This week’s parasha is entitled Shoftim. It covers Deuteronomy 16:18 through 21:9. The word Shoftim is translated “Judges.” A judge’s primary responsibility is to dispense fair and impartial justice, based on the law. Whenever law is properly applied, it reflects the good and just nature of God. Proverbs 20:8 tells us “A king who sits on the throne of justice disperses all evil with his eyes”. Sadly, our present-day justice system isn’t always administered properly; the punishment often bearing no relationship whatsoever to the crime. Instead of restitution directly to the victims or their families, convicts supposedly pay their ‘debt to society’. As a result, criminals feel as though they can do whatever they please.
In chapter 17 of our parasha, Adonai says, “So you shall put away the evil from Israel”. And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously.” One of the purposes for rightly administering justice is the deterrence factor: so that people will hear, and out of reverence, never again commit such crimes. To achieve this, justice must never be perverted. According to Scripture, a judge must never show partiality or take a bribe.
The ministry of the judge was never abolished. Kings came and went and prophets were absent for periods of time, but God ensured that Israel always had judges to interpret and administer the law.
The parasha continues with this commandment: “You shall not plant for yourself any tree, as a wooden image, near the altar which you build for yourself to the Lord your God. You shall not set up a sacred pillar, which the Lord your God hates, and You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God a bull or sheep which has any blemish or defect, for that is an abomination to the Lord your God”.
One might argue from aesthetics that a beautiful tree growing near the altar would lend a sense of grace and majesty to the service of God. But what we see is not always a guarantee of the way things are. The Torah with its spiritual “eyes” tells us that a tree planted near the altar is revolting to God. The Canaanites used wood in the making of their detestable idols. The nation of Israel was commanded not to follow the ways of the Canaanites as their ways were pagan and offensive to God. This might explain the Ten Commandments being engraved on stone rather than wood. The God of Israel is not to be compared to the false gods of the nations.
What is so despicable about a pillar we may ask? If you were to drive along the main roads of WashingtonDC, you would see numerous statues; soldiers on massive stone horses, foreleg raised, forever in glory; frozen in remembrance of things past. A pillar, a monument, always relates to things that were. We as Christians and Messianic Jews relate to Yeshua not just as the One who created everything, but as the God who continues to work in our lives. Our relationship with Him is dynamic, not static. We recognize that Yeshua created us with and for a purpose. Let us seek to fulfill that purpose.
The third abomination is presenting an offering with a blemish. Most human beings believe that God exists. But when it comes to serving Him wholeheartedly, with all our heart and soul and mind, most think like the ancient Greeks — that God made the world but then left us to fend for ourselves; that He’s not interested in what we do on a day-to-day basis. Presenting a flawed, blemished offering is evidence that we really don’t believe God sees everything, and that we lack genuine commitment to Him.
Chapter 17 also addresses the conduct of Israel’s future kings. Moses prophesied that a time would come when Israel would desire an earthly king like the nations around them. But Israel’s kings were not to rule in the same manner as those of the pagan nations. Like all Israel, the king was to be sanctified, set apart. He was not to misuse his powers to amass personal wealth, to collect horses or to maintain a harem, lest his heart turn away from Adonai. These limitations were designed to keep him humble. He was not to depend on military power, or riches, but solely on the Lord. He was to guide the nation into obedience to God’s Law. By reading and obeying God’s Law, the king would be reminded that he was no different than anyone else, only that God had chosen him to guide the nation in righteousness; to help Israel fulfill it’s national historic mission as a light to the nations.
King Solomon, who began his reign so well, later disobeyed these regulations. He amassed large amounts of gold, collected horses and chariots and established a harem. And what was the result of this? The nation of Israel was torn apart.
In Chapter 18, Moses speaks of the great prophet who was to come, whom we now know to be Messiah Yeshua. This is the only instance in the entire Torah where Moses explicitly identifies himself as a prophet, and likens that coming One to himself. In John’s Gospel we read that the scribes sent a delegation to question Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) as to his identity. First they asked him, “Are you Elijah?” – a reference to Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah would return before the appearance of the Messiah. To this day Jewish people around the world set out a cup of wine for Elijah at Passover, in anticipation of that. Their second question was, “Are you the Prophet?” referring to Moses’ prophecy in this chapter.
When Yeshua miraculously fed the five thousand, the people began to ask whether this might be the Prophet who was to come into the world. In his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen declared that Yeshua was the promised Messiah, and also quoted this prophecy from Deuteronomy 18, saying, “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren; Him you shall hear”. Yeshua, without a doubt, is the “Prophet Like Moses”.
The parasha goes on to outline some of the people’s duties toward the priests and the Levites, including gifts set aside from our produce, shearings and slaughtered cattle. There are prohibitions against all forms of sorcery and superstition, the duty to obey the prophet, and the requirement to set aside ‘cities of refuge’ for someone who kills unintentionally.
There are rules governing warfare, including the prohibition against wanton destruction of something of value as exemplified by the law that forbids cutting down a fruit tree when laying siege. The parasha concludes with the law of what is called Eglah Arufah – a special procedure for when someone has been killed, and their body is found in a field, and it isn’t known who the murderer is. In such a case, responsibility for the murder lay with the city nearest to the scene. In an atonement ceremony, the city elders were to break the neck of a heifer that has never worked, wash their hands in the priest’s presence, and pray for forgiveness.
Parasha Shoftim focuses on how the Israelis were to become a community, learning how to treat one another and protect each other. Moses addressed the people both as a community and as individuals. As a community of believers in Yeshua, we need to pursue justice on a daily basis. This means not turning a blind eye when we see someone being mistreated; not committing perjury; living righteous lives, because justice and righteousness go hand-in-hand. This also means that we must have moral integrity to resist any form of bribery, no matter how tempting the offer may seem.
In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 Rabbi Paul admonishes us not to take our brothers before a secular court, but instead to settle our differences among ourselves. Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we are capable of judging our own ordinary problems. In fact, he says that in the future we will judge angels. By being faithful in these little things, one day we will be given responsibility over much greater things. Offering our lives as living sacrifices without blemish is the quality Adonai is looking for in good and faithful future judges. It is something we as believers in Yeshua are called to.
One day, Messiah Yeshua will return to Earth and establish His kingdom, where justice will be administered flawlessly by the King of kings. But until then, the responsibility lies with us. Let us always strive to be fair and impartial in our dealings with others. And hopefully, through our good conduct, non believers may become curious about the One who has so dramatically impacted our lives – the risen Messiah Yeshua.