What does the Bible, Judaism think of kings and queens?

Written in memory of Queen Elizabeth II, a leader with integrity who put responsibility before everything else and under whose reign the Jewish communities of the Commonwealth enjoyed freedom.

 What does the Bible say about monarchy? Do we need a king or queen now, according to Jewish law? (Illustrative). (photo credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)
What does the Bible say about monarchy? Do we need a king or queen now, according to Jewish law? (Illustrative).
(photo credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

Written in memory of Queen Elizabeth II, a leader with integrity who put responsibility before everything else and under whose reign the Jewish communities of the Commonwealth enjoyed freedom and prosperity.

At the upcoming coronation of Charles III, a musical piece composed by George Frideric Handel in 1727 will be played, called “Zadok the Priest.” It consists of what Zadok said at the coronation of King Solomon (1Kings 1, 38-40). This composition has been played at every British coronation since.

In addition, King Charles will be anointed like the kings of Israel. He then will take an oath not to the people, as presidents of states, but to God, just like the kings of Israel.

So what, then, is a King of Israel who so many want to emulate?

 WHILE NORMALLY a blessing, in the summer after the harvest rain just gets in the way.  (credit: Marc Zimmer/Unsplash) WHILE NORMALLY a blessing, in the summer after the harvest rain just gets in the way. (credit: Marc Zimmer/Unsplash)
Monarchy in ancient times

Monarchy was the dominant feature of sovereignty in antiquity. In the Bible, we find kings not only of empires (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome) and countries but even of cities (such as the four kings, (Gen. 14,1) or the king of Jericho (Joshua 6,2). The kingdom was inherited and went from father to son. The eldest son who inherited as the first born was considered the choice offspring of the parent (from the eldest of pharoah who sits on his throne until the eldest of those in captivity, Shmot 12, 39). 

Even in the Torah where the tribe of Levi took the place of the first born (Bamidbar 3,12), making them the chosen tribe (nivchar) instead of the first born (bechor), the first born still inherits more (Dev. 21, 17), as his financial responsibility to his siblings was seen as greater. 

Among the kings of Israel, if there was no son, sometimes the daughter would reign despite the halachic complexity in this matter (see Sifrei 157). In our history we have a few examples: Atalya of Judea (Kings II, 11,1) and queen Salome Alexandra (Shlomtzion) of the Hasmonean dynasty, who was praised by the Talmud. (We also find Devora, who was a judge but not a queen.) 

In antiquity, rulers who did not have royal blood lines but took the kingdom by force would marry a queen in order to justify their ascending the throne. For example, Achashverosh, according to the Talmud, married Vashti since she was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar (Malbim Esther 1,1). And much later, Herod married Miriam, the last Hasmonean of the dynasty. 

The idea of the blood line was justified by the myth that kings and royalty shared some superiority over the commoners. In order to perpetuate this myth, kings refrained from killing other kings; this was a silent agreement. Therefore, we see in Shoftim (1,7) that Adoni-bezek captured 70 kings and cut off their hands and legs but did not kill them. In addition, when the Babylonian king Nevuchadnezar captured Zidkiyahu, he killed his son and took out his eyes but did not kill him (King II, 25,7). In addition, the Babylonian king Evil Mirodach took the previous king of Judah, Yehoyakhin, out of jail and made him a guest at the royal table (Kings II, 25,27). 

This explains why King Saul, the first king of Israel, did not kill Agag the king of Amalek. He understood the accepted rules of kingship. Samuel then rebuked him for keeping the cattle and not killing the king, but Saul answered that the people took pity on the cattle. Samuel understood immediately why Saul spared Agag, so out of pity for Saul he killed Agag himself. 

While kings did not kill kings to perpetuate the idea that they were more than human, a prophet of God was already in a unique category. Interestingly enough, the myth of kingship continued as far as the French Revolution in which all the kings of Europe stood on the side of Louis XVI of France, well knowing that if he should fall, they would all fall like a house of cards.

Is a king good or bad?

