The rise of the monarchy in Israel needs to be viewed in the light of the broader concept of kingship presented in the Old Testament. The primary theological point relating to the issue of monarchy in Israel is the consistent teaching of the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges that kingship is first and foremost an attribute of God. God is presented in the Pentateuch as being the King of creation. God appears in Gen 1 as the King whose word of command established the boundaries and content of created reality (compare Ps 148:5–6). Even though God’s kingship is not frequently mentioned in an explicit way in the Pentateuch or in Joshua and Judges, God’s rule over creation is the presupposition upon which the content of these books rests. What is presupposed and implicit for the most part in the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges becomes more explicit in the biblical books from 1 Samuel onwards. The royal psalms in particular link God’s work of creation and his subsequent work of providence for creation with his “honor and majesty” and “glory” (e.g., Ps 19:1; 95:3–5; 104:1–32). Such psalms make explicit the theology of kingship that is implicit in the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges. The Old Testament teaches that one of the reasons that God created the world was so that his universal kingship might be acknowledged by all his creatures (Ps 96:1–10; 99:1–3; 145:10–13; 148:1–13; 150:1–6).
Even though kingship is supremely an attribute of God, Gen 1–3 indicates that God created human beings in his royal image. The significance of being created in God’s image is linked in Gen 1:26–28 with humanity having “dominion … over all the earth” and over all the creatures of the earth. By giving humanity dominion, God established humanity as having authority as kings over creation. Humanity was given the task of filling and subduing the earth. In other words, God engaged humanity in the work of helping to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Once the whole of the earth had been brought inside the boundaries of the garden of Eden, then humanity’s work would be finished, and the kingdom of God complete. To be successful in this task, however, it was necessary for human beings not only to work after the pattern of God himself (hence, the significance of the Sabbath commandment in Exod 20:8–11) but also to submit to God by keeping his commandments. The Pentateuch makes it very clear in a number of ways that humanity’s royal authority was to be exercised under the higher authority of God himself. The fact that Adam was placed under divine command shows that Adam and his descendants were to submit themselves in obedience to God (Gen 2:16–17). The subsequent episodes of God’s judgment of Adam and Eve, the judgment of Cain, the destruction of the flood at the time of Noah, and the judgment of the builders of the tower of Babel all serve to show God’s authority over humanity and/or the whole of creation.
Even though God is the King of the entire world, it is also important from the perspective of the Old Testament to recognize that God chose to realize his kingship over the world through the nation of Israel. Thus, God is seen in the Old Testament to be the King of Israel in particular. The covenant of circumcision established the idea that God would be the God of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:7). Abraham’s descendants for their part had the responsibility to “keep [God’s] covenant” (Gen 17:9; 18:19). God promised Abraham that there would be “kings” among his descendants (Gen 17:6). Jacob prophesied that royal authority would be exercised by Judah on a worldwide scale (Gen 49:10). God considered Israel to be “[his] people” (e.g., Exod 3:7; 5:1; 15:16). God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt further established God’s claim of possession over Israel (Exod 15:13, 16; 20:2). This was also symbolized through the rite of the consecration of the firstborn (Exod 13:1–2, 11–16). After the exodus, the relationship between God and Israel was formalized in a covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–24:11). This was an exclusive relationship which demanded Israel’s faithfulness or loyalty to God. Even though “all the earth is [God’s],” the other nations were excluded from this special relationship with God (Exod 19:5–6). Israel willingly submitted to the covenant that that God offered to them at this time (Exod 19:8; 24:3,7). This covenant, also known as the old covenant (as per 2 Cor 3:14), formally established God’s kingly rule over Israel. The condition for Israel to benefit from this special relationship was covenant obedience, i.e., a commitment to serving God through keeping the law of Moses (e.g., Deut 6:1–3).
It is significant that one of the benefits of Israel keeping covenant with God was that Israel would be constituted as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Given that the word kingdom in the phrase a kingdom of priests parallels the word nation in the phrase holy nation, the expression a kingdom of priests and a holy nation speaks of Israel as a nation consecrated to the service of God. In other words, Israel would only be a kingdom before God to the extent that the nation submitted itself to the rule of God. What submitting to the rule of God involved for Israel was subsequently spelled out in great detail in the Mosaic law. Even though the context suggests that the kingdom in view in Exod 19:6 is Israel as a divine monarchy rather than Israel as a human monarchy, the books of Samuel and Kings in particular show that the divine and human aspects of the monarchy in Israel were intertwined in God’s plan, with the success of the institution of human monarchy within Israel dependent upon how well the institution of divine monarchy was respected. Israel submitting to the rule of God would mean the restoration of the kingdom ideal that existed in the garden of Eden but which was lost after Adam’s rebellion.
God’s intention for Israel, therefore, involved the development of human rule under the ultimate rule of God. This human rule would also be focused in a particular human being who would also be called the king of Israel. That God’s theocratic rule over Israel would incorporate a human king is indicated in Deut 17:14–20. This passage sets out the divine laws regulating human kingship within Israel. Even though Deut 17:14 is effectively a prophecy that Israel’s motivation for asking for a human king would not be proper (in that it would be motivated out of a desire to imitate the kind of government found in the surrounding nations), the fact that the law of Moses made provision for a human king indicates that human kingship was an integral part of God’s plan for Israel from the beginning. Israel would have a human king, but the one appointed as king had to be the one “whom Yahweh [their] God [would] choose” (Deut 17:15). The king was to be an Israelite, and should not acquire many horses, or wives, or excessive silver and gold (Deut 17:15–17). He was obligated to have his own copy of the Mosaic law to study in order to “keep … all the words of [God’s] law” (Deut 17:18–19). Thus, Mosaic law clearly placed the human king of Israel under the authority of God and his law. Indeed the length of the king’s dynasty is connected in Deut 17:20 with how well the king would follow “the commandment,” i.e., the law viewed as a whole. The idea of human kingship in Israel was, therefore, built into the Mosaic law. The law made provision for a human king but proscribed the authority of this king. The human king was to be subject to the authority of God, the King of kings.
Given what has been observed above, we have to conclude that there was nothing wrong with the concept of human kingship per se operating in Israel. In fact, the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that human kingship was one of the purposes that God had had in mind for humanity and Israel from the very beginning. God has given humanity the privilege of dominion over the earth. For this dominion to be legitimate, however, it must be exercised in submission to the greater authority of God, for God is King over all.