The Symbolism of Eli
At 98 years old, Eli had clearly lived a long time. He had seen much, stretching back into the period of the Judges. During his lifetime, the Jewish people had established themselves in the land and had been served by a series of judges — men and women who offered unifying leadership.
Eli had seen Israel beset by trials from the very people they were supposed to eliminate from the land. He had witnessed the tribes fracture and drift from their pledge to serve only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, he had served as high priest to the Lord at Shiloh — where the Ark resided in the tent of meeting. It is not unreasonable to think that at 98 years old, Eli should have been at the pinnacle of his priestly wisdom and influence. And yet…
He did not effectively intervene to deal with the evil behavior of his sons. He did not counsel the Israelites to seek the Lord instead of just trotting the Ark out like some holy talisman or charm. In short, other than his wise counsel that young Samuel should respond to the voice he kept hearing by saying, “Speak LORD, for Your servant is listening,” Eli seems to have been ineffectual in his role as judge and high priest. In short, he lacked the wisdom of his own age.
Scripture also says that Eli could no longer see. That is meant as a description of physical limitation, but it seems an obvious commentary on his spiritual state as well. Although he was aware of his sons’ wicked behavior, he closed his eyes to it and allowed them to continue their evil ways.
Moses had warned that disobedience to God would lead the Jewish people into spiritual blindness. He wrote, “The LORD will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart; and you will grope at noon, as the blind man gropes in darkness, and you will not prosper in your ways; but you shall only be oppressed and robbed continually, with none to save you” (Deuteronomy 28:28-29). Even in his old age, Eli had to recognize that Israel had lost its way and become blind under his leadership.
Interestingly, Eli is one of the few characters in the Bible whose girth or weight is deemed worthy of comment. The first was arguably Eglon, king of Moab. Because the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, God strengthened Eglon to execute judgment. Judges 3 explains that Israel served Eglon for 18 years, until Ehud the Benjaminite struck down Eglon and led Israel to victory and 80 years of peace. The Bible says that Eglon had grown so obese that when Ehud thrust a sword into the Moabite king, his belly fat closed over the blade.
Why is the record of Eli’s weight mentioned? Because Eli’s weight is also relevant to the story. Upon hearing of the loss of the Ark, Eli fell over backward and broke his neck — “because he was old and heavy.” How does a priest get heavy? It is implied that Eli had followed the self-serving practice of his sons who not only plunged their three-pronged forks into the sacrificial meat, but also demanded uncooked fatty meat. First Samuel 2:17 describes such behavior as despising the offering of the LORD.
None other than celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey has put a culinary twist on the subject, declaring:
I always say, “Never trust a fat chef,” because they’ve eaten all the good bits! Trust a skinny chef because you know they haven’t indulged and eaten everything.
Am I condemning those who tend toward the hefty side today? Not at all. I’m stepping on my own toes even making this observation because I’m already tending to exceed the Air Force weight standards I maintained so carefully for 34 years.
But, in the era in which Eli lived, Israel’s economy was driven by agriculture. Most people would have been lean due to a limited diet and tireless work. The picture of a priest who can only be described as heavy is worthy of remark because it offers a contrast. The clear insinuation is that Eli had indeed indulged and eaten himself into obesity — taking advantage of the priestly office he held.
There can be no escaping the fact that America is one of the most overweight societies in the world. It is as if we have become so accustomed to the bounty of food that we no longer moderate our own intake. As such, the scourge of high blood pressure and heart disease and other weight-related ailments is at an all-time high — and growing every year. And, certainly, that physical description of our society goes hand-in-hand with its increasingly anemic spiritual health.
A Time of Testing
The last comment on Eli’s life was that he judged Israel for 40 years. What an interesting length of time. 40 years or 40 days appears over and over in Scripture. The Bible mentions that specific number 146 times. Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in the desert before God called him to service. He spent 40 days on Mount Sinai on two separate occasions and gave the Hebrew spies 40 days to observe the Promised Land. The Jews then wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Nineveh was given 40 days to repent before destruction fell. And, Jesus was tempted by Satan over a 40-day period.
It has been observed that the number 40 seems to symbolize a time of testing or probation or trial. Obviously, Eli was not the only judge to serve for 40 years (Othniel, Deborah and Barak, and Gideon each judged that long). Saul and David and Solomon also reigned for 40 years each. But, Eli’s tenure is marked by a steady decrease in faithfulness and respect for God — as manifested by his own sons. The people of Israel clearly failed that period of probation when they treated the Ark of the Covenant so disdainfully.
In the third segment of this look at the fate of America, we’ll explore the parallels to America found in the biblical character Eli.