RIGHTEOUS ADMINISTRATION OF JUDGMENT PURGES THE EVIL FROM THE COMMUNITY TO MAINTAIN RIGHTEOUSNESS
Duane Christensen: The brief section on judges, and the concern for justice (16:18–20) forms an inclusion with the section on the high court of referral in 17:8–13. As such, the content of this opening pericope (16:18–20) is a fitting introduction to the larger section on political and religious leadership in ancient Israel contained in 16:18—21:9.
Daniel Block: The declaration in 16:20 (“Righteousness [ṣedeq], only righteousness you shall pursue,” pers. trans.) highlights the central issue in this section—covenant righteousness—and identifies the primary audience—“you.” What follows is not a manual for judges, kings, priests, and prophets, but an appeal to the people to be involved in the maintenance of righteousness. Although NIV’s rendering of ṣedeq as “justice” coheres with most translations, the issues addressed range far beyond social justice, from personal morality to idolatry. Furthermore, no officials are addressed directly, and the subunits exhibit a lack of concern with the formal duties of these leaders. In every case, the ultimate concern is righteousness (ṣedeq), demonstrated in the people’s fidelity to Yahweh. As agents of the people and Yahweh, the officials to be appointed are to support the people in their maintenance of righteousness.
Gerald Gerbrandt: There is no sharp separation between cultic matters and civil matters, nor between religious personnel or political offices. For Deuteronomy, all of life is constructed around the exclusive worship of the one God who led Israel out of Egypt (first commandment together with its prologue, 5:6–7; cf. the Shema, 6:4–5). . .
The people as a whole are responsible for administering justice. They do this by appointing judges and officers (16:18–20), but even then their role is not finished. They continue to participate in the local judicial process as witnesses and presumably as people who contribute to the thorough investigation. When these safeguards are followed, this local process has authority over even the most serious cases, including those with a possible capital punishment. In this way the people contribute as they purge the evil from their midst (17:7).
Matthew Henry: Care taken for the due administration of justice among them, that controversies might be determined, matters in variance adjusted, the injured righted, and the injurious punished. While they were encamped in the wilderness, they had judges and officers according to their numbers, rulers of thousands and hundreds; Exod. xviii. 25. When they came to Canaan, they must have them according to their towns and cities, in all their gates; for the courts of judgment sat in the gates.
I. (16:18-20) PURSUIT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS –
BY DEFINING THE APPOINTMENT, CHARACTER, ROLE AND REWARD OF RIGHTEOUS LOCAL JUDGES
A. (:18) Appointment of Righteous Local Judges
1. Appointment According to Towns within Tribes
“You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns
which the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes,”
Thomas Constable: Probably the people chose the judges by popular consensus (general agreement), and the leaders of the nation then officially appointed them (cf. 1:13). “Judges” were individuals responsible for administering justice, and “officers” were administrators charged with the enforcement of law, perhaps similar to modern police officers. The number of these in each town probably varied according to the needs of the community.
2. Appointment Designed for Righteous Judgment
“and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”
B. (:19) Character of Righteous Judges
1. No Distorting of Justice
“You shall not distort justice;”
Michael Grisanti: The notion of perverting or twisting judgment occurs eight times in the OT. To pervert justice is to deprive a person of the justice due that person (La 3:35). This expression occurs in juxtaposition to partiality (Pr 18:5) and bribery (Dt 16:19; 1Sa 8:3; Pr 17:23) and normally affects the poor, the alien, and the fatherless (Ex 23:6; Dt 24:17; 27; 19).
2. No Showing of Partiality
“you shall not be partial,”
Michael Grisanti: Just as Moses did with the judges he appointed soon after Sinai, so here he exhorts these judges not to show favor based on a person’s status or wealth. The phrase used is literally “recognize the face” (cf. Dt 1:17; Job 34:19; Pr 24:23; 28:21), a phrase much like “lifting the face” (10:17; 28:50); it is antithetical to genuine justice.
