I’m not sure what divine irony (or is it the Holy Spirit?) put the Wisconsin Recall election during the week when we will read the story of Israel’s demanding that God give them a king. Our reading from the Hebrew Bible comes from I Samuel 8 and it depicts the deep ambivalence over monarchy that is at the heart of the biblical text.
On the one hand, the problems with direct divine rulership or prophetic leadership are clear. The book of Judges ends with an ominous verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges depicts a descending cycle of anarchy as the tribes of Israel fail to follow God. Samuel picks up the story. While he is portrayed as a gifted prophet, priest, military leader, and judge, his sons (just as Eli’s sons before him) do not follow in his footsteps. As Samuel ages, problems again come to the fore.
The people’s response is to demand a king, like the nations around them. Ultimately, there will be a ruler and a dynasty that is considered to have divine legitimacy and divine favor (the Davidic monarchy). Later generations will look back on David and Solomon as great and wise rulers, and their reigns as a golden age but at the same time, there will arise in conjunction with the monarchy, the institution of Hebrew prophecy that will call kings and people to justice and to obedience to Torah.
That ambivalence is present in this week’s reading. The demand for kingship is a rejection of divine kingship. Of equal importance are the implications for society of a monarchy:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; [and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.] He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
One could draw all sorts of lessons from this text for our political situation–both on the state and the national level. What strikes me, however, is the desire for someone to provide easy answers, to solve deep and lasting problems with a sword or legislation. The problems for Israel were deeper than the leadership at the top. Indeed, one could argue that the concluding verse from Judges, is not so much an indictment of political leadership as it is a comment on society as a whole: “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, it may be that it was the people’s refusal to follow Torah that was at the heart of the matter.
Will a change in leadership on either the state or national level solve the deep problems that plague our society? Will change (or staying the course, for that matter) lead to greater justice and equity? Are we like the Israelites, who demanded a simple solution to complex problems?