ELI (Heb. אֵלִי; "[YHWH is] exalted"), a priest in the sanctuary of the Lord at *Shiloh during the period of the Judges (I Sam. 1:9). The father of *Hophni and Phinehas, Eli's ancestry is not recorded in the Bible, but his two sons bear Egyptian names, one of them identical with the name of Aaron's grandson *Phinehas; in addition it appears from I Samuel 2:27ff. that the house of Eli was believed to have been designated by the Lord for priesthood while Israel was still in Egypt. A later speculation traces Eli to *Ithamar son of Aaron (Jos., Ant., 5:361; cf. I Chron. 24:3; Yal., Judges 68), and another connects him with the house of *Eleazar (IV Ezra 1:2–3; cf. Ex. 6:23, 25).
The fact that the *Ark was in Shiloh in Eli's day proves that at that time Shiloh was the cultic center of the tribal confederation of which Eli was the head priest. According to the narrative in the first chapters of I Samuel, *Elkanah made an annual pilgrimage to Shiloh. Here his wife *Hannah made a vow in the presence of Eli and received from him the assurance that her prayer for a son would be answered (I Sam. 1:11ff.). After her son *Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him to Eli to serve in the sanctuary in fulfillment of her vow (1:27–28). What follows is a two-fold account of the ascent of Samuel and the downfall of the house of Eli. Hophni and Phinehas proved to be corrupt priests (2:12–17, 29; 3:13); hence the prophecy to Eli in I Samuel 2:27–36, which appears to be connected with that to Samuel (3:11–14), concerning the fall of the house of Eli and the emergence of a new priestly house. From these prophecies it appears that Eli himself had also sinned (2:29; 3:13). At any rate, his two sons were destined to die on the same day (2:34; 4:11, 17) and Eli, too, met his death when the news reached him of the tragedy at the battle of *Aphek (4:11–18). Following the death of Eli and his sons and the destruction of Shiloh, *Nob became the religious center. According to I Samuel 22:20–23, the sole survivor of Saul's slaughter of the priests at Nob was Abiathar son of Ahimelech son of Ahitub, a descendant of Eli who was deposed by Solomon (I Sam. 14:3; cf. I Kings 2:27). Clearly, the priestly house of Eli continued in importance for a long time after him.
It should be noted that the prophecies to Eli do not forecast the destruction of Shiloh; nor do they reflect the true status of the house of Eli in later times. In contrast to the promise of perpetual poverty, Abiathar was able to retire to his estate (I Kings 2:26). This indicates that the prophecies derive substantially from the time of Eli and were not adjusted to make them conform to later events.
In the Aggadah
When Eli accused Hannah of being drunk (I Sam. 1:13) she countered that his judging her wrongly proved him to be without divine inspiration (Ber. 31b). According to one opinion Eli was justified in his strictures, since a man who regards his neighbor as sinning is obligated to reprove him. But Hannah's retort was also in place, for one who is unjustly accused is obliged to inform his accuser of the fact (ibid.), for "a man must justify himself before his fellowmen just as he must do so before God" (Mishnat R. Eli'ezer, 129). Because Eli had suspected Hannah unjustly, he blessed her, "Go in peace" since one is obliged to appease and bless one he had wrongly suspected (Ber. 31b). The Bible brands both sons of Eli as wicked (I Sam. 2:12), although Phinehas, in fact, did not sin. The Bible censures him as it does for having failed to protest Hophni's behavior (Shab. 55b).
Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 2 (1960), 150ff., 359ff., 370–1; S.R. Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of Samuel (19602), 1–50; Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1913), 61f.; 6 (1928), 217, 220–3, 226–7.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.