The Mixed Legacy of Kings

One of the interesting tensions in the Old Testament are the mixed messages you get about kings. Are kings good or bad? At times the Old Testament reads like monarchist propaganda. At others times the OT reads like subversive, anti-monarchist literature.

Consider, for example, a theme at emerges late in the book of Judges. After recounting the heroic deeds of various judges the book begins, starting in 17.6, to sound the note "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit." What follows are stories of social and moral dissolution, culminating in the horrific story in Chapter 19 and subsequent civil war. After all these tales of social chaos the book ends on the same note, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit." The suggestion seems to be that Israel needs a king and that without a king all hell breaks loose.

In 1 Samuel the people finally do clamor for a king. And based on the book of Judges this seems like a good move. And yet, this desire for a king is described by God as a sort of failure, a rejection of God as king:
1 Samuel 8.6-7
But when the people said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king."
The Lord goes on to direct Samuel to warn the people about kings. Kings will, God says, reign over you and claim their rights. Basically, kings are oppressors. Samuel goes on to give this stern warning:
“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for 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 groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 
Kings look pretty bad in this account. Not much like the social and moral saviors the book of Judges leads you to believe.

Consider also the mixed reputation of Solomon in the Old Testament. Is Solomon a good king or a bad king? I expect most Christians would say that Solomon was a good king, given how wise he was. But the report is mixed. Yes, in 1 Kings 3 we get the famous story of Solomon asking for wisdom and his request being granted. That makes Solomon look like a very good king. Solomon also builds the temple. That looks like a good thing as well.

And yet, 1 Kings 11 goes on to recount Solomon's descent into idolatry:
1 Kings 11.1-10
King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.

On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. 
Many OT scholars believe that Samuel's predictions about oppressive kings begins with the reign of Solomon. But you can also make a case that it began with David who took the wife of Uriah and had him killed. Basically, the kings of Israel recreate the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt.

I don't have any big summative statement to make about all this, just the observation that the legacy of kings in the OT is very mixed. My gut reading is that while on one level there is a pro-monarchy slant to the OT there is, at key locations, subversive stories that undermine the royalist narrative and propaganda. Taken as a whole, as I read the OT, kings come off as pretty corrupt. Which is a pretty remarkable achievement for the OT given how powered elites would have wanted to shape the national narrative. Some of that effort is inscribed on the pages of the OT but it appears that the "view from below" successfully challenged the monarchist plotline. 

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13 thoughts on “The Mixed Legacy of Kings”

  1. And you could say that this tension points us toward Jesus, the King who is both all-powerful and meek, the ultimate King and anti-King.

  2. The people want a king. God says, "OK, and you will get ALL the problems that come with it" (Paraphrasing the Samuel passage). And, the Israelites got what they wanted. Political intrigue, abuse of power, kings that led them astray from God, civil war, taxes, etc. They became just like all the kingdoms around them. They refused to let God lead them and so they follow whatever the latest greatest was. Look through the kings and note all the kings that did evil in the sight of God vs those who didn't. It is rather depressing. One lesson here is that when we take our eyes off of God and try to do it our way, we will fail and fail miserably. The other is to not trust in political systems but to live our lives with God as our Lord.

  3. The tension is critically accounted for mostly along a Jahwist-Elohist divide: the north cultivated the anti-monarchial and anti-Judah/pro-Jacob traditions. The presence of the tension is remarkable, indeed.

  4. Mark Van Steenwyk in his book The Holy Anarchist calls Jesus the "unking."

  5. Personally, I look to the Deuteronomy passage that indicates what a King SHOULD look like... and then compare it to everything else. It seems that the OT authors knew what a king should be like...and recognize that NO where EVER is there a king who lives up to that.... David comes close, but from the beginning, the monarchy, instead of providing a source of stability and pointing to the sovereign God, ended up being an idolatry of nationhood...

  6. In Israel Knohl's "The Divine Symphony: The Bible's Many Voices" the author points out three streams of thought on kingship in the OT:

    1) The total negation of human kingship with God as king, which in Jesus' time had become exemplified by the Sicarii and zealots.

    2).That there is a merging of kingship and divinity, which in Jesus' time was held by the Qumran people (probably the Essenes) and was the stream that most influenced Christianity.

