Chess game at home. Checkmate.
(Getty Images)

Law of the King

Six verses in Deuteronomy offer timeless lessons on the problem of power.

When the first draft of Deuteronomy was penned in the seventh century, Judah was an independent power again after a century of Assyrian rule. Optimism reigned. This is why the easily predictable but totally unexpected destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians just decades later in 586 BCE left the Deuteronomic scribes in a tailspin. There was much to explain. 

The scribes could not help but blame the kings for their sinfulness and arrogance, but this posed a problem: A key element in the theology they inherited was that the king was God’s representative on earth, responsible for maintaining justice and enforcing religious standards. How could it be that divinely appointed kings had failed so miserably? 

In response to this theological crisis, the scribes responsible for the updating of Deuteronomy — what Bible scholars refer to as Dtr2 — created the revised “law of the king” (Deuteronomy 17:14–20), which contains several caveats that limit a king’s power and reframe his role in a way that contains timeless lessons relevant to the problem of power.  

Among them is a law forbidding the appointment of a king who is not Israelite himself. While this sounds like an intuitive rule (or perhaps a bigoted one), if we think about European history, in which the ruler being “of royal blood” was more important than their being part of the group they aspire to rule, we can understand the fear. In those cultures, the ruler often saw their subjects as mere supports for their own power, wealth and aggrandizement, and exploited them accordingly. This remains true in our day as well. Artificial divisions among groups of people often lead members of one group to treat the other as inferior and available for exploitation. 

The law of the king also limits how many horses the king can have. Horses were the great military weapons of the era, and Israelite kings were known for their cavalry. But on the heels of a great defeat, the text’s authors feared that a major military build up is the pride before the fall. The question of military spending in our time grapples with this same problem, since the vast amounts spent on sometimes unnecessary defense can mask an unconscious desire to create power for power’s sake. 

The text also specifically barred the purchase of horses from Egypt, one of the great horse-breeding powers of the time, to prevent Israel from returning to the place of their enslavement and finding themselves again under Egypt’s thumb. It is a paradoxical consequence of warming up to power that one soon finds oneself inescapably part of that power’s orbit. 

Kings were also barred from taking large numbers of wives. Deuteronomy is not bothered here by polygyny, which the biblical world accepted, but by commoditization. One way a king demonstrates his power and privilege is by treating his subjects as commodities. Collecting many wives tends to render the women invisible, like drops of water in an ocean, and accentuates the collector’s prowess as more than a mere man.  

Finally, the king must write his own Torah scroll, read it constantly, and he must do so under the supervision of the priesthood. This serves to ensure that the king embodies the community’s values to such an extent as to be an expert and reminds him that the people are subject to more than one power. Indeed, even the king must have others to whom he answers. He is not the determiner of the community’s standards, but a subject of them. 

Luckily, most political leaders today do not have the life-and-death powers once wielded by monarchs. Even so, those in power are often subject to the same temptations as kings and so require many of the same mechanisms to keep their ambitions in check. 

The specifics — horses, wives, Torah scrolls and Levitical priests — no longer apply. Nevertheless, the spirit of the law — forbidding leaders from commoditizing their citizens, requiring them to be one of the people, subjecting themselves to the same behavioral norms, and representing their society’s deepest values — remains just as relevant today. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Set. 9, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

Discover More

Drop Everything and Read

The hidden connection between Shabbat and reading.

Struggling With Our Shadow 

At this moment of intensifying violence, the Torah offers an insight into how we might open a path towards peace.

The Redemption to Come

On Passover we express gratitude for the redemption we have and hope for the one still to come.