After the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan (the “Promise Land”) and after the passing of Joshua, a tribal confederacy was established. This confederacy was held together and led by Israel’s judges. Twelve judges are mentioned in the Old Testament book of Judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson. The First book of Samuel mentions several others: Eli, Samuel, and Samuel’s sons, Joel and Abiah.
The role of Israel’s judges/rulers (shofet) was not restricted to just legal functions. They were the leaders who procured the rights of the people—sometimes seen as the champion or deliverer, or mediator for the whole people. Judges were charismatic (inspired) leaders, chosen by the twelve tribes.
Now it is a stretch, but I’ll do the stretching anyway, to compare Israel’s tribal confederacy to our American form of government. The judges now-a-days are our legislators, elected by the people, to be the champions, deliverers, and mediators for the whole people.
Today, I wonder, if, like Israel of old, we have grown tired of our representatives. We talk about the “do nothing Congress” and we decry their privileges and lengthy tenures in office. The Israelites got tired of their judges, too.
Israel wanted to become like the nations around them. They wanted a king! They wanted a centralization of power in the crown rather than relying on their representatives to get things done.
“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘Behold you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us [literally: “to judge us”] like all the nations” (I Samuel 8:4-5).
Our rejection of a representative government, of, for and by the people, which is now over two centuries old and not working as well as we think it should, is similar to that of ancient Israel’s rejection of their judges. The judges just weren’t measuring up. “Appoint for us a king to govern us…” Samuel warned them that a king would limit their freedom and subject them to despotic tyranny. But the people insisted.
God is said to have spoken to Samuel in the midst of the crisis: “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”
Our willingness to have a “king to govern us” (even if he claims to know more about the Middle East, more than the generals, more than our intelligence communities, and even if he claims to be the chosen one and a genius, even a stable one at that)—is a rejection of our oft-quoted mantra of “one nation under God.”