A King Who Reads Torah
Deuteronomy 17 is the only place in all the Torah that legislates monarchal rule in Israel. This contrasts starkly with the ubiquity of kings in other biblical books, whether historiographical works such as Samuel and Kings, or poetic works like Psalms, which more often than not extol the positive nature of this institution.
The positive features of kingship are celebrated in a group of Psalms called “Royal Psalms”:
- Ps 45 opens with praise for the king’s physical beauty (v. 3), and then extols his valor (v. 4, 6) and his love of justice (v. 8). Thanks to these characteristics princesses from round about seek to become his royal consort (vv. 10-16).
- Ps 110 highlights the military role of the king, who defeats his and his people’s enemies with the help of God and exerts his rule upon nations.
- Ps 132 features the king as the foremost patron of the cult, responsible for establishing and maintaining the royal sanctuary, which the Lord rewards not only with victory over his enemies, but also with plentiful prosperity for all his people.
- In Ps 72, the supplicant paints the picture of the ideal king, who embodies the principles of justice and provides for the needy, and who brings prosperity through his victories and fame, thus combining all the positive attributes of human kingship.
These psalms are rooted in the tenets of royal ideology that were prevalent throughout the Ancient Near East. They describe actual kings rather than ideal utopian (messianic) rulers.
Ancient Near Eastern Kingship
Many ANE texts present “first person” accounts of kingship as beneficial for the people and the land that the king rules.
King Hammurabi of Babylon Deals Justice
Hammurabi, who ruled Babylon in the 18th century BCE, states in the preamble to his law collection that he was named by his gods
[T]o make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.
He describes his rule as one which provides abundant waters for the people, enlarges the cultivated areas and “heaps up the storage bins”; he also “allots pasturage and watering place(s).”
In the collection’s epilogue, Hammurabi claims that by commissioning the stela upon which the laws were inscribed, he is making justice and righteousness available to all, since
[A]ny wronged man who has a lawsuit [can have the] inscribed stela read aloud to him, (and) thus may he hear my precious pronouncements and let my stela reveal the lawsuit for him … and calm his troubled heart.
Hammurabi intends his collection to provide the model for judgment by future kings as well.
King Azatiwada of Adana Expands the Country
Azatiwada, who ruled over the Danunians in southern Turkey at the end of the eighth century BCE, claims to have brought about prosperity though territorial expansion and conquest:
I cause the Danunians to live. I enlarged the land of the plain of Adana from East to West. Now there was in my days all good for the Danunians and abundance and luxury. And I filled the granaries of the city of Pahar. And I acquired horse upon horse, and shield upon shield, army upon army, by the grace of Ba’al and the gods. And I smashed the rebels; and I crushed all evil which was in the land … I built strong fortifications in all the far regions of the borders, in places where there had been evil men, gang leaders … in places which formerly were feared, where a man feared to walk the road; but in my days, (especially) mine, a woman can walk alone with her spindles.
In other words, enhancing the power and might of the king works to ensure security and ultimately brings prosperity to those who bowed to the authority of their ruler.
King Kilamuwa of Sam’al-Y’dy Creates Prosperity
The positive side of the right of the king to wield authority and redistribute goods is brought to the fore in an inscription of Kilamuwa, king of Sam’al-Y’dy (Zinjirli in central Anatolia) towards the end of the ninth century BCE:
Gabbar ruled over Y’dy, but he achieved nothing. BNH also (ruled over Y’dy), but he achieved nothing. And then my brother Ša’il, but he achieved nothing. But I am Kulamuwa, son of TML – what I achieved (my) predecessors had not achieved. … Before the former kings, the Muškabīm were living like dogs. But I was to some a father; and to some I was a mother; and to some I was a brother. Now whoever had never possessed a sheep I made lord of a flock. And whoever had never possessed an ox, I made owner of a herd and owner of silver and lord of gold. And whoever form his childhood had never seen linen, now in my days wore byssos.
Kilamuwa projects the image of the benevolent king who nurtures his people as a parent to his child.
King Mesha of Moab Builds Up the Country
Royal appropriation of manpower and resources is not only directed towards monumental projects for self-aggrandizement, but also for public works for the benefit of citizens and the prosperity of the kingdom as a whole. Mesha, king of Moab, makes this claim in the middle of the ninth century BCE:
I have built Karchoh, the wall of the woods and the wall of the citadel, and I have built its gates, and I have built its towers, and I have built the house of the king, and I have made the double reser[vior for the spr]ing in the innermost part of the city. Now there was not cistern in the innermost part of the city, in Karchoh, and I said to the all the people: ‘Make, each one of you, a cistern in his house.’ And I cut out the moat for Karchoh by means of prisoners from Israel. I have built Aroer, and I made the military road in the Arnon. I built Beth Bamoth, for it was destroyed. I have built Bezer, for [it lay in] ruins … And I have built [the House of Mede]ba and the House of Diblathaim and the House of Baal Meon, and I brought there […] flocks of the land.
