Israel’s Request for a King in Pseudo-Philo

Pseudo-Philo is a first century C.E. Jewish work.  In this post, I will discuss Pseudo-Philo’s treatment of Israel’s request for a king in I Samuel.

When I was taking Introduction to Hebrew Bible classes, I heard that there was a variety of sources in I-II Samuel, with different perspectives on kingship.  One source is the anti-kingship source, which is critical of Israel requesting a king because it maintains that God alone is to be Israel’s king.  Saul was the first king of Israel, and, within I Samuel, there is a pro-Saul source and an anti-Saul source.  King David was the second king of Israel, and there is a lot of pro-David material in I-II Samuel.  I should add that, in Deuteronomy 17:14-17, God allows Israel to choose a king, but some scholars say that Deuteronomy there renders the king so powerless that he is a merely symbolic figure.

Pseudo-Philo was probably not aware of the existence of these sources in I-II Samuel.  It still interacts with the tensions however, in its own way, as it maintains that all of these parts of Scripture are somehow authoritative.  Pseudo-Philo 56 presents the people of Israel requesting a king because Samuel is old and Samuel’s sons are not righteous like their father.  That is what happens in I Samuel 8.  Unlike I Samuel 8, however, Pseudo-Philo depicts the Israelites appealing to Deuteronomy 17:15 as they make their request.  And, whereas God in I Samuel 8 says that the Israelites in their request are rejecting God’s kingship over them, which is a negative attitude towards Israel having a king, we see something different in Pseudo-Philo 56.  In Pseudo-Philo 56, Samuel’s problem is that Israel is requesting a king before the right time.  Obviously, Samuel in Pseudo-Philo 56 knows that Israel will one day have a king, and the reason could be that Genesis 49 predicts that a scepter will not depart from Judah.  This king would be David.  Samuel in Pseudo-Philo 56 is not anti-monarchy, as parts of I Samuel 8 are, but he believes that Israel’s request for a king is premature.

Pseudo-Philo is bringing together the pro-David and the anti-kingship voices, as it nullifies the message of the anti-kingship source by making its voice no longer anti-kingship, but rather anti-kingship-until-David-becomes-king.  Does Pseudo-Philo do anything with the pro-Saul source in I Samuel?  Maybe.  Or, at least, there is a place in Pseudo-Philo in which Saul does not appear to be depicted as negatively as usual.  In the Hebrew Bible, there is a motif of God choosing people, who retort that they are unworthy or inadequate for the task.  We see this with Moses (Exodus 3:11), Gideon (Judges 6:15), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:6), and, yes, Saul (I Samuel 9:21).  In I Samuel 9:21, Saul points to his own youth.  In Pseudo-Philo 56, Samuel responds to Saul: “Who will grant that your word be accomplished of itself to the end that you should have a long life?  Nevertheless, consider this, that your words will be compared to the words of a prophet whose name will be Jeremiah” (D.J. Harrington’s translation).  Is this a positive statement about Saul, which affirms that God can give Saul long life and compares Saul favorably to the prophet Jeremiah?  Or is it a negative statement that sarcastically says that Saul will not live long and compares Saul negatively with Jeremiah, even though both made a similar statement of humility?

A reason that Pseudo-Philo is depicting Israel’s request for a kingship in this manner is that it is trying to harmonize different traditions, which have different ideologies.  Could there also be a profound, homiletical reason?  According to Pseudo-Philo, God would eventually give Israel a king, but Israel acted wrongfully to request a king before the right time.  Should Israel have gone with the flow and allowed God to work on God’s own timetable rather than seeking to force things?  But why was that time not the right time for a king, whereas the time of King David was?  I do not know.  One could say that Israel needed a king when the world became more dangerous, so that Israel could hold her own on the world stage.  And yet, in I Samuel, Israel could hold her own under the leadership of the prophet Samuel, for Israel defeated the Philistines (I Samuel 7).  Why would Israel eventually need a king, when she did all right under prophetic leadership?  Was it to establish a line that would lead to a Messiah who would rule the world (eschatology is in Pseudo-Philo)?  Did Israel need more religious and spiritual tutorship from Samuel before she could receive a king, lest she become proud as a result of King David’s successes?

I should add that, in Pseudo-Philo, the Israelites not only requested a king because of the corruption of Samuel’s sons; according to Pseudo-Philo 57, they did so because they did not believe that they were “worthy to be governed by a prophet” (Harrington’s translation).  This is humility, but it is not a humility that really goes anywhere productive.  It is humility that spurns God’s gifts and God’s standards, that accepts and wallers around in mediocrity rather than pursuing, receiving, or being grateful for what is better.  Similarly, Samuel in I Samuel 15:17 tells Saul that, though Saul may be small in his own eyes, Saul is the king, and Saul should have remembered that and done his job as king.  Humility is good when it leads to dependance on God and gives people a measured, reasonable sense of themselves.  But there is a bad kind of humility that is paralyzing rather than enabling.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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