Israelite Kingship: Good or Bad in the Eyes of God?

Posted By on October 27, 2012

When God tells Samuel, Israel’s judge, to anoint a king for Israel according to their demands with the words “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7), many Bible readers and students assume that the institution of kingship was theologically disallowed for Israel. That’s a common assumption, but it’s wrong. The laws of Deuteronomy (Deut 17:11-20) outlined laws for a king. Anyone who assumes that Deuteronomy was written before 1 Samuel (e.g., those who embrace Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy) therefore have  an explicit problem with a negative view of kingship. But even those who don’t presume Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy have plenty of reasons to believe that kingship was not forbidden for Israel. Rather, the issue was the type of king, defined in terms of what the king was supposed to be/do and not be/do.

One of the most readable explanations of this issue that rebuts the “anti-kingship” notion is that of David Howard: “The Case for Kingship in Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets,” Westminster Theological Journal 52:1 (Spring 1990): 101-115. I regularly assigned this article to students when I taught courses in the OT historical books or the history of Israel. Howard discusses the work Gerald Gerbrandt in this article, another Old Testament scholars whose Kingship According to the Deuteronomistic History (SBLDS 87; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986) is Howard’s specific point of interaction.1 Please have a look at it (it’s not that lengthy); I think you’ll find it makes good sense, and that the institution of kingship was not inherently wrong for Israel.

  1. Note that the term “Deuteronomistic History” is the academic term for the books from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. See footnote 3 in Howard’s essay for how he and Gerbrandt use the term.

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5 Responses to “Israelite Kingship: Good or Bad in the Eyes of God?”

  1. Cory says:

    I’ve only glanced at the article linked, but I get the general idea and now find my ignorance once again shown. I did think the system of kings was something maybe God had not favored, but I really had not studied the issue and I can see the whole picture a little better just from this being brought up. I would very much like to ask something though. What people believe the role of government should be is a massive and fascinating study, but probably what most concerns me as a conservative Christian is militarism and its role. I will not state my opinions on such a thing, but simply note that we Christians do often seem to support if not champion considerable military action beyond our borders for perceived threats and/or to save Israel from perceived threat. Some Christians believe this to be a Biblical imperative of sorts it seems. That is a discussion on its own. So let me just ask simply, when the article mentions the “like the nations” point and that the error was replacing YHWH as Israel’s warrior, could or should that concept be brought into the discussion of how a Christian should view military action as a function of government? Certainly, America and its role in the middle east is not an issue of the Old Testament or whether ancient Israel was right to have a king, but in my mind, I see some correlation between Israel’s concern at the time to be defended and led by a “military king?” and circumstances today in the world where one says “peace through strength” and so one could ask, “is it our military strength that brings us peace or is it God we trust to handle that?” I hope that makes sense, I’m really not trying to get to a political point or make any 1:1 comparison, just to ask if I’m correct to see a relationship at all in the ideas.

    • MSH says:

      I would only say in this limited venue that since the U.S. isn’t Israel, we can’t directly apply principles for Israel’s political status or governance to the U.S. (for one, that would presume that the U.S. is in covenantal relationship with God). The Bible provides limited specifics on the power of the state. In a nutshell, it’s job is to punish evildoers and reward good. Punishing evil could easily encompass the idea of protecting one’s citizenry from harm, and so justify military activity in that regard. Of course the problem is knowing what is really going on behind the scenes of any state conflict at that level — we only know what the politicians tells us, and few have proven trustworthy, ruining it for any who really are being forthright. Assuming an equation between Israel’s warfare to win the land with U.S. conflicts and (in older eras) “manifest destiny” is therefore a theologically misguided notion (mostly in that regard for conservatives). This works both ways, though. It is also for this reason that attempts to look at Israel’s political system (such as its concepts of “social justice”) under the monarchy to justify our own welfare systems and nanny state are equally misguided (perhaps more so because Israel’s “welfare” ideas were aimed primarily at individuals, not the state, in the first place).

      Broader theological ideas would come into the picture as an assessment of how the state is conforming or not conforming to divine goals for humans or how humans were created. Examples could include how to treat one’s fellow man (not waiting for the state to direct such kindness and justice) and concepts like personal freedom (“liberty”) and personal accountability to provide for oneself (i.e., the Bible does not endorse servitude to a state or the notion of dependency on the state). I think the Bible is also pretty clear about the theologically misguided notion of human efforts to restore Eden (“bring in the kingdom” or set up a utopia). We aren’t God (or gods) and shouldn’t put ourselves in the place of re-creating Eden. That’s in God’s job description, not ours. And history is cluttered with examples of the folly (and in many cases, downright evil results, of utopianism applied).

