The Tragic Cost Of Rejecting God: An Exegetical Study Of First Samuel 8:10-18

TRANSLATION OF FIRST SAMUEL 8:10-18

10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked from him a king.

11 And he said, “This will be the custom of the king who will rule over you: your sons he will take and appoint among his chariots and among his horsemen, and they will run before his chariots.

12 And he will appoint for himself captains of thousands and captains of fifties, and to plow his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.

13 And your daughters he will take for perfumers and for cooks and for bakers.

14 And your best fields and your best vineyards and your best olive trees he will take and give to his servants.

15 And of your seed and of your vineyards he will confiscate one tenth, and give to his high officials and to his servants.

16 And your best manservants and your maidservants and your young men and your asses he will take and apply to his work.

17 Of your flocks he will confiscate one tenth, and you will be slaves to him.

18 And you will cry out on that day on account of your king that you chose for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you on that day.”

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The eighth chapter of First Samuel functions as one of the major pivot points in the historical development of ancient Israel.  Following the conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites were organized as a loose tribal confederacy and were governed, primarily on an ad hoc military basis, by a series of charismatic judges.  This form of ad hoc governance followed a distinctive pattern (referred to as the “Judges cycle”) containing a typical sequence of events: 1) the theological apostasy of the Israelites (characteristically through the practice of idolatry), introduced by the formulaic statement, “…the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” (Judges 2:11; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1);  2) the oppression of Israel by a foreign nation/state; 3) the crying out of the people to God for deliverance, introduced by the formula, “…the people of Israel cried out to the Lord…” (Judges 3:9; 3:15; 4:3; 6:6; 7:20; 10:10);  and 4) God responding to the cry of the people by raising up a deliverer or prophet (Judges 2:16-18; 3:9, 15; 6:7).

This chapter brings the Judges cycle to an effective conclusion as the people demand to be reorganized into a monarchial form of government.  Two main factors influenced the elders’ decision to ask Samuel for a king.  First, the confederated tribes were experiencing a substantial amount of collective anxiety related to what appeared to be the ever-present threat of war with the Philistines, a condition Keith Bodner terms “national insecurity.”[1]  Secondly, Samuel had broken from the normal pattern of God raising a judge in response to the cry of the people, by appointing his sons to a sort of dynastic judgeship (1Sam 8:1).  Unfortunately, rather than following the example of their father’s integrity, the sons fell to corruption by taking bribes and perverting justice (1Sam 8:3).

EXPOSITION

10-18: In response to the people’s request for a king, Samuel conveys to them the “words of the Lord” which function as a solemn warning of exactly what will happen if the people insist upon establishing a monarchial form of government with the installation a king.

10: Samuel functioned in the roles of prophet, priest, and judge in Israel, however, in the immediate context he is functioning in true prophetic form as he conveys the words of the Lord to the people.  Those to whom Samuel is addressing the words of the Lord are here referred to as “the people who had asked of him a king” (הָעָ֕ם הַשֹּׁאֲלִ֥ים מֵאִתּוֹ֖ מֶֽלֶךְ), while in 8:4 they are referred to as “the elders of Israel” (זִקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל).  This selection of terms may have been made for pejorative or satirical purposes, having the effect of lowering the elders in rank based on their conduct.[2]  It is interesting to note that the last recorded speech of the elders was to suggest that the Ark of the Covenant be brought to battle with the Philistines, a decision which had disastrous consequences (1Sam 4:3).[3]

11: The use of the word מִשְׁפָּט is interesting here because scholars are divided on the best way to render the word in English.  Tsumura suggests that the word should be rendered “right” based on its forensic connotation and explains that the passage simply delineates the rights of a king in an ancient Near East monarchial society.[4]  However, in light of Deuteronomy 17:14 ff., it is clear that such behavior is not appropriate for Israel’s king, thus it is difficult to accept that Samuel/God would have used מִשְׁפָּט to refer to the king’s legal right.  Consequently, “manner” or “custom” is likely the best English rendering, as in this context Samuel is conveying a solemn warning to the people about the general conduct of any ruler once power and wealth have been consolidated into a permanent office or institution.

