TorahScope: Shoftim



Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Isaiah 51:12-52:12 (or finish at 53:12)

“God’s Governance Parameters”

by Mark Huey

As we continue to read through the Book of Deuteronomy this week, one is reminded that the Holy One of Israel was most definitely concerned about how His people were going to properly govern themselves, after the conquest of Canaan was secured. God is not one to promote confusion, but instead peace and order (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:33). However, as the nascent nation was commanded to overcome obstacles with the eradication of existing people groups and the redistribution of the territory to the twelve tribes, the need to maintain a modicum of justice, coupled with the eventual choice of a king and specific roles for the priesthood and prophetic offices, is articulated. For most assuredly, the Creator was absolutely aware of human beings’ propensity to selfishly do what is right in their own eyes (cf. Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 17:6). Consequently, the Lord would define some of the roles, and some of the various nuances of judges, kings, priests, and even prophets—in order to distribute leadership responsibilities among those gifted or chosen, to function in such capacities.

As indicated by the name of our Torah portion, Shoftim or “judges,” the Lord commanded the Ancient Israelites to appoint judges and officers in their new cities and towns, in order to maintain a high degree of righteous judgment and order:

“You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the LORD your God, which you shall make for yourself. You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the LORD your God hates” (Deuteronomy 16:18-22).

While the specific method for appointing judges is not stated here, it can be agreed that the main guidelines, for becoming a judge in Ancient Israel, were concurrent with the principles established when Moses was wisely counseled by his father-in-law Jethro, to distribute the workload of mediating between the complainants in disputes (Exodus 18). Note in the dialogue below between Moses and Jethro, that the counsel, to choose such judges or leaders in the community, was that such individuals were to fear God, know the truth, and hate dishonest gain:

“Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God. It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?’ Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.’ Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me: I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.’ So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land” (Exodus 18:12-27).

Right from the very establishment of leadership in the fledgling nation, the Lord pointed out the alluring temptations of wealth, and the distorted understanding that human nature falsely believes that wealth generates security, creating a conflict that arises in the hearts of many people. Yeshua would later address this reality in His Sermon on the Mount:

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24).

Moses himself, however, would soon point out the blindness generated, when those subjected to dishonest gain take a bribe:

“You shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of the just” (Exodus 23:8).

With the establishment of a just society, with honest and truth-seeking leaders for Ancient Israel—how do modern people, even in “democratically” elected systems, avoid the tendency for love of money, and the false sense of security it often engenders, properly govern themselves?

“For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:10-11).

The answer to this dilemma is most complex, because peering into the hearts of people is exclusively reserved for the Almighty and beyond the ability of mere humans. But as followers of Yeshua the Messiah, who have the right and citizen responsibility to make choices during elections—or perhaps even selections of those called to serve the Body of Messiah—it is critical that the influence of money on those being elevated is considered. In the case of entering into the Promised Land, the Holy One was most concerned about justice for His people. Without righteous judges, or as is later described, obedient kings, or priests who followed His commandments, or prophets who prophesied the truth rather than false—the ways of Israel would be perverted.

So in order to spread the responsibility when it came to justice, God established a principle that would require multiple witnesses to determine and adjudicate justice. Interestingly, He even required the witnesses to execute the judgment when it came to capital offenses, while insisting that the Levitical priesthood be the final arbiter when it came to interpreting the specifics of the Torah and its application in the community:

“On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them and they will declare to you the verdict in the case. You shall do according to the terms of the verdict which they declare to you from that place which the LORD chooses; and you shall be careful to observe according to all that they teach you. According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the LORD your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again” (Deuteronomy 17:6-13).

God was extremely concerned about equal justice for all. The question one might ask, especially when noticing in the modern era that justice is often perverted by those with great influence (predominantly due to their financial status), is how long will the Almighty allow the unjust to prevail? When bribery in legal, political, and even religious institutions appears rampant, what is one to do? Perhaps turning to the Book of Proverbs to understand that this is not unusual—but sadly the norm for wicked people under the influence of the world, the flesh, and the Adversary—will give each of us some key instructions on how the righteous are to deal with the wicked:

“A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice” (Proverbs 17:23).

