I’m slowly working through my notes from the recent Tanakh Study Days at Herzog College. This article is based on a lecture given by Rav Hezi Cohen, with a few of my own ideas thrown in.
The Law of the King (Dvarim 17: 14-20) appears after a number of other laws regarding the institutions of peoplehood and statehood. It is set out in the pattern of casuistic laws, with the circumstances listed first, then the prohibitions and prescriptions.
Rav Cohen breaks down the Law of the King into its component parts along the following lines:
|If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me.”||
כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃
Instructions for the people
|You may set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman.||
שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ מִקֶּ֣רֶב אַחֶ֗יךָ תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָתֵ֤ת עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אִ֣ישׁ נָכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־אָחִ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃
Instructions for the king
|Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Eternal has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”||
רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽה׳ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃
|Nor shall he have many wives, lest his heart go astray;||
וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ
|Nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.||
וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃
|When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall write out this Teaching on a scroll before the levitical priests.
Let it remain with him and let him read in it all the days of his life.
וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃
וְהָיְתָ֣ה עִמּ֔וֹ וְקָ֥רָא ב֖וֹ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑יו ׃
|So that he may learn to revere the Eternal his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws, and will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.||
לְמַ֣עַן יִלְמַ֗ד לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־ה׳ אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹר אֶֽת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָֽם לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו וּלְבִלְתִּ֛י ס֥וּר מִן־הַמִּצְוָ֖ה יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול
|That he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.||
לְמַעַן֩ יַאֲרִ֨יךְ יָמִ֧ים עַל־מַמְלַכְתּ֛וֹ ה֥וּא וּבָנָ֖יו בְּקֶ֥רֶב יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)
A law for individuals or for institutions?
Significantly, this law begins with instructions to the people: “If you so desire, you may set a king over you, however he must be of your own people.” Only then does the law turn to the king and what he may and may not do. However, there seems to be a sense in which the people are also held responsible for insuring that the king follows the instructions.
Rashi sees the instructions for the king as aimed at curbing the individual appetite for pleasure and riches, lest the king’s power go to his head.
|He must not amass horses. Rather, he should acquire only enough for his own chariot, and he must not send the people back to Egypt, which is where the horses come from, as is said of Shlomo (Malachim 1 10): “He would purchase a chariot from Egypt.” …
And he must not have many wives. Rather, no more than 18, as we saw in the case of David…
And he should not amass silver and gold, but only what he needs to pay his entourage (alternately, army).
לא ירבה לו סוסים. אֶלָּא כְּדֵי מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ, שֶׁלֹּא ישיב את העם מצרימה, שֶׁהַסּוּסִים בָּאִים מִשָּׁם, כְּמָה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר בִּשְׁלֹמֹה (מלכים א י’) וַתַּעֲלֶה וַתֵּצֵא מֶרְכָּבָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת כֶּסֶף וְסוּס בַּחֲמִשִּׁים וּמֵאָה (סנהדרין כ”א):
ולא ירבה לו נשים. אֶלָּא י”ח, שֶׁמָּצִינוּ שֶׁהָיוּ לוֹ לְדָוִד שֵׁשׁ נָשִׁים, וְנֶאֱמַר לוֹ (שמואל ב י”ב) “וְאִם מְעָט וְאֹסִיפָה לְךָ כָּהֵנָּה וְכָהֵנָּה”:
וכסף וזהב לא ירבה לו מאד. אֶלָּא כְּדֵי לִתֵּן לְאַכְסַנְיָא (ספרי; סנהדרין כ”א):
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) sees these commandments as aimed at the king as an institution: they are national, rather than individual instructions, given for the good of the nation.
