Scripture obviously ought to be a guiding tool for our life. In reading the stories of the bible, we learn about who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. In many ways, scripture provides the “answer” to questions we might have. You’ve probably heard this terminology used before!
But one odd thing about our bible is that it doesn’t always give us specific answers. For instance, do we know everything that is going on in the mind of a character? Do we always know the backstory? Do we fully know someone’s intentions?
Some people take issue with ambiguity, but if you ask me, this is one reason I find the bible so fascinating! We must truly study it in order to glean lessons from stories like those from 1 Samuel.
With that said, Eli is one of those characters where we don’t exactly have clearcut answers. Was he a great father? Did he utterly fail? To be honest, it’s unclear. To recap this character from the beginning of the book:
- Eli is the high priest of Israel in Shiloh. People come there yearly to make sacrifices. Eli assures Hannah she will have a son.
- Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were bad dudes. The bible calls them “scoundrels” and states they had no regard for the Lord. These two troubled sons took advantage of people in grotesque and corrupt ways. Eli confronts the sinful sons and warns them of God’s judgment. They don’t listen.
- Eli mentors Samuel over the years, giving Israel its first prophet. Samuel realizes God is calling him in the middle of the night, thanks to Eli’s advice.
- Samuel prophesies the house of Eli will be destroyed for the sins of the sons. In some readings, it is not clear if Eli himself also will be cursed, too, or if his offspring simply bear the brunt of the impending doom. The sons die in battle and after Eli finds out, he falls over, breaking his neck and dies, too.
- It is unclear as to whether future generations suffered more from a divine “curse.” Some of Eli’s ancestors die young. But some biblical traditions state that people like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and descendants of this family line. So it seems to me as though Eli’s history is not entirely hopeless or corrupt.
Some bible commentators and pastors criticize Eli and essentially blame him for the actions of his sons. By extension, the same people might blame parents of lost children today. You’ve heard phrases like these before…
- “Eli should have done more.” And today, “That parent should have done more.”
- “That child must have learned it from the mother/father.”
- “Some kids just weren’t raised right.”
- “Well they clearly failed at parenting.”
So who is exactly to blame when children turn away from God?
I’ll be the first to admit this is an incredibly dicey issue. For starters, I don’t have children yet and don’t know what it’s like to parent. I also realize it is easy to judge others and put people down without truly understanding a family’s situation. We so often want an explanation for why someone turned out “bad” that we rush to judge the parent almost immediately. We often forget that every individual must make the choice for him or herself on whether to follow Jesus or not. Children turn into youth, and eventually turn into adults. We gradually take ownership of our lives and make impactful decisions through free will.
I know many parents–and yes, even pastors–who did everything “right” yet still struggled with wayward children. What’s a parent to do when she or he earnestly follows God, yet witnesses children turn away from faith?
Despite my lack of experience in the parenting arena, I feel confident in my beliefs on this matter. Rather than playing the “blame game” about lost and rebellious children, I think God calls us to something different. It is easy to point fingers and wash our own hands, but I don’t think we ought to be doing much blame in the first place. We need more understanding and compassion instead of condemnation and judgment.
In the future, it might be worth considering past mistakes and asking God for healing where someone may have failed as a parent. But in the midst of trauma, the blame game doesn’t help at all.
Your friend who is dealing with a struggling family member doesn’t need to be shamed or scolded. For now, they need prayer, help, and support. They need to know that they are not alone, and that you can be a Christian friend to them during their hour of need.