Samuel has appointed his two sons as Judges, based in Beersheba. Samuel’s circuit stays within the central region of the Promised Land. Beersheba is in the far South, separated from most of the land by the Judean wilderness. Question is, are they shipped off because they are wicked, or are they wicked because they have little supervision? Eli’s sons’ wickedness is portrayed as a sign of Eli’s weakness and blindness. Here, no connection is made to Samuel’s parenting (or any mention of Samuel’s wife). These guys aren’t sexually violating the Temple girls, but they are taking bribes, and show disdain for their role.
What’s really funny (not haha funny, but ironic funny) is that Samuel’s sons become a reason to reject him, and the whole Judge system. Eli Judged Israel, even with the sins of his sons. The people ask for a king, a hereditary dynasty. The Judges of old did not pass their leadership to children (Gideon was offered dynasty, but refused it, and one son tried to make himself king). But, given the royal imagery of chapters 1 & 2 connected to Samuel, perhaps we are to believe there is paranoia among the people that Samuel plans to pass power to Joel and Abijah (good YHWHistic names, unlike Eli’s sons).
Judges are an interesting concept. There are to be Judges in each city gate (Deut. 16:18), providing a judicial role. But there are also the Judges over Israel or regional, who are occasional, reactionary leaders, commanding military actions, and having a prophetic role, leading the people back to worship of YHWH. Samuel seems to be both (see the story of Deborah in Judges 4-5 for a similar situation; she is stationed between Bethel and Ramah, but is a prophetess, and Israelites from outside the area come to her). Is Samuel presuming to be the leading candidate for kingship?
We return to the wordplay of 1 & 2, as the Elders ask (sha-al) for a king. When approaching Samuel, they bluntly say, “Behold, you are old.” Nice greeting. The seemingly imminent death of the prophet/judge is cause for concern. Who will lead them once Samuel is gone? Has Samuel indicated he plans to hand more power to his sons who are doing a terrible job in Beersheba?
The Elders say they want a King like all the other nations. Deuteronomy 17:14ff makes it clear that kingship in Israel is within the scope of God’s plan. The problem is the framing of the question. Samuel, you’re old, your sons are wicked, and we want to be like the pagans. Samuel has lead Israel in purging pagan practices. Now they want to be more like the pagans.
They are calling on Samuel to do as they say. What is Israel’s sin in asking for a king? Telling the prophet what to do and being like the pagans. Prophets are set aside to bring the Word to Israel, to direct them. Deuteronomy sets in place a complex set of relationships. The prophet does not “rule”, but answers to God. The king even does not tell the prophet what to do.
They want the prophet to be kingmaker. Samuel warns them of what a king will do (all the things Deut. forbids a king of Israel to do); conscripting for the army and palace servants, taxing (a tenth or tithe- what is due to the Tabernacle; a king will take proper YHWHistic observance away), building an army for aggression, and generally oppressing. There is no such warning from YHWH. Samuel is speaking from his own wisdom on this one. Samuel is a complex character. Often he is framed as a rejected hero. But he demonstrates several moments of selfishness, and manipulative behaviour. YHWH is prepared to concede to Israel’s request. Samuel tries to talk them out of it. We’ll see later that Samuel tries to sabotage Saul’s career as king. He has no interest in making a king. He is personally dejected by the request. Samuel’s distress is personal as much as it is theological. God’s response is “it’s not you they have rejected, it is me.” In other words, “Hey Sam, it’s not personal for you, you have no reason to be upset. They are turning away from their god.” And YHWH allows them to do so. But Samuel won’t let them easily turn away from Samuel. The LORD tells Samuel to set a king over them, and he sends them home, perhaps hoping the whole business will just go away.