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Israel’s Choice for a Human King

Updated: Jun 8

Rev. Rob Jones November 23, 2017

revised June 4, 2024


Pericope

1 Samuel 8:11-18 (NRSV)                                                                                 

11 He said, “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; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And 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.” 

Text Boundaries

The boundaries of this pericope are well placed in that they portray the warning given by Samuel of having a human king set over Israel. However, one should read from the beginning of Judges to get the full context of the Sitz im Leben (Situation in Life). The metanarrative is about Israel's fidelity to Yahweh. This latest episode has Israel rejecting the Theocracy of Yahweh in favor of a human Monarchy. By pushing Samuel to name a king, they reject the chosen status that Yahweh has placed upon Israel. Yahweh allows a king to be called only to show Israel that they are not in control of their destiny or identity.


Historical Context

Judges had ruled the people of Israel for generations. Each time the people turned away from Yahweh, they would be “sold” to their enemies. Then Yahweh would appoint a Judge to bring Israel back in line. Thus, there would be peace for a generation, usually until the present judge died and the people turned away from Yahweh once more. With the book of Samuel, we see an extra familiar narrative take place. 1 Samuel starts with Eli, priest and judge over Israel at Shiloh, who appointed his sons Hophni and Phineas to be Judges. However, they were corrupt, and it is God, through Samuel, who judges and condemns the house of Eli because of a vision given by Yahweh. Samuel then succeeds Eli as Judge/Prophet over Israel. Then, in Samuel’s old age, he appoints his sons, Joel and Abijah, to be leaders over Israel, but they too are corrupt and are rejected. They showed that the son does not always follow the father's tradition. This could also be predictive of the problems of establishing ruling dynasties. Wayward sons in the Bible frequently bring ruin upon their father’s houses, as we see in the stories of Ham, Abimelech, and Absalom. (Cohn, Robert L 1988) Although this theme is present in earlier books, we haven’t seen this with the judges until now.

The elders of Israel ask Samuel to appoint a king over them. The paradox of asking for what Eli and Samuel had already started is very noticeable. I would suspect this is a foreshadowing of future problems with the kings of Israel even before Samuel speaks his warnings. The writers of this narrative make future problems with Saul’s rule over Israel expected and even welcomed because they place a monarchy in a negative light. (Pyper 2014)


Literary Context

 The Books of 1 and 2 Samuel are transitional books. This is a narrative of how Israel moves from a tribal society to a monarchy. (Brueggemann and Linafelt 2012) More importantly, it is the story of how King David[1] ultimately came to power. In 1 Samuel chapter 8, the people of Israel want a human king to lead them like other nations. Samuel believes this to be a rejection of himself by Israel. He takes this matter before Yahweh and is told to do as the people wish because their rejection is not of Samuel but of God Himself. However, God tells Samuel to warn the people of Israel of the ways of a king and how a king will dominate them. 

It has yet to be discovered for sure who the writer of this pericope is. It is generally believed that post-exilic editors redacted this book. Traditionally, Samuel is given credit for writing at least the first section of the book. Brueggemann and Linafelt suggest that, in this final form, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel are “a compilation of several independent sources that have been arranged to generate a certain perspective on the Davidic transition from tribal society to the modest beginnings of a monarchy.” (Brueggemann and Linafelt 2012)


Cultural and Social Context

The instituting of a king constitutes the separation of the civil from the religious. (Young 1962) This separation is a necessary transitional part of a larger metanarrative. Not only from a tribal society to one that’s ruled by a monarchy, it is also a transitional narrative of the role of the judge. The Judge/Prophet of pre-monarchial rule were the De facto leaders of Israel. Now, the Judge/Prophet is the conscience of the nation and the one to place Judgement on the king, and not just the people of Israel.  (McCarter Jr. 1985)

The people are misguided and need to know the intrinsic problems of human rulers separate from divine sovereignty. (Kroeger and Evans 2002) Samuel looks upon the future monarchy with skepticism. Knowing human nature is easily corrupted, as accounted throughout the history of Israel. He foretells the added hardships Israel will have because of this request. The pericope tells us the king will make the sons fight in battles and work the king’s lands. With the daughters of Israel, the king will make them cooks, bakers, and perfumers, working at the king’s pleasure. The king will also add extra tithes. This unjust rule of the king could be a commentary on Solomon, redacted by post-exilic editors. Still, it also reflects the attitude of the early Canaanite kings, which Samuel is sure the new king of Israel will follow. “This opposition to monarchy as such never again surfaces in Deuteronomistic writings.” (Cohn, Robert L 1988) Although Samuel is anxious about this transition, he will appoint a king.


