Shoftim - Setting a king over myself
2014 S.H. Parker

When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, "I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,"   כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי:
you shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother.   שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אָחִיךָ הוּא:
Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself [lit. increase for himself], so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for the Lord said to you, "You shall not return that way any more."   רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיהֹוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד:
And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.   וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ מְאֹד:
And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim.   וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם:
And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them,   וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשׂתָם:
so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.   לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל:
    Devarim 17:14-20

In the wilderness, there was a "supreme leader." Though how supreme Moshe was thought to be by his contemporaries is somewhat questionable. Given the number of rebellions recorded in Torah, it is clear that he maintained his position by a combination of charisma - force of personality - and a more than occasional bit of divine intervention - a yawning pit to swallow Korach, turning Miriam leprous, lightening bolts in the fire pans ... a few small things of that sort. He maintained his reputation because of that uniquely Israelite institution, prophesy (as opposed to the more "magical" "prophets," really sorcerers, like Bilaam).

But the people Israel were politically a voluntary confederation of tribes, from the time of Abram onward (yes, Torah makes it clear that Abram was the leader of one or more tribes when he left Haran). Mostly these tribes were related, at least that is what the authors of our Torah thought. But as Torah makes clear, there was also a "mixed multitude" that went up with Israel. This mixed multitude either assimilated into the existing Israelite tribes or formed their own tribes which, in turn, either affiliated with Israel, becoming Israel's neighbors (the Sashu, Edom, Moab, possibly even Midian), or fully integrated into Israel (possibly leading to the theological and political rift between north and south that eventual destroyed the United Kingdom).

This, Torah teaches, is the ideal. Tribes affiliated voluntarily; cooperating because of a shared lineage, shared theology (well, we didn't do that so much...), shared values and a shared national god. "The people" don't need a central authority (at least until Josiah). Judges and captains of tens, of hundreds, of thousands and of ten thousands are sufficient. All of this is at the tribal level, the essential political unit.

What happens when I want to be "[just] like all the nations around me?" When I want a king?

On its face, the text permits setting up a king. Mostly, it limits who can be king and who can appoint him. Then it restricts "royal prerogatives."

The classical prophetic response to setting up a king over ourselves is very bad. Very bad. For any of a number of obvious reasons, desiring a temporal king is a fundamental breach of the expected loyalty to God, as God begins to transcend national ties. After all, on the received view of the authors, it is God who liberated Israel, not a temporal king. It is God who lead Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness, not a temporal king. It is God who spoke at the mountain in Sinai, revealing "the way [we] should go," not a temporal king. And, with apologies to Joshua, it is God who will drive out nations from before us, not a temporal king.

In other words, setting up a temporal king is a very real act of apostasy. That it is not roundly condemned, that is not called the apostasy that it clearly is, I find surprising not in the least ... when these words were written, kingship was a fait accompli. In fact, it had come, gone, come back and was shortly to go again. And come and go again, a couple of times more.

However, it should not surprise any of you here, that I find the classic response unsatisfying. Because, there's rather more to it than simple apostasy (ruminate on that turn of phrase for a bit!).

Let's start by asking "What does Torah think will happen - what does Torah predict will happen - if we place a king over ourselves?"

If we do this thing:

the king will acquire horses for himself
he will take many wives for himself
his heart will turn away
he will acquire silver and gold for himself
his heart will be haughty over his brothers
he will turn away from the commandments

From elsewhere, I recall

        he will take your land from you (he will "pull back [his] neighbor's landmark," as it says later in this parsha)

Short version: you make a king, he'll take whatever he wants, from whomever he wants (i.e., you), whenever he wants. (Sounds a lot like a description of the reign of Solomon, doesn't it?)

Richard Elliot Friedman, in his Commentary on the Torah, writes, of the phrase "acquire horses for himself:"

Maintaining forces with a great many horses means the development of a small upper class plus a large class of serfs of servants to support and service them. This is one of several laws in the Torah that work to counter the development of such a two-tiered feudal system. And so, when King David defeats Hadadezer and captures 1,700 chariots and horsemen, he hamstrings all but a small number of the horses (2 Sam 8:4). Why would he deliberately give up a prize of such tremendous value? Because he was obeying this Law of the King.

(Remember this, it will be important in just a moment.)

And, indeed, this is just what happened. 

But that misses much of the point about why this Torah was written and what Torah is trying to teach us. Because, once again, the Torah isn't simply predicting. It is reporting what those who became Israel had already experienced. 

The archaeological evidence is that the central hill country was settled by the 15th century BCE. As some of you know, I am convinced that these early Israelites are likely to have been part of the Hyksos and/or, later, refugees from Ahkenaten's monotheistic revolution in Egypt. However, there is a massive increase in the population of Judea/Samaria in the late 14th / early 13th century. 

These new sojourners in the central hill country, in what, by the late 13th century, is acknowledged to be the home of the "people Israel" (see Merneptah's Stele), these people were refugees. They were refugees from Canaan (yup, Am Yisroel were Canaanites and you and I are what is left of the Canaanites).

From what were we fleeing?

Here's what we know: Canaanite society was in decline. It was falling apart. Petty tyrants, "kings," of various city-states (in some cases, "town-states" or even "village-states") and their elites were desperate to maintain not only power but their life styles in the face of declining revenues. Canaanite society was, like medieval European and ancient Chinese society, highly stratified; the elites acquired their "stations" by force - the barons of Europe were simple brutes, stronger than others around them, not smarter, certainly not kinder - and maintained it on the backs of farmers, herders and peasants.

This kind of oppressive stratification, as in every similar case in history, eventually collapses under the weight of its own inequity (stratification, inequality in the eyes of Torah is inequity). The archaeological record tells us that, as Canaanite society crumbled, the elites grabbed land and property, first, from the elites of other city-states (they called it "war"), then from the farmers, herders and peasants they depended on and were supposed to protect (that's the feudal deal - the elite can abuse you but has to protect you). The "nobles" took the animals, took the land ("moved the markers" in the words of this sedrah), took the wives, took ... took ... took from the people. They created a permanently impoverished under-class. (We can't say that the peasantry were disenfranchised; they already were that just in virtue of being peasants.)

Finally, one fellow said "I'm sick and tired and I'm not going to take it any more" or maybe he said "this just isn't right, there just has to be a better way, a better way to live, a better way to treat people." We even know the name of this person: Abram. 

What was his great realization? He realized that one person isn't better than another because of who his parents were (hence Berehit's constant polemic against primogeniture). He realized that one person, because of who his parents were or because he was physically stronger, just didn't have the right to take what someone else had worked for and earned. 

Perhaps he conceived of a supreme deity and perhaps he conceived of all that exists, especially the land, actually belonging to that deity, with people just being what amounts to mere leasors of the land. Perhaps he did, perhaps not - don't know, I wasn't there. But the underlying philosophy on which he clearly operated was, in the immortal words of Theodore Geisel, "a person's a person, no matter how small." Or, in the more formal words of Bereshit:

 וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם. 1:27 And God created the human in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.

Everyone, everyone comes from the same place (and ends in the same place ... all of our traditions surrounding death attest to this totally egalitarian philosophy). A stratified society is inherently non-righteous, is inherently un-Godly, is inherently unjust, is inherently oppressive ... in the thinking of the Torah, it is inherently evil.

The society from which Israel escaped regarded persons in judgment, ignored the poor, the blind, the widow, the orphan; it practiced greed and rapaciousness, not righteousness.

Israel was explicitly birthed from and because of the kind of feudal society that unregulated kingship inevitably engenders.

The text does permit setting up a king but if anyone should know better than to set a king over itself, it damned well should be Israel.