|He must not amass horses… It may be that this expression is meant to warn against the acquisition of horses even from his own land and from the land of Shina’ar or via legitimate commerce, so that he not come to rely on his chariots, however numerous, but rather, that he should put his trust in his God. Afterward, the king is warned not to bring the people back to Egypt, so that he will not install there his servants—his officers and merchants—in the major cities in order to purchase horses and chariots for him, as is told of Solomon in Malachim 1 9:19.||
לא ירבה לו סוסים … ויתכן שדרך הכתוב כי הזהיר לא ירבה לו סוסים אפילו מארצו ומארץ שנער או בדרך סחורה המותרת שלא יבטח על רכבו כי רב ועל פרשיו כי עצמו מאוד אבל יהיה מבטחו בשם אלהיו ואחר כך הזהיר על המלך שלא ישיב את העם מצרימה שיהיו לו שם מעבדיו ומעמו שרי מקנה יושבים בערי הרכב למען הרבות סוס כענין שנאמר בשלמה (מלכים א ט יט) …
(רמב”ן על דברים י״ז:טז:א)
Samuel David Luzzatto (known by his initials as Shadal) also relates these instructions to practical statecraft, as precluding the formation of close alliances with other nations (especially Egypt) for fear of cultural contamination by these larger and stronger nations:
|The purchase of horses will bring Israel close to Egypt, and will bring the king to forge a covenant with the ruler of Egypt, which will lead the people to learn the ways of the Egyptians. It has already been stated regarding the forging of covenants, “because you were an alien in their country”. Regarding the prohibition that the king not rely on horses, this is because the land of Israel is a hilly place, where chariots are of no use.||
והנה מוצָא הסוסים יקרב ישראל אל המצרים, ויבא המלך לכרות ברית עם מלך מצרים, וילמדו העם ממעשיהם, ולא אמר בפירוש לא תכרות להם ברית בעבור כי גר היית בארצו, וגם אסר רבוי הסוסים, לבלתי יבטח בהם המלך, כי אמנם לא הרבה יועילו בא”י שהיא ארץ הרים.
(שד”ל על דברים י״ז:טז:א)
Shadal sees the instructions regarding horses and chariots (the tanks of those days) as being of a tactical nature: the land of Israel is too hilly for chariots to be of practical use.
A Nation that Dwells alone
The ambiguous formulation of the Law of Kings leaves open the matter of whether the people of Israel should form a state or not. Different commentators have weighed in on whether appointing a King is a positive commandment or simply a conditional commandment—if you decide you want a king, then he may not become a law unto himself; he is to be constantly aware that his is only a regent for Israel’s true King.
Without getting into this debate, it’s clear that the Law of Kings is meant to curb the king’s powers. In fact, if taken to its logical conclusion, it lays out a pattern for the type of state that Israel is allowed to form. Essentially, the Law of the King can be seen as an injunction against building a huge “military-industrial complex” aimed at conquest, which would then need to be financed by taxes (silver & gold), and would inexorably lead to foreign entanglements (many wives). If we follow the direction of the Ramban in seeing this law as a guideline for statecraft, the gist is clear: once the people of Israel decide to set up the apparatus of statehood, it should nevertheless remain a people apart, “not numbered among the nations”(BaMidbar 23:9).
Further, Israel must not seek to build an empire. The government of Israel must not set itself up for conquest, but should keep only as much armed might as is necessary for defense. It should refrain from mixing in the affairs of other nations, and from making international commitments that would compromise its own national life. And lastly, the government should not enrich itself by taxing its people, but should be modest in its acquisitions.
The Test of Kingship
In all later writings of the Tanakh, each king is judged by how faithfully he followed the prohibitions and prescriptions set out in the Law of the King; it is the litmus test for kingship.
Wisdom is no guarantee
Perhaps the most famous example of the Law of Kings as the scale by which later kings are judged is King Solomon:
|King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Hittite women, from the nations of which the Eternal had said to the Israelites, “None of you shall join them and none of them shall join you, lest they turn your heart away to follow their gods.” Such as these, Solomon clung to and loved.
He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned his heart away.
In his old age, his wives turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods, and he was not as wholeheartedly devoted to the Eternal his God as his father David had been.
