Israel’s choice for a human king shaped the faith and practices of ancient Israel from then on. Though God brought good out of this choice, the Old Testament tells us that it was a mistake. God did not want Israel to become like the nations. God wanted Israel to be a blessing to the nations – by showing them a better way of living, an alternative to might makes right, an alternative to survival of the fittest.
The book of Judges, in telling of times of chaos, concludes: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). Judges sets the stage for what follows and helps the reader sympathize with the choices Israel’s elders made. We read of some pretty chaotic outworkings of the people being kingless – not least a terrible civil war that stemmed from the lawlessness and callousness of the people, including religious leaders.
First Samuel continues this story. Following the time of chaos portrayed at the end of Judges, Israel is blessed with a powerful and effective leader, Samuel, whose birth itself is portrayed as an intervention of God on behalf of the people. Samuel himself actually was a good judge and faithful priest, an effective judge, faithful to the ways of God and powerful for God’s justice in Israel. Things get better, but only for a while, as it turns out.
The beginning of 1 Samuel eight points toward a return to chaos: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.…His sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:1-3). So, we have the chaos of the Book of Judges combined with the corruption of Samuel’s own sons. In background amidst these problems we are also aware of the emerging Philistine threat. Internal disintegration combining with anxiety based on the strengthening of a major enemy. The loose tribal confederation and the faith in God as their only king seems to be reaching its limits.
So, it is not surprising that in the face of a fear of returning again to chaos, the Israelites (or at least their elders) propose something different – “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like the other nations” (1 Sam 8:5). The response to the fear of chaos is the desire to impose order, centralized power, control. This desire stood in tension with the tradition in Israel. The people had wanted to make the great judge, Gideon, king and he turned them down. Gideon’s son, Abimalech grasped for the kingship and failed.
The request, though, the desire for order, is understandable. Chaos is terrifying. No one can be blamed for wanting desperately to avoid it. However, Samuel himself, the judge and prophet most closely connected with Yahweh, is convinced that the answer to chaos is not simply becoming like the other nations.
Samuel represents the old tradition – the tradition of Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. For Samuel, accepting kingship smells too much like what the Israelites knew once before—the kingship of Pharaoh in Egypt. Pharaoh kept them as slaves. For Samuel, going the way of kingship would be a return to slavery.
When Israel’s elders came to him asking for a king, he responds with strong words: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots.…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take…the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. You shall be his slaves. In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Sam 8:11-18).
Samuel knew about kings. He knew the stories of the children of Israel in Egypt. He knew Canaanite kings, Philistine kings, the kings of the nations. He knows that they take and take and take. He finds it shocking that the elders would want a king, “so that we may be like other nations” (8:20). He finds it shocking that the elders don’t realize what they would be getting into.
Samuel tells the elders that, under their king, they will, in effect, return to Egypt. “You shall once again be his slaves, like you were before when you were in Egypt.” But, this time, something will be different.
Back then, in the book of Exodus, the great events that led to the people’s salvation from slavery began when they cried out in their grief and despair. “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of Israel” (Ex 2:23-25).
Back then, God heard their groaning…and God took notice of them. That was then. The people of Samuel’s time are in the promise land because God heard their groaning back then. But if they turn to kingship, they will groan again. They will return to slavery. But something will be different. “The Lord will not answer you in that day.” God will not respond to their groaning.
Samuel argues that the turn toward human kingship will likely lead to a transformation in Israel away from the central tenets of Torah. Kingship will tend to a redistribution of power and wealth. Power and wealth will move upward in the social system, shifting from the broader community more and more toward the elite. They will be concentrated in only a few hands, leading to more and more poverty and disenfranchisement among the people.
Along with the increasing concentration of power and wealth in fewer hands, and linked with this dynamic, under a human king Israel will move toward more and more militarization. With the king will come a standing army, rather than the ad hoc militias that had gained and defended the promise land. With the standing army will come the accumulation of horses and chariots, the tools of war. As well, a new class of person heretofore not known in Israel will gain prominence – career military officers led by generals as a major power bloc in the society.
The gain in human-determined security that would accompany kingship and militarization will have an inverse relationship with the people’s sense of closeness to and dependence upon Yahweh. Growth in human strength and power corresponds with a growth in a sense of autonomy over against Yahweh.
The quote from the elders, we want a king so we can “be like the nations” captures in a nutshell the dangers of their request. The vocation of Israel, going back to the calling of Abraham and especially related to the liberating leadership of Moses and the anti-Egyptian empire tenor of Torah, centered on the people of the promise existing as a counter-culture among the nations. The ways of power politics and empire simply heighten the spiral of violence and alienation portrayed in Genesis 1–11. To witness to a freedom from this spiral; that is, to be a blessing for all the families of the earth, Israel had the vocation of being different from the nations in how they ordered their social and political life. The request to Samuel and Samuel’s response make it clear what is at stake, what might be lost with the change in structuring of the common life of the people of the promise.
