Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought

By Moshe Greenberg | Go to book overview

Rabbinic Reflections on Defying Illegal Orders: Amasa, Abner, and Joab *
1970

It has always been recognized that the Israelite king of biblical times was not accorded unlimited power. The base subterfuges used by David to do away with Uriah and by Ahab to do away with Naboth are oblique tributes to the subjection of Israel's kings to custom and law. The strong censure that Nathan and Elijah directed at these kings, the rebukes that kings generally received for their misdeeds from the mouths of prophets show a common acknowledgment of royal accountability to a higher law. The idea was legally formulated in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 -- the only ordinance concerning kings in the Torah -- where the king is bound by various strictures and admonished to be humble and Godfearing, and to keep the Torah all his life.

Nevertheless, the powers of the king were broad and only vaguely delimited. Samuel's catalogue of despotic privileges ( 1 Sam. 8:11-18), Saul's whimsical massacre of the priests of Nob, and the free hand kings had in exterminating rivals and their families illustrate the lack of effective checks against arbitrary exercise of royal authority. While the laws of the Torah define insubordination to parents and to the high court ( Deut: 17:8-13; 21:18-21) their predominantly premonarchic orientation excludes treatment either of the rights of the king or their limitations. For the conception of treason we are dependent on occasional notices in the historical books; of justified defiance of royal authority we scarcely have a clue.1

This lack was partly made up by the Talmudists, whose elaboration

____________________
*
These remarks were presented to a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America marking the Vietnam Moratorium, 15 October 1969.

-395-

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