Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Sins of Eli's Sons

The second chapter of 1 Samuel tells the story of how the sons of Eli the High Priest diverged from his holy ways. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 lists their sins. Later in the chapter (v. 22), when discussing how Eli eventually heard of his sons' bad ways, the text tells us something surprising: "Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting." The Bible tells us that Eli's sons were sleeping with women who brought sacrifices to the altar. However, this was not mentioned in the previous list of sins! You would think that, when listing the sins, it would be proper to include the most egregious of them all.

Click here to read moreThis seems to be why the Talmud (Shabbos 55b) says that Eli's sons did not sleep with the women. Rather, the Bible was merely exaggerating their sin and what they did was delay women who brought sacrifices so that they returned to their husband a day late. It seems that the Talmud was starting from the textual problem described above and, in order to address it, proposed an answer based on extra-textual information. Relying on extra-textual information is an approach within the derash methodology (I have a long, as-yet-unwritten post on this subject). The job of the peshat commentator who wants to learn from the Sages is to utilize their textual insights but to offer resolutions that remain within the text.

R. Yitzchak Etshalom, in a lecture on this chapter that is part of the OU's Nakh Yomi project, offers an explanation that one of his high school students proposed (the audio is available on the OU website here and on, both websites are incredible treasure troves). Note that in verse 22, it only says that Eli heard that his sons were sleeping with women and not that they actually were. What could have happened is that Eli heard rumors about these terrible acts and figured, "where there's smoke, there's fire." Even if they weren't doing that exact sin, they were probably doing something wrong along the lines of "they don't tell stories like that about you and me." Obviously, some people have enemies who will stoop so low as to spread spurious rumors. But when rumors of wrongdoing are rampant then there is very often actual wrongdoing going on. That was the case with Eli's sons. While the rumors exaggerated their sins, the general idea that they were oppressing those who brought sacrifices was true. Eli realized this and was, therefore, distressed.

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