Crisis 2: Family Disappointment (1 Sam. 2:12-36)

We began our study of 1 Samuel last week by looking at the story of Hannah and how she dealt with the crisis of unfulfilled dreams. As part of Hannah’s story, we were introduced to a man named Eli. Eli was a man who was rather unique in the history of Israel because he served as both the high priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh and as the judge of Israel. Of course, Israel had had many judges up to this point, and it had had many high priests. However, it was exceedingly rare for one man to fulfill both offices. It says a lot about Eli’s character and capability that God would entrust him with both offices. Yet, the Eli we find in this week’s reading is a leader in decline. His eyesight and his health are failing.  We saw him in last week’s reading wrongly judging Hannah from afar instead of perceiving her as someone in need of spiritual guidance and comfort. Unlike Hannah, Eli’s dreams have been fulfilled in that he has not one, but two, sons who have followed him into spiritual leadership at the tabernacle. Yet, as we see in this week’s passage, Eli’s dreams have turned into nightmares. Though his two sons serve as priests at the tabernacle, they are using their leadership positions for personal gain and to abuse the people.  

It is easy to look at this story and judge Eli as a parent, yet we should be careful not to do so. We know that Eli raised his boys in the Lord’s tabernacle. Though they disregarded God’s instructions on the administration of the sacrifices, they nevertheless were very familiar with them. Though the passage states that they didn’t know the Lord, there’s no evidence that they practiced idolatry. Most tellingly, Eli also raised Samuel from the time he was weaned, and Samuel turned out very differently. So, what can we learn from Eli’s story?

  1. As parents, how we raise our children is influential, but it is not determinative. Three boys were raised by Eli. Two of them grew up to be immoral disappointments. The third grew up to be one of the most influential prophets and leaders of Israel in all of the Old Testament. Eli put all three in a position to have an encounter with God, but only one responded to God’s call. Ultimately, no matter how well or how poorly we parent, it will be up to our children to decide for themselves how they will respond to the gospel.
  2. Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. As priests administering the sacrifices at the tabernacle, Phineas and Hophni clearly knew about God and his sacrificial system. However, Scripture says that they did not KNOW the Lord.  Sometimes the darkest, most rebellious hearts are hidden behind a façade of piety.
  3. True love forgives the most but condones the least. It is important to note here that Eli was not punished because his sons turned out poorly. He was judged by God because he knew his sons were harming others, and though he had the power to stop it, Eli’s intervention with his son’s ended with him merely rebuking them. In fact, many scholars believe that Eli’s late in life obesity was due to him participating in eating the fat of the sacrifices along with his sons. It is not loving for us to condone sin in the lives of those we love. In fact, it is the opposite of love. When we condone the sin of those we love, we not only become participants in that sin, but we also open the door to consequences that can have multi-generational impacts.
  4. God’s grace is available in even the biggest family disappointment.  In this story, we see Eli confronted for his family’s sin, and the prophet foretells a horrific future for Eli’s family. Yet, in the middle of this dire warning, the prophet also brings a message of hope.  The prophet tells Eli of a day when a faithful Priest arises who will minister before the Lord on behalf of his people forever. That Priest is Jesus. In Hebrews, we read that Jesus is the faithful Priest who offered the final sacrifice for sin, and who now mediates on our behalf. No matter how dark the family disappointment we might face, the hope of God’s grace remains.


  1. Have you ever experienced a family disappointment?  What are some of the emotions with which you struggled? Does your experience give you a greater sympathy or understanding for Eli?
  2. What is your first reaction to someone who is experiencing family disappointment? Are you quick to judge? Are you quick to diagnose how to “fix” the situation?
  3. How do we balance loving wayward loved ones while not condoning sinful behavior
  4. Even in the midst of dreadful judgment, the prophet still reminded Eli of God’s grace and faithfulness?  How do we find God’s grace in the midst of family disappointment?