Americans on the political right and left have had concerns about our presidents and their monarchical tendencies. Yet there was a time when monarchies were considered legitimate, even divinely ordained. It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that leading European political thinkers began to question the rationale for monarchies. How did this questioning come about?
It’s often thought that our republican form of government was a consequence of the Enlightenment-era separation of politics and theology. This idea banishes theological discourse from the public square. But as Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony and Harvard professor Eric Nelson each have shown, the real story may be quite different. Hazony explains that “the modern age was born out of an intellectual matrix that was steeped in Hebraic texts.” Nelson, in The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, discusses how political theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, influenced by “rabbinic Biblical exegesis,” began “to claim that monarchy per se is an illicit constitutional form and that all legitimate constitutions are republican.”
Until the discovery of rabbinic exegesis, the consensus among Christian exegetes had been that ancient Israel had not erred in having kings. Rather, Israel had erred either in selecting tyrannical kings or in asking for a change in government, which was considered a sin of rebellion against God’s established order. Everything changed upon the discovery of rabbinic sources, made possible by a renaissance of Hebrew scholarship throughout Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.
Rabbinic exegesis shed new light on important questions of Old Testament interpretation. In Deuteronomy, when Moses says that the Israelites “shall have a king,” is Moses simply describing what he thinks the Israelites will eventually do? Or is he using the imperative mood, instructing the Israelites to have a king? If he is instructing them to have a king, then why, in 1 Samuel, did God apparently become angry when responding to Samuel about the people’s request for a king?
The ancient rabbis had struggled with these passages. In the Talmud, the voluminous compilation of Jewish law and tradition, Rabbi Yehudah argues in favor of kings, maintaining that Moses was using the imperative. Rabbi Nehorai dissents, arguing that Moses did not command the Jews to appoint a king. Rather, as evidenced…