The tension between 1 Samuel 8’s negative perspective and the Pentateuch’s positive anticipation of the monarchy

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Reflecting upon Israel’s history, God says in 1 Samuel 8:8, “As all of the deeds that they did from the day I brought them from Egypt until this day, they forsook me and served other gods.” As Bergen comments, “Against this backdrop, Israel’s demand for an earthly king is presented as merely the latest instance of their long-standing pattern of rejection” (116-117). However, on the other hand, Pentateuch texts such as Gen 17:6, 16; 35:11; 49:8-12; Num 24:7, 17; and Deut 17:14-20 provide a positive anticipation of the monarchy as part of God’s plan. In other words, an apparent tension exists between 1 Samuel 8’s negative appraisal of the people’s request for a king and the Pentateuch’s anticipation and prediction of such a king. How is it that both Samuel and God can be so opposed to the people’s request for a king when in fact God had predicted this request and installment of a king? This short paper seeks to answer this question.

McCarter helpfully notes that the people’s request was not merely concerned with military security. Certainly, this was a concern. With Samuel’s age (8:1), a new leader was obviously going to be needed. Yet Israel did not simply request a new leader, but a new institution or form of that leadership. And clearly, they see this Canaanite model of kingship (8:20) as a military advantage (8:20). This ambition was seemingly innocent in and of itself given the Pentateuch’s anticipation of a monarchy and God’s instruction to secure the land. But as McCarter notes, their ambition went further than this. “They are motivated by a perverse and self-destructive urge to rise above themselves” (160). In other words, McCarter understands the problem with this request as having to do with Israel’s discontentment with the adequate (cf. 7:2-17) pre-monarchial leadership institution established by YHWH and currently in place. Therefore, chapter 8 must be understood in light of the picture painted in chapter 7 (160). Rather than being content with what God had established for the time being, they sought to be “like all the nations” (8:20). “The people demand a king of Samuel because they want to be like the other nations; but this is precisely what they are not supposed to be” (McCarter, 160). Baldwin provides a paradoxical explanation stating, “Despite Israel’s apostasy in requesting a king, the Lord was positively at work to achieve his ultimate purpose” (84, cf. 87). Finally, one should observe that the perspectives represented in the Pentateuch’s anticipation of a king and 1 Samuel 8 are not all that different; in fact, they are quite similar in one sense. Whereas 1 Samuel 8 lists off the various upcoming offenses of this new king, Deuteronomy 17:14-17, for instance, provides restrictions that would prohibit such abuses. In other words, a Pentateuch passage like Deuteronomy 17 also holds to the view that kings tend to corrupt (McCarter, 162). Likewise, but contrastingly, Baldwin eases the tension by arguing that the Pentateuch shares 1 Samuel 8’s pessimistic view. He states that in Deuteronomy 17:14-15 “the desire to emulate other nations is foreseen and permitted, rather than approved” and that God “adapted his purposes and acquiesced sufficiently … even incorporating the monarchy into his revelation of himself to Israel [in the Pentateuch]” (84, emphasis mine). Therefore, for Baldwin, the tension is eased because for him there was really no tension in the first place; both passages are pessimistic.

In conclusion, one of YHWH’s concerns is that this king would claim prerogatives and rights that ought to belong solely to God alone as Israel’s ultimate king. In this vein of thought, it may be that this tension between God’s simultaneous desire and repulsion towards kingship is only truly resolved in the kingship of Christ, that human king who is simultaneously God, possesses the rights to such prerogatives, and executes His rule perfectly. At the same time, the people’s motives for requesting a king provide the surest exegetical explanation. Given these Pentateuch texts (above), God was certainly not against kingship per se. But, as McCarter pointed out, Israel wanted a king for sinful motivations. And contrary to Baldwin, Howard rightly affirms that “this desire flew in the face of the injunctions in Deuteronomy 17:14-20” (159). Consequently, this action was interpreted as a rejection of YHWH’s rule (8:7) because they did not desire his model of kingship.