The verb לָקַח in the independent clause following the athnach (punctuated by the colon in the above translation) is rendered “take,” but also connotes “to lay hold of” or “seize,”[5] thus, in the immediate context, forcible seizure is implied.  This clause also introduces a syntactical construction that, while uncommon in biblical Hebrew, becomes thematic in this prophetic speech: the direct object of the clause, along with the definite direct object marker (אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם) precedes the verb and is always appended with the second masculine plural pronominal suffix (כֶם).  This syntax serves to add emphasis to the direct object as the thing that will be taken or confiscated by the king.  Additionally, the repetition of the second masculine plural pronominal suffix (כֶם) juxtaposed against the third person singular suffix (וֹ) emphasizes the transition in ownership with the recurrence of the broad conceptual structure, “your x will become his.”

Not surprisingly, the list of things to be seized by the king begins with what seems to be the most treasured ancient near Eastern possession: “sons.”  Among other things, the sons will be conscripted for service related to the king’s royal chariotry.  Although it has been suggested that this prophetic speech is intended to be an indictment against the reign of Saul, there is no mention of chariotry in Israel until the reign of David.[6]  Moreover, the use of men running before royal chariots is mentioned in regard to Absalom’s attempted usurpation of David’s rule (2Sam 15:1-6) and the accumulation of chariots and horses occurs during the reign of Solomon.  Thus, it would seem that rather than having the reign of one particular king in view, the speech is polemical of kingship in general (at the very least, kingship according to the standard ancient Near Eastern model).

12: Before the establishment of the monarchy, military service was ad hoc and voluntary.  However, by drafting sons for military service, the formation of a standing army is implied, and soldiers in a standing army or on military expedition must be provisioned.  Consequently, those not selected for military service will be conscripted for labor for the support of the imperial court and the military through agriculture and fabrication of implements of war.  Since plowing and harvesting represent the inception and culmination of the horticultural enterprise[7], the conscription of sons for this type of service should be seen as a permanent arrangement.

13: In the patriarchal culture of the ancient Near East, where women were frequently treated as chattel, it is significant that daughters appear next on the list of persons and items to be seized by the king, as it appears to be arranged in a top-down, hierarchical fashion relative to the importance of what (or who) is being seized.  The term (אֶת־בְּנוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם) functions as the direct object of the verb, occurs syntactically prior to the verb, and is appended with the second plural masculine pronominal suffix.   Consequently, “your daughters” will also be conscripted to serve as perfumers (or ointment-mixers), cooks, and bakers for the benefit of the royal court.  All three professions were in high demand in the ancient world.[8]

14: The object of seizure now moves from family members to the choicest agricultural assets: fields, vineyards, and olive trees.  These assets provide the capital foundation for producing some of the most widely traded and valuable commodities in the ancient Near East, including grains, wine, fresh grapes, raisins, olives, and olive oil.  It is not coincidental that these are the very assets listed in the covenant renewal at Shechem in Joshua 24:13, “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (emphasis mine).  Not only will the assets that God had gifted to the people be seized, they will be given (נָתַן) to the king’s servants in a reallocation of property.

15: There is no biblical or archaeological evidence that would suggest taxation in any form occurred in Israel under the judges.[9]  However, with the installation of a king will come the establishment of a system of royal taxation.  Not only will the choicest agricultural assets be seized, but one-tenth of the produce of the remaining assets will be confiscated (עשׂר) and distributed to members of the king’s royal infrastructure.

16: In addition to the seizure of the best capital assets (fields, vineyards, and olive trees), the best of the strong young men, servants, and working livestock (who provide the labor or means of production) will be taken and applied to the king’s endeavors.[10]

17: In addition to the ten percent tax on agricultural produce, one-tenth of the flocks of the people will be confiscated, rendering a ten percent tax on the other main source of agricultural production, animal husbandry.  Given the fact that the economy in Israel was primarily agrarian, this levy coupled with the levy on horticulture, was tantamount to a ten percent income tax.

Finally and climactically, the people will forfeit the freedom they had enjoyed under the theocracy of God, as their family members are taken, their possessions are seized, their income is taxed, and they are ultimately reduced to slaves of the king and the imperial structure.

