Does the Torah Really Want Us to Appoint a King?
An Optional Law?
Deuteronomy’s law of the king states:
דברים יז:יד כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי. יז:טו שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ…
Deut 17:14 After you have entered the land that YHWH your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” 17:15 you shall surely set a king over yourself, one chosen by YHWH your God. 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.
The conditional opening here is unusual. In all other cases, following the phrase “after you have entered the land” the Torah states a law in simple, apodictic form:
The Paschal Sacrifice
שמות יב:כה וְהָיָה כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה לָכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת.
Exod 12:25 And when you enter the land that YHWH will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.
Bringing first fruits to the priests
דברים כו:א וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ. כו:ב וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ…
Deut 26:1 When you enter the land that YHWH your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 26:2 you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land…
The law of the king makes the appointment of the king optional; the word וְאָמַרְתָּ (“and you say”) presents the possibility that you might say that you want a king, but does not mandate a king’s appointment. To complicate matters further, the option of appointing a king is phrased like a standard commandment: the grammatical form of שום תשים (“you shall surely set”), a cognate accusative—when the direct object is the same root as the verb—is generally a way of emphasizing a command, not an option.
Rabbinic Exegesis: The Mitzvah of Appointing a King
The rabbis, however, read these verses to mean that the Israelites are required to appoint a king. For instance, Midrash Tannaim (ad loc) writes:
ואמרת אשימה עלי מלך יכול רשות ולא חובה ת”ל שום תשים חובה ולא רשות.
“And you might say, ‘I will set a king over me’” – This could have been understood as an option but not a requirement, thus the verse comes to teach you: “you shall surely set [a king over yourself],” a requirement, not an option.
This interpretation also appears in several medieval commentaries on the Torah, such as that of R. Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340) who calls it peshat, and is codified by Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204) in his Book of Mitzvot as positive commandment #173. Nevertheless, this reading forcefully countermands the conditional clause and cannot be considered peshat.
Mimicking the Gentiles
The option of appointing a king is hardly phrased neutrally. Instead, the very choice to appoint a king is presented negatively, as something the Israelites might do if they decide they want to copy their non-Israelite neighbors. Throughout the Torah, copying non-Israelites is code for rebellious behavior and acting against the will of YHWH.
Why would Deuteronomy present the appointment of a king as an option if it is opposed to the idea and sees it in such a negative light? We do not see other examples of such concessions in the text, such as, “if you want to make statues of YHWH to be like the non-Israelites…” Instead, behaviors of which YHWH disapproves and which follow the practices of non-Israelite neighbors, like idolatry, are discouraged in the strongest terms, sometimes bringing with them the death penalty:
דברים יב:כט כִּי יַכְרִית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לָרֶשֶׁת אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֹתָם וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בְּאַרְצָם.יב:ל הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּנָּקֵשׁ אַחֲרֵיהֶם אַחֲרֵי הִשָּׁמְדָם מִפָּנֶיךָ וּפֶן תִּדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה כֵּן גַּם אָנִי.יב:לא לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כֵן לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי כָּל תּוֹעֲבַת יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם…
Deut 12:29 When YHWH your God has cut down before you the nations that you are about to enter and dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their land, 12:30 beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.” 12:31 You shall not act thus toward YHWH your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that YHWH detests…
Why does Deuteronomy suddenly concede to the people’s impulse to copy their neighbors in this one instance?
Two Layers of Deuteronomy: Dtr1 and Dtr2
Scholars have long assumed that Deuteronomy was put together during the rule of King Josiah, primarily because the book emphasizes the centralization of worship, a central element of the reform described in 2 Kings 22-23. Josiah engages in this reform based on a Torah scroll that was found when he was having the Temple repaired, and since Wilhelm M. L. De Wette (1780-1849), scholars have assumed that this was some version of Deuteronomy.
Together with the composition of Deuteronomy, many scholars, following Martin Noth (1902-1968), assume that the base text of the Deuteronomistic History or DtrH (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), namely Deuteronomy + the Former Prophets (נביאים ראשונים), was edited during this period as well.
Despite Josiah’s reform, and the confidence the first draft of the Deuteronomistic History places in Judah’s future under this new regime, Judah was on the verge of a traumatic collapse. In 609 BCE, during his 31styear as king, Josiah was killed in an altercation with Pharaoh Necho of Egypt. Only 12 years later, during the reign of his grandson Jehoiachin, Judah was defeated in a rebellion against the Babylonians, and the elite Judahites were deported to Babylon. Then, in 586, during the reign of Josiah’s third son Zedekiah, Judah was again defeated by the Babylonians. Since this was Judah’s second rebellion, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzer, had the city destroyed, including the Temple, and deported more Judahites to Babylon.
The late Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012) and his followers suggested that it was during this exilic period that the Deuteronomistic History was revised with a decidedly pessimistic flavor, foreshadowing the eventual and inevitable destruction of Judah. The new belief was that Judah had sinned so egregiously that even the great Josiah could not save it from YHWH’s wrath. Cross refers to the first draft of the Deuteronomistic History as Dtr1 and the second as Dtr2.
