Question: Was Saul actually our first king or was it Moses, as some claim? And if Moses was our first king, why was Samuel later critical of Israel for requesting a king?
Answer: Indeed, conventional understanding is that Saul was the first king of Israel, but let us see further as to the claim that you cite regarding Moses.
In reference to Samuel, the prophet and judge, scripture relates as follows (I Samuel 8:4-7): “All the elders of Israel then gathered together and came to Samuel, to Ramah. They said to him:
“Behold! You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways. So now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” It was wrong in Samuel’s eyes that they said “Give us a king to judge us,” and Samuel prayed to Hashem. Hashem said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you whom they have rejected, but it is Me whom they have rejected from reigning over them…”
This is your source for Samuel’s criticism of Israel. We see that notwithstanding the effrontery involved, the Divine response was that nevertheless he should accede to their request.
Now we are faced with a difficulty from the following verse in Parashat Vezot Haberacha (Deuteronomy 33:5): “He was King of Jeshurun, when the heads of the tribes gathered, the tribes of Israel together.” There is a dispute regarding this verse.
Rashi and Ramban interpret the reference to the king here as being Hashem; Ibn Ezra on the other hand explains that this is a reference to Moses. Ibn Ezra’s source is the Baraisa (Zevachim 102a) “Elisheva [wife of Aaron] experienced five joys more than the other daughters of Israel. Her brother-in-law [Moses] was a king, her husband [Aaron] was a high priest, her son [Eleazar] was a deputy high priest, her grandson [Pinchas] was [deputy high priest] anointed for battle, and her brother [Nachshon] was the prince of his tribe [Judah].”
Now let us consider: If the request of the people for a king was an affront to the Kingship of Hashem, then how is the kingship of Moses not a denigration of the Divine honor? The answer is rooted in the humility of Moses, as the verse states in Parashat B’halotecha (Numbers 12:3), “Now the man, Moses, was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!”
Moses did not choose his kingship, though he might have appreciated it, as the Gemara (infra.) seems to infer. He was chosen to lead the Jewish nation as its king by Hashem, a king who leads but serves in that position as he serves Hashem, as his appointment is by none other than Hashem.
Additionally, his kingship would differ from that of other kings in that he was not bestowed the right of primogeniture. A son of his would not succeed him in that position, even if he were worthy. Indeed, his student Joshua succeeds him as leader, but only in the capacity of prophet and judge.
According to the view of the Baraisa, one serving in the capacity of king is not in itself an affront to Hashem’s honor when the position is Divinely bestowed. However, the people requesting a king is indeed an affront to Hashem. The viability of Saul’s monarchy was not because of the people’s request, but only because he was chosen by Hashem. His was a monarchy that was bestowed primogeniture rights, if only he had merited it. Similarly, the House of David was granted such rights only because David was so chosen by Hashem.
The Gaon Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha’kohen of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochma, Exodus 18:12) finds difficulty with Moses being a king. He cites a Midrash (Mechilta, Parashat Yitro 1:13) that Moses accorded special honor to his father-in-law, Jethro, as he personally served him at a feast in his honor. Now, if Moses was a king, how did he forgo his honor, which is expressly prohibited, as the Gemara (Kiddushin 32b) rules; “a king may not waive his honor, and even if he does, his honor is not waived?”
Sefer Hamakneh (Kiddushin, ibid.) explains rather simply that Moses was permitted to relinquish any honor due him, temporarily, since he served as king before the tribes entered the land of Canaan. As such, the laws pertaining to the appointment of a king (by Hashem or with His approval) were not yet in force.
Thus Moses was indeed considered the first human king of Israel but not to have initiated a family or dynasty.
(To be continued)