Wars of conquest and even genocide are glorified in the books of Numbers and Joshua. (For a blatant biblical example, see my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)
Yet sometimes in Deuteronomy a kinder voice comes through. In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“Judges”), Moses looks ahead to when the Israelites have already taken over most of Canaan and established their own country. Then a king will have more important duties than wars of conquest; Moses lists four. Then a man will sometimes have more important duties than serving as a soldier in battle; Moses lists four of these, also.1
This week’s post will cover the four things a good king must do. Next week’s post will cover the four things that are more important than serving as a soldier.
A good king
When you have entered the land that God, your God, is giving to you, and you have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say: “I will put a king over myself, like all the nations around me,” you may certainly put a king over yourself—one that God, your God, will choose. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 17:14-15)
Once on his throne (all the kings of the Israelites were male), the king would have to obey four rules, all of which would make the conquest of foreign countries more difficult:
- He must not accumulate horses.
- He must not accumulate wives, especially foreign women who worship other gods.
- He must not accumulate too much silver and gold.
- He must read the Torah every day.
This description applies to Josiah/Yoshiyahu, a young king of Judah in the 7th century B.C.E. At age sixteen, “he began to seek out the God of David, his forefather …” (2 Chronicles 34:3). At 26, he orders repairs for the temple in Jerusalem, and the high priest Hilkiah/Chilkiyahu reports:
“I have found a book of the torah in the house of God.” (2 Kings 22:8)
torah (תוֹרָה) = teaching, instruction; the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. (From the root verb yorah, יֺרָה = teach, instruct.)
Galvanized by this scroll, King Josiah demands exclusive worship of the God of Israel throughout the Kingdom of Judah and parts of the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. He demands that his people worship only at the temple in Jerusalem, he reinstitutes Passover, and he destroys the shrines, priests, and idols of other gods.2
Modern scholars propose that Hilkiah’s scroll was a substantial part of the book of Deuteronomy, either the early core (chapters 5-26) or the code of laws in chapters 12-20. They point to various items in the story of Josiah’s reign that appear as laws in Deuteronomy, but are not mentioned in the first four books of the bible.3
Some passages in Deuteronomy imply praise of King Josiah and criticism of earlier kings. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses’ four rules for kings seem to be veiled criticism of King Solomon/Shlomoh, whose reign over a united Israel would have taken place during the 10th century B.C.E.
1) He must not accumulate horses for himself, and he must not send people back to Egypt in order to accumulate horses, for God said to you: “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again.” (Deuteronomy 17:16)
Israelites used donkeys for riding, not horses. Throughout the Ancient Near East horses were used to pull war chariots. Charioteers usually defeated foot soldiers—unless God intervened, as when 600 Egyptian chariots tried to cross the Reed Sea.4 God does not say “You must not find an excuse to turn back on that road again” until this week’s Torah portion, but several times in the books of Exodus and Numbers the Israelites in the wilderness come up with an excuse to head back to Egypt, and God acts to prevent them.5
By the time of Josiah, the kings of Judah were not only keeping horses and chariots, but dedicating them to the sun god Shemesh.
And he [Josiah] abolished the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the Shemesh, from the entrance of the house of God to … the outskirts, and he burned the chariots of the Shemesh in a fire. (2 Kings 23:11)
Despite this loyal action, God does not intervene when the army of Egypt under Pharaoh Nekho fights the army of Judah under King Josiah. The second book of Chronicles explains that the pharaoh sends messengers to Josiah asking for safe passage through Judah on his way to fight the Assyrians to the north. But Josiah “did not listen to the words of Nekho from the mouth of God, and he came out to fight on the plains of Megiddo.” (2 Chronicles 35:22). The Egyptians win, and an arrow kills King Josiah, who is riding in a horse-drawn chariot.
Three centuries earlier, King Solomon buys horses from Egypt.6 He keeps 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots—a substantial military force.7 Although the bible does not describe his battles, it does say that Solomon exacts tribute from countries on Israel’s borders, and enforces punishing corvée labor on the Israelites in the north (as the pharaoh did to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt).8
2) And he must not accumulate wives for himself, so that his leivav will not veer away. (Deuteronomy 17:17)
leivav = heart (literally), mind, inner self, seat of emotions and thoughts.
Only two of King Josiah’s wives are mentioned in the bible: Chamutal of Livnah (a town in western Judah) and Zevudah of Rumah (a village west of the Sea of Galilee in what was the Kingdom of Israel until the Assyrian conquest of 701 B.C.E.).9 Both of these women are of Israelite descent, not foreigners.
King Solomon, however, has 700 royal wives and 300 concubines. His first wife is the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.10 He loves and becomes attached to Pharaoh’s daughter and to women from the royal families of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, and Hatti.11 Although at the beginning of his kingship he builds the first temple to the God of Israel in Jerusalem, in his old age he becomes more devoted to his foreign wives than to God.
