Being a father is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is a job filled with endless opportunities to fail and many occurrences of failure. It also seems as though children are particularly adept at spotting and remembering these. We all remember the sins of our fathers.
The Bible remembers them as well. It vividly records the failures of many fathers, including Eli, Jephthah and David. Perhaps by exploring their failures we can avoid repeating their sins as we raise our children. So let’s look firstly at the sins of Eli.
Eli had an impressive list of accomplishments. He was a descendant of Aaron, had served as a judge in Israel for 40 years and was high priest of the sanctuary at Shiloh. He also was a foster father to Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets. But Eli had two problems -his son Hophni and his son Phinehas.
Hophni and Phinehas are described in Scripture as being wicked and worthless men (1 Samuel 2:12). Scripture also informs us that they had absolutely no regard for the Lord (1 Samuel 2:12).
Their malevolent character manifested itself in their priestly service in God’s sanctuary. They abused their office and power in abominable ways. For example, they demanded that worshippers give them a portion of their sacrifices and if they refused would simply take it by force.
Even more abominable was their seduction of the Israelite women serving at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Hophni and Phinehas’ sinful behaviour was a great scandal in Israel and reports of it came back to Eli. But when Eli heard these, his only response was to ask his sons, ‘Why do you do such things?’ (1 Samuel 2:23).
He took no other action. He refused to discipline and correct the abhorrent behaviour of his children. God responded to this failure by sending a prophet who foretold the downfall of Eli’s house. But even after receiving this warning, Eli failed to take action.
Soon after, Israel found itself in battle against the Philistines and was not faring well. The Israelites called for the Ark of the Covenant. Hophni and Phinehas escorted it into the battlefield. The presence of the Ark normally assured victory to Israel, but this time the results were different.
The Israelites lost the battle, Hophni and Phinehas were killed and, worst of all, the Ark was captured by the Philistines. When a messenger informed Eli what had happened, Eli fell over, broke his neck and died (1 Samuel 4:18).
The sin of Eli was that of permissiveness. While Hophni and Phinehas were indeed responsible for their own actions as grown men, Eli was also responsible as a parent and as high priest of Israel.
He knew what his sons were doing and his weak response was just to say to them, ‘Why do you do such things?’ He failed to correct the situation. He merely said a few empty words and looked the other way.
The sin of Eli is repeated by fathers today. Instead of addressing faithfully their children’s harmful behaviour, they bark out hollow commands without administering discipline or correction.
Oddly enough, modern fathers often attempt to convince themselves that their fatherly permissiveness is an act of love, but Eli teaches us the opposite lesson – that it is an act of cruelty, harmful to a wide web of people.
In Eli’s case, it harmed his children (they lost their lives), it harmed him (he was disgraced, was devastated and died), and it harmed the entire nation (Israel lost the Ark to their enemies). Eli reminds us of the grave consequences of fatherly permissiveness.
As I raise my children I try to remember this negative example because my sinful nature is ever inclined to behave like Eli. Permissiveness is the path of least resistance. It is easier to let things go. But Eli serves as a stark reminder that such a strategy results in severe and lasting consequences. As fathers, we should replace permissiveness with persistence and perseverance.
But let me close with an additional warning. Sometimes fathers fail by making the opposite mistake. They can become so overbearing as to severely correct every minor offence of their children.
It is not being permissive to show our children mercy or gauge our corrective response to the severity of the child’s offence. As Jay Adams has rightly noted, there is such a thing as ‘over-discipline’. Scripture admonishes fathers to avoid exasperating their children (Ephesians 6:4).
However, the abiding lesson of Eli is that when our children’s conduct demonstrates a lack of regard for the Lord, we as fathers should respond with immediate and appropriate corrective action.
Anthony Selvaggio, JD, MDiv is visiting professor at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA, and a teaching elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.