Growing up, I regularly spent time with the Berenstein Bears. You may have really loved those books—I certainly did, and do—but you may or may not be aware that the Berenstein Bears series caught a lot of controversy for being some of the first children’s books that displayed what has been called “The Doofus Dad,” the prototypical display of the dad character as being a sort of fumbling, passive, lazy, incompetent dad, a depiction of the dad character that later became all the rage in the 90’s family sitcoms. My family almost every night turned in for one of these Doofus Dads: King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, the Simpsons, Family Guy, and–of course–Home Improvement with Tim the Tool Man Taylor.
The Doofus Dad makes great Comedy. I remember just howling in laughter with my family as we watched King of Queens and Home Improvement, but it makes for a really bad reality. We love the passive/dumb dad of the sitcoms…until you have one. That’s not the dad you want, and, as a dad, that’s not the dad I want to be! And, I will add, I was blessed, myself to have the opposite.
Life is not meant to be a fumbling, lazy, passive experience; it is made and crafted to be an involved experience, to be lived with intentionality. Our role as Christians is not just to get saved and wait to die. No, God calls us to intentional living. Alas, the Bible teaches by both positive and negative example, and in the pages of the book of 1 Samuel, we meet Eli, a priest and father, who is passive, indulgent, somewhat lazy, and rather content with the status quo.
Eli was a priest. The Old Testament shows us Israel, a community of people whose social identity, religious beliefs, and ritual practices were deeply enmeshed in matters related to the priesthood. Simply put, a priest was supposed to serve God and the people of God by acting as the official mediator between God and his people. Jews, from an early age, were ingrained into the reality that they, as human beings, were separated from God by sin. The sacrificial system reminded them again and again of this separation, and the priests were entrusted with a sacred duty: ensuring that this sacrificial system was done properly. They were to be the leaders of God’s people as it related to knowing and following God. In that way (but not every way!) they are similar to pastors today. Pastors don’t mediate a sacrificial system, but rather we teach God’s Word and ultimately point the Church to Christ, who is the ultimate and final sacrifice on our behalf.
To understand Eli’s story better, we must know four things about priests in Israel. First, the priests were important. The people went to them in order to understand God and his will for their lives, and they functioned as leaders in their community and even as judges at certain points on Israel’s history. Second, their rule was hereditary. They were of the line of Aaron; their sons would serve God as priests after them; and so on and so on through the generations. Third, they handled the holy things, the sacrifices, the altar, tabernacle, local shrines, and later the temple in Jerusalem. And fourth, they cared for the people. In both their words and lives, the priests were to teach and care for the God’s people, to model before them a godly life, to demonstrate the process of following God.
The first time in the Bible that we meet Eli the Priest is in 1 Samuel 1:3, where we are told not directly about him but about his sons and the city in which he was a priest, Shiloh. Shiloh was an ancient city in the region of Samaria, itself the central region of ancient Israel. The present Shilo, still called by the same name, is a small Israeli settlement (of about 4,356 residents) in the northern West Bank, located 28 miles north of Jerusalem. In Eli’s day, however, Shiloh was the main center of Israelite worship, the location of the tabernacle (Joshua 18:1). In other words, Eli wasn’t simply a priest, he was the High Priest, the most prominent representative of God in the most important religious city of the country. Under his charge were two other priests, his sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
The main issue with Eli in not only ministry, but his entire life, was that he was simply “going through the motions” of his religious duties. We see this in 1 Samuel, chapter 1. Far more important than Eli in the overall narrative of this chapter, are two other characters, Elkanah and Hannah. Elkanah, and Israelite man, had taken two wives (something that never ends well in the Bible). As verse 2 states, “He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.”
Elkanah would go up year after year from his city to worship and sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. This reveals that Elkanah was a devoted Jew, not simply worshipping in his local shrine up in the hill country of Ephraim, but coming down to the main hub of Shiloh to worship and sacrifice every year.
After the sacrifice, Elkanah would give portions for the sacrificial meal to his two wives, but verse 5 reports Hannah as his favorite: “But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” One can imagine the rivalry, and the Bible reports it. Not only does Hannah have her own sadness, but, predictably, it reports conflict between her and Peninnah: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore, Hannah wept and would not eat” (v.6-7).
Hannah was grieved, not only could she not have children, but she was mocked by her husband’s other wife! Hannah’s heart was wrecked:
After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She [Hannah] was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head. (v.9)
Hannah, deeply bruised and yet pious, prayed out to God in her heart about something personally devastating, so much so that she declared that if God would bless her with a child, she would give that child back to the Lord. This is the type of devotion and love for God that is incredible to witness, but here Eli bumbles into the picture:
As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore, Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, “How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit, I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation. Then Eli answered, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” (v.12-17)
So, High Priest Eli, seeing this distraught woman praying this beautiful prayer to God could only think, “Oh, she’s drunk!” And so, he proceeded to call her out and shame her. He got it wrong, the High Priest unable to even recognize true prayer when he saw it.
