The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing my series on Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible by Russell Gmirkin in which it is argued that the Pentateuch owes a heavy debt to the Greek philosophical and political writings of the Greeks located in the Great Library of Alexandria.

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The Law of Moses placed limitations on the king that are “without parallel in the ancient Near East. Nowhere do we find legal curbs on the size of the military, the treasury, and the harem.” (Berman, 53) From the law in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 we learn that:

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

When you enter the land
that Yhwh your God is giving you, and you possess it and settle in it, should you say:
I will set over me a king
like all the nations that are around me—

you may set, yes, set over you a king that Yhwh your God chooses;
from among your brothers you may set over you a king, you may not place over you a foreign man who is not a brother-person to you.

he is not to multiply horses for himself,
and he is not to return the people to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since Yhwh has said to you: You will never return that way again!

And he is not to multiply wives for himself, that his heart not be turned-aside,
and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.

But it shall be:
when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this Instruction in a document, before the presence of [or, that is in the charge of] Levitical priests.

It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for Yhwh his God, to be-careful concerning all the words of this Instruction and these laws, to observe them,

that his heart not be raised above his brothers, that he not turn-aside from what-is-commanded, to the right or to the left;
in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom, he and his sons, in the midst of Israel.

Everett Fox translation

  • The King was to be elected by an assembly of the citizens
  • The King was subject to written laws that had been prepared by the priests

That is remarkable enough. But elsewhere in Deuteronomy we find other powers that your typical ancient Near Eastern king assigned to others so that according to the same book of law the king had

  • no judicial powers; he was not even the judge of final appeals
  • no religious function; he was not the guardian of the cult or temple
  • no military role, not even in wartime
  • no responsibility for economic relief of his subjects (e.g. debt remission, manumission)

(Levinson, 529)

All of this is quite unlike the kings we later read about in the history of Israel. Kings like David, Solomon, and their dynastic successors lived and ruled very much like the potentates of kingdoms and empires around them. But our interest here is the ideal king according to the Law of Moses.

The Greek world did know of such restrictions on kings, however.

Aristotle described various types of kingship including the elected and largely ceremonial office of the Athenian king, the Archon Basileus. Aristotle in fact counselled that the most stable monarchies were those with the least powers:

On the other hand it is clear that monarchies, speaking generally, are preserved in safety as a result of the opposite causes to those by which they are destroyed. But taking the different sorts of monarchy separately—royalties are preserved by bringing them into a more moderate form; for the fewer powers the kings have, the longer time the office in its entirety must last, for they themselves become less despotic and more equal to their subjects in temper, and their subjects envy them less. For this was the cause of the long persistence of the Molossian royalty, and that of Sparta has continued because the office was from the beginning divided into two halves, and because it was again limited in various ways by Theopompus, in particular by his instituting the office of the ephors to keep a check upon it; for by taking away some of the kings’ power he increased the permanence of the royal office, so that in a manner he did not make it less but greater. This indeed as the story goes is what he said in reply to his wife, when she asked if he felt no shame in bequeathing the royal power to his sons smaller than he had inherited it from his father: “Indeed I do not,” he is said to have answered, “for I hand it on more lasting.” 

Politics, 1313a 

From the “classical era” on the Athenian Basileus assigned major cases to the appropriate courts; military leadership was a right assigned to another office, the Polemarch. He did maintain some religious duties and essentially his office was ceremonial.

Other Greek city states had variations of the kingship office: some were elected, others dynastic; some had two kings, others just the one and still others had a panel of kings; some had military and religious duties. In Cyrene the kings were at one point stripped of their military role.

Ancient Near Eastern kings were as far from any thought of being subject to written laws or the supervision of the priests as one can imagine. It was different among the Greeks, however.

The requirement that the duties of the king should be performed in strict conformity to written law is a characteristically Greek notion. The creation of a copy of the law for royal reference is strikingly reminiscent of the publication of Athenian laws at the Royal Stoa. (Gmirkin, 35)

Royal Stoa in Athens: https://au.pinterest.com/pin/409264684861454777/

Plato (as did Aristotle) emphasised the importance of all offices being subject to laws:

For wherever in a State the law is subservient and impotent, over that State I see ruin impending; but wherever the law is lord over the magistrates, and the magistrates are servants to the law, there I descry salvation and all the blessings that the gods bestow on States. 

Laws, 3:715d

The Torah of the King (Deut 17:18-20) requiring the Israelite king to write out the laws for himself. The idea that the king should become very familiar with the laws and perform his responsibilities in strict accordance to the laws is, Russell Gmirkin stresses,

unequivocally a reflection of Greek political notions. (Gmirkin, 36)

Compare what we read in the Hellenistic writing of Hecataeus of Abdera in his Aegyptica, as we read paraphrased in Diodorus Siculus:

In the first place, then, the life which the kings of the Egyptians lived was not like that of other men who enjoy autocratic power and do in all matters exactly as they please without being held to account, but all their acts were regulated by prescriptions set forth in laws, not only their administrative acts, but also those that had to do with the way in which they spent their time from day to day . . . 

Strange as it may appear that the king did not have the entire control of his daily fare, far more remarkable still was the fact that kings were not allowed to render any legal decision or transact any business at random or to punish anyone through malice or in anger or for any other unjust reason, but only in accordance with the established laws . . . .

