In 1 Sam 3:13, the LORD tells Samuel of his judgement on the house of Eli:

“For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them.

However, in Chapter 2, vv. 23-25, Eli seems to have rebuked his sons. Furthermore, his lack of efficacy is attributed to the LORD’s own will:

He said to them, “Why do you do such things, the evil things that I hear from all these people?

“No, my sons; for the report is not good which I hear the LORD’S people circulating.

“If one man sins against another, God will mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for the LORD desired to put them to death.

I quoted the NASB because of the translation “rebuke”. Some use “restrain” instead, and I guess if that is the meaning one could argue that Eli hadn’t gone far enough. Both BDB and HALOT, however, indicate that כָּהָה (kāhâ) means “to rebuke”.1 In any case, Eli’s language in 2:25 is pretty strong, and telling us outright that it was the LORD's will that they die doesn't leave the impression that Eli neglected to say/do something more that could have impacted the outcome.

Does the word mean “rebuke” or “restrain”? If it means “rebuke”, how does that make sense in light of 2:23-25?

1. Although I don’t exactly know how they know that since this usage appears to be unique to this verse. Presumably something to do with cognates in other languages....cited, but opaque to me....“Mand.”?

  • 1
    Though it's certain according to the language he "rebuked" them, he did not remove them from their priestly office, which meant his "rebukes" went unheeded and they caused great scandal, so much so that the Lord Himself had to remove them(and Eli) from their priestly office. If he had "restrained" them, perhaps a different outcome, although they were "sons of Belial"(1 Sam. 2:12). – Tau Jul 19 '15 at 12:30
  • From that comment I take that you don't think the word in 3:13 means "rebuke". I guess my concern, when translations are divided and the lexicons give the "more difficult" reading, is that the translations with the "easier" reading are harmonizing. And maybe that's appropriate, to assume the story is internally consistent, but I'd like to see more evidence that the word doesn't mean "rebuke". – Susan Jul 19 '15 at 12:46
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    Am I wrong in reading Eli as mostly complaining about the complaints people are bringing him? At the end he's pleading with them, not rebuking, correcting or restraining them. Like a parent at McDonald's begging their kid to stop their tantrum, they aren't DOing anything to rebuke or correct. Just how I've always read it. Can't speak to the language part of it. – Joshua Jul 20 '15 at 17:17

Eli's Failure

Somewhat regardless of whether the word כָּהָה (kāhâ) should mean "rebuke" or "restrain," at the point which the sons refused to obey their father Eli (1 Sam 2:25), Eli should have had his sons killed on the basis of two, and possibly three points of the Law (quotes from NASB):

  1. Dishonoring God's Law—Lev 3 and Lev 4 with Num 15:30-311

    30 But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.’

    By not performing their priestly duties properly regarding sacrifices (1 Sam 2:12-17), they were no longer "unintentionally" sinning, but "defiantly" sinning, and should have been "cut off."

  2. Adultery (probably)—Lev 18:20 and Deut 22:22 (cf. Exo 20:14)

    Lev 18:20 You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her.

    Deut 22:22 If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.

    Eli's sons, according to 1 Sam 2:22, "lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting." These relations most likely consisted of some adulterous ones, or otherwise improper for priests to partake in.2

  3. Law of the Rebellious Son—Deut 21:18-21

    18 If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. 20 They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.

    After being "rebuked" by their father Eli for sins they already should have been put to death for, yet still not listening to their father, Eli himself should have initiated their stoning.

So Eli, of all people, should have been leading the charge on multiple levels to have his sons put to death, and effectively removed from their office. But 1 Sam 2:29 states the issue with Eli (emphasis added):

Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling, and honor your sons above Me, by making yourselves fat with the choicest of every offering of My people Israel?

So if Eli would not fix the issue, God would, and judge Eli and his whole house in the process.

Possible Meaning of כָּהָה (kāhâ) in 1 Sam 3:13?

As a side point, the word כָּהָה is elsewhere given the idea of "grow dim" or "faint" both in the Qal and Piel (BDB), and only in 1 Sam 3:13 is the idea of "rebuke" or "restrain" brought up.

It seems to me that it would be best to keep that idea in 1 Sam 3:13, so a modified NASB translation of the verse be:

For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not grow faint [or dim] in them.

This language could then be a reference back to the 1 Sam 2:29 accusation God makes about Eli honoring his sons above God. They should not have had such a bright spot in his eyes that they eclipsed God's law. The language would be more poetic, along the lines of dimness expressed by Job 17:7:

My eye has also grown dim [Qal of כָּהָה] because of grief, And all my members are as a shadow.

Eli should have been experiencing an intensified grief, and thus an intensified faintness or dimness (Piel of כָּהָה) toward his sons for the reproach they were making upon God's name and ways, but he was not experiencing that, according to this reading of 1 Sam 3:13.

Such a reading (a) makes sense in context, (b) fits the usage of the term otherwise, and (c) resolves the apparent contradiction that initiated your question. A win on all accounts.

