Did Hophni and Phinehas commit sexual assault?
The writer of 1 Samuel tells us:
Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.1
As we look at the first chapters of 1 Samuel, we aren’t given a lot of detail about Eli’s sons in the text, but there is enough to apply some principles and think about the issue of consent. There are some clues elsewhere in the Bible about their character that can help us also.
In talking about this – we aren’t going to go into explicit detail, but we are going to use terms and talk about situations that could be triggering for some.
The text tells us clearly Hophni and Phinehas were in the wrong – but what kind of wrong? And how might they have justified themselves?
We know for sure that Phinehas was married2, and can assume Hophni was also. So, at the very least, they were breaking their marriage vows. But beyond that, could they argue the women were consenting? It would be most unsurprising if they tried that approach. However, let’s push back: here is the United Nations recommended approach to good practices in legislation on violence against women3. Among other requirements, such laws should:
- remove any requirement that sexual assault be committed by force or violence, and any requirement of proof of penetration, and minimize re-victimization of the complainant/survivor in proceedings by enacting a definition of sexual assault that either:
- requires the existence of “unequivocal and voluntary agreement” and requiring proof by the accused of steps taken to ascertain whether the complainant/survivor was consenting; or
- requires that the act take place in “coercive circumstances” and includes a broad range of coercive circumstances;
Considering these points, what kind of coercive circumstances existed around Hophni and Phinehas?
Hophni and Phinehas had power
Despite disagreement between commentators on the likely daily tasks of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, most agree these women held roles related to enhancing and supporting the worship that took place there. (Guesses range from cleaning to singing, and you might find Marg Mowczko’s research5 on these women useful.) Whatever the specific tasks: this was their place of employment.
It seems from the text that Hophni and Phinehas held the most power in the religious hierarchy. Although Eli was the High Priest he allowed his sons to have more influence.
This leads us to understand that Hophni and Phinehas were the people with the most power to “hire and fire”. (Or otherwise, make life miserable for those they were meant to be serving with their leadership.) It follows that they could influence the material welfare of these women. (Such as their income and housing.)
It would be natural for any person to fear saying “no” to either of these men, given their other behaviour. Yet these women were under Hophni and Phinehas’s employ and held significantly less social and political influence. It is very difficult to argue they gave “unequivocal and voluntary agreement”, free of “coercive circumstances”. That’s even before we come to consider any other factors, such as the men’s threats of violence.6
unequivocal and voluntary agreement
It’s going to take some time to examine this story further, and we will come back to this issue.
So did Hophni and Phinehas commit sexual assault?
Meanwhile, God vigorously condemned Hophni and Phinehas for what they did to these women, and Eli for his complicity. Looking at this story in light of the UN’s criteria it seems clear that what they did, repeatedly, was rape.
God was furious with them
Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that no older man will be left in your house. You will see distress in My dwelling place. Despite all that is good in Israel, no one in your house will ever again reach old age. And every one of you that I do not cut off from My altar, your eyes will fail and your heart will grieve. All your descendants will die by the sword of men.
And this sign shall come to you concerning your two sons Hophni and Phinehas: They will both die on the same day.7
God’s response is quite jaw-dropping. His punishment of these three men is clear and strong. He punished their whole family line. He must have had reasons for this extended punishment consistent with his character.8
This is far from the only time we see God get angry about abuse, but it seems clear he was absolutely furious in this case.
In the narrative of 1 Samuel, God’s response to the crimes of these men comes just after Hannah’s song, where she sings:
He will guard the feet of his saints,
but the wicked will be silenced in darkness.
It is not by strength that one prevails;
Those who oppose Yahweh will be shattered.
He will thunder against them from heaven;
Yahweh will judge the ends of the earth.9
We can imagine these women went through hell, and likely for a long time. Eli knew and could have put a stop to it. Hophni and Phinehas were severely oppressing the Israelites. It follows that if Eli had drawn boundaries with his sons he would have had strong support from the people. He did not take action, and God’s fury was equally against him.
- 1 Samuel 2:22
- 1 Samuel 4:19
- You can download the report here, and we’re quoting from page 28
- You can get their palm card on this topic here
- Marg Mowczko – Women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting
- 1 Samuel 2:16
- 1 Samuel 2:31-34
- Perhaps he acted to remove any possible conflict of interest that might whitewash Hopni and Phinehas’s crimes later on. Perhaps he had some other motive.
- 1 Samuel 2:9-10