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Sons of Belial
The title/description “sons of Belial” (1 Sam. 2:12) assigned to Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, indicates their wickedness and worthlessness (see footnote b for 1 Sam. 1:16). The capitalization of this name by the King James translators possibly indicates it is a name rather than simply a description. Paul actually does use it as a name for Satan (see 2 Cor. 6:15). This speaks to Eli’s son’s real intent in serving at the Tabernacle—to further the work of the adversary and their own selfish interests. We recall Cain’s hypocrisy in offering a sacrifice to the Lord ironically and inappropriately at his master Satan’s bidding (cf. Moses 5:17-21).
Four Sins of the Sons of Eli
We can identify four significant sins from the record that illuminate not only Eli’s son’s rebellion against the Lord, but also tendencies common to all natural men.
First, in their method of administering their priestly duty at the altar of sacrifice, they looked out for their own welfare instead of those they were serving (1 Samuel 2:13-16). His instructions in Leviticus were specific to note that the priests could have the heave-leg and the wave-breast of the sacrificial animal after the fatty portions had been burned upon the altar. Taking these portions before the offering was tantamount to stealing from the Lord. Additionally, to take parts of the rest of the animal from the boiling pots, especially by force, further compounded their sin before the Lord and their offense to those offering the sacrifice (see Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 2:2:35-36; cited in Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis—2 Samuel, 268.) In this way they were actually self-serving while appearing to be serving the Lord. The tendency to ‘seek our own’ (Moroni 7:45) rather than putting the kingdom of God first in our lives—and doing His work His way and in His timing—is perhaps the most pervasive and fundamental sin of all.
Second, because of their conduct, Eli’s sons were causing the people to “[abhor] the offering of the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:17). Not only were they transgressing the Lord’s law themselves and squandering their chances for Christ-like service, but they were also giving occasion for Satan to exercise his temptations upon the people because of their wicked ministry. When those who are placed in positions of responsibility and authority abuse their opportunities for true service, significant damage to the cause of Christ can be done. While it is not the case that the gospel, nor the Church, are in error, both are often criticized unjustly due to the improper and sometimes iniquitous implementation of them by weak or wicked members, missionaries, or leaders. Alma in the Book of Mormon chastised his wayward son Corianton for the same sin. “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words” (Alma 39:11).
Third, combined with their priestly perversions of the sacrifices, the sons of Eli added adultery and fornication to their wickedness. “…they lay with the women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation” (1 Samuel 2:22). Ever exploiting their positions, Hophni and Phinehas descended to this despicable abuse of their offices. It is hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than for a person to be seeking to offer their heart and soul to the Lord through sacrificial worship at the temple and to have those officiating there proposition them! The very thought is offensive to the Lord and all those who love Him. As noted above, Alma’s counsel to his struggling son, Corianton clearly teaches of the seriousness of these sins. “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” (Alma 39:5). When carnal passions are allowed to rule, the spirits of men and women the Lord cannot bless them. Eventually these “shall deny the faith, and shall not have the Spirit; and if [he or she] repents not, shall be cast out” (D&C 42:23).
The fourth sin of the sons of Eli was another breech of the Ten Commandments: they did not honor their father. As the news of these abominations came to Eli “he said unto them, Why do ye such things? For I hear of your evil dealings by all this people.
Nay, my sons, for it is no good report that I hear: ye make the Lord’s people to transgress” (1 Samuel 2:23-24). The record states that “they hearkened not unto the voice of their father” (1 Samuel 2:25). Obviously the choice by Eli’s sons to ignore their father’s indictment was wrong, but was also punishable by death! (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21). While we will deal with this specific point below, it must be recognized that disobedience to parents is a serious offense to God. Certainly the sons of Eli were neither listening to nor respecting their father’s counsel and chastisement. But, further, they were violating their opportunity to have their hearts turn to their father in that familial love reserved for such relationships.
