Are some sins so bad they are beyond forgiveness, even for God? I sure hope not, but in
I Samuel 3:14 God says, “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” That’s the NRSV translation. Since “expiated” is not a household word, the NIV translation of that verse clarifies things a bit. The NIV says, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.” At least that one leaves off the ominous “forever” of the NRSV. But don’t celebrate that verbiage too soon because both translations agree in verse 13 that this judgment is forever. No matter how it’s translated, this passage is bad news. Eli’s family is guilty of some heinous sin that they can never ever make amends for.
Inquiring minds want to know what the sin of Eli’s family is–in part to be sure that particular big no no is not on our rap sheet, but even more we want to know what this Scripture means about the very nature of the God we worship and want to trust with how we will spend eternity. Are some acts so evil that they are beyond the limits of an infinite God’s power to forgive?
We can all think of potential candidates for the unforgiveable list: genocide, child abuse, hate crimes, cruelty to animals, and murder might come to mind. Many of us have painful memories of things done to us or by us that stay with us so long they feel unforgiveable. But just because we mortals can’t forgive something doesn’t mean God can’t, does it? “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for” has a ring of finality to it, and with God there’s no higher court of appeal to turn to.
So what is this unforgiveable offense? I’ll summarize, but the details are found in I Samuel 2:11-17 if you want to read them for yourself. First, you need to know that Eli and his sons are priests in the temple at Shiloh. But we are told up front in 2:11 that Eli’s sons are “scoundrels” or “wicked men.” Their offense is that they violate their sacred priestly duties by taking for themselves the very best portions of meat which are meant to be sacrificed on the altar to God. Furthermore, they don’t even attempt to hide their wicked ways but boldly and openly demand the very choicest cuts of meat for themselves and even threaten to take those by force if anyone tries to stop them. Verse 17 concludes this section by saying, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”
Sadly, in contemporary times it is easy to draw parallels here to clergy embezzlement of funds entrusted to them for feeding staving orphans or betraying sacred trust through sexual misconduct. It is a given that Christians and clergy in particular must not dodge those hard questions and constantly strive to understand and eliminate the suffering those unacceptable behaviors cause. But a broader question raised by this text is: are those unforgiveable sins? In our eyes? In God’s?
And to muddy the waters even further, for those of us who believe in the priesthood of all believers, the question becomes what offerings of the Lord do you and I treat with contempt? If all of creation is an offering of God to us and we are entrusted by God with all that we are and all we have, not as owners but as stewards, then how does our stewardship compare with that of Eli’s wicked unforgiveable sons? When we betray God’s trust and desecrate God’s creation with toxic waste, or pollute our bodies with carcinogenic junk food, or disobey God’s laws against killing, or violate the sacred vows we made at our marriage or our baptism, does God then say to us, “I swear to you that your sins shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever?”
The God I know and love does not pass such harsh judgment, and in most sermons and blog posts I would attempt to show why I believe that and bring some resolution to such a difficult question. And I will do that in another post, but not yet.
Sometimes we need to wrestle with the questions of our faith so the answers we find can be claimed as our own. So I’d like to ask you: What evidence do you find in Scripture and in life that speak to you about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human sin? If you were explaining this text to a new Christian or someone living in guilt and fear of an angry God, what would you say? I invite you to explore this for yourself or with friends and if you like share your thoughts by posting a comment.
Let’s dialogue a bit and next week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think the key to understanding this text might be.