Parashat Shoftim: The King-maker

This week’s parashah includes, among a number of laws regarding the institutions of statehood, the Law of the King (Dvarim 17: 14-20).  It is set out in the pattern of casuistic laws, with the circumstances listed first, then the prohibitions and prescriptions:

The Circumstances

If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.”
כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃

Instructions for the people

You may set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.
שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ מִקֶּ֣רֶב אַחֶ֗יךָ תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָתֵ֤ת עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אִ֣ישׁ נָכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־אָחִ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

Instructions for the king

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”
רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽה׳ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃
Nor shall he have many wives, lest his heart go astray;
וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ
Nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write out this Teaching on a scroll before the levitical priests.
Let it remain with him and let him read in it all the days of his life.
וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃
וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו ׃

The Rationale

So that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws, and will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.
לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול

The Result

That he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)

A Constitutional Monarchy

Significantly, this law begins with instructions to the people: “If you so desire, you may set a king over you, however he must be of your own people.” Only then does the law turn to the king and what he may and may not do. However, there seems to be a sense in which the people are also held responsible for insuring that the king follows the instructions.

The ambiguous formulation of the Law of Kings leaves open the matter of whether the people of Israel should form a state or not. Different commentators have weighed in on whether appointing a King is a positive commandment or simply a conditional commandment—if you decide you want a king, then he may not become a law unto himself; he is to be constantly aware that he is only a regent for Israel’s true King.

Without getting into this debate, it’s clear that the Law of the King is meant to curb the king’s powers. In fact, if taken to its logical conclusion, it lays out a pattern for the type of state that Israel is allowed to form. Essentially, the Law of the King can be seen as an injunction against building a huge “military-industrial complex” aimed at conquest, which would then need to be financed by taxes (silver & gold), and would inexorably lead to foreign entanglements (many wives).[1]

Further, Israel must not seek to build an empire. The government of Israel must not set itself up for conquest, but should keep only as much armed might as is necessary for defense. It should refrain from mixing in the affairs of other nations, and from making international commitments that would compromise its own national life. And lastly, the government should not enrich itself by taxing its people, but should be modest in its acquisitions.

When a King is Not a King

However, the Law of the King was not applied only to actual kings. While Yehoshua was not a king per se, the Law of Kings echoes in the background of God’s first words to him:

But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.
(Yehoshua 1: 6-8)
רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃
לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃
(יהושוע א: ו-ח)

From a halakhic point of view, this application of the Law of the King to Yehoshua is significant: the Law of Kings applies to any leader of Israel, and not just to kings. Rav Kook (and others) used this application to stipulate that any legitimate government of Israel is equivalent to a king.

The Revolution in Public Opinion

In the time of the later prophets, a revolutionary shift occurred in the way the Law of the King was applied, and to whom.  While, the early prophets spoke truth to power and served as a political check on the powers of the king, the later prophets spoke to the people as a whole. Hoshea called on the entire people to return to Hashem, an act of national Teshuva. Isaiah addressed his words to the general public, and not just to the king:

Ha! Those who go down to Egypt for help And rely upon horses and put their trust in abundance of chariots, In vast numbers of riders, And they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, They have not sought the Eternal.
(Isaiah 31)
ה֣וֹי הַיֹּרְדִ֤ים מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לְעֶזְרָ֔ה עַל־סוּסִ֖ים יִשָּׁעֵ֑נוּ וַיִּבְטְח֨וּ עַל־רֶ֜כֶב כִּ֣י רָ֗ב וְעַ֤ל פָּֽרָשִׁים֙ כִּֽי־עָצְמ֣וּ מְאֹ֔ד וְלֹ֤א שָׁעוּ֙ עַל־קְד֣וֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־ה’ לֹ֥א דָרָֽשׁוּ׃
(ישיעה ל”א)

Here, it isn’t only the national leadership that is taken to task for trusting in chariots and relying on horses; the prophet is speaking to the general public. The Law of the King is now no longer in the domain of kings, or even of rulers; it applies to everyone!

What brought about this shift? What had changed?

The period from King David to the time of Isaiah was a time of tremendous change in lifestyle in the kingdoms of Judea and Israel. In David’s time, the economy was agrarian, and the population small and widely dispersed. Trade with other nations was carried out via family or individual connections. But with the formation of the nation-state, all this began to change: the economy was increasingly mercantile: goods were produced and traded with the surrounding regions, producing a burgeoning of personal and national wealth. Israelite culture was exported to the surrounding nations. But of course, the cultures of surrounding nations influenced Israel as well.

