The book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament contains an account of the debate over gaining a king in Israel. This text from the Deuteronomic History reports an anti-monarchical perspective revealed some serious concerns about the idea of having a king over Israel. Prior to the monarchy, Israel was ruled in a loose confederate tribal system. God was considered to be the king of Israel. The Israelites did not think that this was a particularly effective governing system because they were constantly being overrun by rival territories with more centralized forms of power. They approached the prophet Samuel and demanded that he establish a king over Israel. In Mormon terms, they wanted to be more like “the world.”
In this account Samuel warns that a king will be bad for Israel. The people responded by saying that they want to be like all the other nations (1 Sam 8:20). God, however, is not pleased with this reasoning. Israel is supposed to be distinctive from the Gentiles. in the end, God relents to the peoples’ desires to assimilate in some small measure to their neighbors. The interesting thing about this episode is that God ultimately comes around in favor of the monarchy himself. He creates a covenant with David that his kingdom should remain forever. Some of the kings act for good, though many more do not, according to the text. Despite this, the monarchy is ultimately a hallowed and even sacred institution. Furthermore in the Christian tradition the Savior himself descends from this monarchical line and fulfills the monarchical covenant.
What are we to make of changes which appear initially to be rejections of God, but which ultimately provide the temporal and spiritual salvation of the people of Israel?
First, we see that change is not always initiated by God, or even approved by God. While in this story God ultimately grants permission, it is not entirely clear that he does so willingly. The most interesting feature of this story is the divine reluctance to accept the change. God takes the desire to be like the other nations as a rejection of him. It is the people who ask for this change. The prophet Samuel is unwilling to implement it. He bends to the will of the people with great hesitation, but we know for the ultimate good of Israel.
Second, we see that change is an important part of the providential narrative. God can work with changes, even those which may seem initially to be rejections of fundamental features of God’s commandments, in order to strengthen his people and to provide them salvation and goods in the world. Assimilation is not always a loss, but also a gain of a new tool.
The scriptural narrative of being like all the other nations as that which is both rejected by God, but also the source of salvation provides an important model for thinking through present questions about assimilation.