We can imagine his son’s self-justifying questions: “What’s wrong with doing the sacrifices our own way?” or “What does it hurt if the women consent” or even “Why don’t you let us use our agency they way we want to?” These are the wrong questions. Attempts to answer these often end up at the lowest common denominator. Instead, we should be teaching about and seeking the positive blessings promised to the righteous by the Lord. When we seek what He has revealed rather than looking for justification for what we or others are doing, then we can receive His Spirit and grace to obtain the promises. Too often the temptation is to live ‘out of trouble’ rather than living ‘in righteousness.’ The Lord said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness,” (Matthew 5:6) “for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost” (3 Nephi 12:6).
Responsibilities and Accountabilities of Leadership
The prophet Ezekiel—in words uncannily appropriate for Eli’s sons—warned, “Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock…. Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them” (Ezekiel 34:2-3, 10).
As Latter-day Saints we recognize the weaknesses inherent in the people who are called to serve (especially ourselves!) and we know that occasionally there will be those servants who ‘feed themselves’ rather than the flock, but we also know the God in whom we trust. He declares, “Wo unto them that are deceivers and hypocrites, for, thus saith the Lord, I will bring them to judgment…. There are hypocrites among you, who have deceived some, which has given the adversary power; but behold such [those who have been deceived] shall be reclaimed; but the hypocrites shall be detected and shall be cut off, either in life or in death, even as I will” (D&C 50:6-8).
Better Parenting and Leading
As a parent myself, I have reflected many times on how Eli ‘honored’ his sons more than the Lord (1 Samuel 2:29), and how the Lord characterized Eli’s actions as “he restrained them [his sons] not” (1 Sam. 3:13). I have searched throughout the scriptures for these ‘parenting’ moments to see what I can glean from them for my own family. The “man of God” who came to rebuke Eli clearly tells the High Priest that he has sinned by placing his sons and their relationship as more important than his relation with the Lord. Why would any parent do this? It seems to me that this is motivated by a fear of damaging or losing their current relationship with that child, children, or spouse, etc. I’m sure we have all felt the twinges of uncertainty at times when we know something isn’t right in our families and relations. We wonder, “What should I do to correct this?” “How should I approach him/her to accomplish the change?” Inevitably these are followed by other thoughts, “Maybe I should just let it go and it will fix itself,” or “If I pursue this, what will be the cost?” “Will they get angry with me, will they withhold their love, etc., from me if I talk to or correct or punish them?”
While Eli exemplifies a too-permissive approach to parenting/leading, we should recognize that the other pole—coercion and force—is also a prevalent tendency of parents and leaders (note the example of King Lamoni’s father in Alma 20:8-20).
We can become motivated by a fear of not being in control or having the ability to make things happen the way we think they should. This can be especially powerful when we know (or think we know) that the desired outcome is right or righteous. Yet we must recognize the amazing forbearance of Heavenly Father in not abrogating our premortal agency to achieve what we certainly agree would have been a right or righteous outcome! It must always be remembered that it was Lucifer’s rebellious plan, paradoxically even allowed only by our Father’s commitment to the fundamental principle of agency, to force us to obey (see Moses 4:3). Parents and leaders must continually strive not to give in to the temptation to force and coerce and manipulate those we serve.
As we have noted above, Alma had a nearly identical situation in his family with Corianton as Eli had with Hophni and Phinehas. Studying Alma’s approach in contrast to Eli’s and King Lamoni’s father yields the following insights:
Alma specifically states his son’s sins and assesses them in light of the gospel’s standard (Alma 39:2-6).
Alma exhorts his son to repent, giving him advice about how he can personally conquer the sins (Alma 39:7-14; also reiterates this in Alma 41:9; and 42:29-30).
Alma seeks, recognizes, and follows carefully the directions of the Spirit (Alma 39:12; 40:1; 41:1; 42:1).
With the aid of the Spirit, Alma “perceives” the doctrinal misunderstandings of Corianton and then carefully teaches these doctrines so that his son can understand (Alma chapters 40-42).
