The book of Samuel, which is broken into two parts (1st and 2nd Samuel), is a literary masterpiece that takes the form of a historical narrative. There are many aspects of this genre that are important to understand, but probably some of the most difficult issues come from the large historical gap between our day and theirs. Let’s bring clarity to one of the many obscure and strange references in 1 Samuel.
In 1 Sam 2:22 we find that Samuel’s sons are sleeping with the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting. This troubling situation is obviously wrong, but we get the entirely wrong idea when we look at it from our modern eyes. We see the sexual immorality and disregard for the holiness of God – and we are right – but we are missing the true offense that is taking place if this is all we see.
First, it’s helpful to remember that God (El) was worshipped in Canaan prior to the Israelites entering the land (see the above photo for an idol of El from Ugarit – the chief of their pantheon of the gods). In Genesis 14, Melchizedek is shown to worship El, the same God that Abraham worshiped. So, as proven by Melchizedek, El was known to the Canaanites in the time of Abraham, and at some point other gods were added to the pantheon. When we look at Canaanite literature, we see that unlike Abraham and Melchizedek the Canaanites believed that there were many gods besides El. In Canaanite literature (Ugaritic poetry to be specific), El was known as the king of the gods and over time had become the benign bull – an old pervert who was too lazy to do anything other than hit on the young goddesses. This is seen in the Canaanite myth of El, Ashertu, and the Storm-god, where El is married to Asherah (according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Asherah is a goddess of the Canaanite pantheon who was often the consort of Ba’al), or perhaps one of the Hittite poems where El is seen with “his feet upon the footstool, twiddling his thumbs” and pronouncing to Asherah that “El the King’s love stirs you, the Bull’s affection arouses you.” The old benign bull was quite the lazy pervert.
This is also why the Israelites tried to make young bulls to represent God when they were at Sinai (Ex. 32:4) – they were trying to honor El as no longer being an old benign bull but a young and energetic bull! However, God did not appreciate this very much. Next we see that the sons of Eli are having sex with the women who serve at the temple… Does this have anything to do with the Canaanite view of El? Yes, it does! In the temples of Ba’al (Ba’al had replaced El in the Canaanite mind, because El was too lazy to do anything anymore) the idea was that the gods observed human beings and were committed to the same passions and desires. So, when the temple priests and priestesses were having sex, the gods would also become aroused and have sex. This would result in some of Ba’al’s semen spilling onto the ground below (rain) and causing growth on the earth. So, Eli’s sons most likely were doing what was done in every other temple in the Ancient Near East: trying to get El aroused so that he’d have sex with other gods in the Pantheon and thus bring water and blessings.
Thus, we see that Eli’s sons were restoring the essence of Canaanite worship to Israel, including him among a pantheon of gods, and viewing Yahweh through the lens of Canaanite religion. This may seem like a stretch to us, but if we lived during a time when this was the common concept of all the countries around us, as well as the common concept of many people in Israel itself (as seen by how they were prone to worshipping Ba’al in Israel), this would be the most obvious interpretation of what was going on.
Further evidence of this would be the archaeological digs that discovered pottery with inscriptions such as one from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud that says “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah” (see below). These Israelite worshipers of Yahweh viewed El (Yahweh) as having once again risen to prominence over Ba’al and taken back his wife/consort, so he was now the one to arouse so that rain would come upon the land again. This does not mean that all Israelites held this belief, but it’s hard to read the texts of the Old Testament or look at the archaeology without concluding that many Israelites held to the Canaanite concept of the pantheon.
So, Eli’s sons’ sin was not merely their sexual immorality, but the introduction of Canaanite temple worship to the priesthood of Yahweh, along with bringing in the idea there is a pantheon of gods (contra the command to reject the idea that there are gods other than Yahweh in the pantheon [Ex. 20:2]). Understanding this should help shed light on just how angry Yahweh really was with them – their actions not only disgraced the temple of Yahweh but also implied the correctness of the Canaanite concept of the pantheon and thus reduced Yahweh down to the level of every other idol.
On a closing note, some have wondered if my post implies that Abraham worshiped El as the head of the pantheon, rather than El as the only God. I believe the best way to respond to this is by considering a hotly debated issue in Old Testament scholarship. Yahweh tells Moses that He did not reveal his name to Abraham and that Abraham only knew him as El (Exodus 6:3), but the name Yahweh is found repeatedly in the narrative of Genesis. The reason for this has been long debated and very complex theories have been produced. But a simple, and I think obvious, explanation is available. Yahweh really did NOT ever tell Abraham that his name was Yahweh, and Abraham only knew him as El. The reason that “Yahweh” repeatedly appears in the text is because Moses is the author, and Moses is interested in doing two things: (1) being honest to history – showing that God was known as El to Abaraham; (2) differentiating the real El from the Canaanite version where El is an old pervert among a patheon of Gods. So, Moses intermingles the name that Abraham knew God by (El) with the name that Moses’ contemporaries know him by (Yahweh) in order to prevent confusion between the El who exists and alone is God and the El who is the imaginary member of the Canaanite pantheon. Since Israel made a bull to represent Yahweh (and Yahweh rebuked them for it), it is obvious that they were highly tempted to view El through Canaanite eyes. So, Moses anachronistically inserted the name “Yahweh” into the narrative of Genesis for the sake of differentiation and openly admitted to doing this in his second book, Exodus (Ex. 6:3). This is does not at all impinge in the historicity of the book of Genesis, since this is a normal way of communicating and the Bible comes to us in the form of normal communication following the literary conventions of its day.
Adrian Curtis, Oxford Bible Atlas, 4th ed. (New York: University Press, 2007), 196.