter, but to discern this requires the reader to keep in mind the anger the people’s request caused within Samuel.
Samuel, according to the narrative, went off and inquired of the Lord about the people’s request, returning to present the Lord’s decision on the matter. What’s troubling about the prophet’s presentation is the disconnect between himself and the people.
Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you they have cast aside but Me they have cast aside from reigning over them. Like all the deeds they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods, even so they do as well to you.
Notice that Samuel’s relaying the Lord’s message focuses on the supposed idolatry of the people, and yet the preceding narrative up to this point describes nothing of the sort on the part of the people; rather, the prophet’s retort neglects the people’s reasoning in their desire for a monarchy, namely the corrupt natures of Samuel’s sons and his ploy to establish a dynasty with them at the head. Considering Samuel’s tribal affiliation and political motives, his disconnected response to the people no longer appears baffling. The prophet understood that granting the people’s request for a monarchy undermined his own authority and doused his hopes of reasserting Ephraim’s political dominance and prestige under the birthright. To dissuade the people, and remain legitimate, Samuel attempted to persuade the people of the pejorative aspects associated with monarchy to which they disagreed and remained firm in their desire for a king.
When reviewing Samuel’s analysis concerning the rule of kings, he’s quick to point out the problematic nature that potentially accompanies one-man rule. He frames his harangue in such away to convince his audience that monarchy always results in evils being perpetuated against the people. What’s disturbing about the discourse given is Samuel’s silence concerning the corruption of his sons; yet he insists on the corrupt nature of kings, implying the evil in the people’s choice for such rulers. Samuel’s nepotism and ambition for power either blinded him to the potential exigencies arising from his degenerate sons or he could have cared less and moved to install his sons for the sake of dynastic rule. The prophet, from all indications given in the narrative, cared little about the people’s concerns; rather, he sent the people away, and according to Alter’s commentary, did not immediately select a king for the people because he was “buying time” so that he could reformulate his methods for retaining political power.
Samuel as Puppet Master
The need to delay the immediate election of a new king became apparent in the literary signposts implanted by the author of the Samuel narrative. These indications surface during the narrators introduction of Saul into the foreground, with peculiar details depicting the character of Israel’s first monarch. When “some asses belonging to Kish, Saul’s father,” went astray, this man ordered Saul to set out and recover them.Traveling into “the high country of Ephraim” and a certain “region of Benjamin,” Saul and his servant had no fortune in locating his father’s lost animals, which persuaded Saul to think of abandoning his mission given him by his father. Alter comments that the author emphasizes the perhaps tender nature of Saul because of his desire to return home, lest his father worry about him and his servant. Insightful as this appears to be, the narrative offers clues for another interpretation.
These details reveals a man who is unwilling to complete or obey tasks given him by higher authorities, which perhaps foreshadows Saul’s disobedience when he became impatient with Samuel’s delayed arrival for which the king took matters into his own hands and offered sacrifice, though he had no authority to do so.Saul’s impatience surfaces here in this context as well, but his servant implores him to remain faithful to the task. Alter notes the future king’s trepidation “at every step,” a condition only overcome by being “prodded and directed by his own servant.” This scene apprises the audience of reversed roles each figure portrays: Saul, imbued with servile tendencies, represents the slave whereas the servants’s qualities show a determined and spirited leader. Saul’s qualities seem advantageous for manipulating, which may be the reason why Samuel chose him.
Another potential reason for Samuel’s selection of Saul, a Benjamite, pertains to geopolitical considerations. Recall Saul’s wandering in search of the lost asses and the trajectory of his search, which led him through two important areas of strategic interest to the prophet: “the high country of Ephraim” and the “region of Benjamin.” The scriptural account suggests the close proximity of these two tribes’ lands, and this is not surprising when considering these tribes’ genealogies. Both Ephraim and Benjamin descended through Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, and marched together when mustered for war under the leadership of the birthright tribe.There’s little doubt that this alliance of kinship was on Samuel’s mind when he selected Saul to rule over the tribes of Israel, for such a choice achieved two strategic objectives.
First, to ensure Ephraim’s dominance among the tribes, it appears Saul served as a puppet whom Samuel could influence and control in matters connected with political affairs for the benefit of Ephraimite interests. Second, such a choice would diffuse the people’s suspicion of Ephraim’s attempt to amass and horde political power for themselves at the expense of the rest. Yet there’s much irony on display here, for the man Samuel elected as king committed almost congruous acts of impiety Ephraim had in the Judge’s account.
1 Samuel 2:14. All citations from 1 Samuel are derived from Alter’s translation and commentary. The format of scriptural passage citation will consist book, chapter, and verse. Citations of the commentary will consist of page number and footnote number. Robert Alter, ed., The David Story: A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1999).
1 Samuel 2:15-16
1 Samuel 2:16-17
1 Samuel 2:22-23
1 Samuel 2:29-30
1 Samuel 2:30
1 Samuel 2:30-31
Alter, The David Story, 13 n.27.
1 Samuel 1:11
1 Samuel 1:1
1 Samuel 4:15-20
1 Samuel 8:2-3
Alter, The David Story, 41 n.1.
1 Samuel 8:4-6
1 Samuel 8:7-8
1 Samuel 8:11-19
Alter, The David Story, 45 n.22.
1 Samuel 9:3-4
1 Samuel 9:4-5
Alter, The David Story, 47 n.5.
1 Samuel 13:7-12
Alter, The David Story, 47 n.5.
Numbers 2:18-24 (JST)