Mesha’s building activities were directed, among other objectives, toward restoring devastated towns as well as turning wasteland into irrigated pastures and cultivated land.
This is a small sampling of Ancient Near Eastern royal inscriptions directed toward promulgating the image of the kings as they wished to be viewed by their people and their patron gods. Along with the Biblical royal psalms, they contribute to a broad picture of ANE kingship as a blessing supported by the gods.
King Solomon: The Benefits of a Strong Government
Of all the kings described in the Bible, Solomon, at least as depicted in the initial chapters of 1 Kings, is most similar to ANE kings. First Kings 3:4−5:14 describes Solomon’s reign, emphasizing the growth of royal administration, appointment of officials, the amassment and redistribution of goods, state sponsored building projects, and the establishment of cavalry and chariot forces.
The summaries of these aspects of kingship are punctuated with comments regarding public welfare, underscoring how the monarchy benefitted the people as a whole:
מלכים א ד:כ יְהוּדָה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל רַבִּים כַּחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל הַיָּם לָרֹב אֹכְלִים וְשֹׁתִים וּשְׂמֵחִים.
1 Kings 4:20 Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank and were content.
מלכים א ה:ה וַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוּדָה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לָבֶטַח אִישׁ תַּחַת גַּפְנוֹ וְתַחַת תְּאֵנָתוֹ מִדָּן וְעַד בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כֹּל יְמֵי שְׁלֹמֹה.
1 Kings 5:5 Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree, from Dan to Beer-sheba, all the days of Solomon.
Solomon is also described as a dispenser of justice  in the famous story of the two women arguing over whose baby had died (1 Kings 3:16-28).
King David as the Ideal Military King
David is also described in overwhelmingly positive terms. The summary statement in 2 Samuel 8 , which follows David’s defeat of Hadadezer, king of Aram, after which one of Hadadezer’s enemies, Toi king of Hamath, pays David a massive gift of gold and silver, is worthy of an ANE monarch:
שמואל ב ח:יא גַּם אֹתָם הִקְדִּישׁ הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד לַיהוָה עִם הַכֶּסֶף וְהַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר הִקְדִּישׁ מִכָּל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר כִּבֵּשׁ. ח:יב מֵאֲרָם וּמִמּוֹאָב וּמִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וּמִפְּלִשְׁתִּים וּמֵעֲמָלֵק וּמִשְּׁלַל הֲדַדְעֶזֶר בֶּן רְחֹב מֶלֶךְ צוֹבָה. ח:יג וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד שֵׁם בְּשֻׁבוֹ מֵהַכּוֹתוֹ אֶת אֲרָם בְּגֵיא מֶלַח שְׁמוֹנָה עָשָׂר אָלֶף.ח:יד וַיָּשֶׂם בֶּאֱדוֹם נְצִבִים בְּכָל אֱדוֹם שָׂם נְצִבִים וַיְהִי כָל אֱדוֹם עֲבָדִים לְדָוִד וַיּוֹשַׁע יְהוָה אֶת דָּוִד בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר הָלָךְ. ח:טו וַיִּמְלֹךְ דָּוִד עַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי דָוִד עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה לְכָל עַמּוֹ.
2 Sam 8:11 King David dedicated these to YHWH, along with the other silver and gold that he dedicated, taken from all the nations he had conquered: 8:12 from Edom, Moab, and Ammon; from the Philistines and the Amalekites, and from the plunder of Hadadezer son of Rehob, king of Zobah. 8:13 David gained fame when he returned from defeating Edom in the Valley of Salt, 18000 in all. 8:14 He stationed garrisons in Edom — he stationed garrisons in all of Edom — and all the Edomites became vassals of David. YHWH gave David victory wherever he went. 8:15 David reigned over all Israel, and David executed true justice among all his people.
The text continues with a list of David’s administration, similar to that of Solomon in Kings. In fact, the book of Kings holds David up as the standard against whom all other kings are measured. These evaluations overlook David’s affair with Bathsheba and its aftermath, and depict David as a pious king who adhered to the Lord’s ways with wholehearted integrity, keeping the divine laws and rules.