Semantics

The keyword “take” stands out in this pericope as an ominous symbolic reminder that no aspect of the people’s lives will be untouched by the presence of a human king. (Kroeger and Evans 2002) This change in political identity will tax the people beyond the offerings given to Yahweh and the priests. The monarchy must be paid for, and the people will pay. (Payne 1982) Although Samuel warns Israel about the dangers of a corrupt king, the people insist they want a king no matter the cost and, thus, demand Samuel appoint the king. This would give the appointment legitimacy, and Yahweh would sanction the monarchy. This also acts as a counterpoint to the repeating of Israel asking for a king to “govern us like other nations.” This reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.” Because in governing, the king will take what he wants as the kings of other nations do.


 Exegetical Focus

This pericope is prophetic and shows the consequences of power in the hands of humans. The English Catholic Historian Lord John Dalberg of Acton said in a letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” (Dalberg 2004-2017) Although Dalberg was evaluating Creighton’s tendency to gloss over the selfish acts and atrocities of past popes, he was illustrating a universal truth. Samuel knew this truth because he knew the history of Israel and the nations that surrounded them. The Canaanite, Philistine, and other kings considered themselves to be of divine origin and demanded the taxation of the people. This is what Samuel was telling the people in his warning. The people of Israel reject the divine theocracy of Yahweh and believe it is better to have the same rule as those nations around them, even though they do not see the significant loss of freedom. Unjustly, the rights of a king always overshadow the rights of the peasantry, just as the rights of the rich unjustly overshadow the rights of the poor today. The people of Israel reject the calling Yahweh has placed on them as chosen and separate. They choose this burden for themselves, and they will have to live with it. Yahweh will not listen when they cry out because of their king, whom they want.  

Matthew Henry postulates the entire incident with Saul could have been avoided. If we look back at Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Yahweh intended to place a king over Israel in Yahweh’s own time.  In verse 15, it says, “Be sure to appoint over you a king Yahweh chooses.” It goes on to describe the proper behavior of a king, which is basically the opposite of what Samuel warned the people about. Israel could not wait, and this impatience caused them more grief and heartache. If David were indeed the one Yahweh was to choose for Israel, then they would have only had to wait ten or twelve years before he would have been ready to assume that responsibility. (Henry 1961) God can not be forced to do anything, and Yahweh takes this opportunity to teach Israel a lesson.

 Yahweh had shown that his people could be saved through judges. There was no need for a king currently. The elders' asking for a king because of the wickedness of Joel and Abijah before the will of Yahweh was revealed shows that the people of Israel were not necessarily turning away from Yahweh in their minds. They, however misguided, believed they were asking for a just alternative to the leadership of the sons of Samuel. (Kroeger and Evans 2002) It wasn’t necessarily because they asked for a king; it was because they asked for a king to be like other nations. This request did not glorify Yahweh.

Samuel plainly tells Israel of the problems they will face because of this action. He does not hold back when he tells them that Yahweh will not listen when they cry out. “When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but Yahweh will not answer you on that day.” (1 Samuel 8:18). This isn’t the first or the last time Israel will be dealt with harshly by Yahweh. In the book of Numbers, we see Yahweh ready to strike down the people of Israel for not believing. Yahweh was displeased because the people didn’t think they could displace the people who currently occupied the promised land. It was only because Moses interceded that Yahweh spared them. However, he did make them wait 40 years so none of the current generation would be able to enter the promised land.

This same theme is found in the 7th chapter of Matthew. Jesus tells his disciples that on the final day, there will be those who will call his name. However, because they were not righteous, he would say to them, “I never knew you,” and they would be left to their own devices. Jesus also hints at this again with the Parable of the goats and the sheep in Matthew chapter 25. There are those that Yahweh will not hear on the day of judgment.