3. No Taking of Bribes
“and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.”
Michael Grisanti: In the present verse, bribery is abhorrent because it has destructive implications: it blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts or renders ineffective the words of the righteous (Ex 23:8). In other words, it chokes justice rather than achieving it!
C. (:20a) Role of Righteous Judges = Pursuit of Justice
“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue,”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Justice, and only justice serves as a kind of rallying cry for the introduction to this block (16:20). Judges who will render just decisions are the road to achieving this. Living a life of blessing in the land depends upon the faithful worship of God and upon a communal life shaped by justice. As Christopher Wright puts it, “The integrity of the judicial system was (and still is) basic to the preservation of society. Any society will have some levels of crime and some levels of injustice, but if the means of restitution and redress themselves become corrupt, then there is only despair. Justice itself turns to wormwood (Amos 5:7, 10)” (1996: 205).
D. (:20b) Reward of Righteous Judges = Long Life and Possession of the Land
“that you may live and possess the land
which the LORD your God is giving you.”
Gerald Gerbrandt: The passage closes with one further reference to the land. At first glance this is simply another expression of a typical motif: faithfulness and obedience are associated with good life in the land. A more careful examination of the phrase draws attention to an ambiguity. The direction to appoint judges throughout your tribes, in all your towns assumes that Israel is already living in the land. The final verse, however, appears to make the occupation itself, an event in the future, conditional upon having followed the provisions. Deuteronomy holds in tension “occupation of the land as a decisive event in history and as permanent future possibility, which has its obverse in the possibility of loss” (McConville 2002: 286). This contributes to Deuteronomy continuously having a present quality. It speaks to Israel during the time of the monarchy, and it speaks to Israel in exile: the hearers and readers of Deuteronomy are always at some today, where they are confronted by the challenge of how to respond to God’s exclusive claim and its implications (cf. 5:1–21).
II. (16:21 – 17:1) PREVENTION OF IDOLATRY AND POLLUTED SACRIFICES
A. (16:21-22) Prevention of Idolatry
1. (:21) No Spiritual Syncretism
“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.”
Daniel Block: The first command warns against spiritual syncretism (v. 21). The perversity in question involves compromising one legitimate act (building an altar for Yahweh their God) with an illegitimate act (setting up an Asherah pole beside the altar of Yahweh). In Canaanite religion Asherah was a female goddess, the consort of El, who represented the female principle in the fertility religion. However, to Moses an Asherah pole is merely a piece of wood made from “any tree” and “planted” by human hands. Whether Israelite worshipers understood such a pole as a symbol of the fertility they expected of Yahweh (cf. 7:12–14), or as a consort of Yahweh, by erecting it next to Yahweh’s altar, they were violating the Supreme Command (cf. 5:7).
Peter Craigie: The Israelites have already been commanded to destroy the asherim (plural of asherah) and pillars of the Canaanite cult centers (see 7:5). Now they are explicitly forbidden to set up similar cult objects beside the altar of the Lord in the sanctuary. An asherah of any kind of wood—the Hebrew may be rendered literally: “an asherah, any tree …” Which the Lord your God hates (see also 12:30–31)—to set up an asherah or pillar would be indicative of syncretism with Canaanite religion and would therefore be repulsive to God.
2. (:22) No Sacred Pillars
“Neither shall you set up for yourself a sacred pillar
which the LORD your God hates.”
Duane Christensen: Once the demands of character were met in the appointment of judges and officials in the land (16:18–20), the first task placed before them concerns prevention of idolatry (16:21–22). The people of Israel must not so much as plant a tree near God’s altar, lest it look like the altars of the Canaanite gods. And they must not set up images, statues, or pillars to the honor of God; for such things “YHWH your God hates.”