These kings who are said to have done right in the eyes of the Lord are those who reportedly conducted some type of cultic reform. David, however, did not institute any cultic reform. Instead, the main factor that contributed to David’s positive evaluation in the Book of Kings is his founding of a long dynasty bearing his name. Samuel typically depicts David as loyal to YHWH, and thus, readers—such as the author of Chronicles—see the divine favor of a successful dynasty as being due to David’s piety.
Samuel’s “Rule of the King”
The positive view of kingship we find in much of the David and Solomon accounts, and with regard to the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah, is not the only voice about kings in the Bible. A very different view of kings appears in the so-called “Rule of the King” (משפט המלך) in 1 Sam 8:11-17, in which the prophet Samuel warns the Israelites about their desire to appoint a king—phrased exactly as it is in Deuteronomy, “appoint a king for us” (שִׂימָה לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ; 1 Sam 8:5)—by tendentiously listing the “prerogatives” due to kings according to custom:
שמואל א ח:יא וַיֹּאמֶר זֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִמְלֹךְ עֲלֵיכֶם
1 Sam 8:11 He said, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you:
אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם יִקָּח וְשָׂם לוֹ בְּמֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁיו וְרָצוּ לִפְנֵי מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ. ח:יב וְלָשׂוּם לוֹ שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְלַחֲרֹשׁ חֲרִישׁוֹ וְלִקְצֹר קְצִירוֹ וְלַעֲשׂוֹת כְּלֵי מִלְחַמְתּוֹ וּכְלֵי רִכְבּוֹ.
He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. 8:12 He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots.
ח:יג וְאֶת בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם יִקָּחלְרַקָּחוֹת וּלְטַבָּחוֹת וּלְאֹפוֹת.
8:13 He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers.
ח:יד וְאֶת שְׂדוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת כַּרְמֵיכֶם וְזֵיתֵיכֶם הַטּוֹבִים יִקָּח וְנָתַן לַעֲבָדָיו.
8:14 He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers.
ח:טו וְזַרְעֵיכֶם וְכַרְמֵיכֶם יַעְשֹׂר וְנָתַן לְסָרִיסָיו וְלַעֲבָדָיו.
8:15 He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers.
ח:טז וְאֶת עַבְדֵיכֶם וְאֶת שִׁפְחוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת בַּחוּרֵיכֶם הַטּוֹבִים וְאֶת חֲמוֹרֵיכֶם יִקָּחוְעָשָׂה לִמְלַאכְתּוֹ.
8:16 He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him.
ח:יז צֹאנְכֶם יַעְשֹׂר וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים.
8:17 He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves.
ח:יח וּזְעַקְתֶּם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא מִלִּפְנֵי מַלְכְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתֶּם לָכֶם וְלֹא יַעֲנֶה יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא.
8:18 The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and YHWH will not answer you on that day.”
The benefits of royal administration are ignored, such as public works, and military and economic security, and instead the “Rule of the King” dwells on the wealth and status the king will accrue for his self-aggrandizement.
A “Standard” Military King
The people in 1 Sam 8:19-20 are not deterred, however, by this ominous description of kingship, and instead insist on their right, like the other nations, to be led by a king who will establish order and security for his people.
שמואל א ח:יט וַיְמָאֲנוּ הָעָם לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹל שְׁמוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא כִּי אִם מֶלֶךְ יִהְיֶה עָלֵינוּ.ח:כ וְהָיִינוּ גַם אֲנַחְנוּ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם וּשְׁפָטָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ וְיָצָא לְפָנֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם אֶת מִלְחֲמֹתֵנוּ.
1 Sam 8:19 But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. “No,” they said. “We must have a king over us, 8:20 that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”
Thus, for the Israelites in this passage, the ideal king is a warrior king who leads his people to battle against their enemies, as Saul and afterwards David prove to be in the book of Samuel. Nevertheless, the prophet himself continues to see kingship in this negative light and reiterates his—and YHWH’s—displeasure (1 Sam 12) even after Saul’s first successful military defense of Israel (1 Sam 11).
Deuteronomy and the Ideal King
Deut 17 as well expresses suspicion regarding kingship. Its description of that institution has a number of surprising features.
In contrast to the other offices such as levitical priests, Deut 17:14-20 does not mandate the appointment of a king, but rather authorizes the people to appoint one if they so choose.
