In pursuit of national and personal security, Israel demanded Samuel anoint for them a human king so they could be like all the other nations.
For a recent class, I wrote an essay on 1 Samuel 8:4-22, the story of when Israel approached the prophet Samuel to have him appoint a king to lead them. The article you’re currently reading is an adaptation of that essay (if you’re interested in reading the full essay, you can download it as a PDF).
I initially chose this text because I thought it would help me better understand the relationship between God and government. As I studied the text, though, I found that it contained an entirely different message for me. This passage does include a theology of God, one that shows God responding graciously to the rebellious exercise of human free will, but the stronger theological picture describes how groups of people have a tendency to seek other gods, driven by a desire to control and preserve our own future.
This is a message that resonates with United States Christian culture today as we grapple with questions of individual and corporate security. With the rise of the Religious Right in the past few decades and a recent resurgence in Christian governmental politics, we carry a renewed interest in the ways God works in, through, and outside of our national structures of government.
But perhaps the better question is to ask ourselves where our hope lies. How often do we cease to rely on God for our security, seeking it instead by imposing our own systems of safety and predictability?
What Is the Book of Samuel?
Before we can understand the message of a text, we must understand the text itself. The following is a brief synopsis of the authorship, genre, and scholarship around the books of 1 and 2 Samuel.
In the oldest Hebrew manuscripts, the books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were one book. Along with the books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings, they are considered part of the deuteronomistic history of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament).
Tradition says that Samuel wrote the books bearing his name, but modern scholars believe that the entire deuteronomistic history was edited together at a much later date than the events the books describe. This much is clear from the text itself. For example, Samuel contains frequent references to social norms “in those days” (see 1 Samuel 3:1; 5:5; 6:18; and many more), indicating that the author was writing to readers who would not remember what was “normal” for the culture he was describing.
The editor must have been writing long after the events he described, but theories about the exact date of the book’s authorship are inconclusive. Most scholars believe it was written around the time of the Babylonian exile (586 B︌C︌E︌), although some argue for either a pre-exilic or post-exilic authorship. As a frame of reference, the events we will examine in this article likely took place around 1000 BCE, more than 400 years before they were finally written down as the book of Samuel.
Themes of Samuel
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel tell of Israel’s political transition from a sociological status as a tribal group to that of a centralized nation with a monarch as a ruler.
The text is historical in the ancient Hebrew sense of the word, but that cannot not be understood to be a strict, modern accounting of dates, times, and persons. Ancient histories did not hold to today’s notion of journalistic facts. Indeed, the text itself discourages us from reading it that way, because it disagrees with itself on a number of details. Rather, the book must be understood as a complex narrative describing Israel’s theological reflections upon their past.
The editor wrote this ancient story, rooted in history but not limited by facts and dates, to show readers that God had been involved in Israel’s heritage, and would therefore be involved in its future. Those original readers were most likely Hebrews who had lost their nation and were scattered, struggling to maintain their cultural identity as they were ruled by Babylonian emperors. To them, this history would have been a source of hope for God’s providence, a promise that God had not abandoned them.
Israel at the Time of Samuel & Saul
Samuel is a transitional book between the stories of the judges and the kings. The ancient Hebrew heritage involves being delivered from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness for forty years, then conquering the cities of Canaan and dividing the land into tribal Israelite territories.
The tribes at this time were independent groups. They were not held together by any kind of national structure or government – their primary bond was their monotheistic faith, centered around an ancient covenant with God.
Judges tells of the interaction between those Israelite tribes and the Canaanites still living among them, as well as the relationship between the Hebrew people and God at this time. Whenever the Hebrew people strayed from their covenant with God (which was frequent), a heroic judge rose to call Israel to repentance and deliver them from their oppressors. Judges concludes by foreshadowing the transition that would come in the book of Samuel: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25, NRSV).
The biblical text, sociological analysis, and archaeological data come together to identify three key motivations for Israel’s demand for a king:
- Invading forces created a need for a cohesive army.
- Increasing population density in Israel and the surrounding region led to a desire for social definition.
- Israel’s economic prosperity created demand for trade regulation between tribes and with other nations.
The Philistines, introduced at the beginning of 1 Samuel, were seafarers that had settled along the Mediterranean coast seeking to establish a colony in the land of Israel. Conflict between the Philistines and Israelites quickly escalated into a full-blown war. The prophet Samuel rallied the tribes together and, with the help of God (as the editor deliberately mentions), swiftly repelled the invading force.
Despite the victory, Israelite leaders became increasingly concerned about their lack of military strength of the tribes, and they questioned the reliability of their tribal forces to fend off the ongoing Philistine threat.
As they were fighting the Philistines, the Israelite tribes were growing and expanding into new territories. As a result, they interacted more frequently with other Israelite tribes and with other, non-Hebrew cultures (if you recall, the inter-marrying of Hebrews with people from other societies caused many of the problems detailed in the book of Judges).
This cross-cultural interaction created a paradox in Israelite society: they wanted to leave behind their tribal organizational system because they saw it as an ineffectual, outdated model that could be replaced by a new, cohesive identity as a kingdom, just like their neighboring societies were doing.