“Do not lie in wait, O wicked man, against the dwelling of the righteous; do not destroy his resting place; for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity. Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; or the LORD will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him. Do not fret because of evildoers or be envious of the wicked; for there will be no future for the evil man; the lamp of the wicked will be put out. My son, fear the LORD and the king; do not associate with those who are given to change, for their calamity will rise suddenly, and who knows the ruin that comes from both of them? These also are sayings of the wise. To show partiality in judgment is not good. He who says to the wicked, ‘You are righteous,’ peoples will curse him, nations will abhor him; but to those who rebuke the wicked will be delight, and a good blessing will come upon them” (Proverbs 24:15-25).

Perverse justice present in the world is to be expected, but it is not to be accepted or embraced. As children of the Most High, we are not to fret or be envious of the wicked, but recognize that the Omniscient One will eventually deal with those who abuse their positions of responsibility. Our steadfast responsibility, as His people, is to pray for our enemies, without associating with them and certainly not condoning their wicked acts. For without a doubt, followers of Yeshua are told by Him specifically, to be careful of their judgment, due to their own mortal limitations:

“For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. ‘Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye’” (Matthew 7:2-5).

Our Torah portion also addresses the inevitability of the choice or appointment of a king over Israel, and not only the potential abuses of the new human leader, but also a description of what the Holy One demands of someone taking on such an awesome position and responsibility of leadership. Note the king’s accountability to the priesthood, but also and most importantly, to the written Word of the Most High:

“When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman. Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself. Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

Clearly, despite the description later found about the elevation of Saul to the kingship of Israel (1 Samuel 8), there is the nagging reminder that those in positions of authority should always be subject to the Word of the Lord. Lamentably as the world has moved through time, the waxing and waning of reverence for the Holy Writ has led to all sorts of turmoil not only among nations—but most sadly within the company of those seeking to represent the Almighty to the world. Should we not do better in our generation, given the preponderance of information available today—not only about the mistakes made in the past, which we should seek to avoid—but most especially with the return of Yeshua looming ever closer?

Turning to Deuteronomy 18, readers see how Moses was especially concerned for equity regarding the Levitical priesthood. These people had specific responsibilities and duties, without the benefit of an inheritance in the Promised Land, because they were set-apart for service unto the Almighty in and around the Tabernacle. But beyond proper respect for the role of the priesthood, it was and remains critical for those called into service, to keep the balance of the people of Israel from drifting into error and perversion because of the influences of the world. Nations, or people groups within nations, have historically found ungodly ways to seek the spiritual world, and Israel was absolutely warned to avoid such practices:

“They shall eat equal portions, except what they receive from the sale of their fathers’ estates. When you enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the LORD; and because of these detestable things the LORD your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do so” (Deuteronomy 18:8-14).

As our parashah winds down, we encounter a description of a future prophet who will be raised up among the people, with some words that will require adherence—as compared to many of the presumptuous or false prophets who will come along over the course of time to test hearts and minds (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). This specific passage is made mention of by the Apostle Peter in Acts 3:22 in reference to the ministry work of Yeshua the Messiah:

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. This is according to all that you asked of the LORD your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, or I will die.’ The LORD said to me, ‘They have spoken well. I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 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. But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:15-22).

There is so much to be said about orderliness in the camp and the desire of the Holy One to have His people properly represent Him among the nations of the world. But as is always the challenge, there are so many distractions that can afflict God’s people, and such a lack of discernment when it comes to listening to various “prophets” and their presumed words—that only turning once again to the Holy Scriptures can one even begin to get a grasp on what is required of God’s people to truly serve Him. The Epistle to the Hebrews includes a great summary of what is to be done by followers of Yeshua the Messiah, who are purposefully attempting to follow in the footsteps of the cloud of witnesses which has preceded them. There is a definite emphasis placed on Believers fixing their eyes on Yeshua, and obeying Him as their prime example:

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Yeshua, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES’ [Proverbs 3:11-12]. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, ‘IF EVEN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONED’ [Exodus 19:12-13]. And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, ‘I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling’ [Deuteronomy 9:19]. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and [congregation] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Yeshua, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, ‘YET ONCE MORE I WILL NOT SHAKE ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN’ [Haggai 2:6]. This expression, ‘Yet once more,’ denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:1-29).

May the Lord bring each of us to a place of confession and repentance, so that we can follow Him more closely. May we be able to follow and obey His Word more fully—because He alone is worthy of our praise and adoration!