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   by Jacob Solomon

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When you come into the Land that G-d gives to you… and you say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.” You shall surely put over yourself a king that G-d shall choose; from among your brothers you shall set a king over yourself… (17:14-15).

This section implies that it is permitted, and even the right thing for the Israelites to be led by a king, subject to the qualifications stated by the Torah. However later events suggested the contrary:

  1. After Gideon saved the Israelites from Midianite oppression several generations later, the Israelites wanted him to rule over them. Gideon replied, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you, but the L-rd will rule over you” (Jud. 8:23).
  2. When Samuel reached old age and his sons were found to be unworthy successors, they asked Samuel to ‘appoint a King over us to judge us, like all the nations’ (Sam. I 8:5). He was deeply disturbed. Indeed, G-d concurred with Samuel’s feelings, saying that in wanting a king “they have not rejected you, but Me from ruling over them” (ibid. 8:7).
  3. Subsequent events showed that the periods of the Israelite/Judean monarchies (with the exceptions of the reigns of David, Hezekiah, and Josiah) were periods of steady spiritual decline, culminating in the exile of the entire Northern Kingdom and, a century later, the Destruction of the First Temple.

How are these three points compatible with the Torah’s appearing to encourage the Israelite monarchy?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) states that it was indeed a positive obligation for the Israelites to appoint a king on entering the Promised Land. Samuel’s distress at their request is based on the way, or the actual time, that the Israelites made their request. Most commentators follow the line of the Ramban, who says that they should have asked for a king who would lead them, inspire them, and set an example of wholehearted service of G-d, but instead they wanted a king to be ‘like all the nations’. That was a concern that the later above events more than justified.

The one commentator who disagrees with all the others is Abarbanel, who holds that Samuel’s opposition was the right course to follow, and that the above verses in the Torah do not impose any obligation whatsoever to appoint a king. His view is based on two factors – firstly, his reading of the texts, and secondly, his understanding of how a monarchy works. Thus the Torah’s section on the king referred to what would happen in the future, rather to what should happen in the future. He noted that it was not the motive of the Israelites that distressed Samuel, but the very fact that they had asked for a king in the first place. He cites a Samuel’s words as a proof: “…know and see the great wickedness that you have done in the eyes of G-d to ask for a king” (12:17). He stressed ‘ask for a king’, not ‘to be like other nations’.

Moreover, the very existence of a monarchy is harmful, according to Abarbanel, and G-d could not have issued a command for the Israelites to harm themselves. He quotes the Rambam (Guide to the Perplexed 3:10) which says that neither the king nor the sea have any limits to their anger, and one who walks among them is only a step away from death. The spirit that prevails in them is either the stormy winds of the sea or the stormy temper of the king. His observations of absolute monarchy may be summed up with:

In reality there is no value to a state having a king, either in terms of its political structure, or in terms of the unity of its people. They were chosen to be servants to their nations, but afterwards took over their nations. From their midst arose this festering disease – a single man should arise and tyrannize his people, and lead them like donkeys.

In applying his own observations to events some two and a half millenia previously, he implies that basic human nature does not change.

According to Abarbanel, this is the reason why Samuel stressed to the Israelites later on, “Do not fear… do not turn aside from following G-d with all your heart.” (ibid 12:20). Should the people indeed behave that way, as in the days of Hezekiah, a king could be a great asset to them. However in this respect Hezekiah proved to be an exception, rather than the rule.

Implied in Abarbanel is a basic idea contained a few chapters later on – in the paragraphs where the Torah deals with female captives of war:

When you go out to war against your enemies… and you see in captivity a beautiful woman (even married – Talmud: Kiddushin 21b), you desire her, you may take her for yourselves as a wife. You shall bring her into your house… she shall weep a month for her father and mother… and afterwards… she shall be to you for a wife. It shall be that if you do not want her, you shall send release her… (21:10-14)

The Talmud (supra) states that the Torah does not approve of such an arrangement, but ‘the Torah speaks against the evil inclination’. The Torah recognizes that the passions of a soldier in battle may become extremely inflamed, and that the soldier should be able to satisfy his lustful desire (Tosafot, Kiddushin 22a) or cool off (Rashi, Ramban) before it causes more harm. However by imposing numerous conditions and a lengthy waiting time, the Torah demonstrates that such an arrangement cannot be a good thing.

Similarly with a king. The Torah ideal is contained in the words of Isaiah:

For G-d is our judge. G-d is our legislator. G-d is our king. He will save us (Isaiah 33:22).

In other words, the Prophets would lead the Israelites. They would convey to them the Word of G-d. That is why the Torah hedges the appointment of a king with many qualifications, which (given the then current Middle Eastern society) would drastically change his public image. Thus he was forbidden to possess many horses, wives, or large amounts of money, and he was required to constantly remind himself that he was absolutely subservient to the Word of G-d. Such a personality would be so far removed from a king that the Israelites would probably not appoint one at all… And if they did appoint one and he ruled faithfully, according to the rules, he would be an asset – free from the type of defects mentioned by Abarbanel.

Using the above idea gives a deeper understanding of Samuel’s opposition to the Israelites’ appointing a king. The period ushering in that event was not one of idol worship, as in the time of the judges, but when “all… Israel followed after G-d” (Sam.I 7:2). They did not need a king. They were not in a situation where they were far from the Torah spiritual ideal – like a soldier in war. So the king at that moment in time would not help the Israelites climb up the spiritual ladder…

This idea may be used to explain well-know examples of spiritual leaders of previous generations being more lenient on things that today are not encouraged in Torah society. Spiritual leaders of every generation have some discretion to rule on contemporary matters (17:9), and this is exemplified by Samuel – who knew his own people and their circumstances – initially trying to persuade the Israelites not to appoint a king.



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