דברים יז:יד כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי. יז:טו שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ…
Deut 17:14 When you come to the land that YHWH your God gives you, and you take possession and settle in it, if then you should say ‘I will set a king over me like all the other nations around me,’ 17:15 you may indeed set a king over you… 
Here Deuteronomy seems to reject the notion that was widespread throughout the Ancient Near East, according to which kingship had divine origins and was grounded in the world order established by the gods.
Chosen Directly by God
Nevertheless, this option is immediately modified by the requirement that YHWH choose the king directly:
יז:טו…אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ…
17:15 …one chosen by YHWH your God…
This is in some tension with the previous phrase, at least in theory, though this same tension is reflected in the biblical accounts of the rise of Saul, who was both chosen by the people and by God (see 1 Sam 8-11).
Not a Foreigner
The “Law of the King” adds a second condition: the king must not be a foreign ruler.
יז:טו…מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אָחִיךָ הוּא.
17:15 …Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.
This requirement also limits the people’s option, though not in as essential a way as the previous limitation.
Limiting the King’s Prerogatives
Rather than detailing the king’s prerogatives and duties, the major focus of the “Law of the King” is delineating, or more precisely, limiting, the boundaries of royal authority. This is achieved by a series of three prohibitions directed against the amassment of power and wealth by the monarch:
דברים יז:טז רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים…
Deut 17:16 Moreover, he shall not keep many horses…
יז:יז וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ
17:17 And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray;
וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ מְאֹד.
nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
The tendentious nature of these restrictions is marked by the way they all stress the third person indirect object “for himself” (לא ירבה לו), thus targeting the accumulation of royal power and riches for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. This is made especially clear in v. 20, which states that these restrictions are in place “so he will not exalt himself over his brothers” (לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו). It is hardly a coincidence that the king who violated all of these laws was none other than the great King Solomon (1 Kings 11), i.e., the same king presented as an ideal king in 1 Kings 3-5 (discussed above).
Ever Present Torah Study
These three prohibitions are offset by one single duty: to write or commission a copy of “this law,” which he is to read “all the days of his life.”
דברים יז:יחוְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם.יז:יטוְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם.יז:כלְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 17:18 When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. 17:19 Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere YHWH his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. 17:20 Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
The passage in Deuteronomy has something very different in mind than the David of the book of Samuel, presenting the ideal king as one who leads a modest life and devotes himself to continuous study of the law.
How are we to understand the shift in perception about kingship apparent in the “Rule of the King” and the “Law of the King”?
Negative Image of Kings in the Post-Monarchic Period
During the period of the monarchy, literacy was minimal and the composition of literary texts was limited to a small educated elite of professional scribes, most of whom were in the employ of the king.Throughout the Ancient Near East, court scribes composed royal inscriptions, such as those cited above, in order to extoll the king’s virtues and achievements and to show that he fulfils his duties to his gods.
Similarly, much of Samuel was penned by royal scribes of the monarchic Judah, who wished perpetuate an ideal image of David, as the founder of the Judean dynasty. For this reason, it seems unlikely that the “Law of the King” in Deut 17, or the “Rule of the King” in 1 Sam 8, could have originated during the period of the monarchy, since their message would be considered subversive.
Instead, the depiction in Deut 17 of the “optional” king who foregoes all the prerogatives of kingship in order to study Torah all his life proposes an alternate vision of ideal kingship—one directed towards establishing a “democratic” role model all can follow, rather than an elite, privileged, power-wielding leader. This corrective, utopian ideal that democratizes royal attributes is most at home in a time when Israel and Judah were no longer ruled by kings.
The Law of the King as a Step toward Messianism
Thus, the “Law of the King” in Deut 17:14-20 counters hopes that the rule of monarchy would be renewed in the province of Judah. According to the rationale implied by this view, the historical institution of kingship had failed to safeguard the security of the people leading to the downfall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Therefore, future expectations need to build upon a new view of the ideal ruler, one that will ensure the Lord’s favor by replacing the usual royal attributes with that of obedience to Torah.
In this way, the “Law of the King” in Deut 17:14-20 provides an initial stepping stone on the way to the type of messianic expectations found in Isa 9:1-6, 11:1-9; Jer 26:1-6; Zech 3:6-8, 9:9-10, and which in later Second Temple times evolves into full-bloomed messianism.
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August 24, 2017
September 17, 2023
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Dr. Cynthia Edenburg taught at the Open University of Israel and Tel Aviv University. She received her Ph.D. in biblical studies from Tel Aviv University. Many of Edenburg’s publications focus on Deuteronomy, biblical historiography, and exegetical method. She is currently preparing a commentary on the Book of Joshua.
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