Yesterday we started looking at Hophni and Phinehas’s behaviour with the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Was it sexual assault? The strong power imbalance made consent unlikely. If you missed it, you can read about it here.

Hophni and Phinehas habitually used threats of violence, although the text tells us they distanced themselves from violence by the use of third parties. That gives us an opportunity to look at the use of “flying monkeys”, or “abuse by proxy”.

Please be aware there could be triggers here for some.

What do we know about Hophni and Phinehas and the use of violence?

Here is the text from 1 Samuel:

Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they had no regard for the LORD. Now it was the practice of the priests that, whenever any of the people offered a sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand while the meat was being boiled and would plunge the fork into the pan or kettle or caldron or pot. Whatever the fork brought up the priest would take for himself. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the priest’s servant would come and say to the person who was sacrificing, “Give the priest some meat to roast; he won’t accept boiled meat from you, but only raw.”

If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.”1

This passage tells us the men’s violent behaviour was enshrined in policy and procedure. Hophni and Phinehas treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh in the same way, whenever they offered a sacrifice. There was a chain of command at work: the two men gave instructions to their servant, (or servants?), who consistently obeyed.

The threat of violence is explicit.

They used “flying monkeys”

“Flying monkeys” is more of a lay term, however it describes common behaviour. The term comes from The Wizard of Oz, where the Wicked Witch of the West used winged monkeys to do her bidding. In the same way, an abuser might use third parties to practice their abuse. Their “flying monkeys” could be willing – enjoying the harm they cause – or completely unaware, and good-hearted.

Hophni and Phinehas’s servant was clearly doing harm, and he couldn’t claim lack of awareness. He, like the women, could have been under duress. However, perhaps he enjoyed acting that way. We don’t know from the text, although God punished Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas, not the servant.

You may be aware from your own sense of safety around various people: a person can be frightening without needing to be continually harmful. It is enough to know a person is willing to cause harm if crossed. This gives abusers great advantage because they can frequently practice charming, kind, or otherwise positive behaviour. They don’t need to show their dark side often. In the context of a faith community that leaves plenty of opportunities for a person to appear Godly, while ensuring those around them walk on eggshells. The potential threat of harm is an effective means of control.

Did they directly threaten the women with physical violence?

We don’t know if Hophni and Phinehas were ever personally violent in that sense. However, they didn’t need to be, since the implicit threat would have been loud and clear from their other behaviour. They consistently, violently stole meat from people in the midst of worship. That speaks volumes about a person’s character. If they were acting that way habitually, of course one would be afraid to say no to them about sex! Terrified, I would imagine.

(While we are talking about violence, I want to note here the Australian Family Law definition of family violence2 includes emotional abuse, sexual assualt, and sexually abusive behaviour.)

Coercive Circumstances

What picture of consent do we get here when we use the United Nations framework of “coercive circumstances”?3

The women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting were employed by a religious organisation, headed by two men who were known to use violence to get what they wanted. What would happen to them if they refused sex? These women were clearly under significant duress. Absolutely, they were in “coercive circumstances”.

The Bible has yet more to say about these men, and we will look at some other aspects of their treatment of these women as well as their abuse of others.

The women who served held very little personal power compared to Hophni and Phinehas. Abuse was explicitly enshrined in the policy and procedure of the religious institution. An organisational response was needed, yet the complaints that reached Eli did not result in him taking effective action. He held conflicts of interest, not only because the offenders were his sons, but because he benefitted financially from their abuse. The brightest spot in this whole story so far remains Hannah: a Godly woman who lived with domestic violence4, who longed to have children.

Steve Wade



  1. 1 Samuel 2:12-16
  2. Family Court of Australia – What is Family Violence?
  3. See yesterday’s post here
  4. See our series on Hannah here


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