The phenomena of two sons


One of the many ways to better understand and enjoy scriptures is to stop looking for moral lessons in every event but, instead, compare the description and the details of the event that you are reading with similar ones in other parts of the Bible. You will find that the comparison will give you a deeper understanding of what you are reading and will open your eyes to new ideas. One famed example, is to compare the many descriptions where a biblical hero encounters women at a well. This occurred with Abraham’s servant, Jacob, Moses, and Saul. We should compare it also with the fact that many coronations of kings were performed at water. We should ask, “Why?” I will discuss another repeated phenomenon: the oft-appearance of two sons.

 I Samuel 8, for example, states that the prophet and judge Samuel had two sons who acted improperly. The Israelite leaders approached Samuel and requested that he aid them by selecting a man to lead them and rule over them as their king. Scripture is unclear as to what prompted their request. Commentators suggest that it might have been because Samuel was now old and no longer able to lead them with proper vigor, or because of their fear of their Philistine neighbors who had warred against them in the past and are threatening to attack again, or because Samuel’s sons were unworthy to lead them as their father did, or all three.

This affair is similar to what happened to the high priest Eli.[1] Eli was both a high priest and a judge. Like Samuel after him, he was a leader of his people. He also had two unworthy sons, as described in I Samuel 2. Eli and Samuel were aged. The Philistine army attacked Israel, destroyed the sanctuary at Shilo, captured the ark, and killed many Israelites, including Eli’s two boys. Some commentators believe the calamity was the result of the behavior of Eli’s sons and the failure of the people to correct the misdeeds of Eli’s sons. We should compare the two situations and, among many other insights, understand that Eli’s sons, like Samuel’s sons, should have acted properly and given the needed leadership to the Israelites, and when the Philistines saw that the Israelites lacked a good leader, they attacked.

Scripture’s description of both Eli and Samuel having two sons that turned out bad is not a unique phenomenon. I will mention some others. I suggest that some future scholars study this phenomenon and explore why the two son phenomena is in scripture. They should ask questions such as: When scripture speaks of two sons, should we assume that both have the same characteristics, and if there are differences, explore how and why they differ? They will find, as I will give a few examples below, that such an analysis will produce a new understanding of each son. They should also notice that generally when two or more sons are mentioned the eldest son is overlooked and preference is given to the younger son – as with Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph’s two sons. It seems clear that the Torah does so to signify that the practice of primogenitor is wrong. We should ask similar questions about the significance to two daughters, such as Rachel and Leah, and two wives, such as Hannah the mother of Samuel and her co-wife Peninnah, as well as Sarah and Hagar? We should note that in regard to more than one wife, the Torah always shows that the two do not get along well, thereby denouncing polygamy. The following are some examples:

  1. Adam and Eve had two sons[2] and, arguably, both were bad. Cain killed his brother and Abel killed animals and offered them to God without considering that animals are, like humans, creatures created by God, and God does not want them to be killed. So the two sons are similar. By comparing the two sons, is scripture telling us that not only the murder of humans is wrong, but so too the killing and destruction of all that God created is wrong? Is the Bible saying that all sacrifice is wrong, as Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32?
  2. Abraham was the father of Isaac and Ishmael.[3] A plain reading of the Bible shows that both sons were good, but both had some faults. Isaac was unable to see what his wife Rebecca could see, that Jacob was the son that deserved his blessing. Ishmael sported with Isaac when Isaac was young to the extent that Isaac’s mother Sarah wanted him to be banished from her home, but this is natural and not a very bad trait. Is the comparison highlighting that the rabbinical notion that Ishmael was bad is not in the plain reading of the text which shows they both had faults?[4]
  3. Isaac bore Jacob and Esau. Again, a plain reading of the Bible does not show that Esau was bad. True he expressed great anger against his brother and threatened to kill him, but he never did so. Jacob was good, but he too had faults. He showed too much love to his son Joseph.
  4. Jacob had two sons with his beloved wife Rachel. Joseph attained greatness and little is known about Benjamin. What do we learn from their coupling? Were few revelations made about Benjamin in order to highlight the achievements of his brother?
  5. Joseph had two sons who apparently amounted to nothing, although their descendants formed large tribes.
  6. Moses similarly had two sons who made no contribution to Israel.
  7. Aaron, his brother, had two sons who acted improperly in the tabernacle and were killed. He also had two other sons who became priests.
  8. The same phenomena seems to apply to two individuals who are coupled together in a story, such as the two of the twelve spies sent by Moses to reconnoiter Canaan; the two spies gave a good report. The two spies sent by Joshua also gave good reports.[5] The story of Saul and his servant visiting Samuel in I Samuel 9, with Saul knowing nothing about the prophet, while the servant needed to coach him, tells us much about Saul. It suggests from our first introduction to Israel’s future king that he failed to observe what he should have observed, and what he did see was often wrong.[6]

 In summary, a literary analysis of the Bible can open our eyes to what the Bible is saying.


[1] While there are many similarities between the two, such as the events occurring in the father’s old age, the sons violating what was most important to their father, and others, there are differences as well, such as Eli’s sons dying in battle while we are told nothing about the death of Samuel’s children. One will attain a deeper understanding of both circumstances by comparing similarities and differences.

[2] After more than a hundred years, the two had other children.

[3] After Sarah’s death Abraham had other children.

[4] The rabbinical view was developed for homiletical reasons, to teach proper behavior.

[5] My study partners Dr. and Mrs. Wald suggested the expansion of this phenomena.

[6] We should compare Saul to Moses. Saul lost asses and was sent by his father to find them, but was unable to do so without Samuel’s help. Moses went in search of a lost sheep on his own initiative and God said, in essence, a man who is so concerned about a sheep is the man to lead the Israelites. We could also compare Moses with Abel who sacrificed an animal.