Deuteronomy 17:14-20 – Royal Authority Limited


Deuteronomy 17:14-20


Guidelines and boundaries for kings seek to contain royal power and limit royal wealth. 


Deuteronomy and books influenced by Deuteronomy, such as Joshua – 2 Kings, are generally ambivalent about Israelite monarchy, seeing it as a potential for wielding righteousness in the right hands, but mostly a dangerous accretion of power in the hands of corruptible humans. Accordingly, Deuteronomy warns against abuses that Israelite and Judahite kings were known to have practiced – accumulation of wealth, trading in horses – especially with Egypt – and marrying a multitude of wives. These are exactly the activities that the supposedly wise King Solomon practiced (1 Kings 10:26-11:3), to his ruination. 

To counter these ruinous impulses, the king was to make a copy of the Law under the supervision of the priest, and to read it every day. This copy of the Law (deuteronomon in Greek) is where we get the name of the present book. 

The king, specifically, was not to exalt himself above the rest of the people or to turn aside from the law that was binding on the rest of the people. 

This section on the king must be read in the context of chapters 16-18 describing various leaders and their overlapping and complementary roles in leading the community. The judges, officers, priests, central judge, king, and prophets were mutually accountable, provided checks and balances, and at times vied for power against each other (see 2 Samuel 12:7; 2 Samuel 24:18; 2 Kings 3:7-20 for a few examples).