Parsha: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)
Shof’tim שֹׁפְטִים (“Judges”) Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
If A. W. Tozer was right, 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 works. When innocent people go to prison, either because an ambitious prosecutor only cared about a high conviction rate; or because a police officer or high official lied under oath, or because a judge allowed their political biases to influence the case, the judicial process is perverted. On the other end of the equation, when people riot and destroy property and make threats, rather than wait for the facts, as just happened in Ferguson, MO, justice is tainted. These things are all signs of a society in moral decay.
I bring this up because our parasha this week, entitled Shof’tim (“judges”) lays great stress on the need for justice. The character of Israel’s society would be a direct reflection on the God who had redeemed us. After all, we ourselves had suffered unjustly for 400 years in Egypt. Did we learn from our experiences? Would we be a nation of tzedek – righteousness, justice, or would we be just as corrupt as the nations around us?
The parasha opens at Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 18, and the balance of this chapter, as well as the first half of chapter 17, concerns the administering of justice. Israel was commanded to appoint judges – local officials – in each of our towns, once we entered the land. We were warned in no uncertain terms that the judicial process not be corrupted. There was to be zero partiality; not toward the wealthy, not toward the poor. Bribery? Forbidden! Fear of public reaction? Irrelevant! Emotions of sympathy toward the poor? Excluded! 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!”
These men were to be responsible to decide civil disputes and criminal cases. Moses told them that if any case was too difficult, it could be brought to the Priest or Judge who would be in office in those days. In that sense, Deuteronomy 17 was prophetic – anticipating the days of the Judges.
There were other judicial guidelines as well. For example, no one was to be convicted of a capital crime on the testimony of just one person (17:6, 19:15). Also, if one person brought a criminal charge against another that was later shown to be a lie, the false accuser would suffer whatever the punishment was for that crime. Imagine how dramatically that would improve our court system! People would have to think twice about filing false charges!
Deuteronomy 17 also anticipated the days of the Kings (17:14-20). God permitted Israel to have kings, but it was a sign of our unbelief. Moses knew that we would eventually clamor for the same respectability the other nations enjoyed by having powerful monarchs. But God put specific limitations on it.
- He must be a fellow Israeli (no division of loyalties)
- No collecting horses (lest he end up trusting his army and not God)
- No acquiring horses from Egypt (we were never to return there!)
- No hoarding gold/silver (lest he trust his wealth and not God)
- No collecting wives – (or his heart will turn away from God)
- He must write his own copy of Torah (to remain humble)
Centuries later, the writer of Chronicles demonstrated how Solomon’s repeated violation of these principles led to his downfall, and the eventual rift in the Kingdom of Israel.
In this parasha we’re reminded that Levites would have no land inheritance in Israel. The Lord would their portion! But it doesn’t mean they would be homeless. We already saw that cities and lands were to be set aside within the boundaries of each tribe for the Levites. And in chapter 18, 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 impoverished nor wealthy, since either condition might easily distract one’s attention from serving Adonai. Another reminder included the establishing cities of refuge so that no one would be put to death unjustly for manslaughter, as opposed to premeditated murder.
In chapter 18 the prohibitions against spiritism and pagan forms of worship are reiterated. It was on account of these very practices that God was driving out the Canaanites, and if we imitated them He would eventually drive us out – for a time. But occultism has always held a fascination for people. Every day in our otherwise sophisticated world, millions of people won’t even venture out of their homes without first consulting their astrological forecast or dialing a 900 number to get advice from their favorite medium. Regardless the motive behind it, such practices are forbidden to the people of God, in both Old and New Covenants.
But that didn’t mean Adonai was going to leave us in the dark. If we truly desired to know the things to come, there was an approved way. In chapter 18 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 (18:18-19).
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” (John 12:48-49). Consequently, if we refuse to acknowledge Yeshua as the Promised Messiah, and reject His instruction, we will be held liable to the Heavenly Supreme Court, whose decision is eternal, and against which there is no appeal.
In chapter 19 is found a warning not to move the boundary stone between adjoining properties. Those property lines were determined by the will of God, and thus were sacred and were to remain constant. Centuries later, even powerful King Ahab could not persuade his neighbor Navot to sell his ancestral property. In ancient times, if you went into debt, you might have to sell yourself as an indentured servant; but only under the most dire of circumstances would you ever sell your property, and that only for a time. At the Jubilee year, regardless of your financial condition, your family’s land was to be restored to you. Meanwhile, there was to be no incursion upon your neighbor’s property.
Chapters 20 and 21 contain laws governing warfare, including who would be exempt from military service, the offering of terms of peace to cities before engaging in warfare, the command not to harm the fruit-bearing trees of the cities they conquer, and restrictions for taking captives, including safeguarding the dignity of foreign women taken captive in war. Unlike other cultures whose men routinely and wantonly raped women taken in warfare, Israel’s men were prohibited from committing rape. If a man found a captive woman to be beautiful, he was permitted to marry her, but only after she was given time to fully grieve her family. She was not to be treated like property, but was to be accorded due care and consideration. In these ways, Israel would be distinguished from the other nations of the world, and it would be a testimony to the good character of Israel’s God, which in turn would draw men and women from the nations to want to serve Adonai.
The thrust of this parasha, indeed of much of the Torah, was that Israel was a nation whose laws set her apart, not so much for our own sake, but that the world might take note of the wisdom and justice, and come to know the Living God. In the same way, your life is communicating to everyone around you – hopefully good things, and in such a way that they will want to know your “secret”. Don’t keep it a secret. Instead “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.”
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Shoftim שֹׁפְטִים. Other transliteration: Shofetim