Saturday Dec 04, 2021

Deuteronomy 17:8-13 - The Role of Judges and Priests in Ancient Israel

     This unit of Scripture is part of a larger section in which Moses addresses four leadership offices God would assign in Israel, namely, judges (Deut 16:18-17:8), priests (Deut 17:9-13; 18:1-8), kings (Deut 17:14-20), and prophets (Deut 18:15-22). These four leadership offices were bound by the Mosaic Law, which legitimized their authority and was the guide for their rulership.

     In this pericope, Moses continues his message to the Israelites who were about to enter the land of Canaan. In addition to judges (שָׁפַט shaphat) who would serve in local communities (Deut 16:18-17:8), Moses introduces a higher court that consisted of Levitical priests and a judge who would serve at a central location, namely the tabernacle or temple. This higher court was intended to handle legal cases that were too difficult for judges in local communities.

     Being a theocracy meant God was their Judge, Lawgiver, and King (Isa 33:22). As King, He was their national leader. As Lawgiver, He was the source of their legislation. As Judge, He would evaluate His people on the basis of their adherence to His laws. Moses himself had previously served as a judge (Ex 18:13-16), and had instructed others in God’s law (Ex 18:17-26). The men Moses selected to serve as judges were to be men of good character, “men who fear God, men of truth, and those who hate dishonest gain” (Ex 18:21a). These men could be selected from any of the tribes in Israel, and their moral integrity was to be the chief quality. Once selected and trained, judges in Israel were to see themselves as subordinate representatives of God, the supreme Judge of Israel. God directed His judges to adhere to His standards, saying, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you” (Deut 16:20). This meant knowing and judging according to God’s written laws. If a judge in Israel perverted justice, it meant he diminished the character of God. Following the directives in Deuteronomy, King Jehoshaphat (who reigned from 873 to 848 BC) appointed judges in Judah and told them, “Consider what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the LORD who is with you when you render judgment” (2 Ch 19:6). He also spoke to the priests in Judah and told them to help execute “the judgment of the LORD and to judge disputes among the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (2 Ch 19:8).[1]

     In Israel, the priest (כֹּהֵן kohen) referred to those who drew near to God on behalf of others, usually in sacred matters of prayer and sacrifice. God originally intended the whole nation of Israel to be a kingdom of priests, saying, “and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6). However, because of the sin of worshipping the golden calf (Ex 32:1-35), God took that privilege from the nation and confined the priesthood to Aaron and his descendants, and the Levites were to be their assistants (Num 3:1-10; 18:1-7). According to God’s law, priests were to:

  1. Be holy in their behavior (Ex 19:6).
  2. Teach His law to others (Lev 10:11; Deut 33:10).
  3. Preserve the tabernacle and temple (Num 18:1-4).
  4. Officiate duties in the Holy of Holies once a year (Ex 30:6-10; Lev 16).
  5. Inspect people and fabrics for cleanliness (Lev 13-14).
  6. Receive tithes (Num 18:21, 26; cf. Heb 7:5).
  7. Offer sacrifices for sin (Lev chapters 4, 9, 16).
  8. Educate and lead God’s people in religious services (Ezra 7:10; Neh 8:1-5, 8).
  9. Help judges decide legal matters (Deut 17:8-13).

     Moses opens this section by addressing the judges in local communities, saying, “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” (Deut 17:8). The word court literally means gate (שַׁעַר shaar) and refers to the gate of the city. The city gate was an open area that served as the place where litigants would meet town elders, other citizens, and judges who helped adjudicate crimes or legal matters. Not only where these cases open to the public, but they were also handled relatively quickly (see Ruth 4:1-11). However, Moses assumed there would arise difficult cases in which local judges could not render a ruling, cases of homicide, lawsuit, or assault. When this happened, the judges could take the matter to a higher court.

     The higher court would be at a central location of God’s choosing. At first, this would be the tabernacle and later the temple. Moses directed the local judges, saying, “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” (Deut 17:9). It could be that the Levitical priests would select one of their own to serve in a judicial capacity; however, the use of the definite article connected with the word “judge” ( הַשֹּׁפֵטha shaphat – the judge) implies a distinction between them. That is, there would be several priests and a particular judge who resided at the tabernacle/temple. These would serve as the court of last appeal. It’s possible the high priest could discern a divine answer by using the Urim and Thummim (Ex 28:29-30; cf. 1 Sam 28:6); however, it seems more likely the theological and experiential wisdom of the priests and judge would decide the case. Once a verdict came down to the local judges, they were instructed:

     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. (Deut 17:10-11)

     The local judges who brought the difficult case were bound to adhere to the decision given to them by the priests and judge at the tabernacle/temple. The verdict was declared from the “place which the LORD” chose, which meant Yahweh was involved in the decision, and it was final. The judges who originally brought the case were not free to execute a sentence either with leniency or severity beyond what had been handed to them. The decision of the court represented God’s will, and to reject or deviate from the court’s decision was to reject or deviate from God’s decision, and such an act would be a crime against the Lord. Moses wrote, “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” (Deut 17:12). Executing those who rebelled against the Lord’s decision was seen as purging evil from their communities. In this way, the judges would advance God’s directive to administer “justice, and only justice” within their communities (Deut 16:20a). If the rebellious person was put to death, it would create a healthy fear that would prevent others from rejecting the Lord’s authority. Moses said, “Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again” (Deut 17:13). It’s noteworthy that this legal system Moses was providing assumed objective standards of law (that everyone could observe) predicated on the integrity of words (that didn’t change or lose meaning) and the reliability of language as a vehicle of communication from one person or group to another.

     Moses was providing God’s laws, which were a reflection of His righteous character and the basis for their covenantal relationship with Him. Obedience to God’s directives guaranteed blessing and disobedience guaranteed cursing (Deut 11:26-28). Remember, the exodus generation had seen the Lord’s power and experienced His liberation from Egyptian slavery (Ex 13:3), yet, they rebelled against the Lord ten times—disobeying His commands—and were punished by Him (Num 14:22-23). The result of their disobedience was they were not permitted to enter Canaan, but to wander in the wilderness for forty years until they perished (Num 14:28-35). Though they had the promises of God, “the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard” (Heb 4:2). After the exodus generation died, Moses educated their children, restating the Law (Deuteronomy), and these experienced the Lord’s blessings because they responded positively to the godly leadership of Joshua and followed the Lord’s directives. However, after Joshua’s death (Judg 2:8-9), and the death of the generation of Israelites he’d led (Judg 2:10a), we learn, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judg 2:10b). Rather than follow in the ways of the Lord, we learn, “Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals, and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the LORD to anger” (Judg 2:11-12).


[1] Jehoshaphat was a relatively good king who followed after the ways of King David. Jehoshaphat started his reign by committing himself to the Lord and destroying the pagan worship centers throughout Judah (2 Ch 17:3-6). He then directed godly men to teach God’s Word throughout the land (2 Ch 17:7-8), and “They taught in Judah, having the book of the law of the LORD with them; and they went throughout all the cities of Judah and taught among the people” (2 Ch 17:9).

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