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[Samuel declared to the Israelites his farewell address]
"Know full well the great evil you have done in G-d's sight by asking for a king for yourselves." (Samuel I 12:17)
The Books of Samuel, set in the Holy Land during the mid-eleventh and the early tenth century BCE, record the transition in Israel from the period of the Judges to the era of the united monarchy. The early changes in Israel's national life center on Samuel and Saul.
Samuel was a prophet and the last of the Judges. He was the first personality since Joshua to be a national, rather than a local figure. Unlike his predecessors - Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jehpthah, and Samson - his influence did not just cover a district or region, but the entire Holy Land (3:20). Indeed, he made a point of regularly traveling around the country to dispense justice in person (7:15-17). In addition, the period of Samuel saw positive religious stability, to which he richly contributed. From Joshua to Samuel, the Israelites repeatedly followed the local idolatrous cults, but the days of Samuel himself heralded a period where 'all the House of Israel followed G-d' (7:2). From that time, the Israelites kept on the Torah path until the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon.
Saul was the first King of Israel. His initially reluctant rise to power took place because of the popular demand for a monarchy. Despite his openly being declared king in Mitzpa, his initial support appears to have been of a more tribal nature, centered on Benjamin, and opposed to by some 'evil people' (10:27-7). Soon afterwards, his military prowess was put to the test. For the Ammonites had just brought despair to Israelites living in Jabesh-Gilead - a remote settlement in Trans-Jordan. The people of Jabesh had offered to surrender to Nahash, king of Ammon, but he stipulated that each man of the city must firstly undergo physical mutilation and humiliation, in the form of submitting to being blinded in the right eye. Jabesh, helpless, played for time and asked for seven days grace. During that period they alerted the Israelites, and in that time the newly crowned Saul managed to combine a military force from all Israel to defeat Ammon. With the 'spirit of G-d gripping Saul' (11:6) he powerfully demonstrated how the new national army could effectively come to the aid of its far-flung people - including those in remote and isolated settlements.
With the backdrop of a fresh and stunning first victory over a common enemy, the Haftara opens with Saul being accepted as king by all Israel, in an impressive ceremony at Gilgal. Gilgal was a natural stopping point for those entering the main part of the Promised Land after crossing the fords of the Jordan on the return march from Jabesh-Gilead. It was also of important religious significance. There Joshua set up the twelve stones representing the twelve Israelites tribes (Josh. 4:19-20), there the males were circumcised for the first time leaving Egypt, and there Passover was celebrated in the Holy Land for the first time (5:9-10).
Following the coronation and great festivities at Gilgal, Samuel delivered a dramatic address to the Israelites. This was to reinforce his earlier great reluctance about the wisdom of the Israelites putting themselves under a king. He reviewed their past experience when they were under the close guidance of eternal forces - namely G-d, and those He chose to bring His word to the people. Time and time again, Samuel recalls, the Israelites sinned, betraying their role as a 'kingdom of a priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6). Time and time again they punished in suffering under the enemy, time and time again they promised to change their ways for the better, and time and time again G-d promoted a savior-judge: Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, Samuel himself… Life, emphasized Samuel, would not change under the new king. He would not be above the Torah law: his monarchy would last only as long as he served G-d. He would not be able to save the people from G-d's wrath if they continued in their former bad ways.
Samuel underlined his message with a powerful demonstration. It was early summer - the time of the wheat harvest. He told the people that he would now call on G-d to bring thunder and rain: abnormal in Israel at that time of the year. Such rain would ruin the wheat harvest - it flattens the ripe grain and makes it extremely difficult to reap. That, said Samuel, would symbolize the error of asking for a king. As Abarbanel writes, this demonstration showed them that G-d sometimes fulfills requests even though they can do more harm than good, such as their call for a king. The proof of this is that G-d answered Samuel's prayer for rain that served no useful purpose, but boded ill for the future.
The thunder and rain came down, and 'the people stood in awe of G-d, and of Samuel.' (Sam I 12:18) Impressed and frightened, the people at Gilgal certainly were. But they did not withdraw their request for a king. Rosenberg (The Haftara Cycle 2000 p.135) suggests that was not the aim of Samuel's words to the people. He was intent on impressing them with the gravity of their decision to establish a monarchy, and was probably at the same time impressing Saul with the seriousness of his role as king. Indeed, Saul's letting Samuel take center stage, and as king, never challenging Samuel as a prophet and as a judge, stood to his credit.
The king is not indispensable, the Haftara concludes. Even if the monarchy collapses, G-d will never abandon His people: 'For G-d will not abandon His people for his great Name's sake, for G-d has been willing to make you His people.' (12:22)
Within the text of the Haftara, Samuel expresses his deepest reservations on the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. However, the Israelites themselves appeared to have demanded a king with the full backing of the Law of Moses:
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 - both before and after the time of Samuel, suggested the contrary:
1. After Gideon saved the Israelites from Midianite oppression during the period of the earlier judges, they 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. As echoed in this Haftara: when Samuel reached old age and his sons turned out 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 - despite the fact that he may be seen as part of the cause for the petition in the first place. Samuel himself was responsible for the appointment of his own sons - who then let the Israelites down badly. For 'they did not go in (Samuel's) ways, but they … took bribes and perverted justice.' (8:3) Yet G-d actually 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 monarchy (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 manner, or the actual time, that the Israelites petitioned for a king. 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'. It 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 within this Haftara as a proof: "Know full well the great evil you have done in G-d's sight by asking for a king for yourselves." (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 millennia previously, he implies that basic human nature does not change.
According to Abarbanel, that 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 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 (Deut. 17:9). That is exemplified by Samuel, who knew his own people and their circumstances, trying to persuade the Israelites not to appoint a king…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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