In Devarim (17, 14-15), the Torah tells us that when the people will come into the land and say: “I will put upon me a king like all the other nations around me” then “Surely you shall put a king that God will choose.” The notion of God choosing a king means that it should be done through a prophet, such as Samuel who anointed both Saul and David. 

The unusual phrasing of the passage in Parshat Shoftim, in which kingship seems to be contingent on the people asking for it, begs the question as to whether this is the ideal or just the real. Don Isaac Abarbanel, who was finance minister to Ferdinand and Isabella before the expulsion from Spain in 1492, in his commentary to Devarim (17, 24) claims that there is no mitzvah to have a king: “This is not a mitzvah. For God did not command that they have to say this and ask for a king, but it is just describing events that will happen in the future.” 

“Look at the lands that are controlled by kings [and compare them] today to those few lands which are run by judges and temporary rulers… they are run by full councils and by temporary rule… as exists here in Venice, the great metropolis, and Florence, delight of the lands.”

Don Isaac Abarbanel

Abarbanel considers kings over-rated. “Look at the lands that are controlled by kings [and compare them] today to those few lands which are run by judges and temporary rulers… they are run by full councils and by temporary rule… as exists here in Venice, the great metropolis, and Florence, delight of the lands” (ibid). Abarbanel applauds the local ‘councils,’ referring to the great council of Venice, Maggior Consiglio, which existed from the 12th to the 18th century. Its leaders were elected for a limited number of years, and it can be considered in a limited way a forerunner of a democracy.

Therefore, Abarbanel claims that the Torah really does not support the idea of a monarchy but rather merely allows it. There are solid sources to support this position. In Samuel 1,8, after we are told that Samuel’s two sons were unsuccessful judges in Beersheba who succumbed to corruption, the people asked the prophet for a king to lead them and used the exact language of the book of Devarim (17,14), saying: “Give us a king to judge us like all the nations who surround us” (Sam. I, 8,5).

Instead of agreeing, however, Samuel was angered and saw this as treason against God, who is the real king. He cried out to God, who in turn seemed to support Samuel’s position by saying: “for it is not you whom they despise, but me they despise from reigning over them” (verse 7). Despite this, God tells Samuel to allow them to have a king as long as he follows the laws of the Torah. So Samuel appoints Saul.

So is it good or bad? In Chapter 12, when Samuel recaps the history of the people, he again says that asking for a king was wrong – and this time to prove his point, he says he will bring rain in the summer. (Sam. I, 12,16-18; normally in Israel the rainy season is from Sukkot to Passover.) Thunder, lighting and pouring rain fill the sky. The people become scared and tell him that they will forgo the king, but Samuel tells them not to. He says to keep the king but to remember to follow God’s commandments or else both they and the king will perish. So again, is a king good or bad?

Monarchy in Halacha

The Talmud takes a more legalistic view. Rabbi Judah says: “Three mitzvot were commanded to Israel upon entering the land: To appoint a king, to destroy Amalek and to build the Temple” (Sanhedrin 20b). In other words, if the Torah says in the imperative “Surely you shall appoint a king,” it is a command, and the introduction is irrelevant. 

“Three mitzvot were commanded to Israel upon entering the land: To appoint a king, to destroy Amalek and to build the Temple.”

Sanhedrin 20b

It is interesting how first the people appoint a king and then, of course, he leads them into battle against Amalek (Saul) and builds the Temple (Solomon). This is hinted at in three consecutive parshiyot in Devarim. In Shoftim it says to appoint a king (Dev. 17), the end of Ki Tetze (Dev. 25, 19) says to eradicate the memory of Amalek, and the beginning of Ki Tavo (Dev. 26,2) says to bring the bikurim, the first fruit, to “the place that God will choose,” meaning the Temple. 

So why was Samuel so angry? Remember that, as an expression of his anger, Shmuel showed a sign of rain in the summer. Why? Normally rain is a blessing for the crops; but in the summer after the harvest, it just gets in the way. It’s the wrong time. The message here is that the people were too early in their request according to the prophet. They still had prophets and a direct relation to God, so judges should have sufficed (Ramban, Dev. 17). 

