Jonathan H. Walton, «A King Like The Nations: 1 Samuel 8 in Its Cultural Context.», Vol. 96 (2015) 179-200
Commentators on 1 Samuel 8 offer a variety of interpretations about what the requested king is expected to replace: judgeship, YHWH himself, or Israel's covenant identity. This article demonstrates that none of these proposals account for the Biblical text adequately. It is proposed instead that the king is intended to replace the Ark of the Covenant. The king will then manipulate YHWH into leading in battle. This is what ancient Near Eastern kings were able to do with their gods, and what the ark failed to do in 1 Samuel 4.
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A King Like The Nations:
1 Samuel 8 in Its Cultural Context
Commentators on 1 Samuel are inclined to speculate broadly on
which properties of “the nations” the elders of Israel expect to de-
rive from the institution of kingship. The illocution of the elders’
request is nuanced accordingly, depending on the expected inter-
pretation. The most popular variations include:
(1) “Give us a king [instead of a judge] like the other nations [so
our state can function like theirs do]”. This interpretation is a rejec-
tion of the institution of judgeship 1.
(2) “Give us a king [instead of a deity] like the other nations [have]”.
This interpretation is a rejection of YHWH personally 2.
(3) “Give us a king [so we may become] like the other nations [be-
cause they are better off than us]”. This interpretation is a request
for a new national identity 3.
What these commentators continuously fail to explore is how,
exactly, the “other nations” perceived their identity, their monarchy,
and most importantly, their relationship with their gods. It is nec-
essarily true that whatever Israel is “rejecting” must be something
that orthodox Israel possesses that the nations do not.
I would instead prefer an interpretation as follows: “Give us a king
[who is] like [the kind that] the other nations [have, who will serve
the same functions in the same manner as theirs]”. This interpretation
sees a new dynamic in the way that Israel as a nation, via its leader,
relates to its God. Specifically, it reflects a theology reminiscent of
the ancient Near Eastern nations they wish to emulate. By asking for
a king “like the nations”, they reflect their desire for a God “like the
nations”; implicitly, instead of the God they have. It is this rejection
of YHWH’s identity that causes him to say, “they have rejected me”.
See R.D. BERGEN, 1, 2 Samuel. An Exegetical and Theological Exposi-
tion of Holy Scripture (NAC; Nashville, TN 1996) 113.
See L.M. ESLINGER, Kingship of God in Crisis. A Close Reading of 1
Samuel 1–12 (Sheffield 1985) 263.
See D. TSUMURA, The First Book of Samuel (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI
BIBLICA 96.2 (2015) 179-200