Deuteronomy itself was also updated as part of this process of later revision. I would like to suggest that the oddities of our current text are best explained by assuming that a Dtr1 text has been supplemented by Dtr2.
From Pro-King to Anti-King
The base text of the law—the command to appoint a king—written during Josiah’s reign and his religious reform, was originally pro-monarchy. It simply commanded Israel to appoint a king, and was supplemented by the text indented below:
דברים יז:יד כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ
Deut 17:14 After you have entered the land that YHWH your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it,
וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי.
if you say, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,”
יז:טו שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אָחִיךָ הוּא.
17:15 you shall surely set a king over yourself, one chosen by YHWH your God. 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.
When we remove Dtr2’s addition, this law parallels all the other “when you enter the land” laws. According to Dtr1, when Israel enters the land they must appoint a king.
The phrase “if you say, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’” was added during the exilic or post-exilic period, when Judea was not ruled by a king, but by a governor who was responsible to the Persian king. Although some Persian vassals did have “kings,” Yehud did not.
Zerubbabel and the Failed Restarting of the Davidic Kingdom
During the early Persian period, some Judeans hoped for the return of the Davidic monarchy. One of the early leaders of the return to Zion was Zerubbabel (Ezra 2-5), a scion of the Davidic royal line. Great hopes were placed in him in some circles. For example,
חגי ב:כג בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת אֶקָּחֲךָ זְרֻבָּבֶל בֶּן שְׁאַלְתִּיאֵל עַבְדִּי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ כַּחוֹתָם כִּי בְךָ בָחַרְתִּי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת.
Hag 2:23 On that day—declares YHWH of Hosts—I will take you, O My servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel— declares YHWH—and make you as a signet; for I have chosen you—declares YHWH of Hosts.
זכריה ד:ז מִי אַתָּה הַר הַגָּדוֹל לִפְנֵי זְרֻבָּבֶל לְמִישֹׁר וְהוֹצִיא אֶת הָאֶבֶן הָרֹאשָׁה תְּשֻׁאוֹת חֵן חֵן לָהּ.
Zech 4:7 Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’”
It has been suggested that Judea’s aspirations for a return to Davidic kingship were part of a wave of nationalist hopes during a period of Persian instability in the early years of Darius I’s struggle for the throne, and that it failed once Darius consolidated his power. Joseph Blenkinsopp writes:
The crisis throughout the Persian Empire during the first two years of the reign of Darius I led prophets to proclaim the governor Zerubbabel ruler of an independent Judean kingdom… We do not know what came of this prophetic agitation, but in the event Darius prevailed and Zerubbabel disappeared.
In short, the attempt to return the Davidic line to power fizzled out, whether for internal Judean reasons or due to Persian policy or some combination of these factors. Indeed, until the Hasmonean kings over three centuries later, no Judean served as king.
The Exilic Rejection of Monarchy
Whether as a consequence of the destruction of Judah, the failure of Zerubbabel, or merely as a way to make peace with the reality that Judea had no king, the post-exilic Deuteronomistic scribes rejected the concept of monarchy. But this placed them in dissonance with their central text, since the book of Deuteronomy, in its early draft, required Israel to appoint a king.
Thus, Dtr2 revised the text by adding the conditional clause to suggest that God was not really commanding Israel to appoint a king, but allowing them to do so. This allowance was actually against YHWH’s better judgment, a concession to the Israelite’s desire to be a “normal” country.
A Parallel Revision: The Appointment of King Saul
The same ambivalence toward monarchy is also reflected in the Deuteronomistic History. For example, the appointment of King Saul contains two, perhaps even three, stories explaining how Saul became the first king. In one of these versions, the appointment of Saul is painted in a decidedly negative light. In this version, the people come to Samuel and ask him to appoint a king:
א שמואל ח:ה …שִׂימָה לָּנוּ מֶלֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵנוּ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם.
1 Sam 8:5 …[A]ppoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations.
Samuel is distraught and consults with YHWH that evening. YHWH concedes that they should be allowed to do so, but he expresses strong resentment. The next morning, Samuel tries to talk them out of the idea, but they remain unconvinced:
א שמואל 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.”
The connection between this account and the verses in Deuteronomy—including the supplement—are clear. Appointing a king is undesirable, something that YHWH resents, but allows. The reason Israel wants a king, to be like the gentiles, is the same explanation given in Deuteronomy. This version of the appointment of Saul story stands in contrast with Dtr1’s positive account in chs. 9-10:16, in which God wants Samuel to appoint Saul as king, and Samuel is only too happy to oblige.
Redacting Anti-Monarchic Sentiment into a Monarchic Text
The later redactors of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History inherited a text with a positive approach to monarchy. They were largely conservative in their editing, and instead of deleting this material, they supplemented and reframed it with the negative depiction of God’s attitude towards the monarchy. Instead of commanding the appointment of a monarch, as the core text of Deuteronomy once did, YHWH reluctantly allows it, as a concession to the Israelite’s need to be like the other nations. “Perhaps,” these post-exilic scribes may have thought to themselves, “this time around we won’t make the same mistake.”
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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