By Nahum Gordon
‘When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you ….and you say: “I shall place a king over me like all the nations around me”, you will surely set over yourself a king whom the Lord your God will choose.’ [Deut 17, 14-15]
The Tosefta says that, on entering Israel, we had to perform three religious duties: appoint a king (a queen was impermissible), build a Temple and annihilate the Amalekites. But the Torah is unclear – must you or may you create a king? That is the question.
The priest, judge and prophet Samuel was appalled – ‘And all the elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah. And they said to him: “Behold, you have grown old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now, place over us a king to judge us like all the nations.” And the matter was evil in Samuel’s eyes when they said: “Give us a king to judge us” and Samuel prayed to God. And God said to Samuel: “Listen to the voice of the people, to all that they will say to you, because they have not rejected you; for they have rejected Me from being king over them.”’ [1 Samuel 8, 5-7]
Maybe Samuel had forgotten Devarim 17. But God? Maybe the people had spoken disrespectfully and insensitively. After all, Samuel wasn’t dead yet. And shouldn’t God judge them? Wouldn’t He fight their battles? Interestingly, in Devarim 17, the human king performs neither function.
Or maybe Samuel and God had failed to understand the people’s frustration with the model of leadership by judges and the lack of succession planning. They wanted continuity and unity, and a monarchy could provide that. Their enemies had a clear, tactical advantage over a loose confederation of tribes. King Saul quickly demonstrated the benefits of an army drawn from all the people when he routed the Ammonites at Yavesh Gilead [1 Samuel 11: 6-11].
Or maybe the author(s) of the Book of Samuel did not know about Devarim 17, because the Book of Devarim had yet to be written (perhaps by the prophet Jeremiah and/or his scribe Baruch, as suggested by some scholars). Parashat Shoftim forbids the king from amassing many horses, wives and precious metals [Deut 17:16-17]. Is this not an explicit criticism of King Solomon, whose behaviour led to the dissolution of the united kingdom during his son’s reign?
Incidentally, why does the rabbinic tradition consider Devarim to have been dictated by God to Moses when it starts: ‘These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan …’? Accepting Devarim as Moses’s words explains textual differences with other parts of the Torah – e.g., who sent the 12 Spies [Deut 1:22 v Num 13:2] and the 10 Commandments on Shabbat [Deut 5:12 v Ex 20:8].
Even if 1 Samuel 8 and 12 were proof texts that Devarim 17 was not dictated by God to Moses, should that deter us from treating all of the Torah with respect and absorbing its wisdom? That is the challenge for non-orthodox Jews – can practising Judaism still have meaning if modern interpretations erode our faith and our ancient traditions? Can intellectual honesty co-exist with individual and communal needs for a Jewish approach to spirituality?
Nahum Gordon is one of the co-founders of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue. He is an informal educator with a particular interest in Tanach and Jewish history, and a teacher at New North London Synagogue.