The prophet Samuel was one of the most important figures in Jewish history. He served as an outstanding judge and spiritual guide at a time when the priesthood was in decline, and went on to appoint two kings: first Saul, and then David.

Establishing a monarchy, however, was not Samuel’s idea. The people demanded it:

All the elders of Israel gathered, and came to Samuel, to Ramah…and said to him, “Behold, you have grown old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now, appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”1

Samuel’s reaction was far from positive. He turned the matter over to G‑d, who responded with similar displeasure, but nevertheless told Samuel to grant them their wish:

The L‑rd said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people, according to all that they will say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from reigning over them.”2

Instructed by G‑d, Samuel warned the people in great detail about the dangers of appointing a king. He cautioned them, as it were, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, which means that kings are liable to carry out abuses of power. He predicted that they would come to regret their request, but the people were adamant:

The people refused to listen to Samuel's voice, and they said, “No, but there shall be a king over us. Rather, we shall be like all the nations; our king will judge us, go forth before us and wage our wars.”3

Eventually, Samuel appointed Saul as king, later to be replaced by David, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Some Tough Questions

  1. Why was Samuel annoyed by their request? And why did G‑d deem the request a rejection, when appointing a king is entirely legitimate according to the Torah?
    When you come to the land the L‑rd, your G‑d, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,” you shall set a king over you, one whom the L‑rd, your G‑d, chooses…
  2. It is clear from the story that the people were not rejecting Samuel, but his sons who were unworthy. Moreover, they turned to Samuel himself to request a king. Had this been a rejection, they would have done so behind his back and without his consent. So how can it be presented as such?
  3. Ultimately, G‑d accedes and Samuel appoints a king. If it was truly an objectionable request, why was this done? Nowhere do we find that a prophet was pressured into doing something he considered illegitimate, nor would the Almighty grant the request. So, if it was improper, why was it done? And if it was acceptable, why the initial objection?

Additional questions arise when looking at how the Torah addresses the appointing of a monarch.

  1. Why is appointing a king only relevant “When you come to the land … and you possess it and live therein”? Does it not make more sense to have a king earlier, in order to lead the process of conquering and distributing the land?
  2. It is similarly confusing that the Torah associates the move to appoint a king with the nation’s request, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me.” If appointing a king is a mitzvah, why should it depend on whether the people ask for it? Conversely, if it is not allowed, why would it be approved just because there is a groundswell demand?

Three Main Approaches

So, is appointing a king a good thing or a bad thing? A close examination of rabbinic teachings throughout the generations illuminates three main viewpoints:

The Negative: Appointing a king is a bad idea, one which the Torah only permits with reluctance and regret, which explains Samuel’s chagrin.

Talmudic sage Rabbi Nehorai argues that the Torah only made allowances for a monarch as an appeasement.4 This viewpoint is most closely associated with Don Isaac Abarbanel, who argues that there is nothing worthy in a monarchy and that there are superior methods of government.5 The Torah instructs the establishment of a stable government, but not a hereditary monarchy.

However, this view gives rise to considerable difficulties. How do we deal with the multitude of times6 that G‑d blessed the Patriarchs that their descendants would be kings? And why does Jewish prayer make continual supplications for the reinstatement of the Davidic monarchy?

The Positive: Appointing a king is a mitzvah, but the manner in which the people approached Samuel caused offense.

This is the opinion of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yehuda, who argues that it is one of the commandments that was incumbent upon the Israelites upon settling the Promised Land. The Book of Judges repeatedly describes the period prior to the establishment of the monarchy as lawless, a time in which “each did what they saw fit.”7 Unifying the people around a centralized righteous monarchy is the optimal form of governance. This view is most closely associated with Maimonides,8 who considers the appointment of a king obligatory.9

But if appointing a king is unequivocally good, why does the Torah present it as something to be done in response to popular demand? Besides, it is hard to ignore the reality that the Israelite monarchs were largely corrupt and dissolute, and their behavior more than justified Samuel’s steep reservations.

It Depends: Whether or not appointing a king is favorable is contingent upon the circumstances and motives, and at the time Samuel felt they were not ripe for a king.

This view is most closely associated with Saadia Gaon and Abraham Ibn Ezra,10 according to whom the matter of appointing a king is optional and contingent on the will of the people. Indeed, the Sifrei11 declares that Samuel objected because their request was premature. Others12 explain that when it appears a monarchy is suitable, then it is indeed obligatory to appoint one.

The difficulty with this approach is that if the decision to appoint a king depends on the people, why did Samuel protest their request? It is also hard to accept that the Torah would make something as central as the method of leadership dependent on the will of the people, rather than Divine decree.

What Kind of King?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi13 offers a new paradigm for understanding why Samuel was hostile to the request for a monarch.

The Torah addresses two possible types of kings:

One is a regular ruler, whose role it is to defend the country and manage its affairs. With his authority, the king is able to impose law and order and inspire national unity. This type of monarch is little different from rulers of other nations, with the exception that the Torah demands that he be committed to promoting justice and avoid abuses of power, and it applies a range of restrictions to curb potential excesses. This type of king is essentially a benign dictator, but Torah does not recommend such a king, and only allows it if the people insist it is necessary for them to function.

The Torah prefers the concept of an ideal monarch, whose rule is mainly spiritual. The king is endowed with a lofty soul, and his primary role is to help bind his people to the Almighty. His throne becomes, as it were, G‑d’s seat on earth.14 The fealty and obedience the people show towards the king is essentially preparation for ultimate fealty and obedience to G‑d. One such leader was King David, who, besides being a courageous warrior and effective ruler, was also a champion of faith and giant of spirit.

If the idea is to establish the most effective form of government, then a monarchy is not the ideal. If society is in proper order, it should not require an all-powerful monarch to run properly. However, the Torah sees the role of a king as more of a means through which the nation can attain its greatest spiritual heights.

Wrong Kind of King

Now we understand why Samuel was not on board with the people’s request. It was clear to him that they wanted a “king like all the nations” – a ruler who would establish peace and order. Indeed, the Torah permits the appointment of such a king (with limitations), but that is not what a king is ideally for.

Samuel felt crushing disappointment that the people sought a king to help with their material problems instead of to help them reach their spiritual potential – which is the real reason for a king.

The people sought a king to take care of things that they should have been able to sort out themselves. What they should have been asking for was a king who would help them achieve that which they were unable to do themselves. If their intentions were correct, they would have requested a leader more like Samuel – someone of spiritual stature.

Bad Timing

That is why the Torah describes the appointment of a king as something to be done only after settling the land. The true purpose of a king is not to wage war or administer the country. It is to help elevate the country and the people to fulfill their true purpose.

Samuel felt that the people were not yet ready for the kind of king that was truly appropriate. They needed to address their own problems first, and ask for the kind of king that would take them to the level beyond what they could achieve on their own.15

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 24, p.104, and Derech Mitzvotechah, p. 215.