However, it is possible that Samuel changed his mind. The Talmud in Bava Batra 15a says that Samuel wrote the book of Judges. It says in a few places there that “in those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21, 25). This is written after the story of the concubine in Givat Binyamin who was raped and killed, leading to civil war. So obviously, the lack of a king is detrimental. 

If Samuel really was the author, as the Talmud claims, then he must have changed his mind about the king. That monarchs were to be from Judah is understood from Ya’akov’s blessing to Judah: “The scepter shall not leave Judah” (Ber. 49,10). This means that before there was a king from Judah, there could be one from another tribe. Saul was from Benjamin, but David and all subsequent kings were from Judah. 

David was also promised by the prophet Gad that the line of royalty will not leave his family line. Therefore, the prophets looked forward to the good times by saying: “And they shall ask for the Lord their God and David their king (Hosea 3, 5),” and Isaiah says: “a scion shall shoot forth from [David’s father] Jesse” (Isaiah 11, 1).

Do we need a monarchy today?

So what about today? Do we need a descendant of David to restart the monarchy? We have already stated Abarbanel’s position, but what about from the perspective of Halacha? We know that the Hasmoneans were not of Davidic descent and were not even from Judah, since they were kohanim from the tribe of Levi. Like the Sadducees, they made Jerusalem into a theocracy where the religious leadership were also monarchs. This was not allowed by Jewish law, as mentioned in the Midrash (Tanchuma, Shoftim). 

Despite this, the rabbis tolerated the Hasmoneans since they were devout (at least in the first generations) and followed the rabbis (until Alexander Jannaeus). The Talmud, quoting the book of Taanit, refers to them as “Malchut beit Hashmonai” (Shabbat 21b), meaning “the kingdom of the Hasmoneans.” This sounds like they accepted them after the fact. However, with the fall of this kingdom, by the first century CE the rabbis appointed only descendants of David as the head of the Sanhedrin (the line of Hillel) and also for the Reish Galuta (exilarch) in Babylonia to remember this mitzvah. 

Getting back to modern times. Do we need a monarchy to have a halachically feasible state? This question was posed by R. Eliezer Waldenberg in his Responsa Zitz Eliezer vol. 11. He does not discuss the ideal, which in Talmudic thinking seems to be a king from David’s line; a high priest with the urim ve’tumim; a Sanhedrin; and a prophet. Rather, he asks, What can we do in a situation like today, where we lack all these instruments of biblical leadership? Can we still send an army out to battle and make national decisions that in yesteryear required all the elements mentioned above? 

His answer is in the affirmative, based on the ruling of Rav Yakov Emden in Mor U’Ketitzia that the Hasmoneans were considered legitimate kings by the rabbis, even though they lacked the proper lineage. This is reiterated by Rav Kook in Mishpat Cohen. The idea is that in times when there is no Davidic king, a high priest and a prophet, if there is a leader or leaders that the people stand behind, they can fulfill the basic duties required just like the judges did before the kings. Therefore, he concludes, the Knesset can represent the people if the majority of the people support it. 

But in the meantime, the mitzvah of Hakhel is coming up this Sukkot because it’s the year after shmitah and the Torah says that the king is to read the law (the book of Devarim) before the people. Who shall do this? The contemporary poskim argue that since the definition of a king is someone who has the power to bestow life or death, today this can only be the president who has the power to pardon someone on death row.

But what are the duties of rulers? We can answer this by looking at the three mitzvot of the king conceptually. Simply speaking, they are not to have too many horses, since horses were bred in Egypt and this trade would force Jews to live there. But we can understand this as teaching us that the king must uphold the integrity of the sovereign state and protect it from its enemies. Second, he cannot have too much money or wives, for they will sway his heart, meaning he must put responsibility before personal interest.

And finally, he must keep a copy of the law – sefer Devarim – with him at all times, meaning that he needs to know that he is not above the law but must teach the people to uphold the Torah, leading his people to a society of justice and virtue. ❖

The writer, a rabbi and native Canadian, is a senior faculty member at the School for Basic Jewish Studies, Bar Ilan University.