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The Politics of Scripture

Inured to Injustice—1 Samuel 8:4-20

In their response to Samuel’s declaration of the character of the monarchy they had requested for themselves, Israel tragically assented to the establishment of various structural injustices. However, the first step towards a world ordered by justice is rooting out the false belief that injustice is our lot.

4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He 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; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.’

19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’

In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites demand a king. God is not pleased. His prophet Samuel paints a dire portrait of how the king will abuse his power—he will take their sons and daughters into his service; he will seize the best of their fields and vineyards; he will appropriate their slaves and take the finest of their flocks. “You shall be his slaves,” Samuel concludes; “you will cry out because of your king… but the Lord will not answer you” (8:17-18). Nonetheless, the Israelites insist.

The proximate cause for the Israelites’ demand is that Samuel’s sons have fallen far short of their father. Joel and Abijah have opted for corruption rather than morality, taking bribes, perverting justice, and working for their own gain (8:3). Ultimately, however, the unjust actions of Samuel’s sons are merely the excuse—a superficial complaint that masks a deeper problem. The Israelites, after all, could have demanded that Samuel strip his sons of their judicial power and appoint more principled judges in their stead. Instead, the Israelites demand that Samuel appoint a king—a radically different system of governance altogether.

The real reason behind the Israelites’ demand, of course, is their desire to be “like other nations” (8:5, 20). The Israelites crave the trappings of kingship, the pomp and circumstance; they want a king who will go out before them and fight their battles (8:20). They can be in little doubt about how this new system will turn out. Samuel’s prophecy hearkens back to one of the darkest periods of Israelite history: their slavery and subjugation in the land of Egypt. Staring into this grim future, the Israelites accept oppression, corruption, and exploitation as par for the course—an accepted and acceptable corollary of human kingship.

Nor does the biblical text leave much room for speculation that the Israelites merely misjudged Samuel’s prophetic gifts. When Samuel begins to prophesy to Israel, the text describes his prophetic ministry as both flawless and far-reaching. “The Lord,” the text says, “was with [Samuel] and let none of his words fall to the ground”—“all Israel” recognized Samuel as “a trustworthy prophet” (3:19-20).

So why—given this near-guarantee of corruption and oppression—do the Israelites still demand a king?

At the crux of both Israel’s desire for a king and their eagerness to be “like other nations” is a rejection of the covenant and a denial of Israel’s distinctive identity. Their covenant with God is what sets Israel apart from the nations; God chose them “out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:7).

As participants in the covenant, the Israelites are called to a higher standard: to forge a society marked both by fidelity to God and by justice to fellow human beings—care for the widow and the orphan, fairness in the legal system, and forgiveness for debtors. This vision of a just and equitable society is central to the identity of Israel. In craving human kingship, in accepting corruption as an inevitability, the Israelites have lost sight of who they are.

This neglect of the covenant is especially essential in the context of what scholars term the Deuteronomistic History—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings—a telling of Israelite history through the worldview of the Book of Deuteronomy. For the Deuteronomistic Historian, God’s standards are high and the stakes of obedience are higher: adherence to the covenant means blessing and prosperity (Deuteronomy 6:2-3; 7:13) while those who reject the covenant “shall surely perish” (Deuteronomy 7:10, 19).

In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites aim to shed that special relationship, foisting the responsibility of keeping the covenant and realizing justice and holiness in their society off onto a human ruler. Indeed, the next recorded covenant—in 2 Samuel 7—is no longer between God and Israel but between God and the king.

The Israelites’ demand for a king thus marks a turning point in the Deuteronomistic History. It is striking that though Judges and 1 and 2 Kings follow a similar structure—a cycle of sin and punishment, repentance and redemption—the actors of import have shifted dramatically. In the Book of Judges, the Israelites’ fortunes rise and fall on their own adherence to the covenant. When they stray from their covenantal responsibilities, doing evil and pursuing idolatry, an enemy nation rises up to oppress them; when they repent and cry out, God sends a judge to free them from subjugation.

In 1 and 2 Kings, by contrast, the fate of all Israel hinges on the actions of its king. Guided by Hezekiah or Josiah, the people of Israel (and, later, Judah) flourish; under the corrupt ruling of Ahab or Manasseh, they suffer.

Being ruled by an abusive or corrupt monarch does not release the Israelites from their covenantal obligations. Rather, by demanding a king, the Israelites risk putting themselves in an impossible situation: they are “caught… between the king and YHWH—suffering both the oppression of their king and the resultant consequences of the divine judgement of their ruler from whom they now have no escape” [April Westbrook, And He Will Take Your Daughters…’: Woman Story and the Ethical Evaluation of Monarchy in the David Narrative (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 38]. They have cast their lot in with a human ruler and thus pay the price of his failings.

In other words, the demand for a king—with its attendant acceptance of suffering and oppression—is at its heart a repudiation of the unique covenantal relationship between God and Israel and a rejection of the divine call to carve out a society founded on justice and holiness. It is an acquiescence to the standards of the world, where corruption and injustice are a matter of course. It is an act of capitulation—of giving up.

For the reader, the choice of the Israelites willingly to take on suffering and slavery instead of justice and holiness can only be baffling. But one does not have to look far to find places where we, too, choose complacency and capitulation in the face of violence. Take, for instance, the events of April 5: in broad daylight, police officers rolled up to a car full of passengers in a Walmart parking lot and ordered its occupants to exit the vehicle; when the car began to back up instead, the officers opened fire. The resulting rain of bullets killed the driver, Diante Yarber, and wounded one of his three other passengers.

Public outrage at this incident has been limited. The death of Trayvon Martin—and later, the acquittal of his killer—both sparked nationwide protests. The shooting of Michael Brown triggered violent unrest in Ferguson, MO. The suffocation of Eric Garner led to marches and protests thousands strong in New York City and across the country.

But Yarber’s case has prompted no nationwide protests and relatively little outpouring of outrage on social media. This is despite the fact that the lawyer for Yarber’s family, Lee Merritt, deems this case “one of the most egregious uses” of excessive force by law enforcement that he has seen in his career as a civil rights attorney. Merritt even suggests that, on the merits of the case itself, it has the potential to be “a straw that breaks the back of police brutality.” Now is not the time for silence or fatigue.

If the relative quiet over Yarber’s death is indeed a case of activism fatigue, it is hardly an isolated or surprising phenomenon. In 2018 we are treated to a constant onslaught of topics demanding our outrage, whether #MeToo, the pervasiveness of gun violence, or recent, devastating changes in immigration policy. And yet the lack of widespread indignation over Diante Yarber raises hard questions. Does our silence mean we are in danger of resigning ourselves to police brutality as a matter of course? Have we inadvertently acclimated ourselves to a world in which a Walmart becomes a war zone and the rest of us barely blink?

Reflecting on the task of justice after outlining the facts of the Yarber case, Merritt observed that “love and anger [fuel] activism”—that every week he had to “rack [his] brain… to get our community to love itself enough to stay angry about injustice. Our anger,” he concluded, “is so fleeting because [our] love for self is shallow.”

When we lose sight of who we are, we neglect our calling. When we forget our worth as human beings and children of God, we accept injustice as the way of the world. It is all too easy to sink into complacency, to resign ourselves to the existence of a broken system, and to tolerate a degree of corruption in our leadership and systemic violence in our institutions rather than demanding accountability and justice on all levels of society. The first step towards a world ordered by justice is rooting out the false belief that injustice is our lot.

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