I grew up in a household that viewed itself as "enlightened". While we were culturally Protestant, with a foothold among the Jews (my father's side of the family), we "knew" that we were better than "UGH!-fundamentalists!" who took the Bible "literally" (although I confess I have yet to meet someone, even the most hardcore fundamentalist, who holds that mountains actually grew feet and skipped when Israel left Egyptian bondage--Psalm 114:4).
For us, it was a given that the God of the Old Testament was "an oriental despot" writ large; and as cultured people who knew the writings of Max Weber and other learned Germans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as being Americans nurtured in a democratic polity, we knew that "oriental despots" were not a good class of people.
God as an oriental despot? Now that I have been called on to lead an adult Sunday school on Samuel and Kings, it is now as good a time as any to explain how I shed a belief of my childhood and youth.
Samuel and Kings tie in very nicely with both the books of Moses and the prophets. Indeed, the Hebrew Old Testament places Samuel-Kings in a ccategory titled "Former Prophets". From the Septuagint onwards, many translations of the Scriptures describes these books not as One and Two Samuel and One and Two Kings, but as One, Two, Three, and Four Kings. One thing which stands out in these books is that the Hebrew conscience--embodied in the prophets who wrote the books--had a very ambiguous view of kings. And if God is described as king in various places, the kings are at best a pale reflection of the divine majesty rather than God being an idealization of the kingly office, while at worst the monarchs of Israel are a parody and even an insult to the God in his name they reign.
Israel, between entry into the Promised Land and the Anointing of Saul (1400-1000 B.C., give or take?) is a loose, much put-upon tribal federation led by Judges rather than kings. While the Book of Judges disparagingly notes "these were the days when there was no king over Israel, and every man did as he pleased", Israel's desire for a king in I Samuel 8 is also a negative moment.
Israel seeks a King to be like "those of the nations round about". Samuel, the last of the Judges, is grieved, but God tells him that the one who has been rejected is not Samuel, but God himself. Samuel goes on to describe how the manner of the monarch (as the Scots Covenanter Samuel Rutherford interpreted it in 1644) would be to oppress and rob the people, taking the best they had and redistributing it to those close to the throne. Yet the people persist, so a king is found in the person of Saul Son of Kish.
Saul does not obey God, and increasingly exhibits negative characteristics. When David appears as the slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath, and becomes a charismatic warrior in Israel, Saul is jealous. His marrying his daughter Michal to David has all the marks of a suspicious man keeping friends close, and [supposed] enemies closer. David is driven into rebellion, and Saul chides his men who cannot find David by asking if David will give them vineyards and fields--precisely behavior against which Samuel warned the people.
While David is a man after God's heart (someone who receives divine grace, more than a good man whom God finds), he, too, is a failure in important areas. Moses, in Deuteronomy 17, commands that the king shall not multiply to himself wives (Dt. 17:17), yet David embarks on this path while he is still on the run, taking Abigail, widow of Nabal, as a ssecond wife, and Ahinoam as a third. This comes out all the more in the reign of his son Solomon, whose many foreign wives and concubines turn him away from the LORD.
David's grandson Rehoboam drives ten of the twelve tribes to rebellion, and the kingdom to division. Succeeding kings in Israel follow the path of Jeroboam Son of Nebat, "who led Israel to sin" (idolatry, not political disloyalty) in a dreary history of apostasy. Of the kings of Judah, only Hezekiah and Josiah are praised, and it is for the sins of Amon and Manasseh that Judah, the last independent Israelite polity, ultimately goes into captivity.
Nor are the most vividly drawn foreign kings--oriental despots par excellence-- given a good press. The pharaohs of Egypt forget how Joseph's emergency measures saved their people, and end up the oppressors and would-be destroyers of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon proves boastful, and goes mad; his successor to be swallowed up by the Persians.
And herein lies the rub: history may be written by the winners; but sacred history honored by millions worldwide was written by the conservators of a failed state whose dynasty fell (save in Jesus Christ). Yet these came conservators were also those sustained by God while monarchs who presumed that their monuments would last forever were long forgotten--until a much later age unearthed them as part of the project of illuminating the world in which the Bible was written.
No, God is not an oriental despot, outwardly splendid and inwardly shabby, presumed powerful but, in the end, as easily swept away as a cloud of dust. The exegesis of those in the seat of the scornful is mere waggishness, and ultimately misleading folly. May God forgive me, and any of us, who ever took it seriously.
God is God, the maker and sustainer of the world who does what he will, and keeps faith with those who trust in him.