Eli's Family Failure

Eli was the high priest of Israel. He was a good man, but his two sons were a different story: they were “worthless men” who “did not know the Lord” — that is, they did not respect God’s authority (1 Samuel 2:12). Eli’s sons abused their position as priests for selfish gain, showed disregard for the sacrifices they administered, and even used the women who served outside the tabernacle for their own sexual pleasure (verses 12-17, 22).

Eventually a word came from the Lord: “I am about to judge [Eli’s] house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them” (3:13).

Notice that God condemned Eli’s failure as a father…

Even though Eli was a moral man. As far as we can tell from the Biblical account, Eli wasn’t a drunk, a thief, or a liar. He didn’t cheat on his wife or beat on his wife. All indications are that he was a man of godly character. Yet he neglected the vital responsibility of training his sons in the fear of God. And for that, God held him accountable.

Even though Eli was very busy. Eli’s role as high priest carried numerous responsibilities that would have kept him quite busy — responsibilities that were given by God Himself, let’s remember. But Eli’s many important duties as priest did not offset or excuse his failure to discipline his boys.

Even though Eli was a spiritual leader. As Israel’s high priest, Eli mediated between the nation and God. He set the tone for the spiritual direction of the people. He would have been greatly respected. But Eli’s role and reputation as priest did not absolve him of the duty to train and correct his children. This spiritual leader in Israel did not show the needed spiritual leadership in his own family.

But doesn’t the Bible say that Eli objected to his sons’ behavior? Yes, it does (1 Samuel 2:23-25). Yet the Lord’s analysis was that “he did not rebuke them” (3:13, NASB) — or, as several translations read, “he did not restrain them.” The point is that Eli did far less than he should have done to rein in his sons’ blasphemous conduct.

Eli thus comes across as the kind of parent whose words of reproof are ineffective because there is no resolve behind them; the kind of parent whose child knows that wrongdoing may bring a verbal reprimand, but never any real consequences. Although the text doesn’t say, it’s hard not to think this was a lifelong pattern in Eli’s parenting, something that helped to harden his sons in their hedonistic behavior. The picture of Eli in 1 Samuel is not of a man whose sons went rogue despite his best efforts, but of a man whose efforts toward them were neglected. God’s words to Eli indicate that, by failing to discipline his sons, he had made himself complicit in their evil. Whether he realized it or not, his problem was one of mixed-up priorities; he honored his sons above God (1 Samuel 2:29).

I don’t think any Christian looks at Eli’s story and says, “That’s the kind of parent I want to be.” But the depressing truth is that more than a few end up imitating him. Some disciples who are moral people in every observable way still fail to do what they should to train their children in godliness. Some are so busy with so many things — even if they are good things — that they neglect the time, consistent effort, and self-sacrifice that are crucial to raising children. Sometimes elders, deacons, and preachers have failed in their duties as fathers because they gave so much time and energy to their roles in the church that they had none left to give to their equally important roles in their families. Like Eli, some Christian parents honor their children above God, valuing their kids’ temporal “happiness” more than their souls.

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Be warned: being morally good, being busy, even being a respected influence among God’s people — none of these excuse us from the great responsibility that is laid on us when we become parents. Dads and moms, let’s learn from Eli’s failure, and let’s resolve, with God’s help, not to follow in his steps.