At the root of all this is the idea of identity. Who does Israel identify with? Whose parameters are they going to subjugate themselves to? Are They going to carry the mantle of Yahweh, the one who delivered them out of Egypt in Exodus and from the hands of countless oppressors throughout Judges, or are they going to set upon themselves the parameters of those nations that are around them, all to be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of those that wish them harm? Hugh S. Pyper brings up this question in the context of colonization. He states that it is “the role of mimicry: the way in which the colonized take on the customs and institutions of the colonizer.” He states that it is a paradox in that the oppressed can only be taken seriously if it takes on the criteria of the colonizer. (Pyper 2014) Israel has decided to take on another identity, changing their distinctiveness to be equal to the nations around them. The paradox is almost too funny; they were already superior because of Yahweh's kingship and power. Now, they degrade themselves to be equal to the other nations.

This same scenario can be placed on a personal level by people of the present just as we today are set apart to be in the world, but not of the world. We often choose the things in this world that are a distraction from Yahweh. We tend to rush into situations without waiting for divine instruction or hesitate when we know we should proceed. Time and time again, we turn away from Yahweh in this way, and time and time again, Yahweh takes us back. This is the nature of Yahweh, knowing that, as humans, we are easily led astray. Even though we are told to love Yahweh with our entire being and to have no other gods before Yahweh. We still find ourselves putting our jobs, hobbies, bills, houses, friends, and even our religions first. Will we, too, be like Israel and push for something that we think is right when Yahweh is telling us to do something else? 

We all have this identity crisis to deal with. We often try to force our ideas into the Sitz im Leben. We try to push the clock, so to speak, and make things happen on our own time. God has a plan and doesn’t always reveal that plan until needed. We should all take a moment to heed the warning found in this pericope. Just as the people of Israel asked for a king to be like other nations before Yahweh was ready to deliver David, we, too, might get what we ask for. I believe that had they been prepared for a king of Yahweh’s choosing, they would have asked for one to glorify Yahweh. We, too, should ask when we want to force a situation in our favor. Is this for the glory of God, or is this for my glory so I can be accepted in the eyes of my peers?

Identity is vital for nations, states, groups, and individuals. We all identify with the country in which we live, the state we are from, the football team or political party we like the most, and even our ethnic heritage. Sometimes, we choose these identities over the ones we should identify with the most. We sometimes push for agendas that are not the agenda of the creator God in whom we are all saved. We act, believing we are just and righteous, even though we are not. We are as guilty as Israel in asking for a king, and Yahweh is as patient as ever. Jesus said it so clearly by quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40) Whose identity will we choose? I hope we choose Yahweh through the son Jesus Christ. We should not ask for another to be placed as king over us. Amen.


Footnotes

[1] King David is considered the benchmark of kingship in Israel, an ideal leader whom all other subsequent kings will be judged. (McCarter Jr. 1985)


Bibliography

  • Brueggemann, Walter, and Tod Linafelt. Chap. 14 An Introduction to the Old Testament, The Cannon and Christian Imagination, 163. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

  • Cohn, Robert L. "The People Request a King." Harper's Bible Commentary, edited by James L. Mays, Joseph Blenkinsopp, Jon D. Levenson, Wayne A Meeks, Carol A. Newsom, & David L. Peterson, 274. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

  • Edwards, Mary J. "Understanding the Bible Commentary Series 1 & 2 Samuel." 42. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000.

  • Dalberg, John Emerich Edward, Lord Acton. Acton - Creighton Correspondence [1887]. Liberty Fund Inc. 2004-2017. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/acton-acton-creightoncorrespondence#lf1524_label_010 (accessed November 23, 2017).

  • Henry, Matthew. An Exposition, with Practical Observations, of the First Book of Samuel. 293. New One Volume Edition. Edited by Rev. Lesslie F. Church, Ph.D., F.R.Hist.S. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.

  • Kroeger, Catherine Clark, and Mary J. Evans. "Samuel as Judge." The IVP Women's Bible Commentary, edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans, 160. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

  • McCarter Jr., P. Kyle. "Samuel, The First and Second Book of," Harper's Bible Dictionary, 903. New York, New York: Harper San Francisco, 1985.

  • Payne, David F. "I & II Samuel." In The Dailt Study Bible (Old Testament), edited by John C.L. Gibson, 38-43. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1982.

  • Pyper, Hugh S. "1 and 2 Samuel." The Old Testament and Apocrypha Fortress Commentary on the Bible, 367. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

  • Young, Fred E. "The Life and Ministry of Saul." The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, 281. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

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