THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Korach – פרשת קרח
June 16, 2018 – ג סיון תשעח
In Samuel’s old age, he appointed his sons Joel and Abijah as judges over Israel. Their judicial seat was in Beer-Sheba, in the far southern reaches of the Land of Israel. Samuel disdained lucre and was scrupulously honest in his exercise of public office; Joel and Abijah were not. Scripture so informs us: “[H]is sons did not follow in his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice (I Samuel 8:3).”
The plain meaning is that Samuel’s sons sinned egregiously. How, then, do we explain that Joel and Abijah are included on a short list of Biblical characters whose sins are whitewashed by Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani in the name of Rabbi Jonathan (Shabbat 56a)? The more charitable assessment of Samuel’s sons’ behavior is that they did not take bribes or pervert justice. Instead, unlike their father, who was an itinerant judge offering his services to potential litigants around the country, Joel and Abijah stayed at their home base in order to increase the income of their attendants and scribes. The public was forced to pay higher legal fees to fund the salaries of court functionaries scurrying about the country processing documents and serving subpoenas.
Rabbi Meir suggested that Joel and Abijah behaved poorly in explicitly soliciting the Levitical tithe from farmers (Hullin 133a). Although such behavior was not objectively sinful since Joel and Abijah were Levites entitled to receive tithes, it had the negative social consequence of depriving impoverished Levites of basic sustenance. Rabbi Berekhiah claimed that Joel and Abijah did nothing really wrong. They merely abandoned their public service temporarily to take advantage of a limited-time business opportunity (Genesis Rabbah 85:12).
[It is unclear to me why some of the sages felt it necessary to whitewash the unethical stains on Joel and Abijah’s record. It is one thing to do so posthumously for David, a national hero and the progenitor of the expected Messiah. In contrast, Samuel’s sons are insignificant in and to Jewish history. An unvarnished account of their iniquities does little to mar the moral legacy of Israel.]
Other Tannaim were more accusatory of Samuel’s sons. Rabbi Judah claimed that they were in the habit of being silent business partners with people pursuing litigation in their courts. Joel and Abijah would issue distorted rulings to advance their own interests. Rabbi Akiba accused them of forcibly taking an excessive quantity of tithes, which was in his view blatant thievery. Rabbi Jose claimed that they forcibly took Kohanic emoluments, to which they were not entitled.
The Elders of Israel approached Samuel at Ramah and informed him that his sons were not following his ways. They then requested the appointment of a king, “to govern us like all other nations (I Samuel 8:5).” Samuel may have been personally devastated to learn of his sons’ waywardness, though Scripture makes no reference to his paternalistic feelings. Instead, his displeasure with the words of the Elders was in their request for a king and their desire to copy the political patterns of the heathens in place of the direct sovereignty of a Heavenly King. As for Joel and Abijah, they were quietly removed from office and consigned to obscurity.
Samuel’s sons are mentioned in Scripture only once more, in the prophetic passage read as Haftorah for Parshat Korach. At the ceremony for the renewal of Saul’s kingship, Samuel addressed the assemblage. “Henceforth, the king will be your leader. As for me, I have grown old and gray; and, behold, my sons are with you (12:2).”
What did Samuel mean by this cryptic reference to his sons? According to Radak, Samuel was telling the people that, going forward in his retirement and beyond, they could rely upon his sons to transmit his Torah and legal teachings. This answer seems unreasonable in light of the negative assessment the Elders had already made of Joel and Abijah. Moreover, were that Samuel’s true intent, it would have contradicted the purpose of the event, which was to confer unrivaled authority on Saul. Henry Preserved Smith (early 20th century American Bible scholar) suggested that Samuel mentioned his sons as further evidence of his own need to retire. Behold, they are “already mature men who show that their father is advancing in years.” The advantage of this interpretation is that Samuel was not especially old chronologically, yet had experienced rapid aging. In case the masses wondered why a man still in his early fifties needed to retreat from public life, Samuel could point to his grown children as evidence that time had already passed him by. Rev. S. Goldman understood Samuel to be obliquely referencing his sons’ unworthiness for leadership, which together with his own physical infirmity showed why the appointment of a king had become necessary. “But with the natural reluctance of a father to speak publicly of his sons’ misconduct, he refers to them in neutral terms, as if to say, ‘my sons are what they are.’”
Malbim understood “my sons are with you” to mean that Samuel’s sons were, at that point, mere private citizens lacking their earlier prestige and position. Shmuel Leib Gordon similarly read “with you” as opposed to “over you.” Despite their being the sons of the former leader, and themselves former occupants of high office, they renounced any political aspirations. Samuel’s message was that his boys would not be thorns in the side of the nascent monarchy.
In antiquity (and in many non-democratic countries today), a living former head of state was a near impossibility. Leaders served for life. If they were deposed, they were usually also decapitated. Failed contenders for the throne were mercilessly executed by the victor. Dynastic heirs who did not ascend to the top of the royal heap were outlaws, a point made cogently by Bathsheba to David concerning her own fate and that of Solomon in the event that Adonijah were to come to power (I Kings 1:21). The history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is replete with savagery toward those who might have claimed authority through aristocratic lineage. David, too, had an ugly record with respect to his treatment of the surviving remnants of the Saulide dynasty (II Samuel 21:9).
Joel and Abijah may have been petty kleptocrats, but to their credit they did not try to re-enter the political fray and create national turmoil. They were content to live quiet civilian lives. That they were permitted to do so is a credit to Saul, whose paranoia knew few limits when he later suspected treachery from the upstart David.
Those who live in countries that experience peaceful transfers of power at regular intervals must be grateful and not take that for granted. The ability of former leaders to walk and speak freely, as one of the people, is an important indicator of the health of a nation.