The Empire, the Elite and the mission of the Church in 1 Samuel 8

My objective in this post is to look at how Israel’s transition to monarchical system of government in 1Samuel 8 shifted its perception of God and mission. I will begin by analyzing the Book of Samuel in the context of Israel’s history. I will then summarize the narrative found in the eighth chapter and finish by interpreting its significance for the Christian faith today.

The Book and its Context

The Book of Samuel is present in both the Hebrew and the English Scriptures, but with startling differences. Whereas the Septuagint and the subsequent English Bible divides Samuel into two different volumes and classifies it as a Historical book, the Hebrew Bible keeps it as a single volume, classifying it among the Former Prophets. Since I am using the English canon in this analysis, my section of Scripture is then found the in first volume of Samuel, or 1 Samuel.

The first volume begins with the birth of the prophet Samuel and ends with the death of Saul, the first king of Israel. The book and chapter at hand are important because they record a seismic shift in the society and politics of Israel. In chapter 8, Israel goes from having a confederate governing system that loosely united the twelve tribes, which also operated under the guidance of political leaders called “judges”, to a monarchical dynasty operating under a single supreme ruler, the king. In this transition, the prophet Samuel is the last of the Judges, who dies half way into the first volume, and Saul is the first of the Kings, who dies at the end with the rise of the Davidic dynasty.

1 Samuel also represents an important paradigm shift in the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Israel was special because Yahweh was its ruler (Ex 15:18, Judges 8:22), and had called the entire nation to be a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6). Although the whole earth was Yahweh’s (Ex 19:5), Israel was to be unique because of Yahweh’s interventionist governance and relationship to it. Nonetheless, perhaps a sign of Yahweh’s sovereignty, the Lord had also set strict guidelines for an eventual monarchical system (Deut 17:14-20). 1Samuel 8 describes that eventual shift towards monarchy, where Israel rejects its relationship with Yahweh as its sovereign ruler (1Sam 8:7).

This shift did not come about unexpectedly. Israel’s strategic geographical location within important trade routes linking Africa to Asia and Europe meant that it was in constant contact with foreign cultures and powers. These cultural exchanges left their influence in Israel’s cultural and social fabric. Its key geographical location also meant that other nations around Israel could also thrive. Among these people groups were the Philistines, who were a highly urbanized society of skilled sailors, anglers and iron forgers. The Philistines had economic and military might. They had developed a network of urban centers under a system of monarchical hierarchy that Israel sought to adopt. Although Israel’s territory was not large by any means, the influence of foreign elements was more apparent in its northern regions where foreign cultural exchanges were more frequent. Because of this influence, northern and southern Israel also became culturally distant. This would ultimately result in the split of Israel into the two subaltern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The split finally happened round 930 B.C after only three generations of kings. This not only reveals how loosely united the Israelites were, but also that monarchy had failed to bridge the gap of cultural differences. With this in mind, Israel’s call for king “such as all the other nations have” (1Sam 8:5) should be understood within this socio-geographical context.

Above all, 1 Samuel 8 presents the shift to monarchy as a rejection of Yahweh’s kingship that defined Israel’s uniqueness among the nations. The institution of the monarchy under Saul’s reign dates to about 200 years after the Exodus, and about 160 years from the entry into Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. It follows a period of about sixteen judges, including Eli and Samuel, the last of the judges. Before there was a king in Israel, these judges were the messianic figures (anointed ones), periodically raised by Yahweh to deliver Israel from its enemies. Their name came from the Hebrew word שָׁפַט (shaphat), which means “to judge in a judicial sense”, but also meant “to govern and to vindicate”. The judges were traditionally temporary leaders raised by Yahweh to perform a particular task for a particular period of time.

Unlike the system of royal succession found in monarchies, there seemed to be no special condition for one to become a judge. They only had to be specially called (anointed) by Yahweh, but could be from any tribe, socioeconomic background and even gender; e.g. Deborah. The juridical messiahs could be from any family or clan in Israel. But as Israel shifted to a dynastic monarchical structure, only male kings from a particular family could now become Yahweh’s messianic figures. In a way, the monarchy ultimately removed Yahweh’s dynamic election and interaction which existed during previous generations. It centralized and institutionalized authority, government, wealth and power in the person of the king. It also segregated the Hebrew society and created a type of feudal/cast system, with serfs, knights and lords. In this scheme, the royal family belonged to the upper echelon and the king acted as God’s anointed one.

