Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 25, 2006

Parsha of the week – Let us set a king over us

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has an excellent study on the notion of kingship in Judaism based on these verses in this week’s parsha:

When you enter the land Hashem is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you the king Hashem chooses . . . (Deut 17: 14-15).

Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah has an ambivalent attitude toward kingship, noting that it is a compromise for human weaknesses rather than a preferred state of matters. Later, in the Book of Samuel, the prophet actively resists the appointment of a king. Why all the ambivalence then? Because the Tanach wants to emphasize the ideal relationship between the governor and the governed, and to articulate an early version of the notion of a republic in stark contrast to the contemparenous strictly hierarchical societies that allowed Egyptian pharaohs to dragoon thousands of workers into vanity projects.

“The people recognize that they cannot function as individuals without someone having the power to ensure the rule of law and the defence of the nation. Without this, they are in what Hobbes calls a “state of nature”. There is anarchy, chaos (as, at present, in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The only way to escape from anarchy is by everyone agreeing to transfer some of their rights – especially the use of coercive force – to a human sovereign. Government comes at a high price. It means transferring to a ruler rights over one’s own property and person. The king is entitled to seize property, impose taxes, and conscript people into an army if these are necessary to ensure the rule of law and national security. People agree to this because they calculate that the price of not doing so will be higher still – total anarchy or conquest by a foreign power.”

This is how governance should be seen – as a social contract that is dependent on the consent of the governed and a political leader’s commitment to conform to both a hugher authority and confine his actions to the genuine pursuit of the people’s interests. Further reading on the principles of the Jewish political tradition from Professor Daniel Elazar are available here. As Rabbi Sacks points out, some of these principles could be of practical use for Israel today (as the Economist article below illustrates).

From a literary perspective, I’ve always found Saul to be one of the Bible’s most compelling characters. Apppointed as the first king of Israel because of his courage in battle, Saul gradually descended into a deep depression alleviated only by David playing him the harp. The Bible (Book of Samuel, principally) depicts him as a man of humility initially, with no real aspirations to the material benefits of being a king — although his fall from grace is the result of him keeping war booty for himself. As time progresses, he becomes increasingly jealous of David, since it becomes obvious to him that David is an exceptional natural leader. As he becomes increasingly frustrated and enraged by the inevitability of David’s accession to king, the only thing that brings him joy is listening to David’s harp (and psalms). He eventually becomes so paranoid that he forces David to flee or risk death, compelling his own son Jonathan (David’s close friend) to question his sanity.

Proponents of Biblical literary and textual analysis contend that Saul is such a mess of contradictions because his narrative is a conflation of two independent texts. That may well be the case, but doesn’t detract from the character’s pathos, in my opinion.

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