(I Samuel 11:14-12:22)
June 23, 2001
Samuel, the last of the judges, felt justifiably threatened by the challenge to his leadership when the people sought to replace him with a king. However, the people did not object to Samuel’s leadership. Rather, it seems that they desired a form of government which would meet the multiple needs of leadership required by the kingdom. What would lead Samuel to object so strongly to what seemed to be the reasonable concerns of the people? Why did Samuel find the idea of a monarchy so offensive?
In an earlier chapter, the leaders of the people offer their supposed rationale for wanting a king: “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5) However, when the people themselves speak, they say: “Let the king govern us, and go out before us and lead us in war.” (1 Samuel 8:20)
Commentators see this juxtaposition as portending the reasons which disturbed Samuel. The Talmud offers the following explanation. “It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer (ben Yose) said: The elders of the generation asked for a king in the appropriate manner, as it is written, ‘Appoint for us a king to govern us’. But the people asked for a king in an inappropriate way, as it is written, ‘That we may be like all of the other nations and that our king may judge us and go out before us and lead us in war.”’ (Sanhedrin 20b) According to Rabbi Eliezer, Samuel objected to the people’s demand for a king because it reflected their desire to be “like all of the other nations”and by doing so diminish their Jewish distinctiveness.
Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi, a 14th century Spanish Talmudist, felt that Samuel opposed the people’s inclination to remove the judicial function from the hands of the judges who made decisions according to the wisdom of the Torah and put it in the hands of the king who would decide according to his own dictates. (Sermon 11 – Feldman ed. p. 194-5)
Abrabanel, the 15th century Spanish statesman and Bible commentator, rejects both the interpretation of the Talmud and that of Rabbenu Nissim. He asserts that Samuel had no problem with the idea of a monarchy. The question was what kind of monarchy did the people desire? He feared that the people yearned for a strong “despotic” ruler “like all other nations” and sought to warn them against it. (see 1 Samuel 8:11-18). Instead, he urged them to accept the Torah’s concept of a “constitutionally limited” monarch who governed according to the Torah. (see 1 Samuel 12:14-15)
Note that each of these interpreters uses Samuel to deliberate on what was for them a contemporary religious-political problem. What each of these interpretations has in common is Samuel’s concern that the people make careful and wise decisions according to the Torah. Samuel understood that the inability of the people to choose the right type of leadership could bring disaster. May we be granted the discernment to meet such challenges.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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