Samuel says that disaster will follow this turn to kingship. And, we know from the story that follows that Israel’s kings do take the sons and daughters. Israel’s kings do take the best of the fields and vineyards and orchards. Israel’s kings do take from the people’s flocks. Israel’s kings do enslave the people. And there is no liberation. There is only judgment. The ancient Israelite state is destroyed, by the nations whose oppressive politics Israel imitated.…Samuel warns of this.
Samuel’s voice, though, is not the only one in Israel. He doesn’t convince the elders. We are told here in 1 Samuel 8 that God ultimately, though certainly grudgingly, God gives in and gives Israel a king. It is not actually explained to us why God gave in and even, in some of the stories that follow, seems to bless the kingship – though not for long.
It would appear that one factor here is simply the respect God tends to show for the freedom of decision practiced by the people. From the time of Adam and Eve, we read of God’s allowance of the people to turn and express their autonomy at independent actors. As a rule, such a turning from God leads to destructive consequences – and, in some cases, to deepened awareness of God’s true character and will for the people. So, the allowing of the elders of the people to turn to a human king should not be seen as a decision endorsed by Yahweh. And the negative consequences of such a turn are not long in coming out.
Nonetheless, if we link 1 Samuel eight with Deuteronomy 17, we may see that the possibilities of having the institution of human kingship combined with the community living as a people under Torah had some potential. Deuteronomy 17 provides a brief vision of a transformed kind of kingship, in which Israel as a nation-state could possibility carry on the promise.
Deuteronomy 17 reflects an attempt to put a positive spin on kingship. These verses hold out the possibility of a style of kingly leadership quite different from the nations’ kings. This alternative style of kingship did have promise of sustaining Israel as an alternative society and as a channel for the promise.
As it turns out, sadly, the expectations Deuteronomy 17 place on the king serve mostly to provide the bases for critique of the actual kings who led Israel (and, later, the second kingdom of Judah). The points made in Deuteronomy 17 are significant both in what they assert should characterize Israel’s kings and in what they fail (surely intentionally) to mention.
The king of Israel should be a man chosen by God and required to obey God’s will. The king is not simply a hereditary office that goes to the oldest son or other legal heir. The king is not expected to be a base for power separate from Yahweh (the God who liberated the slaves and provided the people with a blueprint for a just society in Torah) but is to be subordinate to this God.
To insure the possibilities that the king would indeed be a servant of Yahweh, the requirement is named that the king must be an Israelite, a person of the promise, born and raised among a people who recite the stories of Moses and Torah. The king must read, study, and uphold Torah. Part of the significance of this point may be seen in contrasting this vision for Israel’s king (who is accountable to the law) with the approach of the nations’ kings, who were themselves the law of the land.
Deuteronomy 17 makes it clear that Israel’s kings, if they are truly to be in continuity with the promise, must be different from the nations’ kings. Israel’s kings must not gather great wealth for themselves. They must not gather large numbers of wives, most especially they must not gather foreign wives with their entanglements with the political dynamics of the nations. They must not gather large numbers of horses. That is, they must not establish a standing army. Standing armies go hand-in-hand with power abuses, trusting in human swords over Yahweh, and the general dynamics of social stratification that lay behind much of Torah.
Besides what it expects of kings, Deuteronomy 17, by omission, makes it clear that Israel’s kings are not seen primarily as military leaders or the ones who control the religious beliefs and practices of the society. Nothing at all is said about the king being responsible for the military or for making sure the religious rituals serves the king’s power. Israel’s kings, like everyone else in their community, are subordinate to Torah and to the liberating God behind the commands of the law.
The model of kingship portrayed in Deuteronomy 17 includes these three key elements.]
(1) The king’s power is limited. In order to avoid tyranny, the king is told not to usurp Yahweh’s place as the ruler of the people. The king serves Yahweh. So the king is limited in gathering the tools of power for his own use – hence, no foreign wives with their accompanying alliances. Limits to wealth and military might help prevent abuses of power.
(2) The expectations of the kings mean to foster a full and undivided allegiance to the Lord. The limits on the accumulation of wealth and horses serve to prevent the king from succumbing to overweening pride and ambition. The limits on gathering foreign wives serves to prevent the king worshiping other gods.
(3) The king is called to be a model Israelite. The king is to live on the same level as everyone else, following the same laws, showing the way to faithful living. Torah is central, not the temple or military.
Good comes from the turn toward kingship. Certainly there is an immediate increase in social order and security over against the Philistine threat. However, ultimately, kingship mainly helps ancient Israel avoid the challenge of finding ways to order life around God’s mercy. The story makes it clear that Saul, David, and especially Solomon fail to measure up to the standards articulated in Deuteronomy 17 – and then things get worse.
Samuel recognized that the elders of Israel were in a situation where they felt trapped, with only two apparent options. Either get swallowed up by chaos, or find an authoritarian king who can provide order and lead the armies against their enemies, the Philistines. Chaos or strict order. Samuel, however, offers a third option. An option not taken by ancient Israel, to be sure,. That is the option of God as king – in fact as well as in belief.
The story moves in, in the Old Testament, with a recounting of how the nation-state ultimately turns out to be antithetical to the promise. That is to say, God’s kingship ends up with a very different partner in the faith community than the human king.