Solomon followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Phoenicians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
(Melachim 1 11: 1-5)
וְהַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה אָהַ֞ב נָשִׁ֧ים נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת רַבּ֖וֹת וְאֶת־בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֑ה מוֹאֲבִיּ֤וֹת עַמֳּנִיּוֹת֙ אֲדֹ֣מִיֹּ֔ת צֵדְנִיֹּ֖ת חִתִּיֹּֽת׃
מִן־הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־ה׳ אֶל־בְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל לֹֽא־תָבֹ֣אוּ בָהֶ֗ם וְהֵם֙ לֹא־יָבֹ֣אוּ בָכֶ֔ם אָכֵן֙ יַטּ֣וּ אֶת־לְבַבְכֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם בָּהֶ֛ם דָּבַ֥ק שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה לְאַהֲבָֽה׃
וַיְהִי־ל֣וֹ נָשִׁ֗ים שָׂרוֹת֙ שְׁבַ֣ע מֵא֔וֹת וּפִֽלַגְשִׁ֖ים שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֑וֹת וַיַּטּ֥וּ נָשָׁ֖יו אֶת־לִבּֽוֹ׃
וַיְהִ֗י לְעֵת֙ זִקְנַ֣ת שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה נָשָׁיו֙ הִטּ֣וּ אֶת־לְבָב֔וֹ אַחֲרֵ֖י אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְלֹא־הָיָ֨ה לְבָב֤וֹ שָׁלֵם֙ עִם־ה׳ אֱלֹהָ֔יו כִּלְבַ֖ב דָּוִ֥יד אָבִֽיו׃
וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י עַשְׁתֹּ֔רֶת אֱלֹהֵ֖י צִדֹנִ֑ים וְאַחֲרֵ֣י מִלְכֹּ֔ם שִׁקֻּ֖ץ עַמֹּנִֽים׃
(מלכים א יא: א-ו)
Just before this, we read in the previous perek:
|All the world came to pay homage to Solomon and to listen to the wisdom with which God had endowed him; and each one would bring his tribute—silver and gold objects, robes, weapons and spices, horses and mules—in the amount due each year.
Solomon collected chariots and horses. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses, which he stationed in the chariot towns and with the king in Jerusalem. The king made silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones, and cedars as plentiful as sycamores in the Shephelah.
Solomon’s horses were procured from Egypt and Kue. The king’s dealers would buy them from Kue at a fixed price.
(Melachim 1 10: 24-28)
וְכָ֨ל־הָאָ֔רֶץ מְבַקְשִׁ֖ים אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה לִשְׁמֹ֙עַ֙ אֶת־חָכְמָת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥ן אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃
וְהֵ֣מָּה מְבִאִ֣ים אִ֣ישׁ מִנְחָת֡וֹ כְּלֵ֣י כֶסֶף֩ וּכְלֵ֨י זָהָ֤ב וּשְׂלָמוֹת֙ וְנֵ֣שֶׁק וּבְשָׂמִ֔ים סוּסִ֖ים וּפְרָדִ֑ים דְּבַר־שָׁנָ֖ה בְּשָׁנָֽה׃ (ס)
וַיֶּאֱסֹ֣ף שְׁלֹמֹה֮ רֶ֣כֶב וּפָרָשִׁים֒ וַיְהִי־ל֗וֹ אֶ֤לֶף וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת֙ רֶ֔כֶב וּשְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֥ר אֶ֖לֶף פָּֽרָשִׁ֑ים וַיַּנְחֵם֙ בְּעָרֵ֣י הָרֶ֔כֶב וְעִם־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃
וַיִּתֵּ֨ן הַמֶּ֧לֶךְ אֶת־הַכֶּ֛סֶף בִּירוּשָׁלִַ֖ם כָּאֲבָנִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת הָאֲרָזִ֗ים נָתַ֛ן כַּשִּׁקְמִ֥ים אֲשֶׁר־בַּשְּׁפֵלָ֖ה לָרֹֽב׃
וּמוֹצָ֧א הַסּוּסִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לִשְׁלֹמֹ֖ה מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וּמִקְוֵ֕ה סֹחֲרֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ יִקְח֥וּ מִקְוֵ֖ה בִּמְחִֽיר׃
(מלכים א י״א: א-ה)
Clearly the juxtaposition of these two descriptions is no accident. Despite Solomon’s wisdom and his lineage, the outcome predicted by the Law of the King came to pass exactly as stated: his foreign wives brought with them their cultures and religions, which influenced Solomon to his detriment. The horses and chariots that he bought from Egypt came at the price of diplomatic entanglements. And the silver and gold that he amassed came at the expense of his own people.
And indeed, just as the Law of the King rewards the king who scrupulously obeys its dictates with a long reign that will pass to the king’s descendants, the opposite befell Solomon: after his death, the nation unraveled and split along tribal lines, undoing all of his father David’s painstaking work in unifying the tribes.