Amid all these changes, the power of public opinion grew. The voice of the people became a force to be reckoned with. And so the prophets continued to speak truth to power, only the locus of power had shifted.

O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk By the light of the Eternal.
For you have forsaken [the ways of] your people, O House of Jacob! For they are full [of practices] from the East, And of soothsaying like the Philistines; They abound in customs of the aliens.
Their land is full of silver and gold, There is no limit to their treasures; Their land is full of horses, There is no limit to their chariots.
(Isaiah 2: 5-8)
בֵּ֖ית יַעֲקֹ֑ב לְכ֥וּ וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּא֥וֹר ה׳׃
כִּ֣י נָטַ֗שְׁתָּה עַמְּךָ֙ בֵּ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֤י מָלְאוּ֙ מִקֶּ֔דֶם וְעֹֽנְנִ֖ים כַּפְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וּבְיַלְדֵ֥י נָכְרִ֖ים יַשְׂפִּֽיקוּ׃
וַתִּמָּלֵ֤א אַרְצוֹ֙ כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב וְאֵ֥ין קֵ֖צֶה לְאֹצְרֹתָ֑יו וַתִּמָּלֵ֤א אַרְצוֹ֙ סוּסִ֔ים וְאֵ֥ין קֵ֖צֶה לְמַרְכְּבֹתָֽיו׃
(ישעיהו ב: ה-ח)

Here it isn’t only the king who is judged for hoarding silver and gold, and for amassing horses and chariots. The nation as a whole is judged for taking on the practices of the surrounding nations. The consequence in the shift from an agricultural nation to a wealthy nation-state is that the responsibility of the individual is commensurately increased. The entire people can be castigated for the sins that kings are apt to fall prey to. Their wealth has gone to their heads, and the pleasures of the marketplace have made them forget that they are all responsible. They have failed to become a nation of priests and have instead become a nations of kings gone wrong.

The Image of the King

This prophetic projection of the Law of Kings onto individuals has even deeper roots. The very first narrative in the Torah celebrates the creation of humans as “in the image of God.” While commentators have debated the exact meaning of this term for two millennia, one thing we know from modern scholarship: the use which the Torah made of this concept was a radical departure from its use by the surrounding nations! In the mythologies of the ancient near east, only kings were said to be made in the image of gods:

… biblical scholars have especially focused on the divine image as a royal title or description. Evidence of this royal status finds expression as early as the Middle-Asyyrian Tukulti-Ninurta epic, This text describes the king (ca. 1244-1208 B.C.E.) as the embodiment of the god Enlil.
(John F. Kutsko, Between Heaven and Earth: Divine Presence and Absence in the Book of Ezekiel.)

The Torah, in contrast, raises mankind as a whole as “kings”. [2]  All human beings are, in their own spheres of influence, royalty. Significantly, this means taking up the cause of the weak and downtrodden, who have no recourse to justice in the natural course of things:

What are the desirable attributes and characteristics of royalty? The king should be blessed with “justice” and “righteousness”; “Let him,” prays the psalmist, “champion the lowly among the people, deliver the needy folk, and crush those who wrong them.” Let him behave in such a way that “the righteous may flourish in his time, and wellbeing abound.” The king, we learn, “saves the needy who cry out, the lowly who have no helper. He cares about the poor and the needy; he brings the needy deliverance” (Psalm 72:2, 4, 7, 12-13). (Rabbi Shai Held)

Being created “in the image of God” means that we are all kings and queens—people with free will and responsibility for what happens within our sphere of influence.  Each of us is enjoined to take to heart the commandment not to trust outside powers, not to hoard wealth, nor get overly involved in the affairs of others for the wrong reasons. Rather, we are enjoined to become just and righteous rulers over our own affairs, with the result that we bequeath what we’ve learned and acquired to our children after us. God’s justice runs through human rulers, and that means all of us!


[1] Covenants between nations were often sealed by marriage.

[2] It’s worth noting that Tselem Elohim, in so far as it applies to all human beings, is a statement of radical equality. Not only does it mean that all human beings are qualified to be kings, but it also means that kings are no better than anyone else.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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