The Israelite population growth was accompanied by an economic boom, which raised a number of related concerns. The distribution of goods and services between the tribes needed to be regulated and trade with other states needed to be monitored so they could know they were not being taken advantage of. As the upper class of Hebrew society began accumulating wealth, they began looking for ways to protect their financial status against future economic shifts.
These regulations all required a government to provide provide oversight and enforce adherence to the new laws.
Samuel had served well in his time as a prophet, priest, and judge, but he was getting old. The tribal leadership could not identify a person to take his place, and they were uneasy at the prospect of an undefined and insecure future. They wanted a more sophisticated system.
The Request for a King
At the opening of our segment, “all the elders of Israel” approached Samuel in his home town. These elders were the social leaders of each of the tribes and were likely wealthy, both in economic status and in the size of their households, with significant social and legal authority over the people. They pointed out that Samuel was getting old and his sons were corrupt, unfit to be religious and military leaders.
Since they anticipated a gap in leadership and sought political stability, one might expect that they would have requested that Samuel train another judge to guide them, but instead, in their desire for a complete institutional shift, they requested a king.
The elders knew it would be difficult to implement a kingship across all twelve tribes – this transformation would shake the foundations of their collective identity – so they came together and approached Samuel as a unified group. The comprehensive governmental framework they requested was a dramatic break from the reliance on God’s covenantal leadership that had made them culturally distinct since their exodus from Egypt. This kingship represented a re-prioritization of their socio-political constructs (such as class, status, and security) relative to their faithfulness to God.
Though they surely believed they could pursue both God and stability at the same time, there was a change in them. No longer would fidelity to God be their primary, driving sociological impulse; instead, they would seek their own sense of national and personal security first.
The Response of Samuel
Samuel recognized the gravity of this shift and resisted, praying for guidance. In verses 7-9, God responded by saying, “Listen to the voice of the people,” and affirmed that the elders were not rejecting Samuel’s leadership, but the reign of God over their cultural identity.
This was not the first time Israel had abandoned their covenant with God; since leaving Egypt, they had engaged in continual cycles of disobedience, judgment, and repentance. God drew a parallel between the demand for a king and the idolatry practiced by Israel throughout its history. Nonetheless, God instructed Samuel to warn them of the dangers of monarchy but, in the end, to submit to the will of the people.
The Decision is Made
Samuel warned them that, because Israel had chosen its own way, God would allow them to suffer the consequences of that decision, but the elders did not relent. In their forceful counter-argument, they revealed the primary motivations behind their request.
The three reasons they gave mirror the three motivations mentioned previously:
- That they “may be like the other nations” (reflecting population growth and the desire for a social identity)
- “That our king may govern us” (instituting legislative power for trade and economic security)
- That the king might “go out before us and fight our battles” (establishing a military for protection against invading forces)
It is notable that the author records the elders as looking for a king who would fight our battles rather than fight the battles of God. Throughout the deuteronomic history, military victory is seen as being given by God, so the word “our” here indicates a subtle yet significant shift in perspective regarding the purpose of war, foreshadowing the aggressive militaristic ambitions of Saul and subsequent rulers.
Having heard the clear voice of the elders, Samuel returned to God and relayed their decision. God told Samuel again to listen to their voice, commanding the prophet to “set a king over them.” Though God and Samuel both wished the people had chosen differently, God conceded and Samuel resigned himself to pass on the mantle of Israelite leadership to a new paradigm of God-ordained monarchy.
In this narrative, the yearning of Israel for a national identity usurped their desire to be led by God, and that is a tension still felt today, particularly by Christians in the United States. I think it’s fair to say that we often idolize security.
- We pursue military action against our enemies, whether that’s regarding the nuclear threat presented recently by North Korea, the dangers of global terrorism, or the subversion of Russian cyber attacks.
- We demand economic security for our future, both on the personal level (supporting economic measures that benefit us, rather than those that benefit the lowest in our society) and on the national level (restricting immigration from Mexico because of a perceived impact on American jobs).
- We want our nation to reflect a unique cultural distinction – for example, we twist history in an effort to demonstrate that the United States was founded on a morality that matches our own convictions.
As we seek to honor the legacy we have been given – the privilege of living in a nation of freedom and democracy – we are often pulled away from the worship of our Creator. When we pursue a trustworthy system of self-defense, we dispel the need to trust in God for our protection and we establish a basis upon which we can justify violent atrocities as ordained by God.
That’s not to say that security necessarily idolatrous, but we must remain cognizant of our natural inclination to rely upon our own power rather than the strength of God for deliverance. Just as the elders of Israel anticipated a gap in leadership and sought to fill it with humanly sustainable systems, so do we frequently abandon the perceived insecurity that comes with faithfulness to God and seek to fill it with the assurance that comes from perpetuating our own ideals.
We must recognize, though it goes against our nature, that the power of God is greater than all the power of the world.
For the complete bibliography of this essay, please download the original as a PDF.