First Samuel offers much important information about the sins of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. The summary of their lifestyle is given in the introduction to these men in 1 Samuel 2:12: “Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD.”
Because Eli’s sons did not know or regard God, they acted in wicked ways. First, we are told that Eli’s sons took a three-pronged fork and ate whatever meat they brought out of the pot when sacrificing an animal. This was in contradiction with the law for priests, who were commanded to eat the breast and upper thigh of the animals (Leviticus 7:30–34). Second, Eli’s sons were sleeping with the women who were dedicated to the service of the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22). This was against God’s law forbidding adultery (Exodus 20:14).
A “man of God” came to Eli and revealed the judgment that would come upon Eli’s sons for these actions. The sign that the judgment was divine was included: “What happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you—they will both die on the same day” (1 Samuel 2:34).
Soon after this time, Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, took the Ark of the Covenant out to battle against the Philistines. The Israelites were defeated, and judgment befell Eli’s sons, as 1 Samuel 4:10–11 states: “The Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”
Worse, when Eli heard the news, he fell backward from his seat, broke his neck, and died on the same day. The pregnant wife of Phinehas heard the news, and she went into labor and died while giving birth (1 Samuel 4:19–21). The son was named Ichabod, a name meaning “the glory has departed.”
While these judgments may seem harsh to today’s reader, the holiness of God’s priests was demanded in the Law of Moses, along with the judgments that come upon those who disregarded God’s ways. In fact, two of Aaron’s sons were struck dead for presenting unauthorized offerings in the early days of the tabernacle’s use (Leviticus 10:1–2). Eli’s sons would have been aware of what happened to Aaron’s sons, yet they directly disregarded the warning in pursuit of personal satisfaction.
In the aftermath of these judgments, Samuel became the spiritual leader of Israel, serving as judge, priest, and prophet and anointing both Saul and David as Israel’s first two kings. Even in these most difficult of times, God was at work to continue His plan to lead His people.