Failed kings and failed states
Throughout the later writings, the Law of the King echoes through the text. Malachim 2 has some good things to say of King Yoshiya, whose far-reaching reforms helped to undo some of the depredations of his predecessors.
|Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for thirty-one years. His mother’s name was Yedidah daughter of Adayah of Botzkath. He did what was pleasing to the Eternal and he followed all the ways of his ancestor David; he did not deviate to the right or to the left.||
בֶּן־שְׁמֹנֶ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ יֹאשִׁיָּ֣הוּ בְמָלְכ֔וֹ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וְאַחַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה מָלַ֖ךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְשֵׁ֣ם אִמּ֔וֹ יְדִידָ֥ה בַת־עֲדָ֖יָה מִבָּצְקַֽת׃
וַיַּ֥עַשׂ הַיָּשָׁ֖ר בְּעֵינֵ֣י ה׳ וַיֵּ֗לֶךְ בְּכָל־דֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ דָּוִ֣ד אָבִ֔יו וְלֹא־סָ֖ר יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאול׃ (פ)
Among other things, Yoshiya ordered repairs to the Beit HaMikdash. During the construction, the High Priest presented the king with a momentous discovery:
|Then the high priest Hilkiah said to the scribe Shaphan, “I have found a scroll of the Teaching in the House of the Eternal.” And Hilkiah gave the scroll to Shaphan, who read it.
The scribe Shaphan then went to the king and reported to the king: “Your servants have melted down the silver that was deposited in the House, and they have delivered it to the overseers of the work who are in charge at the House of the Eternal.”The scribe Shaphan also told the king, “The high priest Hilkiah has given me a scroll”; and Shaphan read it to the king.
When the king heard the words of the scroll of the Teaching, he rent his clothes.
(Melachim 2 22: 8-11)
וַ֠יֹּאמֶר חִלְקִיָּ֜הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֤ן הַגָּדוֹל֙ עַל־שָׁפָ֣ן הַסֹּפֵ֔ר סֵ֧פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֛ה מָצָ֖אתִי בְּבֵ֣ית יְהוָ֑ה וַיִּתֵּ֨ן חִלְקִיָּ֧ה אֶת־הַסֵּ֛פֶר אֶל־שָׁפָ֖ן וַיִּקְרָאֵֽהוּ׃
וַיָּבֹ֞א שָׁפָ֤ן הַסֹּפֵר֙ אֶל־הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שֶׁב אֶת־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ דָּבָ֑ר וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִתִּ֤יכוּ עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ אֶת־הַכֶּ֙סֶף֙ הַנִּמְצָ֣א בַבַּ֔יִת וַֽיִּתְּנֻ֗הוּ עַל־יַד֙ עֹשֵׂ֣י הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה הַמֻּפְקָדִ֖ים בֵּ֥ית ה׳׃
וַיַּגֵּ֞ד שָׁפָ֤ן הַסֹּפֵר֙ לַמֶּ֣לֶךְ לֵאמֹ֔ר סֵ֚פֶר נָ֣תַן לִ֔י חִלְקִיָּ֖ה הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וַיִּקְרָאֵ֥הוּ שָׁפָ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּשְׁמֹ֣עַ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֖י סֵ֣פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֑ה וַיִּקְרַ֖ע אֶת־בְּגָדָֽיו׃
(מלכים ב כב: ח-יא)
Upon hearing the contents of the scroll, Yoshiya rends his garments and sets out to put the kingdom in order according to the laws of the Torah.
However, this is not enough to guarantee good leadership in the next generation. Yoshiya’s son Yehoyakim was one of the worst kings Yehuda ever had to contend with. Perhaps the lesson is that the Law of the King is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for a smooth succession and a long-lived kingdom. Or perhaps human free will must still be taken into account; the best parenting can’t guarantee moral and upright children.
And so, of Yehoyakim, the Tanakh (Yermiyahu 36:20) tells us that when presented with a scroll of the prophecies of Yermiyahu, it wasn’t his garments that the king tore, but the scroll!
