Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]
Negotiating a rotten compromise in light of a foretold end
How may the people of God find a way of living under God’s rule? We are near to numb from innumerable cases of power abuse and corruption. On one side, generations of advocates for “lean government” have called into question the value of political leadership itself, while on the other side, we experience the importance of governance in the area of public health. In such a time, we learn again of God’s guidance of Israel. Though God saved Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, the people of Israel became ungrateful. Selling their freedom short, they clamor for rulers with more privileges than what had previously emerged from God’s redeeming guidance. First Samuel 8 invites us to consider this question through the varying perspectives of God, the prophet Samuel, the elders, and the people.
A prelude to empire in light of a foreseen, impending failure
When the people decide for a monarch to rule over them, God’s immediate rule vis-à-vis the people of Israel is at stake. The people have “forsaken” their God and have forgotten how they owe their history to their God’s bold, immediate leadership. Even the best result from this exchange will prove to be a rotten compromise. Any rule of a dynastic king will fall short and reveal itself over time as ungodly, marked by blatant power misuse and exploitation.
God’s speech to Samuel specifies the cause of the breakdown as Israel’s loss of historical memory. The scathing criticism of the monarchy in 1 Samuel 8:4-20 serves as a prelude to Samuel’s later anointing of Saul in 11:14-15. Beyond what the monarch could accomplish in the short term, this passage fosters awareness of the monarchy’s eventual downfall. From God’s perspective, Israel is selling short its own freedom gained in the exodus for a form of royal oppression. Freed to be God’s servant through the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites turn and subscribe to the very yoke of royal oppression that Samuel details to them: drafts for war, corvée labor for the king, land appropriation, taxation, livestock confiscation, and finally, permanent enslavement. In God’s eyes, a king’s unbridled, brutal rule would amount to Israel changing her identity and selling her freedom drastically short: from a dynamic and unique servanthood directly under the leadership and vis-à-vis their God Yahweh, to the servanthood of a despotic human ruler.
Yet the people find themselves at a crossroads. At this point they wish for a dynastic succession as a seemingly more stable, reliable alternative instead of trusting in a spiritual leader like Samuel or his sons. While the prophet accepts Israel’s choice, Samuel knows that the monarchy is born out of rejection of their God. Seen through Samuel’s lens as prophetic kingmaker, Saul’s drama will soon unfold, beginning with his installation as part of a rotten compromise like any other rule. First Samuel 8 soberly and painfully evaluates the pitiful failure of Israel’s dynastic kingship against the backdrop of the grandeur of God’s everlasting rule over Israel. As through prophetic hindsight, the perspective of Samuel embeds into the narrative the view of historiography, revealing a critical overview of the monarchy and its systemic inadequacies. How might our call as people of God to public servanthood in our days emulate and adapt Samuel’s function of a pragmatic, foreseeing participant and at the same time remain cognizant about the end and the limits of any rule?
The elders, the prophet Samuel, and the people at large
As we find ourselves navigating many political discourses from anarchism, populism, establishment centrism, and many alternatives between, 1 Samuel 8 reminds us of our responsibility in light of the many groups and expectations that make up the hopes for the future. It is a local collective’s leadership of elders that emerges from among the people to embody and represent the request to establish a ruler. First Samuel mentions these elders of Israel only here (1 Samuel 8:4). These elders confront the prophetic leader Samuel with their hope, and give voice to one alternative for a future beyond the unstable rule of prophetic mediators such as Samuel.
Their request provokes from God a reminder of how this sudden wish for a king reveals at the same time the people’s forgetfulness of how God had led them out of slavery. As the elders in this passage represent and express the will of the people, they simultaneously show how the leadership elite of the people falls short in thinking through the possibilities for what could replace the prophet. In a rush to confront and move forward, whose voices and memories are left behind? How does a spontaneous wish for change from Israel’s elders shed light on our own impulsive claims and hasty anger? How might our own circles and preferred talking points take shape out of an obliviousness to the full scope of God’s redeeming grace?
God endorses a rotten compromise
Despite sober warnings to the people, God encourages Samuel to continue serving as a mediator between God’s will and the realities of the people on the ground. Eventually, God even charges Samuel with renewing the ambivalent monarchy in Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:14-15). Samuel’s role as prophetic authority positions him at the interface between support, legitimization, and God’s spokesperson with a sobering warning as a message. How might we today reaffirm our engagement in our country’s future, reclaim agency in complex times, balance the failure and the promise of our people, and most constructively accompany our people through any second best option?