RAMAH — Serious political change is brewing in the Israelite town of Ramah.
Ever since Moses and Joshua led them into Palestine, the tribes have conspicuously lacked any semblance of an executive branch. The official line is that Yahweh is king.
The closest approximation to a central executive figure in Israel is the high-priest Samuel, whose decisions, while not legally binding, are almost universally respected among the descendants of Abraham.
Most assumed that, upon the aging seer's death, the mantle would pass to one of his sons. But, after their involvement in a series of scandals, the twelve tribes have been rocked with a succession crisis.
The solution, a growing number of influential clan heads are saying, is for Samuel to anoint a king before he dies. This would not only resolve the crisis of succession but also relieve the tribes of the political peculiarity that has characterized them ever since their conquest of Canaan.
Some foreigners have been heard to doubt whether the Israelites have any government at all. To many of the land’s inhabitants, it's a sensitive point.
"Look at garden-girdled Babylon," said Bar-Enlil from his seat among the elders at the gate of Ramah. "Do its inhabitants have to fear for anything? No. And we all know it's not their gods that protect them. It's their king. If we could get a king like that, not only would we sleep safer in our homes at night — my wife has a panic attack whenever I mention the Moabites — but he could beautify our cities and create jobs. They have a world-wonder over there, and what do we have? Freedom? That's just a word."
Shamash of Jerusalem, still brushing the dust of travel from his robe, pronounced a decided opinion on the matter.
"We've got to start thinking seriously about tribal security. Sure, we might have to give up some privileges; sure, taxes might increase; sure, we might lose some of our liberties. I admit that. We all know that going in. But those extra shekels and privileges aren't going to mean anything when the king of the Philistines puts his yoke on us."
Enki-baal, another prominent man of Ramah, came over to us to express a legal concern. "The kings of the gentiles — they're not just military commanders. They also provide an absolutely necessary judicial function: when a case has been appealed several times, either because the lower judges feel the matter too difficult for them or because the community has found the judgment unsatisfactory, the king serves as the final judge. If you don't have that — and we don't — then the law is really of no effect; there's no legal certainty."
We asked Enki-baal to provide us a few examples of the deleterious effects of this legal uncertainty. Unfortunately, however, he said that the pressure of the request had driven all of them (and he assured us that there were many) from his mind.
Before we could secure any more interviews, we saw the prophet Samuel himself walk down from his hillside home and take a position before the city gates. Everyone was silent in preparation for his speech; and, when he began, he simply repeated his established platform.
"These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
"He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work.
"He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day."
As one might expect, the climate of political opinion was unfavorable to Samuel's oration. The speech was uncomfortably extreme; his equation of taxation and slavery was considered particularly shocking. Bar-Enlil, who had been hopeful of a change in Samuel’s views, confided to us his deep disappointment.
"It’s disheartening to see a person cling to such obviously outmoded views. Times have changed, after all. The new enemies of this nation are more irrational in their hatred than was any previous foe. We must always have our ideals, of course; but a king is simply a necessity now."
The elders let Samuel depart to his home with a pitying respect; and, when he was out of sight, Shamash of Jerusalem rose up before the gate to speak what was evidently the general sentiment.
"No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles."
November 24, 2007