Samuel is old, has been judge in Israel for many years, and has gained the respect and affection of the people. But now in his old age, it appears that Samuel makes a critical mistake: He appoints his two sons Joel and Abijah as judges in his place. Until now we have heard nothing of Samuel’s personal circumstances, and still know nothing really of his wife and family. But now, in addition to their names, we know something else about his sons: they “do not walk in his ways,” but seeking to enrich themselves, took bribes and perverted the course of justice (vv. 3, 5).
Why has Samuel done this? Why has he appointed and retained his sons as judges in his place, especially when they prove unworthy of the role? Having seen what happened with Eli and his sons, is Samuel now to repeat the same mistake? Was there no one else he could appoint? At least Eli reprimanded his sons; there is no indication in the text that Samuel did the same.
Several questions arise, the first concerning, once more, the responsibilities of parenthood, or more generally, human nature in general. We saw in chapter two that God held Eli responsible for the behaviour of his sons, perhaps due to his failure to step them down from their priestly duties, given their disqualifying behaviours. It may not be Eli as parent but Eli as leader that has failed. Here, too, however, Samuel’s sons walk awry, interested more in personal gain than in fair dealing, justice, and public service. We know that Samuel is seen as possessing utmost integrity; has he somehow failed to pass this on to his children, nurturing in them the qualities so evident in himself? Or is this simply another instance of the wayward nature of human being itself, that when, given the opportunity of personal gain at the expense of others, many will prove willing to act corruptly?
A second question concerns the nature of hereditary offices, and whether nepotism invariably leads to the kind of corruption portrayed here. There is, actually, no real sense in which this was an act of nepotism by Samuel. Murphy, in fact, rejects this idea, arguing instead that in the kind of pre-state, segmentary, tribal culture that characterised pre-monarchical Israel it was natural that sons be appointed to the positions occupied by their fathers. Further, she observes, the elders who come to Samuel do not complain that Samuel appointed his sons per se, but that the sons, “do not walk in your ways” (v. 5). It was not that Samuel made his sons judges, but rather that the sons have become the kinds of judges that they have (Murphy, 62). This important observation will help lift this text beyond the kind of moralism that arises when the question of parenting is emphasised. 1 Samuel, after all, is about how the decentralised tribal society seen in Judges became a nation around a centralised monarchy.
Even so, the question concerning hereditary offices does not go away. The elders who come to Samuel are asking for a king: another form of hereditary office, which again indicates that it was not the appointment of Samuel’s sons which was itself the issue. Nevertheless,
The attitude toward kingship seen throughout the somewhat inglorious history of the monarchy is one of unresolved tension, and that tension is reflected in the ambiguity here. On the one hand, particularly in the Psalms, the monarchy is viewed very positively; it was a God-given gift. The king was God’s representative on earth, able to lead the people in their service of God and reflect God to them, helping them to understand his character and purposes. On the other hand, Samuel and certain of the prophets saw the monarchy as a rejection of God and his kingly rule; the king stood between the people and God, drawing their allegiance to himself and away from God. In this view, the monarchy was neither necessary nor useful for the life of God’s covenant people (Evans, 57).
The Scripture itself, according to Evans, does not resolve the question of the hereditary office, but it does provide perspectives that help us think about the question, and about the nature of Christian leadership in general. To the extent that the king exercised his authority in a priestly manner, directing the people toward God and representing God’s character and purpose to the people, it is affirmed. To the extent, however, that the king aggrandises himself and pursues his own will to the detriment of God’s purposes both for himself and for the people, his leadership is rejected. Samuel’s sons did not “walk in his ways,” and on these grounds are rejected. Nor is the fault Samuel’s: they are responsible for their actions.