The Beginning Of Politics

This week, I read the account of Israel’s first coronation. In 1 Samuel 8, the descendants of Israel become the Nation of Israel. They demanded to have a king, and thereby entered into politics for the first time. Certainly there were cliques and factions and politicking going on in Israel from the time of Joseph and his brothers. But this story represents the first time Israel engaged in anything like national politics. 

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a kingover us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

In a way, this was a natural and necessary step for Israel. Before 1 Samuel 8, this people had operated as a loose collection of tribes, led in a disorganized way by an ad-hoc cadre of Judges. Such an arrangement couldn’t last forever. In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, author Jared Diamond reveals some interesting research about how human societies evolve. Our earliest ancestors were organized into family units who lived off the land. They had no written language. They likely followed animal migrations. And they had no need to organize themselves beyond the daily hunt or the annual harvest. These groups, which Diamond calls “Bands” correspond to Jacob’s family, 70 people strong, when he went to Egypt to escape famine. 

Then our ancestors started to bunch into larger groups, which Diamond calls Tribes. They formed villages where there were elders and leaders. Those villages were stable, and housed surpluses of food. (Think of Joseph’s provision for the seven years of famine in Egypt.) There were councils and rituals. One imagines there were Israelite neighborhoods like this even under Egyptian oppression. 

The next size of civilization was Cheifdoms, where prestige and decision-making power were concentrated into the hands of a few. Think of the leaders of Israel’s 12 tribes, and the distinguished place of the Levites. When Moses led the Exodus, there were 600,000 adult men. Scholars think that meant there were somewhere around 2-3 million Israelites. And they were organized by tribe. Each tribe had several thousand people. But a tribe of several thousand is small enough for its leaders to know most of the major players.

Finally, people started to form States: groups of many thousands of people, not all of them related. Nations had to have much more organization, including laws, law enforcement, taxes, and national defense. Don’t miss this: in 1 Samuel 8, Israel doesn’t have a standing army. One of the primary reasons the tribal leaders wanted to consolidate power under a king was to provide for the common defense. This is the stage Israel found itself in. Not many years after the events of 1 Samuel 8, when David took his census, there were 1.3 million men in Israel. So there were probably around 6.5 million Israelites. That’s almost as many people as are in all of Dallas / Fort Worth, where I live. 

So Israel had gotten big. And big groups of people have to organize governments. That’s natural and normal. It’s not opposed by God. This story about appointing a king is not about government being bad, or about monarchy being bad. This isn’t about God favoring one form of government over another, or no government over some government. After all, God himself had promised Israel a king. God blessed David’s kingship and promised his line would rule forever. And the prophecies about Jesus included this line: 

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.

No, as with everything in the Bible, this is about faith, about trusting God, about the condition of the Israelites’ hearts. 

And the Israelite’s hearts were poisoned by two things: fear and jealousy. 

Look at verses 19 and 20: 

“No!” they said. "We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” 

Surrounded by larger nations, they envied the military might of their neighbors. This is significant not only because they were being petty, but because they were forgetting their calling. From the beginning, God wanted Israel to be set apart; to NOT be like the Canaanites. To be holy. Different. And now they are asking for a king so they can be like everybody else. 

And they wanted a king so that he could organize an army, so that they could be protected. This, too, was a slap in God’s face. A generation before this, these people’s parents and grandparents stood with their backs to the Red Sea and heard this: 

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 

In the Exodus, at Jericho, and at dozens of other times, God proved himself the defender of Israel. He said, “Trust me. I’ve got you. Just be still and watch." When Israel asked for a king, they were demonstrating a lack of faith that God would do what armies could do. 

The story of the birth of politics in Israel isn’t about God favoring one form of government. It isn't about democracy or communism or the Redcoats. The message here is that government is not where we should put our trust. We must trust God for the things that government wants to provide, rather than trusting government for the things that God wants to provide.