Kings, Think Twice!
“The ancient Near East,” wrote the Egyptologist Henri Frankfort, “considered kingship the very basis of civilization. Only savages could live without a king. Security, peace, and justice could not prevail without a ruler to champion them. If ever a political institution functioned with the assent of the governed, it was the monarchy, which built the pyramids and forced labor and drained the Assyrian peasantry by ceaseless wars.”
Like much of Frankfort’s writings, these opening sentences of his Kingship and the Gods bear rereading. The first three are perfectly accurate and, if anything, understated: every word deserves to be underlined. The last-cited sentence adds a touch of Frankfort’s irony. To a modern reader, of course, it might seem incredible that the institution responsible for such lavish building projects as the Egyptian pyramids and—throughout the ancient Near East—one that relied on forced labor and sometimes indulged in seemingly pointless warfare, could be tolerated by the populace, not to speak of governing “with the assent of the governed.” But this description, as scholars know, is altogether accurate.
It is against this description that the law of the Israelite king (Deut 17:14-20) must seem quite extraordinary: the king’s powers are subject to divine restriction—including, significantly, his power to initiate wars. Verse 17:14 asserts that the king “shall not have a large cavalry”; presumably, maintaining stables full of horses (along with a corresponding number of chariots and charioteers) might provide a tempting opportunity to go to war needlessly.
Along with this are a set of restrictions on who may be drafted into the army. Someone who has built a new house but has not yet dedicated it (prior to inhabiting it)—such a person is to return home, “lest he die in battle and someone else dedicate it in his stead.” Similarly, someone who planted a vineyard but had not yet had the chance to harvest its fruits—he too was sent back home. The same was true of a man who had betrothed a wife but not yet married her.
In addition to these comes one final, rather striking, exemption. “Is there anyone here who is fearful and afraid?” the army officials were instructed to ask. “If so, let him go back home, lest his comrades’ hearts melt like his.” Our rabbis were curious to define the difference between being “fearful” and being “afraid” (literally, “soft hearted”). The person who is fearful, they said, is fearful of being killed; but the person who is afraid (soft-hearted) is afraid of killing someone else.
All these suggest that, under normal circumstances, the call to arms was not an absolute; there were circumstances in which it was outweighed by other considerations, and this in turn imposed a restriction, however localized, on the king’s ability to order his citizens onto the battlefield.
Toward the end of this week’s reading comes a further restriction, one affecting the conduct of siege warfare. While it was permitted for the besieging army to eat the fruit of the fields surrounding the city, they could not chop the trees down. “For are the trees of the field [like] a man, to retreat from before you in the siege?” (Deut 20:19).
How far we are from the kingship described by Henri Frankfort! These restrictions undercut the normally close relationship of warfare and the prerogatives of the king or other ruler. That close relationship did not die in the ancient Near East. Indeed, in a summer in which threats of massive destruction and human carnage have been casually tossed off by various figures, the Torah’s strictures could not seem more apt.