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Parashat Shoftim (Devarim 17: 14-20)

By Nahum Gordon


14 When you will come to the land that YHWH, your God, is giving you and possess it and dwell in it, and you will say, “I shall place a king over me like all the nations that surround me,” 15 you will surely place a king over you whom YHWH, your God, will choose. You will place a king over you who is from among your brothers. You may not put a foreign man over you who is not your brother. 16 Only, he will not get himself many horses and he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to get many horses, when YHWH has said to you, “You will not go back this way ever again.” 17 He will not get himself many wives, so that his heart will not turn away. And he will not get himself very much silver and gold. 18 And it will be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he will write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the Levitical priests. 19 And it will be with him, and he will read it all the days of his life in order that he will learn to fear YHWH, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them, 20 so that his heart will not be lifted up above his brothers and so that he will not turn aside from the commandment, right or left, in order that he may lengthen days over his kingdom, he and his sons, amidst Israel.

Was appointing a king mandatory or optional? The answer seems obvious, but it was a matter of concern for God and his loyal assistant Samuel, the Talmud, and medieval commentators. The controversy persists. To help me, I have opted to create the most literal translation.

There are many curiosities in our text. Q1: Why does it only specify one positive duty for a king? What about defending the state? Checking that the judiciary system is incorruptible? Ensuring that taxes were equitable?  Q2: Why does it focus on three specific negatives? Incidentally, does that sequence imply that establishing a stable usually took precedence over a harem? Q3: Where in the Torah does God say that the people cannot return to Egypt, even as traders? Do warnings from Moses count (Shemot 14:13; Devarim 28:68)? Q4: Was the king meant to copy just this passage or all Devarim or all the Torah?  And finally, Q5: Why do we have to wait until half-way through the final book of the Torah for any exposition on the role and behaviour of a king? Was appointing a king merely an afterthought?  I shall try to answer Questions 1, 2 and 5 in reverse order.

The first mention of kingship in Israelite society is in one of God’s promises to Abraham: “kings will come forth from you”(Gen. 17:6) and “kings of peoples will be from her (Sarah)” (Gen. 17:16). This promise is repeated to Jacob: “kings will come forth from your loins” (Gen. 35:11). And Jacob blesses Judah on his deathbed thus: “The sceptre will not turn away from Judah” (Gen. 49:10). Kingship in Israel is mentioned rarely, which suggests that it was not an overriding concern for the Torah legislators.

Acquiring the finest equines, women and precious metals suggests one king in particular, Solomon: i) 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots, and 12,000 horsemen (1 Kings 5:6); ii) 700 wives and 300 concubines, but when he was old, they turned his heart to other gods, and his heart was not whole with his God (1 Kings 11:3-4); and iii) 120 talents of gold from King Hiram of Tyre (1 Kings 9:14); 420 talents of gold from Ophir (1 Kings 9:28); 120 talents of gold from the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:10); 666 talents of gold in one year (1 Kings 10:14); and “the king made silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10: 27).

Solomon was a serial collector. His obsessions destroyed his kingdom. He was a poor role model and was not to be emulated. So, who wrote our text? Moses, looking into the future? Possibly but unlikely. Moses was our greatest prophet, i.e., our most effective intermediary with God. He was not a seer or a Nostradamus. The clue to our author’s identity comes from the king’s sole positive virtue.   

Many think our passage is a fantasy about an idealised royal. The perfect exemplar for his subjects. But one king did study Torah, Josiah (2 Kings 23), and he is considered a prototype for the Mashiach. Our author could have been a contemporary who knew Josiah and was reflecting on the disastrous consequences of Solomon’s reign. Richard Elliott Friedman (in Who wrote the Bible?) has provided considerable evidence that the most likely candidate was the prophet Jeremiah or his scribe, Baruch. 

Let us return to the thorny question of must we or may we establish a monarchy? Samuel, with the support of God, says neither! Like Gideon (Judges 7:23) before him, Samuel asserts that God is our king (1 Samuel 12:12). By demanding a human monarch, God says that the people have rejected Him (1 Samuel 8:7). Did Samuel, and more importantly, God, not remember Devarim 17? The most plausible explanation for this conundrum is that Samuel’s biographer was unaware of our text because it had not yet been written.

One passage in the Talmud presents both sides of the argument: Rabbis Yehuda and Yossi state that, on entering the land, we had to do three things: create a monarchy, destroy Amalek and build the Temple. Rabbi Nehorai disagrees: our passage only exists because it anticipated the future complaint of the people (TB Sanhedrin 20b).Midrashhas R. Nehorai saying, “They sought a king only to lead them to idolatry”(Sifrei Devarim 156).

There was no consensus among medieval authorities. Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) thought that v.15 only gave the Israelites permission to have a king. Maimonides (1135-1204) believed that v.15 was a commandment. The king represented and spoke on behalf of all the people. He united and led the nation (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 173). The anonymous author of Sefer HaChinuch (13th C.) followed the Rambam (Mitzvah 497 of 613). Nahmanides (1194-1270) also believed it was a mitzvah. Abravanel (1437-1508) was unconvinced: “Other nations require a king to fight for them, establish the laws and punish criminals, but the Jews have no need for one, since for them God performs these functions. So, there is no commandment here to have a king. It is a statement of what will happen in the future.” Abravanel applied the arguments of Samuel and R. Nehorai.  

Our text is deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent. It acquiesces to human nature. It permits us to have a king but would rather that we did not choose that path. For all his wisdom, even Solomon fell prey to human frailties. In the Samuel story, God makes a similar concession but instructs Samuel to warn the people how they will be exploited (1 Samuel 8: 9-17). However, there is one way we can avoid implosion. Even if we insist on emulating the other nations by installing a king, he cannot be anything like theirs. He must be God-fearing and Torah-observant. That might have prevented the internal schism, but would it have prevented occupation by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Mohammedans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans and British?

Nahum Gordon

Member of Kol Nefesh Masorti and Founder of Torah Chat

Posted on 18 August 2020