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Eli (biblical figure)

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1645 painting by Jan Victors of Hannah presenting her son Samuel to Eli, who is seated on the right.

Eli[a] was, according to the Books of Samuel, a High Priest of Shiloh. When Hannah came to Shiloh to pray for a son, Eli initially accused her of drunkenness, but when she protested her innocence, Eli wished her well. Hannah's eventual child, Samuel, was raised by Eli in the tabernacle. When Eli failed to rein in the abusive behavior of his sons, God promised to punish his family, resulting eventually in the death of Eli and his sons. Later biblical passages mention the fortunes of several of his descendants, and he figures prominently in Samaritan tradition.


Biblical narrativeEdit

Hannah is the wife of Elkanah. Elkanah also has another wife (Peninnah) who bore him children. Peninnah, at every chance, teases and criticises Hannah about her barrenness, to the point of Hannah's deep despair. Their husband Elkanah sees Hannah's distress, and tries to uncover her deep despair with these questions. "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"[1]

The story indicates that Hannah gave no answer to the questions, and instead rose and presented herself before Yahweh. She wept bitterly in the temple of Shiloh. When Hannah is found in the temple by the priest, she is praying silently, but her lips are moving. Eli witnesses this odd posture, and concludes that Hannah is intoxicated. In her despair, Hannah prays to Yahweh for a child. Hannah promises that if her prayer is granted, she will give the son back to Yahweh. After Hannah's explanation of her sobriety, Eli blesses her with peace and a guarantee that Yahweh will grant her request. Hannah goes home, eats and drinks with Elkanah, and is filled with hope. Subsequently, Hannah becomes pregnant; her child is named Samuel. The time comes to offer the yearly sacrifice at the temple, but Hannah stays home. She promises to go to the temple, when Samuel is weaned and plans to leave him with Eli to be trained as a Nazirite.[2]

The book of Samuel records Hannah's prayer to Yahweh. She rejoices and exalts the Holy One, that there is no father like God, therefore, the nation should rejoice also in this Holy One.[3] This story of Hannah intertwines itself with the culture of the nation of Israel. Eli is the high priest (kohen gadol) of Shiloh, the second-to-last Israelite judge (succeeded only by Samuel[4]) before the rule of the Kings of Israel and Judah.

The sons of EliEdit

Depiction of Eli and Samuel by John Singleton Copley, 1780.

The sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, meanwhile, are behaving wickedly, for example by taking for themselves all the prime cuts of meat from sacrifices, and by committing adultery with the women who serve at the sanctuary entrance. Eli is aware of their behavior but he rebukes them too lightly and ultimately does not stop them. The sons continue in their sinful behavior, and it is Hannahs' son Samuel who, several years later, prophesies to Eli that Eli and his family will be punished for this, with all male descendants dying before reaching old age and being placed in positions subservient to prophets from other lineages.[5] The curse alludes to a previous (not appearing elsewhere in the Bible) promise from God of Eli's lineage continuing eternally (c.f. similar promises to King David and Jehonadab). While this continuation is not revoked, a curse is placed on all of Eli's male descendants forever. As a sign of the accuracy of this future, Eli is told by the man of God that his sons will die on the same day.[6]

Samuel's trainingEdit

Eli goes on to train Samuel. When Samuel hears God speaking to him, he at first thinks it is Eli; Eli, who doesn't hear God calling Samuel, eventually realizes the truth, and instructs Samuel on how to respond. Samuel is told that God's threat (which isn't elaborated further) will be carried out on Eli and his family, and that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it. Eli asks Samuel what he had been told, insisting that he be told the whole truth, and so Samuel does; Eli reacts by saying that God will do as he judges best.[7]

Philistine attack and the death of EliEdit

Death of Eli, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

Some years later, when Samuel has become an adult, the Philistines attack Eben-Ezer, eventually capturing the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and killing Eli's sons who accompany the Ark to battle as priests. The Israelites had brought the Ark with them to battle under the premise that there was no possible way God would allow it to enter enemy hands, an assumption that proved to be incorrect. Eli, who is nearly blind, is unaware of the event until he asks about all the commotion. Eli, sitting in a chair, is told what has happened by a soldier who has fled the battle. In reaction to the news that the Ark of God has been captured, Eli falls backwards out of the chair and dies from a broken neck, on the 10th day of Iyar.[8][9]

He was a Judge of Israel for a total of 40 years, and dies at the age of 98. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, is pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she hears the news that the Ark of God has been captured and that her father-in-law and husband are dead, she goes into labour and gives birth, but is overcome by labour pains. As she is dying, the women attending her say, Don't despair; you have given birth to a son. But she does not respond or pay any attention. She names the boy Ichabod, saying The Glory has departed from Israel- because of the capture of the Ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband.[10]


The Philistine incursions spanned a period of 40 years; and Samuel, who fought the Philistine incursions, judged Israel for 20 years. Some scholars, like Kessler,[11] and Nowack[12] have argued that there is likely to have been some overlap between the time of Samuel and that of Eli.[13] However, the Book of Judges always mentions the years of oppression in contrast to the period of a judge's dispensation; since the early parts of Eli's rule do not appear to occur during a time of oppression, this appears to rule out any overlap with the Philistine oppression that Samson, a previous judge, had lived under.[13]