18: As a result, the people will cry out to God for relief from the oppression of their chosen king, but the Lord will not answer their cry.  This is a drastic change from the pattern established in the canon prior to Samuel 8.  From Exodus 3:7 through all of the cycles of the judges, God’s ear was inclined to His oppressed people and their cries moved Him to compassion.  However, when His people willfully reject Him and embrace a domestic source of oppression, He will no longer answer their cries; a chilling development indeed.

SUMMATION AND SYNTHESIS

God’s purpose for Israel was to be a unique people among the nations, and as a theocratic tribal confederation, they certainly stood out against the geopolitical landscape of the ancient Near East.  Nonetheless, the stated purpose behind the elders’ request for a king was that they wished to be “like all the nations” (1Sam 8:5).  As mentioned above, Samuel’s advanced years, coupled with the fact that his sons, whom he had appointed as his successors, were greedy and corrupt (1Sam 8:3), likely produced a high level of anxiety among the tribal leaders relating to the seemingly ever-present specter of war with the Philistines.

God’s response to their request was to solemnly warn the people of what would eventually happen once a monarchial form of government was established: conscription, confiscation, taxation, and slavery; in short, a return to the state of affairs the Hebrews had experienced, and God had miraculously delivered them from, while they were enslaved in Egypt.  This generation was not so far removed from Egypt that the bitterness of slavery would have faded from their collective tribal memory, yet even the first generation of the Exodus longed for the illusion of security that accompanied their sojourn there (Nu 11:5).  Indeed, Egypt functions as the biblical archetype of the imperial model, and the request for a king was not only a request to adopt that dysfunctional system of oppression, but was also an implicit rejection of the freedom and the theocratic ideal established by God.

Brueggemann explains that this articulation of imperial ideology “is the harshest, most extensive criticism of monarchy in the Old Testament,” yet its appearance at this point in the text seems a bit abrupt and has caused some scholars to speculate that it is a post-Solomonic insertion.[11]  However, from the perspective of biblical theology, it seems to be a critique not just of Israelite or Solomonic monarchy in particular, but of the consolidation of human political power in general.  Certainly this was the manner of the kings of the other ancient Near East nation states, but from a biblical perspective, from primordial Babel to the Roman Empire, this is what happens whenever political power is permanently concentrated (contra the ad hoc nature of the temporary consolidation of power under the various charismatic judges).

This seems to be exactly the point Jesus is driving at when He says, “You know that those who seem to be rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life in ransom for many” (Mk 10:42-45).[12]  It is significant that Jesus refers to them as those who seem to be (present active participle of δοκέω: “seem” or “appear to be”) rulers, the implication being that they are imposters because they overpower and oppress those who are supposed to be under their authority.  A genuine King, on the other hand, serves those whom are placed under his authority, and is consequently life-giving rather than life-taking.

When we contrast the theocracy of God with Samuel’s description of the monarchy of man, it becomes immediately evident that God is a giving King who graciously bestows freedom on His subjects, while the earthly king is a taker and enslaver.  It seems unthinkable that human beings would opt for the latter, yet it remains a perpetual temptation to exchange the precarious feeling of unstructured freedom for the illusory security of man made organizations and hierarchies.  The tragic cost of such an exchange and the fact that so many are willing to make it, is a testimony to just how far human beings are willing to go to alleviate their self-imposed anxiety.

Samuel’s warning stands in sharp contrast with the instruction of Deuteronomy 17:14-20 where the king is forbidden to acquire excessive horses, wives, or wealth, and he is expected to know and do the Torah “lest his heart be lifted up above his brothers.”  Of course, in the history of Israel (indeed, in the history of the world), there was only one King who actually lived out this monarchial ideal, and He was crucified by His subjects.

As we bridge contexts, we must ask ourselves if this articulation of imperial ideology is localized and time-bound or if is it universally applicable.  In our present context we may be tempted to draw distinctions between the functions of monarchies and other forms of government (e.g., democracies, democratic republics, etc.), but to do so is to miss the point of the text.  The entire canon bears witness to the fact that there are only two kingdoms from which human beings may choose: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness (which includes all the kingdoms of man); we may only align ourselves with one, place our hope in one, swear our allegiance to one.[13]