Subject to guidance of the priests

The passage describes a utopian state of affairs with priests guiding the daily affairs of the king (all the kings servants were even sons of priests!) and with all the subjects living happily ever after as a consequence of such a king.

Further on we read of the Persian king, Darius, studied the laws of Egypt diligently with the priests, again with a utopian society the outcome. (I read that Darius also made a copy of these laws but I am uncertain of the source of that claim):

A sixth man to concern himself with the laws of the Egyptians, it is said, was Darius the father of Xerxes; for he was incensed at the lawlessness which his predecessor, Cambyses, had shown in the treatment of the sanctuaries of Egypt, and aspired to live a life of virtue and of piety towards the gods.

Indeed he associated with the priests of Egypt themselves, and took part with them in the study of theology and of the events recorded in their sacred books; and when he learned from these books about the greatness of soul of the ancient kings and about their goodwill towards their subjects he imitated their manner of life. For this reason he was the object of such great honour that he alone of all the kings was addressed as a god by the Egyptians in his lifetime, while at his death he was accorded equal honours with the ancient kings of Egypt who had ruled in strictest accord with the laws.

6 The system, then, of law used throughout the land was the work, they say, of the men just named, and gained a renown that spread among other peoples everywhere;

Hecataeus (again via Diodorus Siculus, 40:3-4) further depicted a time when Moses chose all the wisest and most capable of men to become priests and judges and to manage all matters pertaining to justice and customs in the state.

Not that Hecataeus was describing historical reality. Rather, his writings represented “Greek political notions foreign to both Egyptians and Jews of pre-Hellenistic times.” (That is, before 300 BCE.)

In all of Hecataeus’s scenarios he portrays the priests as acting like censors of citizens’ behaviour, guardians of the law, or nomophylakes to be technical. Priests in this role “acted as supervisors and legal advisors to the kings of Egypt.” The office of nomophylakes was a feature of many Greek city-states. Aristotle described their function in Athenian Constitution 4:4 and 8:4:

guardian of the laws . . . kept a watch on the magistrates to make them govern in accordance with the laws . . . 

the duty of guarding the laws, just as it had existed even before as overseer . . . that kept watch over the greatest and the most important of the affairs of state, in particular correcting offenders with sovereign powers . . . 

The nomophylakes supervised both the behaviour of the magistrates and the general public.

The explicit role of the levitical priests as guardians and public advocates of the written laws that were to be obeyed by the magistrates and people alike, and implicit responsibility for educating the king in his duties of office via these writings and enforcing the written statutes upon the king, casts the levitical priests in the distinctly Greek office of nomophylakes, the same office given the priestly successors of Moses in the foundation story by Hecataeus. (Gmirkin, 36)

Hecataeus on the priests:

The leader of this colony was one Moses, a very wise and valiant man, who, after he had possessed himself of the country, amongst other cities, built that now most famous city, Jerusalem, and the temple there, which is so greatly revered among them. He instituted the holy rites and ceremonies with which they worship God; and made laws for the methodical government of the state. . . . He also picked out the most accomplished men, who were best fitted to rule and govern the whole nation, and he appointed them to be priests, whose duty was continually to attend in the temple, and employ themselves in the public worship and service of God. 

He also made them judges, for the decision of the most serious cases, and committed to their care the preservation of their laws and customs. Therefore they say that the Jews have never had any king; but that the leadership of the people has always been entrusted to a priest, who excels all the rest in prudence and virtue. They call him the chief priest, and they regard him as the messenger and interpreter of the mind and commands of God. . . .  . . . This is what Hecataeus of Abdera has related about the Jews.

Gmirkin reminds us to compare the writings of Plato in this context.

It is interesting that in Plato’s Republic, where the phyla’s or Guardians constituted a special tribe of philosopher-kings, the phylakes were to possess neither land nor houses (Republic 3.341d-417e), much like the biblical tribe of Levites in Deut. 12.12, 18-19; 14.22-27; 18.1-2; Josh. 13.14, 33; 18.7 (but unlike the Levites who possessed cities and houses at Lev. 25.32-34; Josh. 21.1-42). (Gmirkin, 64)


Berman, J. 2008. Created equal: how the Bible broke with ancient political thought. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Gmirkin, R.E. 2016. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew BibleMilton : Taylor and Francis.

Levinson, B. 2001. “The Reconceptualization of Kingship in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History’s Transformation of Torah.” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 51, no. 4: 511-534.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “The Inspiration for Israel’s Law of the Ideal King”

  1. Hi Neil,

    I have an off topic question for you: A couple of weeks ago you recommended Gregory Riley’s “Resurrection Reconsidered”. I read it and really liked it. In the book Riley claims that within early Christianity (the first decades) there was a spectrum of resurrection beliefs just as there was a spectrum of resurrection beliefs within first century Judaism. I just checked some of NT Wright’s work and to quote Wright, “[There was] almost a complete absence of a spectrum of [resurrection] belief” among early Christians. He goes on to say that this absence “demands an explanation”. (Suggesting this absence of a spectrum is evidence that the earliest Christians really did see a resurrected body with their own eyes.)

    My question is: Who do most scholars say is right on this issue? Riley or Wright? Or, is scholarship split down the middle?

    1. I’d have to do a refresher reading stint to remind myself of the details. Can you give me the page references of each? I might be able to use those as starting points to check out the data each has in mind.

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