Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]
“We Want a King!”
It’s hard to find a headline during this campaign season in which candidates, politicians, and special interest groups are not demanding “radical” change in the way things are done in America.
Things have got to change, they say. What they don’t agree upon is what needs change, how to change it or even who should effect the change.
In the passage from 1 Samuel 8, we hear echoes of perhaps a similarly divisive political climate in ancient Israel. Things have got to change, the system is broken, we hear the people telling Samuel, their aging statesman. What’s hard for us to imagine, though, living in a 21st century democracy, is the kind of change that elders of Israel were urging. “Give us a king to govern us!” they demanded in 1 Samuel 8:6.
It is not entirely clear why the ancient Israelites transitioned from a tribal society into a monarchy in the early Iron Age (sometime in the late 11th or early 10th century). Up until this point, the most significant transition between leaders in the biblical text occurs when Moses dies and Joshua, Moses’s assistant, takes over. After that, the biblical text describes a fairly haphazard state of affairs in which charismatic leaders (judges) rose up from time to time to lead groups of Israelites, generally into battle, culminating in the figure of Samuel. As the author of Judges records, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6).
Monarchy was certainly not a new institution in the Ancient Near East, having deep roots in Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as nations surrounding Israel. Israel was perhaps unusual in not having instituted a monarchy. But King Saul rose to power in a period characterized by unprecedented upheaval among Israel’s neighbors. “Throughout most of its recorded history,” notes James Kugel, “the little strip of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea had been dominated by its larger, more powerful neighbors…Egypt to the south, Babylon and Assyria to the east, Aram/Syria to the north, and still farther north, the Hittites.” During the reigns of Saul and David, however, most of these nations were distracted by their own internal issues. It’s possible that this reprieve gave the “tribes of Israel a unique opportunity, not only to cast off foreign domination but to form a mini-empire of their own…”1
In addition to the opportunities created by this temporary power vacuum, ancient Israel was likely experiencing internal turmoil due to competing coalitions within the tribal society. The author of the text hints at this possibility at the beginning the 1 Samuel 8 when he frames the narrative by pointing out that Samuel had grown old and that he had appointed his sons as judges, “yet his sons did not following in his ways, but turned aside for gain; they took bribes and perverted justice” (verses 1-3).
This same information is immediately repeated in verses 4-5, when these words are put in the mouths of the elders of Israel who come to Samuel who tell Samuel, “You are old… appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.”
For some, then, a monarchy might have meant a more reliable system of governance which might allow for more equitable rule than seemed probable under the leadership of Samuel’s wayward sons. For others, and not as obvious in the text itself, it’s possible that the elders represented an elite segment of society who would also stand to benefit under a monarchy, the 1% if you will. For them, having a king would create the possibility for significant personal gain, a society in which both power and resources were consolidated in the hands of a few.
The text doesn’t provide any further clues as to who more precisely was interested in a king or even why, suggesting variously that “the elders of the people of Israel” (8:4), “the people who were asking for a king” (8:10), “the people of Israel” (8:22), or simply “the people” (8:19, 21). The only stated rationale for such dramatic social change: they wanted someone to govern them, they wanted to be like the other nations, and they wanted a king to go out before them to fight their battles.
It is also possible that not everyone was on board with the idea of monarchy. This becomes apparent in the sharp contrast in the text between the seemingly unified position of the people and both Samuel’s and God’s distinctly negative responses. Upon hearing the people’s request, the narrator reports that “the thing displeased Samuel” and that “Samuel prayed to the Lord,” presumably about his concerns.
God comforts Samuel, saying, in effect, ‘Don’t worry, this is not about you. Look what I’ve done for them in the past, and look how they’ve rejected me.’ God continues speaking, “Now then, listen to their voice; only — you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the way of the king…” (8:9). Samuel goes on, at great length, to demonstrate that a king is not necessarily the solution to all their problems. In fact, in his view, a king is just the beginning of a completely new set of problems.
It’s easy to side with Samuel and God in this passage, from our vantage point in a democracy, but we may not be giving the people the credit they deserve. If part of the reason the Israelites want a king has to do with justice and good governance, then Samuel misses this altogether. In his response, he doesn’t recognize their concern, by either defending his sons or explaining past injustices. One almost gets the feeling that he is deflecting the legitimate concerns of the people by making it about him! Does he feel guilt about not being as attentive to these kinds of problems as he should have been?
God’s response is a bit strange as well. God, like Samuel registers the request as a personal attack, yet God tells Samuel to go ahead and give them a king. We are left wondering if God authorizes this change in affairs because God wants to punish the people or because God sees new potential, some fresh air, in a different form of governance. Maybe God is just as ready for a change as the people, but just wasn’t willing to initiate it. Did God need a nudge?
1Kugel, James, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 447-448.