Like Eli before him, Samuel has some issues with his sons. Now grown old, he appoints his sons – Joel and Abijah – as judges, presumably in the literal sense rather than the “amazing military leader / physical prowess hero appointed by God” sense. Samuel places their base of operations in Beersheba, far enough away to indicate a much larger sphere of influence than Samuel’s little circuit around Ramah had suggested.

Unfortunately, they take bribes, showing themselves to be less-than-ideal successors. For some reason, the Israelites look at a situation where a leader’s sons are just the worst and conclude that the best fix for this situation is a hereditary monarchy. Because there’s just no way that that could go wrong.

The ways of the king

This chapter appears to have been written by the Late Source, giving it a rather strong anti-monarchy flavour. When the people demand a king, Samuel and God have a chat in which God describes the request as “reject[ing] me for being king over them” (1 Sam. 8:7).

In the end, God and Samuel decide that they will go ahead and anoint a king, but not before issuing a warning of what a monarchy would mean for Israel, presumably so that they can later say “I told you so!”

The description of life under a monarchy is fairly uncontroversial. A king will charge taxes, demand labour, confiscate property to give to their own favourites, that sort of thing. These are all things that tend to happen under monarchies, so Samuel certainly gets points for accurate observation, if not for impressive prediction.

Despite the warning, the people are adamant – they want a king.

Position on monarchy

It’s easy to read this chapter as taking a rather open stance against the monarchy – perhaps not open enough to open a chasm and swallow up all the people who had made the request, but open enough. From a theological perspective, one might argue that this is a repetition of the theme from the quail story from Numbers 11. In that story, the people asked for meat, so God gave them meat – meat that made them sick. It could be that God is doing the same thing here: “You want a king? Oh, I’ll give you a king!”

Icon of the prophet Samuel from the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum

Icon of the prophet Samuel from the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum

My New Bible Commentary proposes that the issue with the request lies in how new leaders are chosen: “judges had been individually appointed by Yahweh, at times of his choosing” (p.290). In other words, there are no leaders when God decides that no leaders are needed, and one is appointed when God feels like it. Whereas in a hereditary monarchy, new leaders just keep coming regardless of need, and they are chosen by biological accident (whether or not the ancient Israelites would have viewed it this way, they certainly seemed to recognize that sometimes sons aren’t quite as good at leading as their fathers).

If we assume a more cohesive literary narrative than I’ve previously given the text credit for, it could be that the details of Eli and Samuel’s sons served as foreshadowing. I do believe that there was an independent tradition regarding the unworthiness of Eli’s sons, but it could be that Samuel’s sons were given foibles as well as a device to highlight the theme through repetition. Eli and Samuel had unworthy sons. This didn’t matter in the judge system because Eli could be succeeded by Samuel; but had they been kings, Samuel would have had little claim to his leadership role.

I also found an interesting article by David M. Howard, Jr. describing the work of Gerald Eddie Gerbrandt – called The Case for Kingship in Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets – which posits that the issue here is not monarchy per se, but rather the definition of what a monarchy is and what a king’s role is to be.

When the people ask for their king, they ask so “that we also may be like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:20), and so that they may have a leader in battle. For the first, God has been quite clear on how he feels about the “but Bobby’s mom let’s him have one!” excuse – namely, that it constitutes idolatry. As for the second reason, the theme we’ve been seeing is that it is not the qualities of the leader that wins the battle, but the will of God. Even Joshua, clearly chosen by God as a military leader for his people, loses when he doesn’t have God’s support. So the idea that the people might want a king to lead them into battle flies directly in the face of the battle-related theology we’ve been working with so far.

Gerbrandt, quoted by Howard, has the ideal king’s job be “to lead Israel by being the covenant administrator; then he could trust Yahweh to deliver. At the heart of this covenant was Israel’s obligation to be totally loyal to Yahweh.”

So maybe we just have different sources – one that is pro-monarchy and one that is anti-monarchy but forced to face the reality that a monarchy was established with or without God’s blessing – or maybe we have something else going on. Or perhaps it’s a hodge-podge of everything I’ve mentioned here and more. Either way, as usual, the text proves itself to be far more onion-like than it might initially appear to be.