When a king is not a king
However, the Law of the King was not applied only to actual kings. With the death of Moshe, the Written Torah was sealed, and with it, the official role of the king in subsequent Jewish Law. The basic law of Israel was now beyond the role of any earthly king to change.
While Yehoshua was not a king per se, the Law of Kings echoes in the background of God’s first words to him:
|Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them.
But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.
(Yehoshua 1: 6-8)
חֲזַ֖ק וֶאֱמָ֑ץ כִּ֣י אַתָּ֗ה תַּנְחִיל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶת־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי לַאֲבוֹתָ֖ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶֽם׃
רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל־הַתּוֹרָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל־תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ׃
לֹֽא־יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל־הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי־אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת־דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל׃
(יהושוע א: ו-ח)
From a halakhic point of view, this application of the Law of the King to Yehoshua is significant: the Law of Kings applies to any leader of Israel, and not just to kings. Rav Kook (and others) used this application to stipulate that any legitimate government of Israel is equivalent to a king.
In the time of the later prophets a revolutionary shift in the way the Law of the King was applied, and to whom. Rav Hezi Cohen points out that while the early prophets were men of action: appointing kings, going into battle, and managing the affairs of state either directly or indirectly, the later prophets were men of words. While, the early prophets spoke truth to power and served as a political check on the powers of the king, the later prophets spoke to the people as a whole. Hoshea called on the entire people to return to Hashem, an act of national Teshuva. Isaiah addressed his words to the general public, and not just to the king:
|Ha! Those who go down to Egypt for help And rely upon horses and put their trust in abundance of chariots, In vast numbers of riders, And they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, They have not sought the Eternal.
ה֣וֹי הַיֹּרְדִ֤ים מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לְעֶזְרָ֔ה עַל־סוּסִ֖ים יִשָּׁעֵ֑נוּ וַיִּבְטְח֨וּ עַל־רֶ֜כֶב כִּ֣י רָ֗ב וְעַ֤ל פָּֽרָשִׁים֙ כִּֽי־עָצְמ֣וּ מְאֹ֔ד וְלֹ֤א שָׁעוּ֙ עַל־קְד֣וֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־ה’ לֹ֥א דָרָֽשׁוּ׃
Here, it isn’t only the national leadership that is taken to task for trusting in chariots and relying on horses; the prophet is speaking to the general public. The Law of the King is now no longer in the domain of kings, or even of rulers; it applies to everyone!
This shift in emphasis reached into the public sphere via the psalms as well:
|Happy is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked,
or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of the insolent;
Rather, the teaching of the Eternal is his delight,
and he studies that teaching day and night.
אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים
וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמוֹשַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃
כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתוֹרַ֥ת ה׳ חֶ֫פְצ֥וֹ
וּֽבְתוֹרָת֥וֹ יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃
The prophet and the psalmist alike address the common man in the language of the Law of the King: Don’t trust in military power; rather be faithful to the Laws of your God, and study that Law day and night, in good times and in bad times.
What brought about this shift? What has changed?
Rav Cohen credits Yehezkel Kaufman with the explanation: The period from King David to the time of Isaiah was a time of tremendous change in lifestyle in the kingdoms of Judea and Israel. In David’s time, the economy was agrarian, and the population small and widely dispersed. Trade with other nations was carried out on a personal basis, via family or individual connections. But with the formation of the nation-state, all this began to change: the economy was increasingly mercantile: goods were produced and traded with the surrounding regions, producing a burgeoning of personal and national wealth. Israelite culture was exported to the surrounding nations. But of course, the cultures of surrounding nations influenced Israel as well.
Amid all these changes, the power of public opinion grew. The voice of the people became a force to be reckoned with. And so the prophets continued to speak truth to power, only the locus of power had shifted.
|O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk By the light of the Eternal.
For you have forsaken [the ways of] your people, O House of Jacob! For they are full [of practices] from the East, And of soothsaying like the Philistines; They abound in customs of the aliens.
Their land is full of silver and gold, There is no limit to their treasures; Their land is full of horses, There is no limit to their chariots.
And their land is full of idols; They bow down to the work of their hands, To what their own fingers have wrought.
