A.W. Tozer believed that the truest measure of a man is how he thinks about God. Perhaps the truest measure of a nation is how its judicial system functions. When innocent people go to prison because ambitious prosecutors suppress evidence, or officials commit perjury, or judges allow their political biases to influence cases, the judicial process is perverted. The same is true when people issue threats if a verdict is returned not to their liking, or riot and destroy property rather than wait for the trial’s conclusion. These are signs of a society in moral decay.
Our parasha this week, entitled Shof’tim (“judges”) stresses the need for justice. The conduct of Israeli society would reflect on the God who redeemed us. After all, we ourselves had suffered unjustly for 400 years in Egypt. Did we learn from it? Would we be a nation of tzedek – righteousness, justice, or would we become as corrupt as the nations around us?
The parasha opens at Deuteronomy 16:18, and the balance of this chapter, as well as most of 17, concerns the administering of justice. Israel was commanded to appoint judges – local officials – in each of our towns. We were warned that the judicial process must not be corrupted. There must be no partiality; neither the wealthy nor the poor were to be shown preference. Bribery? Forbidden! Fear of public reaction? Irrelevant! Emotions of sympathy? Subordinated! If justice is to be served, only the facts, the truth, the merits of a case were to have any consideration. Moses put it this way:
“Justice, and only justice shall you pursue!”
Judges were responsible to decide both civil and criminal cases. If any case proved too difficult, it could be brought to the Priest or the Judge who would be in office in the days to come.
There were other judicial guidelines as well. No one was to be convicted of a capital crime on the testimony of just one person. Also, if someone brought a criminal accusation against another, later proven to be false, the accuser himself would suffer the due punishment for the alleged crime. In a fallen world, deterrent like this is wise and necessary.
Deuteronomy 17 also anticipated the days of the Kings. God permitted Israel to have kings, but it was a sign of our unbelief. Moses knew we would eventually clamor for the respectability of having powerful monarchs. But God put specific limitations on it.
- The king must be a fellow Israeli
- He was not to collect horses
- He was not to acquire horses from Egypt
- He must not hoard gold/silver
- He must not collect many wives
- He must write his own copy of Torah
Centuries later, Chronicles recorded Solomon’s repeated violation of these principles, leading to his downfall, and the eventual split in the Kingdom of Israel.
Chapter 18 reminds us that Levites would have no land inheritance. Adonai would be their portion! But it doesn’t mean they would be homeless. Cities and lands were to be set aside within each tribe for the Levites. And the people are reminded not to neglect the Levites, but rather to bring to them the first fruits of all their increase. That meant you gave the first ten percent of your grain, your new wine, your oil and your flocks. In this way the Levites would never be either impoverished or wealthy. There is also a reminder to establish cities of refuge so that no one would be put to death unjustly for unintentional manslaughter.
Chapter 18 also contains warnings against spiritism and pagan forms of worship. It was for just such practices that God was driving out the Canaanites. If we imitated them He would eventually drive us out – for a time.
But that didn’t mean we couldn’t inquire about the future. If we truly desired to know, there was an approved way. God promised that He would raise up a prophet from among us, one like Moses, and one to whom we must give our obedience. Adonai declared, I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you (Moses), and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him.
This is nothing less than a prophecy of the coming Messiah! Concerning this very thing, Yeshua said, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak”. Consequently, if we refuse to acknowledge Yeshua as Messiah, and reject His instruction, we will be held liable to the Heavenly Supreme Court, whose decision is eternal, and for which there is no appeal.
Chapter 19 includes a warning not to move boundary stones between adjoining properties. Those property lines were determined by God’s will, and thus were sacred and to remain constant.
Chapters 20 and 21 contain laws governing warfare, including who would be exempt from military service, offering of terms of peace to cities before declaring war, the command not to harm any fruit-bearing trees of the cities we conquer, and restrictions for taking captives, including safeguarding the dignity of women taken captive in war.
The thrust of this parasha, indeed of much of the Torah, is that Israel was a nation whose laws distinguished her, not selfishly, but that the world might take note of the wisdom and justice, and seek out the Living God. In the same way, your life communicates to everyone around you – hopefully good things, and in such a way that they will seek out Yeshua. “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they will see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.”