Friday, August 29, 2014

1 Samuel 8: Israel asks Samuel for a king and their surface problem


In 1 Samuel 8, we see where Israel’s monarchy came from.  Samuel the prophet was getting old and his sons were judges, but they were perverting judgment—turning aside for money, taking bribes, and so forth, so they would not be good successors to his righteous judgment.

The elders of Israel got together and went to Samuel with their concern about this issue and their solution was to make a king over Israel.  The text gives their reason—“now make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (v5).  Another version of their reason is, “That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (v20).

We usually jump on that reasoning that is repeated that they want to be like all the other nations and we point to that as their problem, but I think it is not that simple.  We have to understand their society and take into account their history.

Reading through Judges, we see that Israel had these men that the Lord raised up to deliver Israel from their difficulties, difficulties that were often caused by their unfaithfulness to God.  This rise of deliverers was good, but if we can imagine life between judges, how uncertain it was when the next judge would be raised up or who it would be.  If there were competing voices about this, how easy would it be to tell who to get behind? (Consider Abimelech, who campaigned against his 70 brothers, all sons of Gideon.)

They really needed a prophet, but it doesn’t seem like there was any spiritual line of succession of who that would be.  It should have gone with the priests at the tabernacle, but we get no hint that they were involved in anything like that.  (Of course, there may someday be lost records that come out about that era and we may get a different picture altogether.)

The surface problem Israel seems to have been anxious to solve is the problem of leadership succession—who are they people going to get behind when war threatens?  Kingship can solve that problem—it’s hereditary.  Unfortunately, another problem they had was the problem of judges (and priests) with wicked sons, and monarchy did not solve that problem, but made it worse.  An efficient election process would solve that, but considering the only governments around them were monarchies, it might be hard for them to imagine what that would look like.  It would have been easiest to just get rid of Samuel’s sons as judges and put in better men.

Again, what they really needed was a prophet to lead them in battle or to pick someone to general for them.  (But they already had that.  They had Samuel. So there's a deeper problem as well.)

The Lord told Samuel to warn the people of the disadvantages of having a king, and we have the list preserved for us.

Notice all the times Samuel says “he will take” about what a king would do.  The things the king will take represent nearly everything the Israelites have that is most valuable and productive.

He will take your sons and appoint them as charioteers and horsemen and runners. (v11).  This is a warning of how a king would create a standing army, which would have to stay in readiness all the time, require pay and supply, and a place to stay.  Men standing constantly at readiness to train and fight aren’t cultivating the land.  They also require weapons to be made for them, necessitating an arms industry. 

This might have sounded good to the Israelites, making it seem like their children would have opportunities for advancement (or even prestigious positions), but in reality their scope for growth would be limited by their superiors’ perception of their merit and the number of openings available.  Real merit might be passed over for any number of reasons, whereas at home their advancement would depend upon their ingenuity and how hard they could work.

He will appoint captains over thousands, fifties, and tens, and set them to harvest his crops and make his weapons (v12).  This is about the creation of bureaucracy and permanent military hierarchy.  Large numbers of helpers leads to need for chains of command.  With systematic organization, you will also get passing the buck, red tape delays, and turf wars. 

He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers (v13).  This warns of girls taken from their families and having to work around strangers who may exploit them or mistreat them, and teach them highly specialized skills of concocting luxurious foods and other things beyond what is needed for normal life such that normal skills of running a household are neglected and only the richest can pay for their skills.   And instead of becoming queens of their own households, they would be servants in another’s.

He will take the best fields, vineyards, and olive yards to give to his servants (v14).  This warns about how resources would begin to be concentrated in the hands of a few and an increase in social stratification.  It may also be an early mention of eminent domain in the scriptures.

He will take the tenth of seed and fruits (v15) and tenth of sheep (v17) to give to his officers and servants.  This is warning of taxes.  For a king to have something to pay his servants, he has to have a source of revenue.  That revenue has to come from somewhere and unless he takes office with great wealth already, he won’t have time to earn it because of his other duties.  Thus it has to come from taxes.

