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 cattleand 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 theLordwill 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.’
This week’s lectionary text from 1 Samuel 8 is one of the most overtly political passages in the Hebrew Bible. It expresses a deep ambivalence toward kingship characteristic of the Hebrew Bible generally and of the so-called Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy—2 Kings) more specifically, interpreting the people’s request for a king as a rejection of YHWH (1 Samuel 8:7).
Yet already in Deuteronomy, when the people were still on the other side of the Jordan, Moses had given them permission to ask for a king. In Deuteronomy 17:14-15, Moses instructs the people, ‘When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that surround me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose.’ If the people have already received permission to ask for a king, why does Samuel react so negatively in this week’s text?
One way to account for the difference concerns the people’s motivations in asking for a king. Deuteronomy envisions the request coming in a time of peace, when the people ‘have come into the land’ and ‘taken possession of it’ (Deuteronomy 17:14). In peacetime, limitations can be placed on the power of the monarchy. Deuteronomy prohibits the king from acquiring horses, amassing wealth, or selling the people into slavery (Deuteronomy 17:16-17), while requiring him to keep a copy of the law to read ‘all the days of his life’ (Deuteronomy 17:18). The king is not glorified as a military leader, but as a just and equitable leader of the people.
In the Samuel passage, the people initially ask for a king ‘to govern us, like the other nations’ (1 Samuel 8:5). It is only when the people reiterate their demand in 8:19-20 that the true motivation for having a king is revealed: ‘We are determined to have a king over us, so that we may also be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us to fight our battles.’
Ultimately, the people’s desire for a king is rooted in a desire for a strong military—a king who will go out and wage war for them. It is unclear why this people at peace desired a king to lead them to war. It may be that they have a deeply rooted sense of insecurity—a nagging fear that the foreigners with whom they have been living peacefully will again resort to violence. Or maybe it is that a strong military gives them a sense of national pride. As Chris Hedges has said, ‘War is a force that gives us meaning,’ and without it the people don’t know how to define themselves among the nations.
Whatever the case, Samuel warns the people of the dangers of a king with a mandate for war. In a scathing indictment of kingship, Samuel describe the king as a taker: ‘he will take your sons’ (8:11), ‘he will take your daughters’ (8:13), ‘he will take the best of your fields’ (8:14), ‘he will take one-tenth of your grain’ (8:15), ‘he will take your male and female slaves’ (8:16a), ‘[he will take] the best of your cattle and donkeys’ (8:16b), ‘he will take one-tenth of your flocks’ (8:17).
At first the king’s taking is to build the military infrastructure. Sons are taken to be charioteers and soldiers, to be commanders of troops, to raise food for the army, to make implements of war. Soon, however, the taking exceeds the bounds of war-readiness. Daughters are taken as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. The best of the grain, wine, and olive oil is taken for the king’s court officials. The labor of humans and animals are taken to do the king’s work.
Until, in the end, ‘you shall be his slaves’ (8:17).
The king will use the people’s vague fears of a foreign enemy to amass an army during peacetime. By confiscating both labor and taxes, the king will boost production of military equipment and, eventually, to the production of luxury goods for himself and his court. The result will be a lopsided economy in which the elites become wealthy because of the threat of war, while the common people end up as slaves to the rich.
And yet the people, knowing all of this, still demand a king. Because of their fear that their security is at risk—because of their need for violence as a way of making meaning—they are willing to sell their futures to a king who offers them protection and military glory.
It is not difficult to hear the resonances between Samuel’s warning to the Israelites and Eisenhower’s warning to the American people in his farewell address of January 1961. More than a half-century ago Eisenhower warned,
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.
The truth of Eisenhower’s warning—and the truth of Samuel’s—have been borne out in the hyper-militarism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We are a world perpetually at war, filling the pockets of those who trade in violence at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the common people.
While 1 Samuel 8 warns us against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, Deuteronomy 17 holds out the possibility of a different world for us. A world in which the king’s power is held in check. In which the one responsible for protecting the people must not acquire silver and gold in great quantity. In which the people may not again be turned into mere sources of labor for the enrichment of a few elites.
When we refuse to give in to the vague fear of an unknown enemy—when we reject war as a force that gives us meaning—only then is a just world possible.
Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).