Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: Political Science

In my opinion, 1 Samuel 8 is the most interesting chapter in the Bible so far. It requires some exegesis. Remember that we believe King Josiah commissioned the deuteronomic history as a mythic validation of religious orthodoxy and central authority -- specifically his. Ancient states were typically ruled by an alliance between a priestly caste and a warrior king. Israel got there, but we don't know exactly how or when - this history is certainly fictitious. But it's crafted to support a conclusion.

As we have seen, the era of the judges -- of which Samuel is the last -- is a highly repetitious tale. The Israelites are weak, in apostasy, and subordinate to another people. A judge emerges who restores the worship of Yahweh and the military power of the Israelites. They prevail against their conquerors and regain independence and prosperity. But the judge fails to establish an effective successor, and the society once again deteriorates and become prey for a conqueror, until another judge emerges. 


Now the people have had enough, and they ask Samuel to establish a kingdom of Israel. Samuel doesn't like the idea, so he has a chat with Yahweh, who explains that the problem is that between judges, the people keep rejecting him. So maybe the people are right, this is the way to go. However, the judges have generally been benign rulers. With the notable exception of Samson, they have even been ascetic. A king is another matter: kings are likely to be exploitive and oppressive. So Samuel warns the people, but they want a king anyway.

How would Josiah have viewed this passage? It may have been added later, or course. You can look at it in at least two ways. The king may want to deliver the message that yes, I may do a lot that you don't like, but that's the price you pay for social stability and military strength. It's a deal that the people actually agreed to at the founding of the kingdom, so you have no right to complain. Alternatively, it may be an interpolation by a later dissenter who wants people to reconsider the monarchy. In any case, this is the first time the writers have stepped back and reflected on the society they depict. As political philosophy, it may not rise to the level of Plato or Confucius, but it's pretty clear-eyed, What do you think?

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders.[a] The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”


  1. 1 Samuel 8:1 Traditionally judges
  2. 1 Samuel 8:5 Traditionally judge; also in verses 6 and 20
  3. 1 Samuel 8:16 Septuagint; Hebrew young men

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