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Eli (Hebrew: עֵלִי, Modern ʻEli Tiberian ʻĒlî, "Ascent"; Greek: Ηλι; Latin: Heli) was, according to the Books of Samuel, the name of a priest of Shiloh, and one of the last Israelite Judges before the rule of kings in ancient Israel.

Biblical narrative

Hannah, who is childless, prays to God for a child. Eli, who is sitting at the foot of the doorpost in the sanctuary at Shiloh, sees her apparently mumbling and thinks Hannah is drunk, but is soon assured of her motivation and sobriety. He blesses her after she promises the child to God. Subsequently, Hannah becomes pregnant; her child is Samuel. After he is weaned, she leaves him in Eli's care.

The sons of Eli

The sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, meanwhile, were behaving wickedly, for example by taking for themselves all the prime cuts of meat from sacrifices, and by having sex with the women who served at the sanctuary entrance. Despite Eli's castigation of their behavior, the sons continued, and so, according to the text, an unidentified "man of God" prophesies to Eli that Eli and his family will be punished for this, with all men dying "by the sword" (violently) before reaching old age and being usually placed in positions subservient to priests from other lineages. 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.

Samuel's training

Eli goes on to train Samuel. When Samuel hears Yahweh speaking to him, he thinks it is Eli at first; Eli, who doesn't hear Yahweh calling Samuel, eventually realizes the truth, and instructs Samuel on how to respond. Samuel is told that Yahweh'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 Yahweh will do what he judges best.

Philistine attack and the death of Eli

Some years later, when Samuel has grown up, the Philistines attack Eben-Ezer, eventually capturing the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and killing Eli's sons, who accompanied the Ark to battle as priests. Eli, who is 98 and blind, is unaware of the event until he asks about all the commotion; a man from the battlefield has run to Shiloh to report on events. When Eli is told what has happened, he falls over backwards, and dies from a broken neck. He was a Judge of Israel for a total of 40 years.


According to the Book of Judges, the Philistine incursions spanned a period of 40 years; and that Samson, who fought the Philistine incursions, judged Israel for 20 years. Some scholars, like Kessler,[1] and Nowack[2] have argued that there is likely to have been some overlap between the time of Samson and that of Eli.[3] 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.[3]


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 Ahimelek and that Ahimelek 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.[4]

It is the opinion of many textual scholars that the continued misbehaviour of Eli's sons and the castigation Eli receives as a result from the man of God (1 Samuel 2:27-36) is a later redaction, more in line with the views of the religious establishment at the time of Josiah. Without the passage, the Israelites' defeat and the deaths of Phinehas and Hophni appear as quite ordinary events, and suggest that there is no automatic divinely given protection over Israel; with the passage, the defeat is explained away as a punishment for not obeying the laws of their religion.[5]

Since Eli appears in the narrative abruptly and without introduction, some biblical scholars have argued that there may have originally been further, narratively earlier, accounts of Eli and of Shiloh that were excised by the compiler of the Books of Samuel. An alternate theory is that the story is more than it appears at face value, with Eli actually a cipher for El, and Samuel as a cipher for Yahweh, and the Eli-Samuel narrative as one which refers to the change from El being seen as head of the pantheon to Yahweh being seen as chief deity. Eli is simply an alternative spelling of El, while Samuel literally means name of god - in Jewish tradition the tetragrammaton was often not used directly but only a reference to it would be mentioned.

Eli, for example, is present when Hannah prays, responds to her prayer, and when he wishes for her to have children she becomes pregnant; when the child is born and weaned she takes him to Eli, having promised to give him to God. He is introduced as an old man, and though the text describes his eyes as becoming weak, it immediately says that the lamp of God (or lamp of El) is not quite extinguished; as time progresses Samuel gradually becomes more prominent, with the people starting to listen to him, while Eli becomes blind and eventually dies when the Ark of the Covenant is captured. Notably, it is the sons of Eli that are described as performing the actual priestly role, and Eli does nothing more than sit in the sanctuary; the term sons of Eli could simply be a priestly title, much like son of God (more literally son of El) was used.[6] Thus, in this theory, the narrative describes how the priests of El were seen as corrupt, Yahweh-worship then came to power, while that of El faded away, his chief priests were killed, the Ark was taken by the Philistines, and the priesthood of El in general became looked down upon.


