I Samuel 8, A King It Shall Be
This chapter tells the story of the beginnings of the institution of kingship in Israel. While the narrative is clear enough in stressing that God commanded a reluctant Samuel to allow the institution to be set up, it is full of psychological complexity and contradictory impulses that make reading this story a painful experience.
Problems in I Samuel 8
Let’s begin with the issue of why kingship is desired. The people of Israel cried out for kingship not simply to be like everyone else around them or because the institution was needed in order for the people to “evolve” and act with more confidence and skill in a complex world, but because of dissatisfaction with Samuel’s sons. You read that right. Samuel, the seer/prophet was old and decided that he would appoint his sons to be judges in the land. The institution of the judge was long-standing and was seemingly appropriate for a scattered and rather immature people. Judges would arise as needed, and as called by God, fight off the foes, stay in power for a while and then return to their former life. It was a non-hereditary, charismatic office.
Samuel thought he would prolong that office as well as his influence by appointing his son as judges (v. 1). But this turned out badly. The first thing the sons did defies easy translation. They ἐξέκλιναν ὀπίσω τῆς συντελείας or “turned away after XXXX,” where συντελείας literally suggests something relating to the completion or fulfillment of something. Later Greek literature uses this word in connection with tax collection, and we might argue that this is the meaning here—that they perhaps stole from the tax collections. That might be a defensible translation of the phrase. Then they also took “gifts” (bribes?) and turned away from the “ordinances.” Well, in any case, bad kids in a number of ways. Mistake to appoint them as judges.
What made things worse is that the people of Israel saw this happening, went to good old dad Samuel and told him that his kids were wrecking things and that they needed a king to pull them out of the mess. This set Samuel a-sulking, and he approached God on the issue. But God really isn’t much help here because in verse 7 he says that this attitude of the Israelites means not that the people have rejected Samuel (i.e., rejected Samuel because of his kids’ actions) but that the people had rejected God. If I were Samuel, I would have reason to be angry. First of all, he was angry at the people of Israel for undermining his sons. But he also would probably be a little mad at God for not supporting him. Or, to be more precise, Samuel would probably be upset because God took the issue out of his hands. Samuel THOUGHT this was about his sons and him—but God pulled rank and said it was really about HIM. Now who is really the narcissist?
What are God and Samuel Doing?
The people just want good government. And God and Samuel are off sulking. God tells Samuel to go along with the people’s request, but God’s support for the idea of monarchy is about as tepid as can be imagined. And Samuel then reluctantly goes along with it, but warns the people in no uncertain terms that they are making a terrible decision. So God and Samuel, the two sources of power in the society, and presumably the two who seem to be most concerned that the people flourish, are AGAINST the request of the people, but rather than nix the request, they grant the request and then complain and try to undermine the people.
The complaints of Samuel and God are articulated beginning in verse 10. They try to warn the people in strongest terms that this decision to have a king will mean oppression of the people by the king. There are a number of interesting words especially in verse 13, where the daughters of the people, under a monarchy, would become perfumers and female butchers and bakers. You wonder if these are really so bad. . .. at least they are not becoming cult prostitutes or sex slaves. The men, to be sure, will occupy less advantageous positions by riding the regal chariots and becoming runners in front of the chariots (v. 11). They, too, will have to work the harvests and make vessels of war for the king and his chariots. But, come to think of it, you wonder how much different this would be than under the judges? Still people had to work the fields and make their own weapons.
Perhaps the thing that would be most onerous, however, is that the king would exact taxes from the people, even though the amount suggested (a tithe/tenth) isn’t as oppressive even as most Western democracies today. Well, one has to admit, however, that the prediction that kings will take their vineyards and olive orchards and fields and give them to his eunuchs is pretty chilling and scary (vv. 14-15). The most oppressive thing that the king will do, and this is not a light thing, is to reduce the people to slavery (v. 17).
But the people decided not to hearken to Samuel, and so the institution of kingship was set up. I still have a hard time understanding, however, that if this was such a bad idea why God let it happen and then went and sulked because it happened.
Thus, the institution of kingship in Israel doesn’t receive a ringing endorsement from the beginning either from Samuel or from God. Samuel is stung because the request for a monarch comes about because of the unethical dealing of his own sons. God is stung because He takes the request for kingship as an indication of the people’s rejecting him. But it gives both Samuel and God “cover” when things go south in the future. I Sam. 8 functions, then, as a built in “I told you so” when things go badly. This sounds strikingly similar to a modern couple who decide to get married but the parents of one of the couple are dead set against it but they figuratively wash their hands of the marriage and say, “Ok, go ahead, but it is such a bad idea.” Then, when the marriage breaks up they say, “Told you so. . .”