There are places in the Torah that demonstrate a reasonable understanding of human nature, and the challenge in asking human beings to succumb to their better natures, act righteously, do justly, and resist selfish urges.
Then there are places in the Torah where all that goes out the window in order to serve a particular agenda. One of the most egregious of those occurs here in the parasha. For me, this passage presents some of the clearest evidence of human redaction/addition/insertion to the text. Yes, there are more obvious passages, particularly the ones that blatantly say “as it is to this day” or ones that annotate a place name by referencing a name it was known by in later times. These little anachronisms are amusing simply because they are so obvious.
This one is not so amusing, as it represents Divine support for a significant change in the political structure of the people of the covenant. (Deut 17:14-20)
כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃
If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,”
שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ מִקֶּ֣רֶב אַחֶ֗יךָ תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָתֵ֤ת עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אִ֣ישׁ נָכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־אָחִ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃
you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.
רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃
Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃
And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.
וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם׃
Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws.
לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
Surely, the authors of the Torah, be they Divine or human, understood the notion that power corrupts. Their instructions here to a potential King demonstrate that concern. There’s just one problem: they have described an impossible scenario in these verses.
More cynically, they have described here actions that former Kings of Israel and Judah have engaged in, and are trying to caution future (and present?) leaders against doing such things.
This fits quite nicely with the scholarly notion of the Book of D’varim/Deuteronmy being a later addition to the books of the Torah. The mention of many wives is not a caution, but a rebuke to David and Solomon and other Kings. So, too, the mention of amassing great wealth. It’s not unreasonable to believe that at some point the Israelites of Judahites were tempted to accept a n on-Israelite as their King, thus that caution. The mention of sending people back to Egypt to obtain horses feels awfully specific to me.
If what the Torah has here is a list of how Kings should act, then most of Israel’s kings, especially some of the more famous ones, failed to live up to these commandments. The rabbis and scholars (and in particular the Rambam/Maimonides) derive six commandments from these verses – one positive and five negative.
- To appoint a king (Deut. 17:15) (positive).
- Not to appoint as ruler over Israel, one who comes from non-Israelites (Deut. 17:15) (negative).
- That the King shall not acquire an excessive number of horses (Deut. 17:16) (negative).
- That the King shall not take an excessive number of wives (Deut. 17:17) (negative).
- That he shall not accumulate an excessive quantity of gold and silver (Deut. 17:17) (negative).
- That the King shall write a scroll of the Torah for himself, in addition to the one that every person should write, so that he writes two scrolls (Deut. 17:18) (affirmative).
I’m going to be bold and argue with the rabbis and scholars. I do not read Deut. 17:15 as a commandment to appoint a King. It simply gives permission to the Israelites to do so, should they choose. Knowing how impossible it might be for a king to live up to the standards demanded here by the Torah, I am somewhat surprised we went ahead and chose to be ruled by a King.
Imagine how different society could be if the Israelites hadn’t succumbed to the desire to be ruled by a king like all the other nations. Imagine them sticking with the “Judges” model with leaders being acclaimed only as the need arise. Imagine the Israelites developing a democratic or representative model of governance. The early Greeks were able to do so, so why not the Israelites? In fact, the Torah stipulates many of the principles that a self-governing nation without a monarchy might utilize. Opportunity lost.
The commandments that the Torah creates for Kings could be equally applied to the responsible parties in any political system. There’s a system right here in our own country in our own time that is woefully failing to abide by these principles enumerated in the Torah.
Therein lies the reality that belies what we read in Deut. 17. Human beings do have a tendency to use any position they obtain to further their own selfish needs and desires. There are rare examples throughout history of rulers and leaders who truly put the needs of their country and citizens above their own. However, the temptation is great, and even the best servant of the people can, and often does, succumb to at least some temptation. One (theoretical) advantage of representative democracy is that no single individual leader is in a position to gain personally from their position in a manner similar to that of a true king/monarch/dictator. Absolute leaders are going to be the most prone to accumulate excessive wealth. How could it be otherwise?
So why would the Torah command us to have a King, knowing that a King is hardly likely to be able to easily follow the other five commandments related to kings? Torah is trying to close the barn door after the horses are out. As Mel Brooks puts it in “History of the World Part I” – “It’s good to be the king.”
Might for right, not might is right, a young Arthur posits in T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Yet even this most selfless and righteous of kings succumbed to temptations that led to his ruination. Will we ever know a ruler who can truly live up to the notion that It’s King to Be the Good”?
We are living a reality in which even a representative democracy is beset with leaders at all levels who seem incapable of finding their better selves, and quickly succumb to the temptations that accompany having any amount of power over others. Which leads to a potentially uncomfortable question. Which is better – having a single King who amasses great wealth and yields great power more for personal gain and selfish purposes than a desire to serve the people of the nation, or a representative democracy in which the representatives and leaders at all level and in all branches often succumb to the same temptations? Is there not a better chance of convincing a single monarch to put the needs of the people and country before his/her own, than to convince most of a large number of elected representatives, leaders, judges, etc. to do the same? Does the Torah make the case that a benevolent dictatorship might be the best form of government (so long as, from the Torah’s perspective, the dictator abides by and follows G”d’s commandments) ?
Here, right here, is an argument for G”d and religion as a check and balance on the power of rulers. I won’t dismiss, and fully acknowledge that the Torah and the texts of other western religions have been used as an excuse for the perpetration of all sorts of horrors. It’s a fact we can’t escape. At the same time, most religions do call upon us to find our better natures and act in the interest of the whole over the one. If kings, presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and other elected and appointed officials of government heeded the cautions offered here in Deut. 17 (and elsewhere in the Torah, New Testament, Quran, et al) then perhaps we could create a better world.
Also, though I won’t endorse the concept, the idea that G”d can represent a check on even the most powerful ruler has a certain appeal. Picturing G”d bringing a selfish ruler to justice brings a smile to my face. If only the Torah didn’t have all that other yucky stuff done by G”d and that G”d asked human beings to do. Sigh.
©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings not his parasha:
Shof'tim 5775 - Whose Justice (Revisted)
Shoftim 5774 - Signifying Nothing
Shoftim 5773-Hassagat G'vul Revisited Yet Again
Shoftim 5772 - Quis Custodiet Ipso Custodes
Shoftim 5771 - Hassagat G'vul Revisited
Shoftim 5767 (Redux and Updated 5760/61) From Defective to Greatest
Shof'tim 5766-Hassagut G'vul
Shoftim 5765/5759-Whose Justice?