No King for You! - Reflections on 1 Samuel 8:4-20

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, June 3, 2024

No King for You!

1 Samuel 8:4-20

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Strangely, I am thinking of that classic “Seinfeld” episode about the “Soup Nazi,” who only sells soup to those who follow the strictest of protocols. Of course, Elaine does not do so, and he bellows at her, “No soup for you!” In a similar fashion, Samuel, the chief priest and prophet of Israel is confronted by a restive people who demand a king for them, because not only is Samuel old but his brazen attempt to make his sons leaders in his place is a complete failure due to the fact “his sons did not follow in his ways, but sought gain, taking bribes and perverting justice” (1 Sam.8:3). Quite rightly, the people are having none of that, and instead demand that Samuel make them a king: “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam.8:5).

          Samuel’s response to this demand for a king is noteworthy: “And the thing was evil in Samuel’s eyes when they said, ‘Give us a king to rule us’” (1 Sam.8:6). The phrase is a very strong one; the NRSV translates “the thing displeased Samuel,” but the Hebrew makes it plain that Samuel saw the request for a king as nothing less than evil. Another interesting fact should be noted: what Samuel finds to be “evil” is not that having a king would make Israel just like the other nations; what is evil to Samuel is simply the demand for a king at all.

          Why? Samuel is obviously, as a judge (shofet) of Israel, wedded to the old ways, desiring judicial authority and awaiting an ad hoc political leader, as has occurred in the emerging Israel for nearly two centuries. See the Book of Judges for the history of this practice. However, Samuel has at the same time clearly overstepped his mandate as judge by attempting to inaugurate a very new sort of dynastic arrangement by making his sons judges to follow him in leadership. And so when we ask just why Samuel finds the demand for a king “evil,” certainly one of the answers must be that Samuel’s own authority is being questioned, and he is having none of it. It is evil to him because the people are expressing independence from him in their request for a king.

          And so Samuel prays to YHWH, as we would expect the pious prophet to do. YHWH’s reply in vss.7-9 is most intriguing. YHWH begins by saying quite clearly, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam.8:7). In other words, YHWH states, make them a king. But when you do, YHWH continues, warn them about kings, after once again stating plainly “listen to their voice” (1 Sam. 8:9). Above all, Samuel, as a follower of YHWH, is twice required to make a king for the people.

          But first Samuel provides a truly horrific account of what kings invariably do (1 Sam.8:11-18). They are thieves of produce, and enslavers of sons and daughters, taking a tenth of all flocks. He concludes with these ringing words: “And you will be his slaves. And on that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but YHWH will not answer you on that day” (1 Sam.8:17-18). Samuel effectively washes his hands of the whole thing, using only second-person pronouns to indict the people’s “evil” request, warning them that they are rejecting him but also YHWH in their demand for a king. He apparently imagines that with his potent speech about the evil of kings, the people will see sense and will return to full obedience to the prophet.

          But they do not. “The people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel,” and reiterated their demand for a king. And Samuel “repeated all their words to YHWH,” and YHWH says for the third time, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (1 Sam.8:22). Samuel’s response? “Everybody go home!” (1 Sam.8:22). He refuses to do what his God has demanded three times he do!

            I suggest that this scene in the long story is a warning to us about prophets whose hold on power and authority is questioned, both by the people and by God. Samuel’s idea that the people’s request for a king is “evil” is not merely based on some theological notion of Samuel’s understanding of what God wants, but is equally based on his own fear of waning power and loss of authority over the people of Israel. After this tale, any reader of this narrative should look with great care at the actions of Samuel, asking whether he is only carrying out the will of YHWH, or is equally concerned with his own personal status as priest and prophet. Samuel will hardly be the last religious leader to confuse his own will for that of his God. Religious history is replete with leaders who are not always clear when their own desires end and the desire of their God begins. Too often, they conclude that what pours from their mouths is nothing less than God’s pure and unadulterated word, when in fact what pours forth is their own petty and vindictive demands, thoroughly devoid of any sort of divine sanction. We must keep a sharp eye on this Samuel as the story progresses

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