Friday, March 13, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 3)

In my last post, I looked at some passages relating to the Israelites’ request for a king and Samuel’s response to it. These passages describe the Israelites’ request as a rejection of God as their king. But I argued that the problem was not kingship in itself; rather, the problem was that the Israelites expected the king, instead of God, to save them so that they could continue worshipping other gods.

Now I’d like to look at another passage that deals with the establishment of kingship. But instead of humans establishing it, God does. The passage, 2 Samuel 7, records God’s response to David after David offers to build the temple. God gives David some pretty extravagant promises. He says that He will establish David’s kingdom, that David’s son will build the temple and even that David’s son would have God as his father. The last point is easy for Christians to overlook because we’re used to addressing God as “Father,” but in ancient Israel, having God as their adoptive father gave kings a unique relationship with and status before God. Now, having a king is more than just OK; now the kings are tied to God more closely than almost anyone else in Israel (arguably even more than the priests, who are not called God’s sons).

One scholar I read summed up the view in this and other passages by saying, “The king is God.” But that completely oversteps what the text said. In fact, all these glorious promises come after God has refused to allow David to build the temple. In other nations, building a temple might be seen as doing the god a favor, but here the Lord is clear: David can’t do God any favors. In fact, God is the one doing David a favor by building up his dynasty. (There are some puns here making this point: both the temple and the dynasty are called a “house.”) It’s only after tearing down any illusions David may have had about helping God that God starts to build David up and give him the high status. Kings in Israel may have had high status, but they were far from divine.

But even if the king is not seen as divine, they’re still portrayed very positively, in contrast to the negative picture in 1 Samuel 8 and 12.

There’s something else to note here. Even before He gets to the promises for David’s line specifically, God makes some promises for Israel as a whole. Specifically, He says, “And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” (2 Samuel 7:10-11). Remember that kingship was established just after the period of the judges, and that as I argued last time, the Israelites were looking to be freed from foreign oppressors. Now God is offering them the freedom they crave. The problem was never the Israelites’ desire for peace and liberation; the problem was their looking for it through human systems and refusing to give up their idols.

David and his descendants are not replacements for God; rather their authority is completely dependent upon God’s. They also, in theory, will not be the kinds of kings who put up with idolatry. The building of the temple, which God also promises in this passage, demonstrates the king’s devotion to God and his role in leading the Israelites in proper worship of the one true God. Thus, they are the opposite of the type of king criticized in 1 Samuel.

David’s prayer in the second half of 2 Samuel 8 shows that he agrees with God’s assessment. He gives thanks and recognizes that God put him in his current position (v.18). He also affirms that there is only one true God: “Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears” (v. 22).

Of course, David’s descendants didn’t always keep this in mind. Some were proud and thought of themselves as above God’s law (See Uzziah’s actions in 2Chronicles 26:16-21). Others committed idolatry and led the Israelites to do the same. These promises found fulfillment to a limited extent during Israel’s history, but we are still awaiting their truest fulfilment when David’s greatest descendant, Jesus, returns to rule and bring perfect peace.

For now, let us note that the positions taken in these two passages in Samuel are not contradictory, despite the way they might appear in a superficial reading. They are coming at the same truth from two sides: A good king must be dependent upon God’s power and must seek to glorify the true God, not replace Him.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 2)

In my last post, I gave an overview of two passages in 1 and 2 Samuel that apparently give very different depictions of kingship. This post is going to look at the apparently anti-monarchy passages, and the next will look at the pro-monarchy ones.

In 1Samuel 8 two major objections to kingship appear. The first is the idea that appointing a human king constitutes rejecting the kingship of God over Israel. The second is in Samuel’s account of what kings will do; his account makes monarchy sound inherently oppressive.

Some scholars see these passages as expressions of “direct theocracy” – the view that only God has the right to govern Israel. This ends up as a kind of religiously motivated anarchism and means that having a human monarch is idolatry. I disagree that these passages actually require direct theocracy, though they would be consistent with it. I think there is a precise reason why asking for a king at this point in Israel’s history was a sin, but this reason does not invalidate all monarchy, much less all government.

1 Samuel 8 simply states that the Israelites have rejected God as their king, but in chapter 12, Samuel gives a farewell speech that fleshes out his objections in more detail. This speech starts with Samuel asking Israel whether he has been unjust as their leader. (They confirm that he hasn’t.) This in itself suggests that Samuel doesn’t have a problem with all government; after all he himself is a government leader, a judge. There’s something about kings, as opposed to judges, that he objects to.

Samuel then goes into an account of Israel’s history. As usual, the account starts with the Exodus, the point when God delivered Israel from oppression in Egypt. But most of Samuel’s speech is focused on Israel’s immediate past, the period of the judges. Samuel’s description of this period mirrors what you see in the book Judges. Israel is caught in a cycle: they turn away from God by worshipping other gods instead, so God sends other nations to oppress them, which leads Israel to repent and ask God for help, and then God sends a judge to save them. But once Israel is saved, they turn away from God again.