1 I view the Pentateuch as a unified unit, chiefly composed by Moses and completed prior to Israel coming into Canaan, and so the whole Law part of the background to Eli and his sons.

2 All the texts from the Pentateuch that explicitly charge men with committing adultery are when they have had intercourse with a married woman. It is challenging from just reading the Pentateuch to find where intercourse with an unmarried woman constituted adultery, even if the man was married. Phinehas was for sure married (1 Sam 4:19), so if adultery was considered simply on the basis of the man being married, then he was for sure guilty, but if not, then it would require that the women he was laying with be married to qualify.

However, priests were also held to a higher standard. Lev 21 states that they could "not take a woman who is profaned by harlotry, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband" (v.7). They were only to marry a virgin (v.13-14). So what Eli's sons were doing in 1 Sam 2:22 was wrong, and Eli considered what they did reprehensible (since 1 Sam 2:23 is the beginning of the "rebuke," which follows upon the statement of their sexual behavior).

  • Thanks! Very helpful. I guess I was understanding BDB (and HALOT similarly) to be saying that those are two different (homonymous) words. And roots. Am I reading that incorrectly, or you’re suggesting that they’re mistaken? – Susan Jul 21 '15 at 15:27
  • You read BDB (HALOT) correctly. I'm just proposing that perhaps they are wrong, that the typical meaning recognized elsewhere would seem to fit just fine with my proposed reading of the text (and so no need to seek a homonym). However, I placed that secondary in the answer, since I do feel that the main point (even if it means "rebuke" or "restrain") is that Eli did not go far enough in what he should have done, namely, he did not call for his sons to be put to death. – ScottS Jul 21 '15 at 15:44

The Idea in Brief

Eli had done nothing to "tone down" his sons, or to mitigate their behavior. So while on the one hand he had rebuked them in Chapter 2, there is nothing in the text to suggest that he had done anything from that time onward to mitigate their behavior, which is the observation in Chapter 3.

Later in the book, Samuel himself comes to have the same problem with his own sons. In this case, however, Samuel was able to "tone down" his sons and avoid divine intervention.


The Hebrew verb in 1 Sam 3:13 is כָּהָה, which has the literal idea of dimming, or toning down. The lemma of the verb occurs nine other times in the Hebrew Bible, and carries the idea of dimming or mitigating. For example, in this verse of 1 Sam 3:13 the aspect of the verb is Piel stem (intensive), which also occurs in Lev 13:6 and Lev 13:56, where the same Piel stem in those verses indicates that the leprosy is "toned down" or faded (and therefore appears mitigated though not eliminated). So what Eli failed to do in 1 Sam 3:13 was to "tone down" the errant behavior of his sons.

The idea of "tone down" also appears in The Targum Jonathan, which is one Aramaic translation of several texts of the Hebrew Bible by Jewish scholars. That is, since Jewish scholars translated these texts, their translation would suggest their Jewish understanding of the passage in Biblical Hebrew.

1 Sam 3:13 (TgJ)
enter image description here Proposed translation:

So I have revealed [this prophecy] to him since I am going to avenge myself from his household [lit., from man in his house] for their guilt which he knew, since his sons brought wrath upon themselves, and he did not tone them down [i.e., did nothing to mitigate their behavior].

There are two words in this verse with variant readings: the first variant indicates that the first word of the verse may read with the Pael imperfect (versus the Pael perfect in the received text), which would then begin the verse: "So I will reveal..."

The second variant concerns the Aramaic verb for "tone down" (כהי), which may be read instead with the Aramaic word for "rebuke" (נזף). In other words, the received Targum appears to follow what we know as today's Masoretic Text, and therefore the Jewish scholars leaned toward the plain reading of the Hebrew when they translated the texts into Aramaic in the Second of Third Century of the current era.


Eli had honored his sons more than the Lord (1 Sam 2:29), and so his original rebuke (1 Sam 2:25) was not followed by any intervention to mitigate (or "tone down") their behavior. When Samuel revealed the doom of the sons of Eli to Eli, his response was apathy: "It is the Lord; let Him do what seems good to Him" (1 Sam 3:18). If the Lord wished to put the sons of Eli to death (1 Sam 2:25), the Lord did so by not providing any sense of urgency to Eli with regard to his sons' impending doom. (For example, see Rom 1:24, 1:26, and 1:28 in the Christian New Testament.)

On the other hand, when the sons of Samuel also erred in their ways (1 Sam 8:1-3), there is no mention of divine intervention. In other words, Samuel appears to have mitigated ("toned down") his sons' behaviors, which precluded any mention of divine intervention in the narrative.

  • From one viewpoint, it does show Samuel does Indirectly take action against his sons by bringing forth the Israelite's request for a king to God, and then reluctantly anointing a king(which implies that Samuel's son's lost their leadership). Thus, Samuel is relatively more active in disciplining his sons' for their sins, while Eli was relatively Not as active in discipling his sons' for their sins – crazyTech Jun 18 '19 at 5:38

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