This is problem number one: Passive people stop learning, instead jumping to conclusions because they think they already know everything. It takes time and intentionality to step into someone’s situation. To one just going through the motions, someone else’s problems aren’t an opportunity to help, but instead are simply a disturbance.
Eli’s entire job was to care for God’s people. Essential to being a priest or pastor is being able to see people clearly. Otherwise, one can never understand and help. Instead of supporting this woman in her faith, Eli jumped to conclusions and rebuked her; instead of caring for her, he shamed her. Even in his mistake, he did not ask for forgiveness but instead gave a weak response, basically just trying to push his mistake under the rug: “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him” (v.17). This was simply a goodbye phrase. Eli didn’t ask for forgiveness for his reaction to Hannah. He simply wanted to move on because he was just going through the motions. His heart really wasn’t in his ministry.
We see this lack of attention and care even more in Eli’s home life. Remember his two sons, Hophni & Phinehas? We’re told this beginning in 1 Samuel 2:
Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD. The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, and he would thrust it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot. All that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there. Moreover, before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, “Give meat for the priest to roast, for he will not accept boiled meat from you but only raw.” And if the man said to him, “Let them burn the fat first, and then take as much as you wish,” he would say, “No, you must give it now, and if not, I will take it by force.” Thus, the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD, for the men treated the offering of the LORD with contempt. (2:12-17)
Eli’s two sons, Hophni & Phinehas, were sinning. They were stealing food from the sacrifices of the people. They would stick a fork into the pot or pan and keep whatever it brings up for themselves. This was in direct contradiction of God’s directive in Leviticus 7:30-34:
His own hands shall bring the LORD’S food offerings. He shall bring the fat with the breast, that the breast may be waved as a wave offering before the LORD. The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast shall be for Aaron and his sons. And the right thigh you shall give to the priest as a contribution from the sacrifice of your peace offerings. Whoever among the sons of Aaron offers the blood of the peace offerings and the fat shall have the right thigh for a portion. For the breast that is waved and the thigh that is contributed I have taken from the people of Israel, out of the sacrifices of their peace offerings, and have given them to Aaron the priest and to his sons, as a perpetual due from the people of Israel. This is the portion of Aaron and of his sons from the LORD’s food offerings, from the day they were presented to serve as priests of the LORD. (Lev. 7:30-34)
How did Eli respond to this? Well, he did in some way confront his sons:
Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting. And he said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the LORD spreading abroad. If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death. (1 Samuel 2:22-25)
A closer look, though, tells us that this was the end of a long process, one in which Eli was long since culpable. In 1 Samuel 3:13 we learn of God’s judgement against Eli where God says to Samuel, “And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”
This is problem number two: Passive People Allow Sin to Flourish. Eli had both relational and positional authority, yet he failed to use it for good. In this heavily patriarchal day and culture, the father was the head of the family. So not only did Eli have the familial authority to restrain his sons, he also had the civil authority to do so. Remember, Eli was the High Priest, in charge, and yet, he chose not to restrain his sons and because of that the people of God were hurt. Eli knew what his sons were doing, he even confronted them, but he did not restrain them, until eventually he couldn’t. Eli was simply going through the motions in his job and in his parenting.
Of course, it’s easier to live a passive life. Eli’s passivity even sounds appealing at times, because it takes so much less out of us. It is easier to be the Doofus Dad. But it’s deadly. Instead, we must live lives of intention. Three ideas may help:
First, we must recognize the areas in our lives in which we, ourselves, are simply going through the motions. Whether that’s in our homes, our personal lives, at work, or in church, we must recognize those areas. What are they? If you cannot recognize them yourself, ask someone close to you…your housemate, your spouse, a close friend.
Second, we must recommit our hearts to the Lord. We must ask the Spirit’s help and guidance as we seek to live with intention, lives before the Lord. These are the prayers that God loves to answer.
Third, we must redesign. When we redesign a home, we don’t change the structure, but we do change how we arrange the furniture, maybe some flooring or walls, appliances, whatever it may be. Sometimes we need to also redesign areas of our life. What are our mornings and evenings like? How do we structure our day? Are there things we need to add or take-away that can help us live with more intention?
God wants more for us than lives as the Doofus Dad, Doofus Mom, Doofus Husband, Doofus Wife, Doofus Child, or Doofus Single. He calls us to lives of faith, and faithfulness. May he build those in us, and us in them.