Eventually the pattern changes: “And when you saw that Nahash the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king.” (1 Sam 12:12). Israel was once again in the “oppression” part of the cycle, but instead of repenting, they asked for a king. Kings in the ancient world were military leaders, so a good king would presumably be able to drive out the oppressors. And unlike judges (who are also military leaders) kings set up dynasties. That means there would be a leader to protect Israel even after the king’s death. From a human perspective, kingship would be a way out of the political troubles the people have been having.

But Samuel is looking from God’s perspective and realizes that the problem is idolatry. The Israelites are appointing a king in part to avoid dealing with the sin of worshipping other gods (see v.10). And it is this reluctance that creates the problem. Not all kings are idols, but the Israelites were looking for one who would replace God as their savior and who would enable their idolatry of Baal and the other Canaanite gods.

There’s an application here for us, too. Remember, kings were anointed, and the word “messiah” means “anointed one.” The Israelites’ problem was that they wanted a messiah who would save them from the consequences of their sin without calling them to repent. This kind of messiah is proclaimed in many churches today.

Back in 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warned the Israelites that the king would take their sons for his army, their daughters, their crops, their animals and their servants. This sounds like horrible oppression, and that could be what it’s describing. But some of it is simple necessity. If the king is going to lead an army, he needs soldiers, who would be the sons of the Israelites. If he’s going to set up law courts and build a palace and do all the other things kings do, he needs money and labor. It seems like money wasn’t used widely in Israel at this time, so taking crops and property from the Israelites could be Samuel’s snarky way of describing taxes. My libertarian friends would like Samuel.

Even if this is the case, it highlights the folly of trusting a human deliverer more than God. A human king needs to take from the people to do what God could have done without their help. In fact, the story of Gideon shows that God can use a small army as easily as a large one. Moreover, there is a real possibility that Israel’s king could become just as oppressive as the nations they want him to save them from.

Thus, the problem with kingship in 1 Samuel 8 isn’t monarchy as a form of government. Instead it’s the view that a human king can save people from God’s judgment without their repentance. Next time, I’ll look at 2 Samuel 7 to see what kind of kingship the Bible does approve of.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 1)

Last semester, I wrote a research paper on 1 and 2 Samuel, which were originally one book. The book can be described as a history of Israel’s transition from being ruled by local judges to being ruled by a king. I focused on two passages, one of which made this transition look like a good thing, and one that made it look like a mistake. In a series of posts, I’m planning to lay out my argument and show how there’s actually no contradiction if we understand the passages appropriately. This first post will present the problem and explain the approach I’m taking.

1 Samuel 8 is a good example of an apparently anti-king passage. Here’s my (greatly exaggerated) paraphrase:

People: We want a king.
Samuel: Israel has no king. Israel needs no king.
People: We know we don’t have a king. That’s why we want one, dummy.
God: Samuel, calm down. Let them have their king They’re not rejecting you …
People: Ha! Told you so.
God: … but they are rejecting me as king over them.
Samuel: Ha! Told you so.

Samuel then goes on to explain that the king will take their sons, their daughters, their crops, their animals and so on. So, it seems like this is saying that any human king is illegitimate, that God is the only rightful ruler of Israel and that human monarchy is inherently oppressive.

Skip ahead to 2 Samuel 7. David had become king and is more or less established so he calls the prophet Nathan.

David: I’ve got a great idea! I’m going to build a house for God!
Nathan: Yay!
God: What? I never said I wanted a house. Nathan, tell David I don’t need him. I established Israel – and David. Without me, he’d still be chasing sheep around the hills of Bethlehem. But I like David. I’m going to build him a house. One of his sons will build a temple for me. His descendants will be my sons, and his dynasty will last forever.
Nathan: What he said.
David: Yay!

So here God approves of kingship and gives David’s dynasty the right to rule. God even calls the king His son, which means that the king has a unique relationship with God. This is an incredibly positive view of kingship that even gives the king spiritual authority.

So what’s happening?

Many scholars say these passages come from different sources that were edited into one text. But that’s a little too simple. If we look deeper, there is a way to reconcile them – to see when kingship is good and when it’s bad. The text is actually more sophisticated than we realize if we write the passages off as a difference of opinion. But we don’t realize this unless we’re willing to think about it more.

There’s another reason to go for a reading that combines the two views. Even if a certain book of the Bible contains multiple sources, someone must have combined them. Any book of the Bible deals with intense religious, political and ethical issues. It seems unlikely that an editor would include texts that contradicted his or her deeply held beliefs without modifying them enough to remove all difficulties. Thus, the editors must have understood all the passages in a way that did not contradict their actual opinions.

I’m going to use a few posts to explain how this actually works. I hope it will help us understand these texts better. But more importantly, I hope to use this as an example of how looking at the Bible as a unified whole lets you understand it in a more sophisticated way.