Is there a commandment to appoint a king, or does the Torah merely grant grudging approval in anticipation of the people’s future request? The matter was a dispute among the talmudic sages (Sanhedrin 20b) and, in the Middle Ages, Maimonides and Abrabanel took opposing approaches to what an ideal Jewish politics should look like: where the former viewed the king as the model and future instantiation of the Messiah, the latter argued for a radical democracy, verging on anarchy, as a check on human greed and corruption.
The Torah certainly prescribes strict limits on the king’s power: wives, horses, gold and silver are all to be kept to a minimum. For Abrabanel, these measures limit the capacity for corruption, but why should they exist for those who see monarchy in a more positive light? The answer links politics to theology.
The Torah knew that kings were inclined to see themselves not only as political leaders but as gods in their own right. The person the people serve is also the deity they worship. And so, the Jewish king is expected to see himself not only as being above the people but also as being under God. Such a balancing act is no easy task.
Yet, when the first king, Saul, is introduced (Samuel I:9), he is looking for his uncle’s lost donkeys, doesn’t have a penny on him and is oblivious to a group of young women who are clearly interested in him. No wives, no horses, no money. The message is clear: a clean and honourable politics is a mighty challenge — but it is possible.