Summary of 1 Samuel 8

The transition to monarchy is quickly summarized in 1Samuel 8 and in a way that is not fully addressed anywhere else in Scripture. Samuel’s age is important in this context. 1Sam 8:1 states that he was getting old and contrary to other judges before him, Samuel had elected his own sons to lead in his stead. As previously mentioned, the judges were one-off missional agents selected especially by Yahweh to bring about justice and deliverance for a particular time. However, the ones selected by Samuel were his own sons, who were perverting justice and adding to the oppression of the people. A question regarding the notion of kingship in Israel beckons from the start. Does the fact that the Samuel look at the office of a judge as successive imply that dynastic kingship was already a vivid concept in Israel? Either way, his son’s bad reputation as perverse, self-elected judges takes away from their legitimacy to lead Israel after Samuel’s death. It forces the elders of Israel to look for an alternative governing system.

1Sam 8:4-5 seem to repeat the narrative where Israel seeks a single representative to stand for them before Yahweh (Deut 5:5). By asking for a king, Israel models its social order in the example set forth by other nations around it. The monarchy is set in contrast against God’s desire. This new social order is not modeled by the Torah, through which Yahweh could rule, neither by the judges, through which Yahweh could deliver and be glorified (Judges 7:2). This new proposition for monarchy is displayed as an open rebellion, a mutiny against Yahweh. It angers Samuel, who feels rejected by the people (maybe because his successors were incapable of administering justice). But Yahweh makes it clear that Yahweh is the one being rejected. Nonetheless, in verse 8, Yahweh infers that Samuel is also the one being rejected. So, does rejecting the prophet of God imply a rejection of Yahweh and vice-versa? Was an anointed judge ultimately the embodiment of Yahweh in Israel? Either way, instead of slaughtering the people (as any other sovereign king would do under threat of usurpation) Yahweh concedes autonomy and self-determination to Israel. Yahweh then “agrees” to share power and authority with a single human leader whom Yahweh would elect.

Although Yahweh concedes to give Israel a king, in 1Sam 8:10-18 Yahweh paints a contrasting picture between theocracy and monarchy. Samuel foretells of the creation of new societal strata that would reshuffle Israel’s social order. He warns the people against the centralization of power and wealth, which eventually would lead to abuse, injustice and social inequality. Ultimately, Israel’s choice of self-determination would lead to the relinquishing of personal rights and freedoms. This move was against Yahweh’s model of kingship through the messianic office of the judges, as alluded to how Yahweh freed Israel from Egyptian captivity in 1Sam 8:8. The main contrast was that Yahweh’s rule resulted in freedom, while human kingship would lead to the abuse of power and loss of individual rights.

Nonetheless, the people still ask for a king on 1Sam 8:19-20. What Israel wanted was a military representative who would exist with the sole purpose of leading and protecting them against the Philistines. The pre-monarchical Israel did not have a professional army. They were ill equipped, often fighting their wars using their farming equipment. They lacked industry and blacksmiths who could forge weaponry or sharpen their farming tools. In a way, the elders saw the monarchical system as a chance to modernize the Jewish society as the Philistines had already done. For the sake of having a professional army and a general-king, Israel was willing to pay high taxes, be forced into labor and give up their personal property, which included their own family members. After pleading with the people, in 1Sam 8:21-22, Yahweh finally concedes and Samuel prepares himself for the transition.

Significance to the Christian Faith

1Samuel 8 carries a huge influence for the Christian faith today. It speaks of the direct relationship between God and God’s people. At the same time, it speaks of the constant need for representation, leadership and guidance that God’s people have. The people need an embodiment of God in the actuality of time and space. Before the monarchy was ever instituted in Israel, Yahweh can be seen as being dynamically involved in the life and purpose of Israel. Aside from the Tabernacle worship and the Levitical priesthood, there was no real formal structure to how God related to Israel per se. The Tabernacle itself did not have a fixed location. It moved freely about the land of Canaan from Shiloh, to Gilgal and Ramah. Another example of this fluidity can be drawn from the time of the Judges. This was a time where Yahweh seemed to particularly use ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Some of these unlikely leaders were Deborah, a woman who became a military commander, and Gideon, a commonplace man with an inferiority complex who led a battalion of three hundred men against an army of over one-hundred thousand. Yahweh’s interaction with Israel was surely dynamic and fluid.

At the same time, the fact that Yahweh concedes to the desires of the people in 1 Samuel 8 shows another level of dynamism. In a way, it reveals that the relationship was based on a bilateral covenant in a dialogical framework. There is a lot of communication between God and God’s people. The people ask and God replies. God decrees and the people (often) obey. Yahweh required a covenant through the adoption of circumcision, but in 1 Samuel 8:22 Yahweh also seems to adapt to the people. Yahweh’s divinity is epigenetic. Although monarchy was far from the ideal scenario as evidenced by Samuel’s outrage and Yahweh’s plea, ultimately the Lord permitted its institution. Deuteronomy 17:14 reveals that this was foreknown, but nonetheless against Yahweh’s will. Writing on this dynamism, the Old Testament scholar Dr. John Goldingay notes that,

Kingship is theologically inappropriate but practically necessary. It is an act of rebellion that God works with. Christian history as usual repeats the trajectory of Israel’s history. The gospel seeks to reintroduce the kingdom of priests (1 Peter 2:9) and the early church has no place for churches being headed up by one person. But that ends in chaos so the church has to invent the “monarchical episcopate”, churches headed up by a senior pastor. This has shown the capacity to control error and to encourage abuse.