This is not to suggest that all human political entities are fundamentally evil or even to suggest that Christians should not participate in government affairs.  In fact, Jeremiah’s words to the Judahites in exile ring true for us today, “…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7).  Nonetheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that the empire of our birth is not equivalent to the kingdom of God, and like Paul, we must be ever mindful of the reality that while our ultimate citizenship is heavenly, we should not hesitate to leverage the advantages of our earthly citizenship for the advancement of the kingdom of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

TEXT CRITICISM

There are few text critical issues with this passage.  The ones that do exist are minor and carry no significant theological payload.  In verse 12, the Septuagint (LXX) uses technical military terms to describe the extent of the authority of the sons who were conscripted for military service (χιλίαρχος and ἑκατοντάρχης).  This results in the modification of the MT “captains of fifties” to “leaders of hundreds,” ἑκατοντάρχης being a technical term for a Roman centurion that was in common use at the time of the LXX translation effort.  The Syriac also modifies this verse with “…1000…100…50…10… ” in an apparent attempt to harmonize the passage with Deuteronomy 1:15.

In verse 16, LXX adds “your cattle” (βουκόλια ὑμῶν) to the list of servants and livestock that will be confiscated by the king and applied to his service.  Reconstructing a Hebrew source for this would require the subitution of בָּקָר (cattle) for בָּחוּר (young men), which would necessitate the replacment of the characters חוּ with ק.  Although the consonants ק and ח are similar phonetically, the removal of the Shureq produces a different vocalization thus it is unlikely that this is a case of homophony. Although the LXX reading fits the context better, it is difficult to imagine how an unintentional scribal error of this sort would be introduced in MT if בָּחוּר is original.  Consequently, the harder reading of the MT seems best.

The Qere, LXX, Syriac, and Vulgate provide the expected copula, which is absent in the MT, to the first word of verse 17 (צֹאנְכֶ֖ם).  Since the last letter of verse 16 is a holem waw (וֹֽ), the absence of the copula in MT can likely be explained as an instance of haplography, thus the originality of the waw conjunctive is probable.

Finally, LXX adds the phrase “because you chose for yourselves a king” (ὅτι ὑμεῖς ἐξελέξασθε ἑαυτοῖς βασιλέα) at the end of verse 18.  This addition appears to be an attempt to explain God’s refusal to answer the cry of the people and thus is a theological gloss.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Bill T. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 & 2 Samuel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

2003.

_____. and H.G.M. Williamson, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books.

Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005.

_______. and John H. Choi. A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2003.

Bodner, Keith. National Insecurity: A Primer on the First Book of Samuel. Toronto: Clements

Publishing, 2003.

Brueggemann, Walter. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for

Teaching and Preaching.  Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990.

_____. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Hill, Andrew E. and John H. Walton. A Survey of the Old Testament, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 2000.

Ijezie, Luke Emehiele. The Interpretation of the Hebrew Word עַם (People) in Samuel–Kings.

Berlin: Peter Lang, 2005.

Mitchell, Eric Allen. A Literary Examination of the Function of Satire in the Mishpat Hamelek of

1Samuel 8. Lewiston, New York: 2007.

Pratico, Gary D. and Miles Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 2007.

Ross, Allen P. Introducing Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rpids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Tenney, Merrill C. Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.

Tsumura, David Toshio. The First Book of Samuel. 1 vol. The New International Commentary

on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.


[1] Keith Bodner, National Insecurity: A Primer on the First Book of Samuel (Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003), 66.

[2] Eric Allen Mitchell, A Literary Examination of the Function of Satire in the Mishpat Hamelek of 1 Samuel 8 (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007), 219-20.

[3] Bill T. Arnold, The NIV Application Commentary: 1 & 2 Samuel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 149.

[4] David T. Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 254-55.

[5] William Lee Holladay et al., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 178-79.

[6] Tsumura, Samuel, 256.

[7] Tsumura, Samuel, 257.

[8] Merrill C. Tenney, ed., Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), 593-94.

[9] Bill T. Arnold and H.G.M. Williamson, Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2005), 951.

[10] See the discussion of the substitution of “cattle” for “young men” in the Text Criticism section above.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1990), 63.

[12] Present author’s translation. In context, James and John are not asking to rule the Gentiles, but to rule Israel as the vicegerents of Jesus.  Accordingly, ἄρχειν τῶν ἐθνῶν should be rendered “rulers of the nations” rather than “rulers of the Gentiles.”

[13] Cf. John 12:31-32.

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