      It’s a pretty vast and complex issue for sure.

  2. Malkiyahu says:

    I embrace Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy, and I’ve never seen a problem with Scripture’s negative view of kingship. All the supposed problems I’ve read about have seemed artificial to me.

    Maybe I need to read Gerbrandt’s dissertation (I doubt it), because after reading this article, I don’t buy it at all. I’ve always found that any argument that has to go through passages of Scripture explaining why they don’t say what they clearly seem to be saying is never justified in the end. To me, it always raises the “arguing-for-a-preconceived-notion” flag in my mind.

    Personally, saying that giving laws about kings implies endorsement of kings makes about as much sense as saying that giving laws about adulterers implies endorsement of adulterers. God gave laws about kings because He knew Israel would have kings. I see no justification for building a theological argument on it.

    Scripture’s statements that particular kings were good can’t be turned into an argument that Scripture teaches that kingship was good. The summary doesn’t make this argument, but it certainly seems to imply it, and the fact that Gerbrandt’s starting point is Scripture’s descriptions of good kings, who were the minority, again raises the “arguing-for-a-preconceived-notion” flag.

    The idea that it was OK for Israel to have a king as long as the king wasn’t their military leader is patently ridiculous to my mind in the article’s own discussion of Moses and Joshua. Am I to believe that God was OK with Israel having military leaders only as long as they weren’t called kings and He was OK with Israel having kings as long as they weren’t military leaders? That just makes no sense.

    When Israel describes the king they want in 1 Samuel 8:20, they describe him doing two things: “…that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” It seems the basis of his whole argument is that ONE of the things they wanted their king to do was wrong, even though Scripture never points out that the first part is OK but second part isn’t. That’s really weak, especially considering that Israel had had leaders who fought their battles and they were never condemned for doing so. He can argue all he wants that “Joshua’s military leadership is downplayed in the book of Joshua,” but the fact remains that Joshua WAS their military leader, as was Moses before him, as were the judges after him, and yet Yahweh never considered that a rejection of Himself. So a military leader is perfectly fine, having a king is perfectly fine, having a judge who is a military leader is perfectly fine, but having a king who is a military leader is evil and a rejection of God? I don’t see it in Scripture and it doesn’t make sense to me. Yahweh said, “…they have rejected Me from being king over them” (8:7), He did not say “They have rejected Me from being commander over them” or “military leader over them” or “a king and military leader over them.”

    When Gideon says, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you,” that’s supposed to mean that saving them from the hand of Midian is perfectly fine, and ruling over them is perfectly fine, but doing both is evil? Nah.

    When it comes to the statements, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” maybe I’m missing some evidence, because I’ve never seen it as negative. When I first read Judges as a teenager, I didn’t understand it as being negative, and all my studies since have not changed my interpretation of it. Every time I read the story of Israel from the time of the judges through all the kings, I get the distinct impression that, even though they went through times of foreign control in the time of the judges, that time was almost idyllic compared to the almost immediate evil of Saul and all the evil and chaos after Solomon’s reign, ending in destruction and exile.

    “In view of the overwhelmingly positive view of David and the Davidic Covenant, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Deuteronomist was essentially in favor of the kingship as it was exemplified in this model king.” I don’t why it’s difficult to escape. It’s difficult for me to see that conclusion as being logical. A positive view of a good king equals a positive view of kingship? Seems like a basic error of logic to me.

    Sorry for the massive comment but I see so many weak arguments in the article. The idea that the “Deuteronomistic History” is pro-kingship seems predicated on confused form criticism, and has to marshal passage after passage, explaining why they don’t mean what they seem to mean, according to the hypothetical theological motivations of the hypothetical author in his hypothetical historical situation.

    Gerbrandt’s idea is that God didn’t want Israel to have a king who was a military leader, which Scripture never says; Yahweh said they were rejecting Him as king, and nothing more. For me, it’s that simple. All the parts of Scripture that appear anti-kingship appear that way because they are anti-kingship. This interpretation is straightforward, while the arguments in the article are either very strained or simply fallacious.

  3. This is very timely for me! Thanks for the link.

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