Friday, December 10, 2010

Rules for Unwanted Kings

In Deuteronomy, Moses is now repeating and appending most of God's previously given commandments. Recently, we saw how God promoted loaning to the poor and a periodic debt forgiveness, but He did not extend that forgiveness to foreigners. Next, in Deuteronomy 16 God reminds the Israelites to celebrate Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles, establishes a system of impartial judges, and warns against idolatry. Deuteronomy 17 begins with another call for intolerance, but requires more than one witness to kill someone for idolatry, and then establishes the absolute power of the priests.

Rules for Unwanted Kings
There have been a couple of major anachronistic events in the Bible so far. First, we observed how Abel sacrificed the fat of the firstborn of his flock, long before people ate meat or God demanded fat to be sacrificed. Next, we saw how Moses collected extra clean animals before the Flood, and sacrificed clean animals after the Flood, long before clean animals were defined by God. Well, God has bestowed one more time hiccup in the Torah, one regarding kings.

In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God provides rules for the kings of the Israelites.

When the Israelites have taken the Promised Land into possession and decide to promote a king, they must promote the person of God's choosing, and their king must not be a foreigner (Deuteronomy 17:14-15).

The king must not acquire large amounts of horses (particularly from Egypt, even though they would not have any left after the plagues), many wives, or lots of gold and silver (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). People who claim that the Bible does not support polygamy would be wrong, as this does permit the king to have multiple wives, just not “many” wives, however many that is.

Finally, the king must personally copy God's Law, keeping that copy with him and reading it every day, because the king is not above obeying the law (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Thus you can see how much emphasis God puts on obeying the Law, which is contrary to the modern Christian sentiment.

A reading of these rules, or particularly the first couple verses of this section, make you think that God expected and wanted them to have a king. After all, if God had not put this section in the Law, they may not have even thought of having a king, but now it would seem to them like an expectation. Yet, let us jump ahead in the storyline to see how this all plays out.

The book of Judges tells the story of what the Israelites did when they entered the Promised Land. For over 400 years, they lived without establishing a king. In that time, they went through a repeated series of angering God, being punished by God (through other nations) for some time, God raising up a leader known as a judge to unify the Israelites to defeat whatever nation was oppressing them, and then the Israelites returning to God. As Judges 17:6 and Judges 21:25 both put it:
“In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” NIV
Eventually, Samuel became the judge of the Israelites. His sons, who were set to inherit Samuel's leadership, were corrupt, so the Israelites pleaded with Samuel to establish a king over them (1 Samuel 8:3-5). That certainly seems like a reasonable request, but apparently it was not.

The saga of appointing the king unfolds in 1 Samuel 8 through 1 Samuel 12. Samuel gets angry. God gets angry. Saul gets anointed as king. Saul organizes an army and successfully slaughters invading Ammonites. Samuel officially steps down from leadership. In Samuel's departing speech in 1 Samuel 12:16-18, he says:
“Now then, stand still and see this great thing the LORD is about to do before your eyes! Is it not wheat harvest now? I will call on the LORD to send thunder and rain. And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the eyes of the LORD when you asked for a king.”

Then Samuel called on the LORD, and that same day the LORD sent thunder and rain. So all the people stood in awe of the LORD and of Samuel. NIV
So Samuel and God thought that it was evil for the Israelites to ask for a king, and God even punishes them for doing so! In fact, God considered it to be a rejection of God being their king (1 Samuel 8:7). Yet way back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, it sure seemed like God expected them to have a king, putting no negative connotation on it.

That is how you can tell that Deuteronomy 17:14-20 is an anachronism. Reading these verses into the overall storyline, they do not fit, because they make God appear both having omniscience (knowing the Israelites will want a king) and lacking omniscience (not knowing how those verses would inspire and promote a request for a king, an act which God Himself views as sinful). On the other hand, if you instead consider the possibility that these kingly verses were installed into the Law at a later revision, when kings had already been established, then it is not surprising to find a little contradiction in the text.

One more piece of circumstantial evidence suggests Deuteronomy 17:14-20 to be an anachronism. In the process of anointing Saul as king, Samuel explains and writes down the rights and duties of the king (1 Samuel 10:25). If these laws were already written down, why did Samuel have to write them again? If anyone had to write them again, why was it Samuel and not Saul, as Saul was required to write a copy per God's Law (Deuteronomy 17:18)?

On a final note, consider what this says about God's Plan and a foreshadowing of Christianity. If God viewed their request to have a king as a sin, then it seems odd that God's Plan for an eternal kingdom would hinge on King David being in existence. Also, by God displaying anger at the request for a king, it becomes clear that God does not want an intermediate person between Him and ruling the people. Jesus will rule God's eternal kingdom, who both is and is not an intermediate person, so this sends a bit of a mixed message.

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