Reader Questions: Why Was Eli Judged for the Sins of His Sons?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

In regard to God’s treatment of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4, I’ve always been disturbed that Eli was included in judgement because of his sons.

1. Aaron was not condemned to death because his sons offered “strange’ fire.
2. Eli raised Samuel to be an upright man of God; he must’ve done something right.

I know that perhaps Eli’s heart was not right with God as the text does not elaborate and it does not say that he asked for forgiveness or repented. His admonition of Hannah for being drunk may also reflect that he did not possess the compassion and empathy that reflects God’s character in his servants. Still, I was hoping you might point to other portions of the Bible that explains Eli’s punishment more effectively rather than trying to “read between the lines” and dangerously make up what’s not written.

Still, this has always made me ask if my heart is in the right place and whether or not my faith in Jesus’ redemption is truly “genuine enough”

For those who might need a refresher on the story, Eli was the high priest at the time recorded in the beginning of 1 Samuel. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, served as priests in the temple, but they were corrupt, stealing, embezzling, and committing acts of sexual immorality by abusing their positions of power with women who came to the Tabernacle to worship. As a result of their actions, not only was the Tabernacle profaned, but people avoided coming to worship because of the presence of these wicked priests.

The reason for God’s judgment on Eli is outlined in 1 Samuel 2:27-29, in which a prophet tells Eli that he is going to be judged for the sins of his sons because he did not do enough to stop them from doing these acts. In 1 Samuel 2:29, God states that Eli honored his sons more than he honored God, and it is for this sin that Eli is being judged. Although Eli had scolded them, he did not do anything besides talking to them. Eli’s responsibility is two-fold, since he was both their father and their boss – as high priest. Eli should have fired his sons or carried out some sort of disciplinary action, and it is for this reason of allowing these things to take place and not doing anything about it, that Eli received God’s judgment.

I’ll never forget that one of my mentors fired his own son in law over an act of impropriety in the church. It must have made for a very awkward Thanksgiving, but at least he was not following in the sin of Eli.

Two Important Thoughts About Judgment: Temporal Judgments and the Mercy of God

It is worth noting that the removal of both the priesthood from Eli and his life were temporal judgments, rather than eternal or spiritual judgments upon his soul. I think it is likely that Eli, recognizing his shortcomings and sins, and knowing the promise of God to send a savior to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), he would have cast himself upon God’s mercy and received forgiveness. Temporal judgments, in other words, do not preclude eternal salvation.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the very nature of justice is that it entails getting what is deserved. Mercy, on the other hand, is not getting the judgment that is deserved. So, for God to judge Eli for his failure to lead well as high priest, is fair. On the other hand, when God chooses to give mercy, such as in the case of Aaron, that is His prerogative. As Paul puts it in Romans 9:18: “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy.” Mercy is never deserved, nor can it be demanded or expected. God reserves this right, and does so for His purposes, which we may never fully know on this side of eternity.

Knowing this helps us understand both the reasons why sometimes God doesn’t save us from the consequences of our sins even when He forgives us of them, and it helps us marvel all the more at the undeserved grace and mercy of God towards us!

Thank you for the question, and God bless you!

Did Jesus Heal a Centurion’s Same-Sex Partner?

A while back a friend shared a TikTok video with me in which a young guy was teaching something from the Bible which he portrayed as something people had overlooked, or about which they had been unaware, which could be potentially paradigm-shifting.

What this young man claimed is that the gospels tell us that Jesus healed a centurion’s servant, but that the word used there for “servant” actually means a same-sex lover. Thus, his conclusion was that by doing this, Jesus essentially affirmed and condoned, rather than condemned, homosexual sexual relationships.

The story of this healing is found in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10, and is about a Roman centurion who comes to Jesus and begs that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus agrees and says he will come to the centurion’s home, but the centurion says that he does not deserve to have Jesus under his roof, and that he has faith that all Jesus has to do is say the word, and his servant will be healed.

Did Jesus Heal a Centurion’s Same Sex Lover?

The word in question is the Greek word “Pais.” Interestingly, the word Pais literally means boy. There is another Greek word for servant, the word doulos, but the word pais was used to designate a young, male servant boy.

Pederasty and Sexual Abuse

As Preston Sprinkle explains in his excellent book, People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue, it was common in the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus’ day for homosexual sex to be part of the power differential in a relationship, but only as long as the dominant partner was older, of higher social standing, and in the penetrating role. This is often referred to as pederasty, in which older men would have dominant sexual relationships with teenage boys. Both modern psychology and laws would deem these relationships to be unethical and illegal for multiple reasons, as they are abusive and harmful; not only are they an abuse of power, but these relationships were physically, sexually, and psychologically abusive to the younger victim.

Furthermore, Sprinkle goes on to explain that such relationships in the ancient world were not at all like our modern conception of a gay couple in a loving, consensual, co-equal relationship. For example, the penetrating partner in such relationships was not necessarily considered “gay” or “same-sex attracted,” rather this was an act of subjugating the passive partner and was about asserting power.

Pais Alone Doesn’t Imply a Homosexual Relationship

However, there is actually no indication that this centurion had such a relationship with his servant boy just by use of the word “pais.” While these relationships did exist, to assume that this centurion was sexually abusing his servant boy based on the simple fact that he had a servant boy, would be like reading that a man had a wife and then assuming that he must have abused his wife, because some people do that. It’s a major assumption, in other words, that requires a giant leap that is not indicated by anything in the text.

In fact, Luke uses the word doulos (the general word for servant) to describe this boy (Luke 7:2). Furthermore, of the 24 uses of pais in the Greek New Testament, it is never used of a homosexual relationship. So, the idea that this specific servant boy was being sexually abused by his master is definitely not something that ancient readers would have automatically assumed based on the use of the word pais. Furthermore, since any such relationship would have been abusive in nature, to say that this is an example of Jesus condoning or affirming a homosexual relationship is far-fetched and misguided; certainly no one would argue that Jesus, by healing this servant, was affirming or condoning of the sexual abuse of a minor by an older man in position of power.

Would Jesus have healed a gay person?

Although it is very unlikely that this passage is speaking about the healing of a centurion’s same-sex partner, the question remains: Would Jesus have healed a gay person? I think the answer to this question is also very simple: Yes.

Here’s why I say this: because Jesus’ healing of people never hinged on, or depended on, their level of personal righteousness. When Jesus healed the man born blind, he never brought up that man’s struggle with bitterness, greed, or envy. When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, he never brought up that man’s struggle with lust. Healing is an act of grace, and grace – by definition – is not something that is earned or merited, it is a gift from a God who gives to undeserving recipients.

The message of the gospel is that God shows grace to sinners, and that’s good news for a sinner like me, and for you as well. As Paul tells us in Romans 2, the kindness of God often leads us to repentance.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

I highly recommend the above mentioned book, Preston Sprinkle’s People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue. Preston addresses the topic of homosexuality with scholarly insight and tons of empathy and love. Furthermore, I recommend Justin Thomas’ online course on Biblical Gender and Sexuality. Justin is the lead pastor of Calvary: The Hill on Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington, and a fellow leader in Calvary Global Network.