Though his own genealogy is not given by the text, a number of scholars have determined a genealogy for Eli, based on that given to his sons in other passages. Abiathar is described by the Book of Chronicles as being a direct (paternal) descendant of Ithamar; the Books of Samuel state that Abiathar was a son of Ahimelech and that Ahimelech was a son of Ahitub, who is the brother of Ichabod. Consequently, since the narrative states that Ichabod was the son of Phinehas, and that Phinehas was the son of Eli, a number of scholars have drawn the conclusion that Eli must be a descendant of Ithamar.[14]


  • Ahimelech, great-grandson of Eli: slain by Doeg the Edomite, fulfilling part of the curse on the House of Eli that none of his male descendants would live to old age.[15]
  • Abiathar, son of Ahimelech: great-great-grandson of Eli; the only survivor of the massacre at Nob, and the last High Priest of the House of Eli, deposed from office by King Solomon;fulfilling the other part of the curse on the House of Eli that the priesthood would pass from his family.

Other sourcesEdit


The Talmud lists Eli as a prophet.[16]

The rabbis described Samuel, Eli's student, as having ruled that it was legitimate for laymen to slaughter sacrifices, since the halakha only insisted that the priests bring the blood (cf. Leviticus 1:5, Zevahim 32a).[17] Eli is said to have reacted to this logic of Samuel by arguing that it was correct, but Samuel should be put to death for making legal statements while Eli (his mentor) was present.[17]


In addition to the individuals whose descent from Eli can be determined from the Biblical text, rabbinic literature cites other individuals as descendants of Eli.

Rabbah died at age 40 and his nephew Abaye died at age 60.[21][22][23]

Samaritan sourcesEdit

The Samaritans assert that Mount Gerizim was the original Holy Place of Israel from the time that Joshua conquered Israel and the ten tribes settled the land. According to the Bible, the story of Mount Gerizim takes us back to the story of the time when Moses ordered Joshua to take the Twelve Tribes of Israel to the mountains by Shechem and place half of the tribes, six in number, on the top of Mount Gerizim (Mount of the Blessing), and the other half in Mount Ebal (Mount of the Curse). The two mountains were used to symbolize the significance of the commandments and serve as a warning to whoever disobeyed them.

Abu l-Fath, who in the fourteenth century C.E. wrote the major work of Samaritan history, comments on Samaritan origins as follows:

Further, the Samaritan Chronicle Adler, or New Chronicle, believed to have been composed in the 18th century C.E. using earlier chronicles as sources states:

According to the Samaritans this marked the end of the Age of Divine Favor called רידון (Ridhwan) or רהוּתה (Rahuta), which began with Moses. Thus began the פנוּתה (Fanuta) Era of Divine Disfavor when God looks away from the people. According to the Samaritans the age of divine favor will only return with the coming of the Taheb (Messiah or Restorer).[27]

Likewise according to Samaritan sources, the high priests line of the sons of Phineas died out in 1624 C.E. with the death of the 112th High Priest Shlomyah ben Pinhas when the priesthood was transferred to the sons of Ithamar; see article Samaritan for list of High Priests from 1613 to 2013-the 132nd High priest of the Samaritans was Aharon ben Ab-Chisda ben Yaacob who was succeeded by Aabed-El ben Asher ben Matzliach (Eli was of the House of Ithamar).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ (Hebrew: עלי, Modern: ʻEli, Tiberian: ʻĒlî, meaning "Ascent" or "above"; Ancient Greek: Ἠλί Ēli; Latin: Heli)


  1. ^ I Samuel 1:1-8
  2. ^ I Samuel 1:9-28
  3. ^ I Samuel 2:1-10
  4. ^ I Samuel 7:15
  5. ^ 1 Samuel 2:31
  6. ^ 1 Samuel 2:12-36
  7. ^ I Samuel 3:1-18
  8. ^ I Samuel 4:1-18>
  9. ^ "Eli The High Priest - 2772 - 10 Iyar 2870/2871".
  10. ^ I Samuel 4:18-22
  11. ^ Kessler, The Chronology of Judaism and The First of the Kings
  12. ^ Nowack, Richter-Ruth
  13. ^ a b Jewish Encyclopedia
  14. ^   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "article name needed". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  15. ^ Ohr Somayach, two Pillars for a Longer Life, accessed 22 May 2017
  16. ^ "How many prophets were there and who were they? - philosophy prophecy history prophets torah the bible the prophets".
  17. ^ a b Berakhot 31b
  18. ^ "JEREMIAH -".
  19. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia Ezekiel
  20. ^ Ohr Somayach, two Pillars for a Longer Life, accessed may 8,2019]
  21. ^ "Yevamot 100 - 106 by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l".
  22. ^ "Abbaye - (4040-4100, 280-340)".
  23. ^ Ohr Somayach, two Pillars for a Longer Life, accessed may 8,2019]
  24. ^ The Emergence of the Samaritan Community (Lecture given by Professor Abraham Tal at Mandelbaum House, August 2001) [1]
  25. ^ The Keepers, An Introduction to the History and Culture of the Samaritans, by Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, Hendrickson Publishing, 2002, pages 11-12
  26. ^ The Keepers, page 12
  27. ^ The Keepers, page 13

External linksEdit

Eli (biblical figure)
Preceded by
Judge of Israel Succeeded by
Preceded by
High Priest of Israel Succeeded by