Sunday, June 01, 2008

God Hates the State: 1 Samuel 7:1 - 8

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible Commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky

Ask a Christian for Biblical views on government, and you're not unlikely to hear some reference to Romans 13, especially - but not exclusively - if you're talking to an evangelical or a conservative (or a conservative evangelical, for that matter). That chapter is easily interpreted as conservative, fawning praise for state institutions, commanding obedience from we the loyal subjects - this is in fact a misinterpretation brought on once again by the atrocious numbering in Romans, but we'll get there in a few months). In the meantime, here's a considerably more pessimistic view of human government.

Samuel leads a popular uprising against the Philistines after the military and priesthood both demonstrably failed to "protect" the people, as they were supposed to, in the first several chapters of the book. The revolution is successful and Samuel symbolically plants boundary stones at the edge of Israelite territory. For some reason, the Amorites are still around, but there's no war with them during Samuel's lifetime.

Samuel plays the role of judge, like all the incompetent buffoons in Judges did, and by all accounts he's a good one, but the people are dissatisfied. They fret that if Samuel dies his sons might gain enough political support to become the new judges, and they don't like those sons - the Biblical writer says that they "turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice." So we can add Samuel to the list of Biblical heroes who were also horribly failed fathers. Take that, Promise Keepers!

The elders come before Samuel in a closed-door meeting and tell him he needs to set things right by appointing a permanent "king" for Israel. A significant footnote: the word here apparently is the same one which is translated "judge," which actually means "ruler" according to the first footnote in Judges, so we have a strange wandering translation going on here as Biblical scholars try to impose upon the Bible some arbitrary distinctions between "judge," "ruler" and "king." At least in this case there's something to it: the elders specify that this new king will be like the ones that "all the other nations have."

This is intriguing because the Israelites have basically proposed the creation of a state. It's not particularly original for the time period in which the Biblical events are supposed to have happened, but it is interesting from the perspective of the Biblical account, because it's not a social order supposedly imposed by divine choice. In Genesis, we had a patrimonial family system which failed completely; then a priesthood was created in Exodus through Numbers, but it was supplanted by the military in Joshua; and then there was a system of temporary Judges, which was clearly a complete farce in terms of political stability or ethical integrity.

So far each of these systems has failed, but, perhaps predictably, God is not thrilled to learn that the Israelites want to create a permanent state. The problem, God reasons, is that the Israelites don't have faith in him: if they did, they wouldn't need a state. Moses, you may recall, prophecied that such a demand would be made eventually (he did this way back in Deuteronomy), and created some rules to make sure the kings would be righteous. Here, however, God is not at all pleased at the prospect of a king and not at all optimistic about the king's righteousness. He furiously orders Samuel to deliver an angry speech to the Israelites, one which is not at all like Romans 13, would warm the heart of any anarchist, but fails to impress the Israelites at all.

A king, Samuel tells the Israelites with "the words of the Lord" flowing from his mouth, will not serve God - in fact, quite the contrary, he will draw the people away from God. He will conscript the young men and turn them into foot soldiers, running before his chariots (probably the most vulnerable position, especially in early conscript armies which hadn't mastered phalanx-style formations); he will hire the young women as perfumers and cooks; he will take the best of the food and wine and give it to his bureaucrats and cronies; and the people will become "slaves" of the state. The king will even demand a tithe of his own - in an immensely significant passage, Samuel says that the king will demand one-tenth of the produce, which given the context of ancient Israelite society implies that the state is going to try to replace - or even become - god.

The people, however, don't have much faith in God, who, let's be honest, hasn't been all that good at custom-designing societies so far. (It pains me to admit that because I'm quite partial to the political criticism of 1 Samuel 8.) They say they don't care and they want a king to "be like all the other nations, with a king ot lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles."

In a stunning act of democratic good faith, God says that's okay with him. He seems to be withdrawing again, like he did in the late chapters of Genesis. The God of Numbers probably would have blown up the Israelite council of elders and buried their families alive.