And it happened in his old age, Solomon’s wives turned his leivav away after other gods, and the leivav of Solomon was not with God, his God, like the leivav of his father, David, had been. (1 Kings 11:4)
King Solomon even builds shrines for the foreign gods Khemosh and Molekh.12 Thus the second rule for a king in this week’s Torah portion can be read as another veiled criticism of Solomon.
3) And he must not accumulate too much silver and gold for himself. (Deuteronomy 17:17)
If an Israelite king kept more money than he needed to pay for the basic functions of kingship, he was disobeying the biblical injunctions to support the poor, widows and orphans, resident aliens, and Levites (religious functionaries who lived on donations).13
King Josiah takes this responsibility seriously. When he reinstitutes the observance of Passover,
Josiah contributed lambs and goat kids for the people numbering 30,000, and 3,000 cattle, everything for the Passover sacrifices for everyone who was present. These were from the property of the king. (2 Chronicles 35:7)
But the description of King Solomon’s palace indicates that he uses excess gold for his own luxury. He decorates the palace with 200 shields and 300 bucklers of hammered gold. All his drinking cups and other utensils are also gold.14
4) And it shall be when he sits upon his throne of kingship, then he must write for himself a copy of this torah on a scroll, from [the scroll] in front of the priests of the Levites. And it must be with him, and he must read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to be in awe of God, his God, to observe all the words of this torah and these decrees, to do them. (Deuteronomy 17:18)
The fourth rule establishes that Israelite kings are not above the law. The king’s most important job is to follow God’s rules. To do this, he must keep on rereading them so he does not forget any, and so they immediately come into his mind when he faces a relevant situation.
Once again, King Josiah serves as an example of a good king.
The king went up to the house of God, along with all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the priests and the prophets and all the people from small to big. And he read out loud all the words of the scroll of the covenant that had been found in the house of God. And the king stood on a platform and he cut the covenant in front of God: to follow God and to observe [God’s] commandments and testimonies and decrees with all [their] leiv and with all [their] soul, to carry out the words of this covenant, the one written on this scroll. And all the people stood with the covenant. (2 Kings 23:2-3)
leiv (לֵב) = a short version of the word leivav = heart, mind, inner emotions and thought.
Not so King Solomon.
And God felt angry with Solomon because he had turned away his leivav from being with God, the God of Israel … And God said to Solomon: ‘… You have not observed my covenant and my decrees that I commanded.’ (1 Kings 11:9, 11:11)
These four rules for kings can still show us how to do good instead of make war. If a king must not accumulate war horses, then today every head of state should make treaties rather than weapons, and every individual should learn how to give up violence.
If a king must avoid marrying women who will tempt him to turn away from God, then today every head of state should avoid listening to those who advise taking office for the sake of power rather than service, and every individual should avoid listening to people who tempt them away from their own standards.
If a king must not accumulate too much silver and gold, then today every head of state should avoid using their position for personal gain, and every individual should learn to care more about people and actions than about wealth.
Finally, if a king must copy, read, and reread the Torah, then today every head of state should read their country’s constitution and key laws, consult with experts in every field requiring action, and question the morality of each option before acting. And every individual should engage in study before speaking out or voting.
Then we would have more than a good king; we would have a good world.
Next week: four more startling rules in the portion Shoftim, this time about who must be excused from military service, in Shoftim: More Important Than War, Part 2.
- Unlike today’s nation of Israel, the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah did not use women as soldiers in battle. (However, in Judges 4:1-22 the prophetess Devorah acts as the general of the Israelite tribes behind the scenes, and Jael kills the enemy general when he is in her tent.)
- 2 Kings 22-11 through 23:25.
- Including the temple (a.k.a. the house of God) in Jerusalem as the only legitimate place for offerings to God, the celebration of Passover at the temple rather than at home, and the language of passages in which the people pledge themselves to a covenant with God. (W. Gunther Plaut, “Introducing Deuteronomy”, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, pp. 1290-1294.)
- Exodus 14:1-30.
- Exodus 14:10-14, 15:26, 16:2-4, 17:3-6; Numbers 11:4-6, 14:2-4.
- 2 Kings 23:28-30.
- Solomon’s father, King David, hamstrings 1,600 of the horses he captures in a battle with the king of Tzovah, keeping only 100 for his own use (2 Samuel 8:4). King Solomon buys horses in 1 Kings 10:28.
- 1 Kings 10:26.
- 1 Kings 10:25 and 11:28.
- 2 Kings 23:30-36.
- 1 Kings 3:1.
- 1 Kings 11:1-3.
- 1 Kings 11:7-8.
- The book of Deuteronomy requires all landowners to support these groups in 14:27-29, 15:4-11, 24:19-21, and 26:12.
- 1 Kings 10:16 and 0:21.