My grandmother used to say that, although she liked to read the Bible, she really didn’t like the Old Testament because of all the violence. And certainly today’s first reading helps me to understand how she felt. But it’s a reading that I think has very important things to say about the spiritual life. I’m going to be clear though, as a pastor I approach this with fear and trembling, because I could well be judged in the same was as Eli and his sons.
So we have been hearing the story of Eli and his sons this past week. But there are significant parts of the story we haven’t heard, and that’s too bad, because they explain the massacre we get in today’s first reading. Eli was the high priest at the time that Samuel was conceived, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas assisted him. His sons were also terrible human beings. They would steal the peoples’ sacrifices off the altar while they were still boiling, and were known to be extremely promiscuous. When Eli, their father, was made aware of this, his response was more or less, “Now boys, you can’t be doing that.” So they ignored their father and did it all the more.
It’s easy to see the sin of Hophni and Phinehas, but Eli was actually more at fault. In the theology of the Old Testament, the appropriate response from Eli would have been to put them both to death. I know that sounds harsh, but we need to look at it from the spiritual perspective. Anything that gets in the way of bringing people to God, anything that gets in the way of right worship, anything that gets in the way of taking care of those in need, has to be radically blotted out. That’s why all those Egyptians pursuing the Israelites in the desert came to a watery end in the Red Sea.
And Hophni and Phinehas were only part of the problem. The problem is that Eli, as high priest, has been ignoring his duties in such a way that he allowed not only the sins of his two sons, but also the sins of the people. More and more, they were turning away from the Lord. All of this comes to a tipping point in today’s reading. When they had been initially defeated by the Philistines, only then did they think to consult the Lord. So they bring the Ark of the Covenant down like it was some kind of rabbit’s foot instead of the Holy Presence of God. And so God gave them over to the hands of their enemies and allowed the Ark to fall into the hands of the Philistines. Their depravity caused not just the fall of the nation, but also the fall of their religion. The Ark was a sign of God’s presence in the community, a treasured holy vessel crafted by the hands of Moses, and they let it go. I’ll tell you right now, friends, no one gets to this Tabernacle while I still have a beating heart, and I’m not the high priest. But that’s how depraved things had become, all because Eli was asleep at the altar. (Incidentally, he is frequently noted as sleeping in the stories that preceded this one.)
None of this is ever going to get better for Israel until David is anointed king of Israel, and a type of messiah for the people. Of course this foreshadows the actual Savior of the World, the Christ and Messiah who would be anointed by the Holy Spirit to break the power of the most insidious enemy and gain us all the salvation we need.
So the moral of the story, if you want one, is to put to death whatever in us is keeping us from completely, freely, following God. It’s not easy. It wouldn’t have been easy for Eli to put his sons to death. But if he had, he would have saved the lives of thousands of soldiers and prevented the fall of Israel and her religion. There is too much at stake to let things go; we have to be ready to do whatever it takes to stay in relationship with our God.