you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves

King of ClubsThe Bible is so much more interesting when you read it not as a single narrative or message, but as various dialogs and debates compiled over many centuries.

In Genesis, multiple traditions are brought together in an attempt to tell a single story, and we have to disentangle the threads. Later in the Bible, entire books will stand in juxtaposition to other books on certain questions, such as Who exactly are God’s people? Or, How does God feel about civil authority?

The Judaism that produced Christianity is a Davidic religion — one that is entirely focused on the question of God’s chosen king. But in 1 Samuel, left surprisingly intact, is as anti-monarchical (and anti-governmental) a message as the American Founders would later specialize in writing.

Here’s Thomas Cahill on the passage in question:

Despite the overall success of the settlement, the Israelites are never without enemies, especially the growing menace of the Philistines, the Sea People, who after the collapse of Mycene sailed across the Mediterranean and began to occupy coastal towns such as Gaza, then inland towns such as Gath. Their encroachments brought them uncomfortably close to the Israelites, who sometimes found themselves living in Philistine towns under the boot of these enemies, whose name will come to mean “crude and uncultivated” and will serve as the basis for the word “Palestine.” (The story of Samson, the magnificent Israelite strongman who harried the Philistines, belongs to this period.) At last, the Israelites reach the conclusion that what they need is someone to give them visible unity, someone capable of uniting them in greater emotional cohesion—a king.

But YHWH is their king. Since the days of the qahal, the desert assembly of the pilgrim people, Israel’s political understanding has been that they are the gathering of God’s people, led by his handpicked spokesmen and answerable to no earthly king, a sort of theocratic democracy. “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you,” God advises the reluctant Samuel, his prophet and priest, whom the people have asked for a king. “It is not you they have rejected but me, not wishing me to reign over them anymore. They are now doing to you exactly what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt until now, deserting me and serving other gods.”

God is prepared to accept a monarchy, provided the people understand what they are getting themselves into. Samuel gives the people YHWH’s warnings:

This is what the king who is to reign over you will do. He will take your sons and direct them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot. He will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty; he will make them plough his fields and gather in his harvest and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his officials. He will take the best of your servants, men and women, of your oxen and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry aloud because of the king you have chosen for yourselves, but on that day YHWH will not hear you.

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