(Isaiah 2: 5-8)
בֵּ֖ית יַעֲקֹ֑ב לְכ֥וּ וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּא֥וֹר ה׳׃
כִּ֣י נָטַ֗שְׁתָּה עַמְּךָ֙ בֵּ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֤י מָלְאוּ֙ מִקֶּ֔דֶם וְעֹֽנְנִ֖ים כַּפְּלִשְׁתִּ֑ים וּבְיַלְדֵ֥י נָכְרִ֖ים יַשְׂפִּֽיקוּ׃
וַתִּמָּלֵ֤א אַרְצוֹ֙ כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב וְאֵ֥ין קֵ֖צֶה לְאֹצְרֹתָ֑יו וַתִּמָּלֵ֤א אַרְצוֹ֙ סוּסִ֔ים וְאֵ֥ין קֵ֖צֶה לְמַרְכְּבֹתָֽיו׃
וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א אַרְצ֖וֹ אֱלִילִ֑ים לְמַעֲשֵׂ֤ה יָדָיו֙ יִֽשְׁתַּחֲו֔וּ לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשׂ֖וּ אֶצְבְּעֹתָֽיו׃
(ישעיהו ב: ה-ח)
Here it isn’t only the king who is judged for hoarding silver and gold, and for amassing horses and chariots. The nation as a whole is judged for taking on the practices of the surrounding nations. The consequence in the shift from an agricultural nation to a wealthy nation-state is that the responsibility of the individual is commensurately increased. The entire people can be castigated for the sins that kings are apt to fall prey to. Their wealth has gone to their heads, and the pleasures of the marketplace have made them forget that they are all responsible. They have failed to become a nation of priests and have instead become a nations of kings gone wrong.
The image of the king
This prophetic projection of the Law of Kings onto individuals may have even deeper roots than those cited by Rav Cohen. The very first narrative in the Torah, “the song of creation” celebrates the creation of humans בצלם אלוהים, translated as “in the image of God.” While commentators have debated the exact meaning of this term for two millennia, one thing we know from modern scholarship: the use which the Torah made of this concept was a radical departure from its use by the surrounding nations! In the mythologies of the ancient near east, only kings were said to be made in the image of gods:
… biblical scholars have especially focused on the divine image as a royal title or description. Evidence of this royal status finds expression as early as the Middle-Asyyrian Tukulti-Ninurta epic, This text describes the king (ca. 1244-1208 B.C.E.) as the embodiment of the god Enlil.
(John F. Kutsko, Between Heaven and Earth: Divine Presence and Absence in the Book of Ezekiel.)
The Torah, in a break from other creation epics, appoints mankind as a whole as “kings”.  All human beings are, in their own spheres of influence, royalty. They are kings with respect to those who depend on them for guidance or sustenance, and are expected to live up to their responsibilities. And what are those responsibilities?
Rabbi Shai Held points out that the Torah expects a king to act for the welfare of his people at all times. Significantly, this does not mean greasing the wheels of power for the rich and influential; rather it means taking up the cause of the weak and downtrodden, who have no recourse to justice in the natural course of things:
What are the desirable attributes and characteristics of royalty? The king should be blessed with “justice” and “righteousness”; “Let him,” prays the psalmist, “champion the lowly among the people, deliver the needy folk, and crush those who wrong them.” Let him behave in such a way that “the righteous may flourish in his time, and wellbeing abound.” The king, we learn, “saves the needy who cry out, the lowly who have no helper. He cares about the poor and the needy; he brings the needy deliverance” (Psalm 72:2, 4, 7, 12-13).
Being created “in the image of God” means that we are all kings and queens—people with free will and responsibility for what happens within our sphere of influence. God’s justice runs through human rulers, and that means all of us!
Thus, we come full circle to find that Rashi’s interpretation of the Law of the King comes into its own: each of us is enjoined to take to heart the commandment not to trust outside powers, not to hoard wealth, nor get overly involved in the affairs of others for the wrong reasons. Rather, we are enjoined to become just and righteous rulers over our own affairs, with the result that we bequeath what we’ve learned and acquired to our children after us. Kings are not born, but self-made!
 Covenants between nations were often sealed by marriage.
 It’s worth noting that Tselem Elohim, in so far as it applies to all human beings, is a statement of radical equality. Not only does it mean that all human beings are qualified to be kings, but it also means that kings are no better than anyone else.