restricted access 1 Samuel 8:11-18 as "A Mirror for Princes"
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1 Samuel 8:11-18 as "A Mirror for Princes"

The prophet Samuel's declaration of משפט המלך to the assembled Israelites in 1 Sam 8:11-18 has generally been understood in the history of scholarship as a catalogue of monarchic excess. Scholarly interpretations of this passage enumerate various literary parallels found in both biblical and nonbiblical texts. These purported parallels include memories of the reign of Solomon by a later writer, descriptions of Canaanite royal practices preceding the start of the Israelite monarchy, and accounts of Assyrian royal behaviors close in time to the composition and redaction of the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH). This article shifts focus away from charting specific literary parallels to 1 Sam 8:11-18 in other ancient Near Eastern texts. I argue instead that 1 Sam 8:11-18 takes inspiration from a diverse group of literary materials and rituals designed to constrain monarchic power, the excesses of which brought ruin on cult and country. These diverse materials range from the Babylonian Fürstenspiegel to priestly rituals that are part of the Babylonian New Year festival. Together they constitute a "genre of discourse," a term coined by Tzvetan Todorov to describe how diverse literary and nonliterary materials can [End Page 625] share a common social function. I contend that משפט המלך in 1 Sam 8:11-18 should be viewed as part of the Fürstenspiegel genre of discourse, a mode of critiquing and restraining royal power in the ancient Near East by raising a mirror to its excesses.

I. Scholarly Interpretations of 1 Samuel 8:11-18

Beginning in the nineteenth century, critical scholarship on 1 Samuel has explored possible responses to monarchy in ancient Israel that are disclosed in the section of the book related to the rise of Saul (chs. 7-12). Scholarship since Julius Wellhausen's synthesis (building on Johann Gottfried Eichhorn's and Otto Thenius's earlier works) has attempted to dissect these chapters into promonarchic and anti-monarchic passages that reflect, respectively, earlier and later stages in the development of Israelite responses to the institution of monarchy.1 Classically, scholars have construed 1 Samuel 8, a chapter in which Samuel confronts Israel's request for a king "like all the nations" (8:5), as a late, antimonarchic passage designed to frame the reading of historically earlier, promonarchic passages in this section. More recent source-critical analysis of ch. 8 posits a more complex textual history for this passage. Bruce C. Birch, among others, argues that there are signs that ch. 8 is not a complete unit but rather a composite text that is built on an older tradition. Deuteronomistic phraseology such as אלהים אחרים ("other gods") and הלך אחרי ("follow after") (8:8) infuses this older material.2 This approach views 1 Samuel 8, [End Page 626] in its final form, as a composite text reflecting competing attitudes toward the monarchy and an ongoing ambivalence toward the institution in Israelite society.

Samuel's משפט המלך in vv. 11-18 has, in particular, evoked substantial comment about both its origin and its role in this chapter.

11And he said, "This will be the משפט of the king who will rule over you: he will take your children and appoint them in his chariots and his cavalry, and they will run before his chariotry. 12He will appoint for himself captains of thousands and fifties, or they will do his plowing, harvesting, and make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13Your daughters he will take for perfumers, cooks, and bakers. 14Your choice fields, vineyards, and olive orchards he will take and give to his servants. 15He will take a tithe of your seed and your vineyard and give (it) to his officers and his servants. 16Your best servants, maidservants, and young men and your asses he will take and use for his work. 17He will take a tithe of your flocks, and you will be his servants. 18You will cry out on that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and Yhwh will not answer you on that day."

Opinions regarding the origin of this catalogue of monarchic excess are varied. Scholars in the late...