This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Emir of Qatar abdicates in favour of his son
1 Samuel 8:1-22
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
8 When Sh’mu’el grew old, he appointed his sons as judges over Isra’el. 2 His firstborn was named Yo’el, while his second son was named Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-Sheva. 3 However, his sons did not follow his way of life; they turned off it to pursue riches, so that they would take bribes to distort justice. 4 All the leaders of Isra’el gathered themselves together, approached Sh’mu’el in Ramah 5 and said to him, “Look, you have grown old, and your sons are not following your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” 6 Sh’mu’el was not pleased to hear them say, “Give us a king to judge us”; so he prayed to Adonai. 7 Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “Listen to the people, to everything they say to you; for it is not you they are rejecting; they are rejecting me; they don’t want me to be king over them. 8 They are doing to you exactly what they have been doing to me, from the day I brought them out of Egypt until today, by abandoning me and serving other gods. 9 So do what they say, but give them a sober warning, telling them what kinds of rulings their king will make.”
10 Sh’mu’el reported everything Adonai had said to the people asking him for a king. 11 He said, “Here is the kind of rulings your king will make: he will draft your sons and assign them to take care of his chariots, be his horsemen and be bodyguards running ahead of his chariots. 12 He will appoint them to serve him as officers in charge of a thousand or of fifty, plowing his fields, gathering his harvest, and making his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters and have them be perfume-makers, cooks and bakers. 14 He will expropriate your fields, vineyards and olive groves — the very best of them! — and hand them over to his servants. 15 He will take the ten-percent tax of your crops and vineyards and give it to his officers and servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, your best young men and your donkeys, and make them work for him. 17 He will take the ten-percent tax of your flocks, and you will become his servants. 18 When that happens, you will cry out on account of your king, whom you yourselves chose. But when that happens, Adonai will not answer you!”
19 However, the people refused to listen to what Sh’mu’el told them, and they said, “No! We want a king over us, 20 so that we can be like all the nations, with our king to judge us, lead us and fight our battles.” 21 Sh’mu’el heard everything the people said and repeated them for Adonai to hear. 22 Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “Do what they ask, and set up a king for them.” So Sh’mu’el told the men of Isra’el, “Each of you, return to his city.”
There’s some evidence that once “Israel” was the name of a loose confederacy of tribes who could be called to act as one by the name of their God. The book of Judges is witness to a time after the settlement of Canaan when the tribes had their own chiefs but may have accepted the occasional leadership of a charismatic figure as a “judge”. For the authors of the bible, however, especially those who were writing after the Babylonian exile, the Davidic dynasty had brought the nation into near-extinction by their lack of faithfulness to God and his Torah. This has influenced the whole history told in the books of Samuel and Kings, which shows at least two views of monarchy:
1. It is an evil substitute for the rule of God and brings disaster.
2. It is, as seen in King David, an instrument of God for the welfare of his people. True, some kings have been unworthy of this calling but one day a successor of David, a Messiah, will be a perfect instrument in God’s hand to liberate his people and establish justice.
The present passage presents the first view, with attitude: kings are monsters who prey on their people’s wealth and family and reduce free people to the status of slaves. Anyone who thinks this is merely of historical interest should look at the nation states of our times and their rulers (whether democratically elected or not) and see how many of them fit Samuel’s description. Suspicion of “big government” everywhere is based on the same view that he voiced: rulers will act for their own advantage rather than the welfare of their citizens.
On the other hand we could note that the nation state and its various forms of rule has been the engine of what we call civilisation. As far as we know, there’s no people who enjoy what we regard as civilised life without being a nation state or empire. Peoples who are not nations, like Bedouin, Kurds, Roma, Taliban are viewed as problems in the “civilised” world.
The Christian tradition has kept something of this suspicion of human rule although it has from time to time allowed itself heresies like the “divine right of kings” or the current uncritical commitment of the Orthodox Church to President Putin. In times when the church itself had civil power it could be critical of monarchs while remaining blind to its own abuses. In most churches today however, the faith that Jesus Messiah is the true king of humanity does not mean his church should rule but rather that it should offer, as a transnational community of peace and justice, a permanent support of just governance and a permanent critique of injustice. Christians believe they have dual citizenship of earth and heaven; while they are on their way to the latter, they have to do their duty to the former.