David and Donald: The Men Who Would Be King

by Bob Schwartz

For those who think that Donald Trump is on his way to becoming an authoritarian strongman, this is far from the first time in history that some citizens have begged for such a leader—against the best advice. We can go way back, biblically back, to the story of how Israel got a king, first Saul then David—against the biggest advice of all.

Here is a passage from Chapter 8 of 1 Samuel, translated by Robert Alter:

And it happened when Samuel grew old that he set his sons up as judges for Israel. And the name of his firstborn son was Joel and the name of his Secondborn was Abijah—judges in Beersheba. But his sons did not go in his ways and they were bent on gain and took bribes and twisted justice.

And all the elders of Israel assembled and came to Samuel at Ramah. And they said to him, “Look, you yourself have grown old and your sons have not gone in your ways. So now, set over us a king to rule us, like all the nations.” And the thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes when they said, “Give us a king to rule us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you they have cast aside but Me they have cast aside from reigning over them. Like all the deeds they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods, even so they do as well to you. So now, heed their voice, though you must solemnly warn them and tell them the practice of the king that will reign over them.” And Samuel said all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking of him a king. And he said, “This will be the practice of the king who will reign over you: Your sons he will take and set for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and some will run before his chariots. He will set for himself captains of thousands and captains of fifties, to plow his ground and reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the implements of his chariots. And your daughters he will take as confectioners and cooks and bakers. And your best fields and your vineyards and your olive trees he will take and give to his servants. And your seed crops and your vineyards he will tithe and give to his courtiers and to his servants. And your best male and female slaves and your cattle and your donkeys he will take and use for his tasks. Your flocks he will tithe, and as for you, you will become his slaves. And you will cry out on that day before your king whom you chose for yourselves and he will not answer you on that day.” And the people refused to heed Samuel’s voice and they said, “No! A king there will be over us! And we, too, shall be like all the nations and our king will rule us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And Samuel listened to all the words of the people and he spoke them in the LORD’S hearing.

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed their voice and make them a king.”

According to the elders of Israel, divine political direction is how they ended up in the swamp. The sons of Samuel were judges who “did not go in his [Samuel’s] ways and they were bent on gain and took bribes and twisted justice.”

Their proposed solution: drain the swamp by doing what other nations did—appointing and anointing a king.

God disagrees. First, because it reflects a lack of faith. Second, because kings are a bad idea, as listed in his parade of horribles:

This will be the practice of the king who will reign over you: Your sons he will take and set for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and some will run before his chariots. He will set for himself captains of thousands and captains of fifties, to plow his ground and reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the implements of his chariots. And your daughters he will take as confectioners and cooks and bakers. And your best fields and your vineyards and your olive trees he will take and give to his servants. And your seed crops and your vineyards he will tithe and give to his courtiers and to his servants. And your best male and female slaves and your cattle and your donkeys he will take and use for his tasks. Your flocks he will tithe, and as for you, you will become his slaves. And you will cry out on that day before your king whom you chose for yourselves and he will not answer you on that day.

As is typical in Bible stories, God advises and then shrugs when nobody listens. You’re going to do what you want to do anyway, he says, just don’t blame me when it all goes wrong. And wrong it went, as the history of the monarchy demonstrates.

The take-way, which preceded the emergence of modern democracy, is that it may seem that kingship is a good idea, so long as you select the right kind of king rather than the wrong kind. But in the end, that is never the case. You have that on the highest authority.

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