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Did God Want a King for Israel?

By the time God was ready to form a nation for himself by delivering the Israelites from the oppressive rule of the Egyptian Pharaoh, every nation was ruled by someone and existed in tension with, and often at war with, other nations. Yet, it’s clear from the biblical narrative that God originally wanted Israel to be an exception to this. Functioning as a microcosm of humanity, and as part of their priestly-servant role to other nations, it seems God wanted to manifest his original plan for humanity by raising up a nation that had no need of a human king, for they had God as their king. According to the biblical narrative, this is how it was for the first several hundred years after their deliverance from Egypt. Moreover, throughout the OT we find the Lord commanding his people to place no trust in human rulers, weapons or armies, but to rather find all their security in him.

This claim has sometimes been countered by appealing to Deuteronomy 17 in which the Lord gives instructions through Moses about the kind of king the Israelites should choose once they are established in the land he was giving them (Deut. 17:14-20). I contend that this passage, placed as it is within the wilderness narrative, actually confirms that God allowed Israel to have a king only as a concession to their sin. This passage recounts Moses prophesying that once the people “have taken possession” and “settled in” the land, they would say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us” (Deut 17:14). Note, it is the people who will demand a king, and they will do so precisely to be like all the other nations, in direct contradiction to the set-apart holiness that Yahweh had called them to.

Given that God foreknew this, this passage presents him as acquiescing to give instructions ahead of time about the kind of king they should appoint and the kind of safeguards they should place around him. Yahweh specifies, through Moses, that the king should be an Israelite (vs. 16); he shouldn’t acquire many wives (vs. 17); he shouldn’t acquire a great number of horses (viz. military power) or accumulate a great deal of wealth (vs. 17); he should have his own copy of the law and study it daily (vss. 18-19), and, most interestingly, he should never be regarded as “better than his fellow Israelites” (vs. 20).

What’s important for us to notice is that, had the Israelites followed these instructions, their kings would have looked and acted completely different from the rulers of other nations. Hence, even with the divine concession to allow Israel to have a king, Israel still would have provided a stark contrast with other nations and thereby preserved some of its distinctive witness to the singular Lordship of Yahweh to other nations. It seems evident, then, that in this passage Yahweh is simply trying to minimize ahead of time damage that his people’s insistence on having a king would bring to his goal of using them as servant priests to the world.

Image by  trainjason via Flickr.

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