The name of this week’s parasha is Shoftim, which means “Judges” and covers Deuteronomy 16:18 through 21:9. Moses instructed the Israelis to appoint judges that would show justice and impartiality in the cases they heard. He listened to the wise counsel of his father-in-law Jethro by selecting God-fearing judges from among the people to judge the lesser cases, so that he would judge the more serious cases. If the Jewish people would use justice in these matters, then God would give them long life and the possession of the land of Canaan. But anyone who showed disrespect to the priest or judge would be put to death.
An application of this law occurred when Samuel proclaimed Saul as king, but some rebellious men refused to acknowledge him as king. On account of this commandment they would have been put to death after Saul’s victory over the Ammonites, had he not extended them mercy. Let’s remember to give the proper respect to those whom God has placed in authority over us!
The Jewish people were forbidden from setting up any Asherah poles or sacred pillars, which were used in the worship practices of the various Amorite and Canaanite peoples surrounding them. To use these items would be to follow in the practices of these nations and disobey God’s commands to drive out these nations and their wicked religious practices. Those practices included child-sacrifice, sorcery, witchcraft, interpreting omens, spell-casting, being a medium or spiritualist and attempting to make contact with the dead. Adonai had earlier warned the Israelis that He was driving out the nations in Canaan because of their wickedness. If the Jewish people worshiped other gods, He would destroy them as well.
The Israelis were also commanded not to sacrifice blemished sheep or oxen, and were given the procedures and punishments for anyone caught in idolatry. What is very significant here are the requirements that at least two witnesses testify against the accused before the death penalty can even be considered; furthermore, these accusations must be investigated thoroughly and, if proven true, the witnesses themselves must be the first to throw the stones against the condemned before the people do so. If a witness is found to have lied, they were to be punished according to the punishment for the crime that they accused someone else of committing. So, if someone falsely accused another person of idolatry, the accuser would then be stoned instead of the accused.
Centuries later, in order to obtain Naboth’s vineyard, wicked Queen Jezebel manipulated this law (with Ahab’s support) by bribing two men to falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king, and Naboth was wrongly put to death. However, the prophet Elijah told Ahab that the dogs would lick up his blood just as they did Naboth’s, and that Jezebel’s dead body would be eaten by dogs. Both pronouncements were later fulfilled. Those who transgress against God’s laws will not escape His judgment!
Moses then told the Chosen People they would eventually want a king like all the other nations, so he listed the qualifications of a king in Israel. The king must be an Israeli and not a foreigner; he must not accumulate many horses, or go to Egypt for more horses, he must not take many wives, or amass gold and silver. He would be required to write a copy of the Torah for himself and study it for the rest of his life, so that he will honor God and not become prideful. These standards were to be followed by every Jewish king.
Unfortunately, Solomon, who was one of the wisest men that ever lived, violated these commandments. He married multiple wives and took hundreds of concubines, he sent to Egypt for fine horses, and collected an overabundance of gold and silver. As a result, his kingdom was divided after his death. This shows that wisdom is nothing if it isn’t used in obedience to Almighty God.
The Jewish people were instructed what provisions must be given to the Levites, and how to distinguish between good and bad prophets. A true prophet must be obeyed, but any prophet who spoke falsely, or who invoked the power of another god must be put to death. Deuteronomy 18 contains one of the clearest Messianic prophecies in all of the Torah. It describes a great prophet like Moses who will come and who must be obeyed, because His words are from God. Anyone who doesn’t listen to the prophet will have to answer to God. The greatest of the prophets is the Messiah – the ultimate spokesman for God!
Moses then instructs the Israelis to build three cities of refuge for those who accidentally killed someone. They are told to build three more of these cities as God blesses them and their territory increases. But anyone who committed premeditated murder was not to be allowed refuge in these cities, but was subject to criminal investigation and the death sentence. There is a clear distinction between manslaughter and murder.
The rules and procedures for waging warfare are then listed by Moses. The priest would encourage the Israelis to go and fight, because God fights for them. However, anyone who hadn’t had a chance to dedicate a new house he built, or hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of his new vineyard, or hadn’t married a woman he was pledged to marry, or wasn’t brave enough to fight, would be allowed to go home. God only wanted willing volunteers to fight His battles.
Cities outside of Canaan would be given the option of surrender and would serve Israel in hard labor. If they didn’t surrender, they would be attacked, the men would be killed, while the women, children and all their possessions would be taken. However, God singled out the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, who were the nations inside Canaan, for annihilation because of their exceptionally wicked practices and their attempt at seducing the Israelis to adopt their evil practices.
When Joshua later led the Jewish people into the Land, they were tricked by the Gibeonites, who lived inside Canaan, into thinking the Gibeonites lived outside Canaan so that they were spared. The Gibeonites ended up as woodcutters and water carriers to provide for the needs of the altar. In theory, this proximity to Israel would have enabled them to learn about the true God and the way of salvation. But that isn’t how it turned out. In fact, the Gibeonites’ pagan influence led to a depth of depravity within the tribe of Benjamin reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah, and nearly resulted in the downfall of the entire tribe as recorded in Judges 19-20.
The passage ends with instructions on making restitution for a death by an unknown killer. The elders would make restitution for this death by breaking the neck of a heifer that had never been used for work in a valley that wasn’t used for farming and which had running water.
A few thoughts about Parasha Shoftim in closing:
Scripture teaches us that correctly discerning, obeying and teaching God’s commands to others are important duties that must not be taken lightly. Obedience to God’s commandments keeps us in a right and close relationship with Him, while disobedience brings us pain and suffering. Since a leader’s judgments can have long-lasting consequences, let’s remember to pray for our leaders to show wisdom in their judgments by governing according to God’s laws and commandments.
We can see the benefits of having godly judges and prophets who obey God’s laws and teach them to others. However, even the best of leaders are only human and are prone to sin just as we are. But we have an even greater Judge who will judge all mankind – Messiah Yeshua. God the Father has entrusted Messiah to judge all humanity, so that everyone will honor the Son as they do the Father. He is the Judge of the living and the dead, so let’s listen to this prophet greater than Moses and obey this perfect Judge!
We can exercise wise judgment by believing God’s assurances that He keeps His promises and will always be with us. In the haftarah portion for this Shabbat, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed God’s ultimate protection and redemption of Israel from their enemies, whom He will defeat. Even though we may face opposition for obeying God instead of the ungodly practices of this lost and dying world, Messiah Yeshua assured us in Matthew 10 that He will vindicate us before God as His followers through our loyalty and obedience to Him. So don’t lose hope when you’re persecuted for your faith; remember, God’s word is true and He always keeps His promises!