Eugene Merrill: Moses had just discussed the matter of righteous judgment and the blessing that followed such a policy. Now he provided a hypothetical case or two to illustrate what he meant by untainted jurisprudence and the practices to be followed in achieving it. The violations he adduced could not be more significant, for they strike right at the heart of the covenant relationship. In fact, they challenged the uniqueness of the Lord and the exclusiveness of his worship, on the one hand (16:21-22), thus disobeying the first two commandments; and, on the other hand, they spoke to the sin of cultic impurity in defiance of the third and fourth commandments (17:1). At stake was nothing less than who God is and how he is to be worshiped. Were such sins to be committed, how must the case be investigated and prosecuted? This was the concern of the case law that follows (17:2-7).
B. (17:1) Polluted Sacrifice Forbidden
“You shall not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep
which has a blemish or any defect,”
Peter Craigie: It is possible that Canaanite religion did not have such a prescription, and therefore that offering defective animals was a sign of further lapse into a syncretistic form of religion. Any type of syncretism with foreign religion would be an abomination of the Lord your God.
Jack Deere: To offer less than the best to God was to “despise” His name (Mal. 1:6-8). Offering a less-than-perfect sacrifice was, in effect, failing to acknowledge Him as the ultimate Provider of all that is best in life. Also it was a failure to acknowledge the vat gulf that exists between the perfectly holy God and sinful people.
“for that is a detestable thing to the LORD your God.”
Daniel Block: The characterization of blemished sacrifice as a “detestable [thing]” (tôʿēbâ) of Yahweh places such worship in the same category as overtly pagan actions (cf. 7:26; 12:31; 18:9; 20:18).
Michael Grisanti: The two commands in 16:21–22 primarily deal with Yahweh’s claim on Israel’s exclusive loyalty. The next command repeats Yahweh’s requirement of unblemished animals for use in sacrifices to him. Taken together, these three commands seem to affirm one key point: Israel’s wholehearted adherence to Yahweh is the sum total of the Mosaic law (McConville, 288). Who God is and how he is to be worshiped are at stake (Thompson, 201).
Gerald Gerbrandt: The next verse (17:1) repeats the directive of 15:21 that animals with defects are not to be offered to God. The only new element is the surprisingly strong statement: for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God. Although the offering of a flawed animal does not appear to have any necessary connection with the worship of other gods (a common context for the word abhorrent), the use of the term here emphasizes the significance of the concern. Malachi says offering a blind animal to God is despising the name of God, and he compares it to offering God polluted food (1:6–8).
III. (17:2-13) PURGING OF EVIL TO PROTECT THE COMMUNITY
Daniel Block: This section divides into two panels of identical length (vv. 2–7 and vv. 8–12), followed by a summary conclusion (v. 13). Each panel opens with a complex clause setting the context (vv. 2–4a; v. 8a), is followed by a lengthy prescribed response (vv. 4b–7a; vv. 8b–12a), and concludes with a declaration of the goal (v. 7b; v. 12b). The symmetry of structure and the verbal links suggest that verses 2–7 and 8–12 have been intentionally composed to develop a common point—how to deal with unrighteous behavior. The first involves relatively clean cases; the second involves the procedure for cases insoluble by ordinary means of investigation.
A. (:17:2-7) Local Courts — Purging of Idolaters at the Local Level
1. (:2-3) Exposure of Idolaters
“If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the LORD your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, by transgressing His covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded,”
Gerald Gerbrandt: Three times the passage uses the phrase man or woman, drawing attention to the fact that both men and women are equally accountable for their actions (vv. 2, 5 [twice]). This is not a contemporary commitment to equal rights but is consistent with other passages where Deuteronomy treats women as real people with a place in the community (cf. the fifth commandment, 5:16; the clear inclusion of women in the you of many of the regulations, as in 14:26; etc.).
2. (:4) Examination of the Charge
“and if it is told you and you have heard of it,
then you shall inquire thoroughly.
And behold, if it is true and the thing certain
that this detestable thing has been done in Israel,”
3. (:5) Execution of the Idolater
“then you shall bring out that man or that woman
who has done this evil deed, to your gates,
that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death.”