Indeed. Throughout two millennia the church has repeated Israel’s history and adopted a monarchical structure in order to lead its people and protect its interests and dogmas. To some extent, church leaders were even considered king-like during particular times in history. Perhaps nowhere has the adoption of monarchical leadership structures been more present than in the western Latin segment of Christianity. Kingship was tightly interwoven with ecclesiology to the point that the highest order of church leaders sat on a literal throne, a cathedra.  Bishops minister from cathedrals, where a cathedra (throne) is present. Although kingly bishops can be historically traced back to Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313 AD), it was in the pre-medieval Europe that we see the rise of a Roman kingly papacy through concepts such as the primacy of the bishopric of Rome and its claimed “succession” to the Apostle Peter. History records that as the Bishop of Rome began declaring himself the highest authority in Christianity, he established realms of power that were under his kingship. Like Samuel and Saul, bishops established emperors and vice-versa. This idealism is seen in the installation of Charlemagne as a new Christian Roman Emperor by appointment of Pope Leo III in 800 AD. Charlemagne used his newfound authority and military power to fight wars against Eastern Christians and the bourgeoisie of Rome. This was done to secure the Pope’s authority over the city and propagate Latin Christianity, which was often done through violent forced conversions and baptisms. This trend of monarchy under the influence of the church continued throughout the Medieval Period. It ultimately inspired efforts such as the Christian Crusades against Islam and the colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas under papal decree and the banner of Christian mission.

Along with ecclesiology and missions, monarchialism also impacted the production of theology proper. A view of God that is now known as Classical Theism became the dominant theology during the European Renaissance. In part inspired by the socio-political context of medieval Europe and also the legacy of Hellenistic thought, Classical Theism interpreted God monarchically (not be confused with Monarchianism) and hierarchically. For Classical Theists, God was kingly, completely transcendent, omnipotent and impassible. God was in no way affected by change, suffering or potentiality. God was simple and atemporal. In a way, God was like the king, inhabiting in God’s own realm of absolute power and complete transcendence. In this view, God was uninvolved and unaffected by creation and its groans.  This process of theologizing became known as doing theology from above. When seen from above in a kingly perspective, God is studied as being disengaged from creation, historical events and temporal reality. Justice happens by decree in an universe ruled by unchangeable laws. Ultimately, Classical Theism did not do justice to the biblical account of God who is a caretaker, responsive, loving, and even jealous. Neither did it do justice to today’s worldview that is based on a quantum and dynamic interpretation of reality. It was a far cry from the epigenesis and relative plasticity seen in Yahweh in 1Sam 8.

1Samuel 8 speaks of a God who is dynamically involved in the life and purpose of God’s people in the world. In this chapter, we find that Yahweh is a God who leads, listens and responds to the people. However, God is also to be reverently feared and worshiped. When combining the transcendence with the immanence of God, we find that Yahweh is omnipotent as the Supreme Ruler of all. Yahweh is Lord of Hosts, who installs and removes kings and rulers. Nonetheless, Yahweh also shows restraint and change by allowing the freedom of choice and self-determination to God’s people. Along with being omnipotent, Yahweh is also omniscient. Yahweh foretells the consequences of Israel’s choices and pronounces the judgment of their actions. Yahweh does not want anyone to perish, and so admonishes the people. Lastly, Yahweh is also omnipresent. God is transcendent and is the only one who can bestow authority over a king. But at the same time Yahweh dwells in the midst of the people, being completely immanent and active in the present reality by listening to Israel and responding to its cries for justice.

In conclusion, 1Samuel 8 forces us to wrestle with questions regarding our theology of God, ecclesiology and missiology. It forces us to take a hard look at structures of power, hierarchy and the proper use of authority. It makes us reflect upon the communal life of God and God’s people. We find that authority and power should be the means for justice and peacemaking. Above all, we find that church and mission is a part of a collaborative process between a sovereign but immanent God and an autonomous but dependent humanity. God aligns God’s self with the suffering and beckons all to do the same. We learn that Yahweh is a different type of king. Yahweh is a merciful King, who though being God does not use divine power for selfish gain. Yahweh is fully represented in Jesus Christ. The Servant-King “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phi 2:6-8).”

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