The Talmud lists him as a prophet.[7]

His descendants

  • 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. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia on David descendant Jehoash of Judah: In Rabbinical Literature: As the extermination of the male descendants of David was a divine retribution for the extermination of the priests by David (comp. I Sam. xxii. 17-21), Joash escaped death because in the latter case one priest, Abiathar, survived (Sanh. 95b).
  • Abiathar son of Ahimelech; the only survivor of the massacre at Nob; great-great-grandson of Eli and the 3rd and last High Priest of the House of Eli; deposed from office of High Priest which went to the house of Zadok after the Holy Spirit deserted Abiathar and without which the Urim and Thummin could not be consulted {Jewish Encyclopedia}; {fulfilling the other part of the Curse on the House of Eli that the priesthood would pass out of his descendants hands-the house of Zadok was descended from the family of Eleazar and Phinehas}
  • Hannaniah Brother of Rabbah bar Nahmani {amora}
  • Rabbah bar Nahmani {270-330} Babylon Jewish Talmudist {amora}
  • Abaye {280-340} Babylon Jewish Talmudist-nephew of Rabbah bar Nahmani {amora}

Both Rabbah and his nephew Abaye died at the same age-60.

Samaritan sources

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.

The Samaritans have insisted that they are direct descendants of the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who survived the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The inscription of Sargon II records the deportation of a relatively small proportion of the Israelites (27,290, according to the annals), so it is quite possible that a sizable population remained that could identify themselves as Israelites, the term that the Samaritans prefer for themselves.

Samaritan historiography would place the basic schism from the remaining part of Israel after the twelve tribes conquered the land of Canaan, led by Joshua. After Joshua's death, Eli the priest left the tabernacle which Moses erected in the desert and established on Mount Gerizim, and built another one under his own rule in the hills of Shilo (1 Sam 1:1-3; 2:12-17). Thus, he established both an illegitimate priesthood and an illegitimate place of worship.[8]

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

A terrible civil war broke out between Eli son of Yafni, of the line of Ithamar, and the sons of Phineas, because Eli son of Yafni resolved to usurp the High Priesthood from the descendents of Phineas. He used to offer sacrifices on an altar of stones. He was 50 years old, endowed with wealth and in charge of the treasury of the children of Israel...

He offered a sacrifice on the altar, but without salt, as if he were inattentive. When the Great High Priest Ozzi learned of this, and found the sacrifice was not accepted, he thoroughly disowned him; and it is (even) said that he rebuked him.

Thereupon he and the group that sympathized with him, rose in revolt and at once he and his followers and his beasts set off for Shiloh. Thus Israel split in factions. He sent to their leaders saying to them, Anyone who would like to see wonderful things, let him come to me. Then he assembled a large group around him in Shiloh, and built a Temple for himself there; he constructed a place like the Temple (on Mount Gerizim). He built an altar, omitting no detail - it all corresponded to the original, piece by piece.

At this time the Children of Israel split into three factions. A loyal faction on Mount Gerizim; a heretical faction that followed false Gods; and the faction that followed Eli son of Yafni on Shiloh.[9]

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:

And the children of Israel in his days divided into three groups. One did according to the abominations of the Gentiles and served other Gods; another followed Eli the son of Yafni, although many of them turned away from him after he had revealed his intentions; and a third remained with the High Priest Uzzi ben Bukki, the chosen place, Mount Gerizim Bethel, in the holy city of Shechem.[10]

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).[11]

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 2004-the 131st High priest of the Samaritans is Elazar ben Tsedaka ben Yitzhaq

References and Notes

  1. Kessler, The Chronology of Judaism and The First of the Kings
  2. Nowack, Richter-Ruth
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jewish Encyclopedia
  4. This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
  5. Jewish Encyclopedia: Books of Samuel
  6. for example, 2 Samuel 7:14 describes David as being a son of God
  7. How many prophets were there? | - Judaism, Ask a Rabbi - Live
  8. The Emergence of the Samaritan Community (Lecture given by Professor Abraham Tal at Mandelbaum House, August 2001) [1]
  9. 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
  10. Ibid. page 12
  11. Ibid. page 13

See also

Preceded by
Judge of Israel Succeeded by
Preceded by
High Priest of Israel Succeeded by

da:Eli eo:Eli ia:Eli ja:エリ (祭司) no:Eli (bibelsk person) ru:Илий zh:以利