Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders
Looking Like a Leader
The impressive introduction of Eli in 1 Samuel 1:9b often goes unnoticed by English readers. The reason is that many of the Hebrew words are capable of more than one translation. The NKJV represents a typical translation: “Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the Lord.” Eli’s name means “exalted” and the “seat” he is sitting on is the usual word for “throne.” The fact that Eli sits by the “doorpost of the tabernacle,” may recall the command in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write the commandments “on the doorposts of your house.” This might suggest that Eli sits by the doorpost of the tabernacle as one who oversees the keeping of the Law. Finally, the word translated “tabernacle” is better translated “temple” or “palace.” Keeping in mind the double-meaning of these words, we could translate 1 Samuel 1:9b as “Now Exalted the priest was sitting on the throne by the doorpost (as law-enforcer) of the palace of the Lord.” This translation leaves us with a very different impression of Eli! The words “throne” and “palace” also introduce the theme of kingship and demonstrate that 1 Samuel 1 anticipates this important theme in the books of Samuel.
Saul is also introduced with glowing words. After learning that Saul’s father Kish is a “mighty man of power,” 1 Samuel 9:2-3 describes Saul as “choice” and “good.” In fact, he is described as “better than all the children of Israel,” and taller than all the people from his shoulders upwards. English versions often translate the word “good/better” as “handsome.” I have used a more literal translation because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity. Is Saul “good/better” in only a physical sense, or is he perhaps “good/better” in a spiritual or moral sense as well? The reason this is important is because later in the story when the Lord rejects Saul as king, Saul is told, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (emphasis mine). Later when Saul is pursuing David and David spares his life, Saul acknowledges that David has done “good” to him (1 Sam. 24:16-20). By this point in the story, we have come to know that Saul’s “goodness” is only related to his physical looks, not to his spirituality. However, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 9 all of this awaits discovery. All we know at the beginning of Saul’s introduction leaves us with a good impression of him. Thus Saul and Eli both have positive introductions, leaving the reader impressed with their good qualities. Both introductions leave the reader hopeful that God has found a good and competent leader. The negative qualities of each are only discovered as one continues reading.
Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God
Just as Eli and Saul both present initial favourable impressions as leaders, their character flaws come into sharpest focus in the same way–through corrupt worship of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 describes the corrupt practice of Eli’s sons regarding the abuse of the sacrifices brought to the tabernacle. Not only do they steal from the worshipper (1 Sam. 2:13-14), they steal from God (1 Sam. 2:15-16)! Eli’s crime is twofold: 1) He does not effectively discipline his sons for their sacrilege (1 Sam. 2:22-25; 3:13); and 2) He participates in eating the stolen sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:29). When God accuses Eli of honoring his sons above Him, He says that Eli and his sons have made themselves fat with the “head of every offering of My people Israel.” I have highligted the word “head” because of its importance in the story of Saul’s sin below.
Similarly, Saul is also convicted of sin in regards to sacrifice. In 1 Samuel 13:7-10, Saul succombs to the pressure of events and offers sacrifice, instead of waiting for Samuel as directed. When God commands Saul to destroy the Amalekites, Saul again fails by sparing Agag, “along with the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good” (1 Sam. 15:9). According to Saul, the purpose was to bring them back and sacrifice them to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:15, 21). When Saul speaks of the people sparing the “best” of the animals in 15:21, the word he chooses is “head,” the same one used in describing the sin of Eli! Samuel’s response is classic and announces a key theme of 1&2 Samuel: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams”(1 Sam. 15:22).
In Search of Better Leaders
When the Lord sends a Man of God to pronounce judgment on Eli and his sons, he states, “Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever” (1 Sam. 2:35). Similarly, when God rebukes Saul for his disobedience Samuel says, “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Furthermore, this man after God’s heart (David) will receive a “sure house” (1 Sam. 25:28; 2 Sam. 7:16), like that promised to the faithful priest of 1 Samuel 2:35. The parallels extend beyond the wording. Eli receives two words of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35; 3:11-14), and so does Saul (1 Sam. 13:11-14; 15:13-29). In each case it is the first words of judgment that contain the similar language about one “after God’s heart.”
Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment
Part of the judgment visited upon Eli is that he is told that both of his sons will die on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). In 1 Samuel 4 Israel is attacked by the Philistines. Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas are both killed on the same day as prophesied (1 Sam. 4:11). But the tragedy doesn’t end there. Eli himself dies when he hears the news that the ark of God was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:18). Ironically we are told that when Eli heard the news, he “fell off the seat backward,” broke his neck and died. This seat is the same one mentioned in 1 Samuel 1:9b which is usually translated “throne.” In other words, just as God will later dethrone Saul, here he dethrones Eli. Along with the deaths of Eli and his sons, his daughter-in-law also dies giving birth (1 Sam. 4:19-20). Most importantly, Israel experiences a devastating defeat at the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:10).
Drawing attention to the details surrounding Eli’s death may cause the reader to recall that the circumstances surrounding Saul’s death are eerily similar. Note that, like Eli and his sons, Saul and his sons die on the same day (1 Sam. 31:2-5). The battle is not only against the same foe–the Philistines–but the Philistines are said to gather at Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1), just as they did in the days of Eli (1 Sam. 4:1)! As in the days of Eli, Israel experiences an overwhelming defeat (1 Sam. 31:7). As Saul’s end nears the narrator informs us, “The battle was heavy against Saul” (1 Sam. 31:3, my translation). When Eli dies, the narrator states that he was “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18). Finally, just as Eli falls from his “throne” (a sign of his leadership), so an Amalekite brings David Saul’s crown and arm bracelet (symbols of his leadership–2 Sam. 1:10).
Better Leaders and Better Days
If you haven’t noticed these similarities before, you may be wondering about their significance. At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Hannah offers a song of praise to Yahweh (1 Sam. 2:1-10). In this song she praises the Lord’s sovereignty and describes how He operates among people. We could sum up the words of Hannah’s song in the words of James 4:6, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Through their disobedience both Eli and Saul bring judgment down upon themselves and their houses. Their rebellion is similar and so their judgment is similar. God had raised both them and their houses to positions of supreme authority and leadership in Israel, but their sin brought ruin on them and their houses. Just as Hannah had said, the Lord “brings low and lifts up” (1 Sam. 2:7). In each case, however, the Lord doesn’t leave His people leaderless. In place of Eli, He raised up Samuel (and later the priesthood of Zadok–see 1 Kings 2:27, 35), and in the place of Saul, the Lord raised up David.