    3) That there was a democratization of both kingship and divinity amongst the people since all people are created in the image of God. This view was held by Hillel.

    I think we can see all three streams expressed in the NT as well.


  7. I find it interesting how frequently kingship is found in reading the Psalms. It's quite easy to read many of the Psalms as court propaganda, even to the point of sycophancy (e.g. 45). But from earliest times, the Church (and Jesus Himself in the gospels) has seen in these Psalms prophetic insights into the true Kingship of Christ. The Church turns what might otherwise be seen as monarchist propaganda into some of the most recognized and well-loved passages in all of sacred literature.

    A few examples:

    "I myself have set my King upon my holy hill of Zion."
    Let me announce the decree of the LORD:
    he said to me, "You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.
    Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance
    and the ends of the earth for your possession.
    You shall crush them with an iron rod and shatter them like a piece of pottery."

    Give the King your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to the King's Son...
    He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure,
    from one generation to another.
    He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
    like showers that water the earth.
    In his time shall the righteous flourish;
    there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

    The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand,
    until I make your enemies your footstool."
    The LORD will send the scepter of your power out of Zion,
    saying, "Rule over your enemies round about you.
    Princely state has been yours from the day of your birth;
    in the beauty of holiness have I begotten you,
    like dew from the womb of the morning."
    The LORD has sworn and he will not recant:
    "You are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek."

    In all these cases, if I read the Psalm as applying simply to a man, albeit one anointed by God as a King of Israel, I come away with a pretty bad taste in my mouth (to put it lightly). If I read them as speaking of Jesus, the God-man, ever reigning as Priest and King, I find myself deeply moved, comforted, strengthened, and inspired.

  8. Even within the book of Judges, there are mixed messages. The last few chapters, as you say, seem to suggest the necessity of a king for moral and social order. However, the parable told by Jotham earlier in the book is decidedly anti-monarchist. Furthermore, a major theme in the book itself is the corruption of leaders. I think we have to read these things and conclude that the text has multiple authors with different views on the subject, and that a single "Biblical" position on monarchy is not present.

  9. This very tension goes a long way to explain the Bible we have now, in English anyway. One of the first, most widespread English translations of the Bible was produced by Puritan English exiles who fled the reign of Catholic "Bloody Mary" to Geneva in the 1550s. Along with the Biblical text, the Geneva Bible included lots of printed marginal explanations that helpfully explained to the reader how much God opposed kings and tyrants - this was especially pronounced in the OT sections you mention in this post. As the Reformation spread in England in the late 16th Century, many English families acquired copies of the Geneva Bible to read on their own, which worried royal authorities (now firmly Anglican after the death of Mary) who were concerned that English subjects would imbibe its anti-monarchy tone. In order to counter this, King James assembled his own collection of experts to provide a new, royally approved translation, known now as the King James Bible. A good, accessible book to read about this is "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture" by Alister McGrath.

  10. I'm having trouble seeing how polygamy and polytheism make Solomon such a bad king, even if it did make him a rather impious Israelite. It's not like he's killing romantic rivals, levying unreasonable taxes, or tearing down the Temple and plundering it of gold.

  11. If the captivity mentioned in Judges 18.30 is Assyrian (722) then the author(s) and readers of Judges already know that the kings were an abject disaster. If read that way, then the epithet might be ironic. Especially when at that very point in the narrative it is revealed that the traveling priest was actually Moses grandson.

  12. Very interesting thoughts... I do think there is a wide variety of attitudes like you say.
    Recently, a professor of mine brought up Deuteronomy 17:14-20 when considering the history of ancient Israel. This passage seems to go against the so-called warning of Samuel. YHWH actually provides some provisions and guidelines for when Israel is to have a king. It's unique that the three provisions are 1. no army (horses), 2. no treaties with foreign nations (intermarriage), and 3. no treasury (gold + silver). The king is also commanded to study the law "all the days of his life" as he guides the nations. In essence, he ought to be the model Israelite. Interesting considering the nature of many kings like David and Solomon- intermarrying, forming alliances, raising armies, etc.

  13. I think that the "black hat vs. white hat" approach of teaching the kings used in children's Sunday School classes (and in school to teach about UK kings, US presidents, etc. for that matter) has done much harm. People grow up with unrealistic views on how others behave.

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