After correcting and then teaching Corianton, Alma then shows greater love and truth by recalling his son to ministry and offers him a chance to succeed (Alma 42:31).
When the Lord spoke to Samuel, He clearly indicated that Eli had not been an appropriate father (1 Samuel 3:11-14). The ensuing punishment to Eli and his family are tragic (1 Samuel 4), but instructive. We must ask ourselves, “In what ways are we tempted to preserve our relations with family and friends over our relationship with our Father and Savior?” It is not a little ironic that we who seek to preserve our mortal relations by avoiding the conflicts incidental to gospel teaching and correcting may well ultimately lose those relationships in the eternities because we and they did not achieve the level of obedience necessary for celestial life. As the Lord has said, “He who seeketh to save his life [preserve his status quo relations] shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (JST Matthew 10:39).
President Joseph F. Smith gave some beautiful counsel relative to correcting our children. “Fathers, if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united to you, love them! and prove to them that you do love them by your every word or act to them. For your own sake, for the love that should exist between you and your boys—however wayward they might be… when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly; get down and weep with them if necessary and get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence… approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned…. You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. [But] You may force them to hell, by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 316-17).
President Hinckley echoes President Smith in our generation. “I have tremendous respect for fathers and mothers who are nurturing their children in light and truth, who have prayer in their homes, who spare the rod and govern with love, who look upon their little ones as their most valued assets to be protected, trained, and blessed” (President Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign, May 1995, 70).
When I have heeded this counsel in my home we have had marvelous results—not the least of which has been the actual improvement of those relationships that are so dear to me.
“…Like all the Nations”
The draw and pull of the world can be compelling. When Israel hungered for the same political order as their neighbors, we must remember that it was as a result of two main concerns. First, as Eli before, Samuel’s sons “walked not in his ways, and turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment” (1 Sam. 8:3). This priestly abuse led them to seek a different and hopefully less corrupt political organization. Second, related to the first, they lacked faith in God to preserve them—both from abuses within their own government and religion and from military advances from outside Israel (1 Samuel 8:7).
As is the case with faith, it takes the trial of it to produce the witness (see Ether 12:6). When the people are not willing to exercise faith first, the miracles do not and cannot follow. The Lord tells Samuel that Israel has struggled with this since He “brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day” (1 Samuel 8:8). Telling his prophet to prophesy about the “manner of the king that shall reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:9), the Lord tells Samuel to give them what they want. Again, the Lord’s commitment to his children’s agency is astounding and sobering. We are continually learning through the Old Testament, as with all the sacred records, that the Lord will give us what we really want, not just what we should want, or what we wish we wanted, or what others want for us. Oh to tame and train my wants then!
A modern prophet adroitly taught about these worldly tendencies of the Israelites and how they are a temptation for us today. “Samuel called the people together and explained to them that the people of the Lord should be different, with higher standards. ‘We want to be like other peoples’ they demanded. We do not want to be different’… Not so different are we today! We want the glamour and frothiness of the world, not always realizing the penalties of our folly… Others… indulge in their social drinking—’we must have a king like unto other nations.’ Styles are created by the vulgar and the money-mad and run from one extreme to the other to date our present wardrobes and create business for merchants. We cannot be different. We would rather die than be ‘not up to date.’ If the dress is knee length, we must go a little above the knee. If shorts are short we must have the shortest… If bathing suits are skimpy, we must have the skimpiest. We must have a king like unto other nations. The Lord has said that he will have a peculiar people but we do not wish to be peculiar…. If intimate fondling is the pattern of the crowd, we will fondle. We must have a king like unto other nations…. When oh when, will the Latter-day Saints stand firm on their own feet, establish their own standards, follow proper patterns and live their own glorious lives in accordance with Gospel inspired patterns…Certainly good times and happy lives and clean fun are not dependant upon the glamorous, the pompous, the extremes” (Elder Spencer W. Kimball, “Like All the Nations,” Church News, 15 October 1960, 14).