Eli's Lineage

Eli was a descendant of Ithamar, the fourth and youngest son of Aaron the High Priest. He became High Priest (Kohen Godol) after the death of Pinehas, the son of Elazar, Ithamar's older brother. We are not told why Eli succeeded to the High Priesthood, instead of Pinehas's son. The last descendant of Ithamar's line to be High Priest was Evyathar, who was a grandson of Eli's grandson Achituv. Evyathar was High Priest during the reign of King David. However, he was banished by King Solomon (Shlomoh) for his siding with Adoniyah, Solomon's older half-brother who tried to capture the succession to the throne. The High Priesthood then reverted again to the line of Elazar ben Aaron, in the person of Tzadok the High Priest and his descendants.

Eli was also the only one in those early days in the history of our people who wore two crowns, for he was both Judge (Shofet) and High Priest. He became judge at the age of 58 years, after the death of Samson (Shimshon) in the year 2830 (or 2831), holding this office for forty years, until his tragic death at the age of 98 years.

Hannah's Prayer

In those days the Mishkan (Sanctuary) stood in Shiloh, which was the center of the religious life of the people. There was the residence of Eli, the High Priest, fourth in line of the unbroken chain of Oral Law (Massorah), beginning with Moshe Rabbeinu and continuing through Joshua and Pinehas.

It was there, in the Sanctuary of Shiloh where Hannah, the wife of a prominent Levite, Elkanah, came to pray for a son. She had been childless for many years. And she vowed that if G‑d blessed her with a son, she would consecrate him to the service of G‑d all his life. Eli expressed to her his prayerful wish that G‑d should grant her heart's desire. Within a year she gave birth to a son, and she named him Samuel (Shmuel), who was destined to become a great prophet, and Eli's successor as judge of all the Jewish people.

Hannah's joy knew no bounds. The first few years she kept him at home. Then true to her promise, she took him to Shiloh where she turned him over to Eli to be brought up by him. Under Eli's guidance, Samuel grew up in a wholly religious atmosphere and soon showed himself a worthy pupil.

Eli's Wayward Sons

Eli was a kind man by nature, and he was beloved by all the people who looked to him for spiritual guidance. Young Samuel was particularly attached to him, and faithfully followed his instructions. Eli was more proud of him than of his own two sons, Hophni and Pinehas, who, unfortunately did not follow in their father's footsteps. Taking advantage of their privileged position, they degraded the priesthood in the eyes of the masses by bribery and corruption. Eli rebuked his sons, but apparently not strongly enough. At any rate, they did not mend their ways.

The Prophecies

One day a man of G‑d (a prophet) came to Eli and brought him a stern message from G‑d. In it Eli was blamed for his sons' misconduct and he was told that both sons would die on the same day, and the priesthood would pass on from his house to that of another.

The same prophecy was soon repeated in Samuel's first Divine revelation, which he received while he was still very young. One evening, when he lay down to rest at the Tabernacle in Shiloh, Samuel heard a voice calling his name. He sprang up and ran to the aged Eli, thinking he had called him. But Eli told him to go back, for he had not called him. This was repeated three times, and then Eli became aware that it was a Divine summons. He then told the lad that when he heard the voice again, he should reply, "Speak, O L-rd, for Thy servant hears."

The message Samuel received was a very sad one: "Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both ears of every one that hears it shall tingle. In that day I shall perform against Eli all the things which I have spoken concerning his house... I will punish his house for ever, for the offense that he knew that his sons made themselves accursed, but restrained them not. The iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever."

Reluctantly, the young prophet Samuel related the Divine message to Eli, and the old man humbly replied, "It is G‑d's will; let Him do what seems good to Him."

Samuel grew up full of faith and courage, strengthened by the spirit G‑d bestowed upon him. The people recognized a future leader in him. Eli, too, had no doubt that his own two sons were not worthy to succeed him in carrying on the Tradition. Eli was now old and could not exert any influence on them. He knew that his successor as judge over all the people would be none other than Samuel.

Death of Eli's Sons

For some time the Jews had lived in peace and were not troubled by the Philistines in the west. But then there were rumblings of war again, and again it was with the Philistines. At Aphek the battle was waged, and the Jews were driven back after losing four thousand men. Now the elders of Israel remembered that in the days of Joshua, the Ark of G‑d had been carried at the head of the army and had always ensured success. So they went to Shiloh and demanded that the Ark should be brought to them out of the Tabernacle. Hophni and Pinehas personally accompanied the sacred Ark to the camp. Its presence wonderfully restored the drooping courage of the Israelites. As soon as they beheld it they raised a great cry, so that the earth rang and seemed to tremble. But it was G‑d's will that the Philistines should triumph. They fought with desperate courage, and the Israelites were routed again; this time thirty thousand of their soldiers were slain and the rest fled in wild confusion. Hophni and Pinehas were among the dead, and the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of the pagan enemy. The sad prophecy about the calamity which was to befall the house of Eli now unfolded itself in all its tragedy.

At Shiloh, Eli and the people assembled there, were anxiously awaiting news of the battle. At last there came swiftly running from the camp to the city, a Benjaminite, with his clothes rent and earth upon his head. (According to our Sages this messenger was Saul, later to become king of Israel.) Eli sat watching by the wayside as the messenger entered the gates of the town; he heard a loud wail arise. "What does the sound of this tumult mean?" the old man asked, full of evil foreboding. His failing sight did not let him perceive the messenger's rent clothes and his earth-covered head, which told their own tale. The Benjaminite approached him and broke the terrible news to him slowly. "I come from the battlefield," he began, "and I have fled today from the battlefield..."

Eli, anxiously interrupting him, inquired, "What happened there, my son)?"

Then the messenger related fully his sad tidings, from bad to worse. "Our people fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons, Hophni and Pinehas, are dead, and the Ark of G‑d is taken."

The Tragic End

When Eli heard of the fate of the Holy Ark, he fell backwards from his seat, overcome with grief, and there died, ninety-eight years old, after having been judge for forty years.

The Holy Ark remained in the possession of the Philistines for seven months. During this time they had been visited by calamities and misfortunes that had so frightened them, that they determined to restore the Ark to the Israelites. The Ark was placed on a new cart drawn by two cows which had never borne a yoke before, and allowed to go on by themselves. The animals proceeded, towing as they went, taking the straight road to Beth Shemesh, never turning either to the right or to the left. It was the time of the wheat harvest, and the reapers at Beth Shemesh welcomed the unexpected arrival of the Holy Ark with great rejoicing. From Beth Shemesh the Ark was later removed to Kiryath Ye'arim, where it stayed until the time of King David.

In the meantime, the Prophet Samuel assumed the leadership of the Jewish people. He brought about a great spiritual revival, making a yearly round from his home in Ramah, his birthplace, through Bethel, Gilgal, and Mitzpah, judging and instructing the people, and restoring unity, peace, and security to the entire Jewish nation.