Fathers & Sons in 1 Samuel 1-15: An Evaluation
Deuteronomy 6: 6-7: “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
In light of God’s command for fathers to teach His word “diligently,” what can we learn from the examples of Eli, Samuel and Saul?
Eli: The Deadbeat Dad?
“Clueless” is the word that might describe Eli as father. Scripture indicates he “honored” (1 Samuel 2:29) his wicked sons more than God. But the honoring appears to be accidental as he becomes aware of their egregious sins (vs. 12) late in life (vs. 22). It was established and known throughout the priesthood (vs. 13) and in fact, all of Israel (vs. 14) that Eli’s sons were bad apples. This type of heart toxicity doesn’t typically happen overnight but is in evidence over a period of years. Eli was either in denial or oblivious to sin that should have been obvious. As we examine the text, one wonders why it takes third-party reporting (vs. 22-23) to see the immorality of his sons! God holds Eli accountable (2:30-36) for his lack of faithfulness in evidence by his blind eye (vs. 22) and impotence as a father (2:23-24). Eli loses his standing with God (vs. 31), the health and security of his family (vs. 32-34) and his very legacy (vs. 35).
Interesting to note that Eli “fell backward” and died upon hearing that the ark of God was in enemy hands (4:18), having first been told that Israel had suffered a great defeat and his two sons were dead. Not to diminish the huge impact of the news of the ark, but most fathers would have already been on the floor with the news that their sons were dead. This strikes me as a telling “delayed reaction.”
Samuel: The Do-Good Dad?
The Bible tells us that Samuel’s sons “… made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice.” (8:3b) While it’s difficult to evaluate his “parenting style” from what’s been revealed, we see his heart for the Lord in his open-minded response to the request from Israel’s elders to find a king other than his sons (8:4). Samuel puts aside concerns over legacy and never attempts to defend his sons or rationalize their sinful behavior. Instead, he goes straight to God for wisdom and is concerned first and foremost with His agenda (8:6). When it is revealed to Samuel that Saul is God’s chosen king (9:17-19), he is cooperative and obedient. Here we have the apparent case of a good and faithful man whose kids have gone afoul.
Saul: The Dangerous Dad!
Scripture reveals in vivid detail the patently bad heart of Saul who is willing to kill his son to save his skin (14:44; 20:33). From God’s perspective, he is unfaithful (15:11) and disobedient (15: 22-23). He lies (18:25), steals (15:19) and has no regard for human life (18:21; 19:10; 20:33; 22:17). He is a textbook sociopath. Yet his son, Jonathan, emerges as a moral hero, pledging at great personal risk to protect his friend, David (18:3).
Question: Why do kids from bad and good homes mess up?
Proverbs 22:6a advises parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.” Studying the father/son dynamics of 1 Samuel, we encounter a conundrum. How do seemingly good people (e.g., Samuel) rear crummy kids while evil people (e.g., Saul) can raise nice ones? I see four possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: Simply, God’s purpose won’t be thwarted.
Perhaps God allowed the children to fail according to his design (much like an evil spirit tormented Saul in 16:14). If the progeny of Eli and Samuel were faithful, the issue of kingship would have been thornier. God had a succession plan it involved neither Eli nor Samuel’s kids. We see some rebellious character traits of the sons as well as intentionality on the part of God in verse 2:25b, as well: “…”But they would not listen to their father, for the Lord had decided to kill them.” (Consider here Proverbs 1: 8-9)
Scenario 2: Boys will be boys.
Or, maybe the children exercised personal prerogatives (i.e., free will) and either chose wisely or poorly, irrespective of their upbringing. Proverbs 1: 8-9 admonishes children to pay attention to parental instruction. This puts the onus on parents to teach and children to listen. Could it be that Samuel’s children simply “checked out” on dad’s counsel?
Scenario 3: Rebels With and Without a Cause
Someone once said: “Every generation will find something to annoy the parents.” Some rebellion goes hand in hand with growing up. We even see bold independence, albeit for a good cause, on the part of Jesus in Luke 2: 41-52 where we encounter the 12-year-old Jesus on the brink of Jewish adulthood. He’s been separated himself from his parents for several days and is incredulous that His mother is so anxious. As independence beckons the mortal youth, there is some degree of forced separation that may manifest in opposition to authority. So, is it possible that we see in 1 Samuel a bad father (Saul) with a good kid in “rebellion” and a good father (Samuel) with a similar u-turn dynamic?
Scenario 4: What family?
Perhaps the fathers were so wrapped up in self (Eli) or ministry (Samuel) that they put family on the back burner? So, we have on one hand, an effective agent of God (Samuel) who could have been a remote father? Scripture offers an intriguing clue about the relationship of Saul and his son. In 20:2, Jonathan remarks: “…Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me.” (Saul also shows some concern about his son’s future kingship (20:31), though it is no doubt more about self/family pride than love of son.) There is the reality or at least the perception on the part of Jonathan that he and his dad are close or at least in close contact, and what is intimated here is that the father, albeit a bad one, has invested time and attention into his son.
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
In the book of Proverbs, we’re told about the results of good training. This verse has left many scratching their heads when the product doesn’t seem to always match the investment. It’s important to realize, however, that Proverbs are principles not promises. For reasons we have yet to fully understand, sometimes the real world presents with unexpected hairpin curves and u-turns. Our best defense in an unpredictable and uncertain world:
As always, prayer...