ELI (Heb. ‘ēlî). A member of the family of Ithamar, fourth son of Aaron, who acted as both judge and high priest in Israel. He lived at Shiloh in a dwelling adjoining the tabernacle (1Sam.1.1-1Sam.1.28-1Sam.4.1-1Sam.4.22; 1Sam.14.3; 1Kgs.2.27). Little is known about him until he was well advanced in age, when Hannah came to pray for a son. The conduct of Eli’s sons, Phinehas and Hophni, who, although lacking their father’s character, were put into the priest’s office, gave him grief in his declining years. Their conduct shocked the people, for they “were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt” (1Sam.2.17). While Eli warned them of their shameful ways, he did not rebuke with the severity their deeds merited. Instead, Eli mildly reasoned with his sons, saying, “Why do you do such things?” (1Sam.2.23). But the sons no longer heeded their father, and he didn’t restrain them. An old man of ninety, almost blind, Eli waited to hear the result of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. When the messenger came with the news of the slaughter of his sons and of the taking of the ark, Eli fell off his seat and died of a broken neck. Although a good and pure man, Eli was weak and indecisive.

The ruins of Shiloh where the Tabernacle stood for many years.

ELI e’ lī (עֵלִ֕י, a short form of ’ēliyyâ, Jah is high). The priest at Shiloh during Samuel’s youth. He was a judge of Israel for forty years (1 Sam 4:18).

Eli is a tragic figure of whom comparatively little is known. An old man with faithless sons, he raised the child Samuel as a temple servant. Eli is remembered for his ineffective protests against the sins of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Because of this failure the boy Samuel was called to pronounce Eli’s doom and the removal of his family from the priestly office (1 Sam 3:11-14; cf. 1 Sam 2:27-36). Finally when the army in distress called for the Ark of God to be used as a talisman of success in battle, Eli’s two sons who bore it were killed and the Ark was captured. On hearing the bad news, Eli, a heavy man, fell off his seat by the city gate and died of a broken neck. He was ninety-eight years old.

The wilderness tabernacle had been pitched in Shiloh for many years (Josh 18:1; Judg 18:31). Eli was a descendant of Aaron’s son Ithamar as one learns from the notation concerning his successor Ahimelech (1 Sam 22:20; 1 Kings 2:27; 1 Chron 24:3). Eli’s descent is not given in 1 Chronicles 6, because after the judgment on Eli’s family the priestly line was reckoned through Aaron’s other son Eleazar. In David’s day, after the slaughter of the house of Ahimelech (1 Sam 22:18-20) it is noted that the priests descended from Eleazar outnumbered those from Ithamar, two to one (1 Chron 24:4).

The sins of the sons of Eli included both sacrilege and immorality. They paid little attention to the proper ritual of the sacrifices and less to their meaning. They used the priestly office merely for livelihood. The sordid story includes their sin with “the women who did service at the door of the tent of meeting” (RSV). The words may suggest that Hophni and Phinehas had introduced into the tabernacle worship the sacred prostitution so common at the surrounding Canaanite shrines. The comment is “the sin of the young men was very great” (1 Sam 2:17).

There was also a better side to Eli. He exhorted Hannah to godliness and blessed her for her faith. He doubtless had much to do with raising Samuel and did better with him than with his own sons. He presided over the Tabernacle in Shiloh a long time. Archeological investigation indicates that Shiloh was destroyed close to 1050 b.c. which is just the time of Eli’s death. The tragedy of Shiloh was remembered until Jeremiah’s day (Jer 7:12). See Shiloh.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


A descendant of Ithamar, the fourth son of Aaron, who exercised the office of high priest in Shiloh at the time of the birth of Samuel. For the first time in Israel, Eli combined in his own person the functions of high priest and judge, judging Israel for 40 years (1Sa 4:18). The incidents in Eli’s life are few; indeed, the main interest of the narrative is in the other characters who are associated with him. The chief interest centers in Samuel. In Eli’s first interview with Hannah (1Sa 1:12 ff), she is the central figure; in the second interview (1Sa 1:24 ff), it is the child Samuel. When Eli next appears, it is as the father of nodetitle, whose worthless and licentious lives had profaned their priestly office, and earned for them the title "men of Belial" (or "worthlessness").

Eli administered no stern rebuke to his sons, but only a gentle chiding of their greed and immorality. Thereafter he was warned by a nameless prophet of the downfall of his house, and of the death of his two sons in one day (1Sa 2:27-36), a message later confirmed by Samuel, who had received this word directly from Yahweh Himself (1Sa 3:11 ff). The prophecy was not long in fulfillment. During the next invasion by the Philistines, the Israelites were utterly routed, the ark of God was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas were both slain. When the news reached Eli, he was so overcome that he "fell from off his seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck brake, and he died" (1Sa 4:18). The character of Eli, while sincere and devout, seems to have been entirely lacking in firmness. He appears from the history to have been a good man, full of humility and gentleness, but weak and indulgent. His is not a strong personality; he is always overshadowed by some more commanding or interesting figure.

e’-loi, e-lo’i, la’-ma, sa-bakh-tha’-ni, or (Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthanei):

The forms of the first word as translated vary in the two narratives, being in Mark as first above and in Mt as in second reading.

With some perversions of form probably from Ps 22:1 (’eli ’eli lamah `azabhtani). A statement uttered by Jesus on the cross just before his death, translated, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46; Mr 15:34).

There is an interesting but difficult problem in connection with the interpretation of this passage. There seems to be a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew.

The first two words, whether in Hebrew or Aramaic, have sufficient similarity to each other and each sufficient similarity to the name itself to warrant the jeer that Jesus was calling upon Elias, or the sincere supposition of those who might not fully understand the language, that he was actually calling on Elias.

The forms lema and lama used in Matthew and Mark respectively (Westcott and Hort, The New Testament in Greek) represent the various possible forms, the first the Aramaic, and the second the Hebrew. The various readings and translations of the latter word, sabachthani, only add confusion to an effort at ultimate explanation of the real statement. Certainly the influence of the Aramaic played a geat part in the translation and transmission of the original. The spirit revealed by Jesus in this utterance seems to be very much like that displayed in the Garden when He cried out to have the cup removed from Him.

Walter G. Clippinger