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November 12, 2012

“Give Us A King!”—Politics Enters Biblical History

Second Floor Common Room, Heyman Center (Map/Directions)

Allan Silver
Professor of Sociology Emeritus
Columbia University



From its foundational moment at Sinai, God was biblical Israel’s sole ruler, often through charismatically appointed agents such as Moses, Gideon and Samuel. I Samuel 7:15-8 tells how human political authority, in the form of kings, found a place in Israel’s sacral polity. The Israelites demand that Samuel give them a king “as in all the nations”, and God commands the reluctant Samuel to comply. Sages, theologians and scholars have long debated this puzzling episode.  Among many others in the contentiously biblical political culture of 17th century England, John Milton and James I contested for its authority, while Hobbes read it as explaining how political and divine authority may co-exist. Is Israel wrong to demand a king and why does God agree? The story is best read as the biblical mind’s account of the birth of politics and an exercise in ancient political theory.