He will take your servants and best young men and your beasts of burden and put them to his work (v16).  When royalty wants to hire good servants, they generally get them from somewhere, but the people they take them from have no way of competing to keep those human resources because everyone thinks it is an honor to serve royalty.  Good servants are hard to find and hard to replace, so they’d lose their best workers, while the king might not have openings to best use the talents of the people serving him.

And this is if the king is still trying to be just.  Injustice makes the taking even worse.

So basically, serving royalty is a big diversion of people and stuff and labor because for the king to do his job protecting he has to have resources to protect and govern with.  To have their standing army ready, they have to have something to pay them, or lots of farms to feed them with.  The kings also have to negotiate with other heads of state and their bargaining position is strengthened if they have prestige that comes from a wealth of resources at their disposal.  However, that means all those resources are either sitting around, or they need bureaucracy to work them, so waste and inefficiencies are introduced and monarchy becomes a resource suck.

In the past, Israel made do by having someone blow the trumpet and summon everyone to come do their bit for the country and they just had to trust that it would be enough and people would come.  And it worked, but it was so uncertain and always looked upon as a miracle that it worked, but I guess they really wanted something they could automatically resort to. 

What is cool about this chapter is that the people saw the problem with Samuel’s sons as judges and brought the matter to Samuel’s attention and proposed a solution.  The solution wasn’t a good one, but they were at least involved.  What is also cool is that three times the Lord says to Samuel, “Hearken unto the people.”  Even as the people want the wrong thing as a solution, the Lord is honoring their collective agency.  We get a hint of that principle more fully mentioned in the Book of Mormon that the voice of the people and what they want is a bellwether about the direction society is going.  When the voice of the people want what is good, great!  But when they don’t, it is a very sad thing and indicates destruction is coming.

I have to wonder if the Lord’s instructions to Samuel, “Hearken unto the people” is also for Samuel on a personal level as well as a political level.  He may have felt very unhappy about being rejected by the people wanting a king.  It is hard to make wise decisions and react appropriately when you’re feeling attacked or rejected, especially by many people.  (I’ve had a little dose of that myself and it is painful.)  It’s possible that hearkening to the people and putting energies into understanding their view would help Samuel get over his personal feelings.  (Actually, I know that is true because I’ve had recent experience where listening more closely to my husband’s concerns helped me get over defensive and resentful feelings.)

I also have to wonder what would have happened if, after Samuel warned the people, the people had relinquished their desire for a king.  If they had said, “Okay, no king.  What should we do instead?” what would have happened?  Would they have created more judges in a more systematized way like the Nephites in the Book of Mormon?  Would they have created some sort of representative government?  Would they have gotten more of a prophetically chosen system of executives?  Who knows?

I like how this chapter shows us a sample of dialogue between the Lord had His people through the prophet.  The people ask Samuel, Samuel goes to the Lord, the Lord answers and tells Samuel what to say, Samuel passes the message on, the people answer, Samuel takes that answer to the Lord, and back and forth.   It shows the people at least have the faith that Samuel really does speak to the Lord and for the Lord, and that seems like an improvement from the time of Moses.  It’s just too bad that the people have already made up their minds about what they want no matter what the Lord tells them.   Hopefully we can learn to be smarter with our prayers and be willing to take “No” and “Not a good idea” answers when they come.

What is also kind of cool about this story is how Samuel serves as a mediator between God and the people, taking messages between them and sharing his own concerns with the Lord.  It is neat to realize that we have a prophet today who does the same thing.

It’s good to remember that the Lord knew what was going on in Israel without the people having to go to the prophet and the prophet having to tell Him everything.  He doesn’t need prayers to know.  Rather, it is the people and the prophet who need it.  Prayer is for us to help us learn honesty, to learn trust in the Lord, to learn spiritual sensitivity to the Lord, to learn how to follow the impressions received.  It is the way our will is brought to correspond with the Lord’s, and if that doesn’t happen, then our prayers are vain.