Duane Christensen: When the crime is made known, either by direct report (“it is told to you”) or by rumor (“you hear of it”), the officials in charge are to “investigate thoroughly”; and if it turns out that the matter “is established—behold it is true, this abomination has been done in Israel,” the guilty party is to be executed by stoning. It should be noted that this is an example of a judicial proceeding that took place at the local level—“in one of your towns” (v 2). It was not necessarily seen to be a case of sufficient difficulty to merit taking the matter before the central tribunal (see 17:8–13 below).
Daniel Block: The prescription for confirmed spiritual defection is execution by stoning (v. 5). Whereas Leviticus 24:14 and Numbers 15:35 call for the execution of criminals “outside the camp,” here the sentence is to be administered in the city gates. The former treatment was reasonable, as long as the Israelites camped together with the tabernacle in the center. However, once they scattered to their tribal territories and towns, maintaining sanctity throughout the land would need to be localized. Executing criminals in the gate would make a spectacle of them and demonstrate the heinousness of their “evil deed” (v. 5b).
David Thompson: There were no prisons or jails. Just judgments were to be made and if someone was worshipping something other than God, and it was proved true, they were to be stoned to death.
4. (:6-7a) Engagement by Multiple Witnesses
a. (:6) Imperative of Multiple Witnesses for a Death Verdict
“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.”
b. (:7a) Initiation by the Witnesses of the Execution Process
“The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him
to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.”
Duane Christensen: Specific steps were taken as a safeguard against injustice on the part of dishonest or mistaken witnesses by requiring “the testimony of two witnesses” as a minimum. As many witnesses as possible are to be heard; for the officials are to “investigate thoroughly” (v 4); but “the person shall not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness.”
Ryrie: they had to be sure enough of their own testimony to be willing to cast the first stones. In a stoning, the victim was stripped naked and his hands bound; then he was paraded out of town, where he was placed on a scaffold about nine feet high. The first witness pushed him off the scaffold; the second dropped a large stone on his head or chest. Then bystanders pelted the dying man with stones. No mourning was permitted for the dead man.
Craig Thurman: The entire community was to be actively involved in maintaining the true worship of God. They were to be unanimous to hate every false way. (Ps.119.104, 128, I hate every false way.)
5. (:7b) Excising the Evil
“So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
Daniel Block: Although the judicial process ends with execution, the purpose of the procedure is not merely to give criminals their due. The concluding declaration summarizes the goal: to “purge the evil” from the midst of Israel. Moses’ concern for communal health leaves no room for sentimentality or prejudice. Yahweh’s agenda requires a people united in its devotion to him and rigorous in its preservation of its own character as a holy people (cf. 7:1–6). Eliminating those guilty of capital crimes eradicates the evil from the land and the people.
B. (17:8-12) Central Courts — Purging of a Wide Range of Evil by Referral to Centralized Judgment for More Difficult Cases
1. (:8-9) Difficult Cases Referred to Centralized Judgment
a. (:8a) Types of Cases Requiring Referral
“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,”
Duane Christensen: Though a system of justice was established at the local level in the towns throughout the land of ancient Israel, it was also recognized that on occasion a case would arise that would prove too difficult to resolve in that setting. The principle had already emerged in the experience of the people of Israel in the wilderness, when Moses responded to the advice of his father-in-law Jethro to reorganize the legal system so as to relieve Moses’ heavy burden. Moses handled the cases without legal precedent, whereas ordinary cases were handled by appointed lay leaders in Exod 18:13–27 (cf. Deut 1:17—“Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it”). In the desert, Moses himself functioned as the central authority; but in the Promised Land it was the Levitical priestly establishment at the central sanctuary that had the authority to handle the hard cases.
Daniel Block: Moses identifies three kinds of cases that might lead to an impasse: murder/unintentional manslaughter, civil or criminal disputes, and physical assaults. Such cases are to be sent on to the higher tribunal.
Gerald Gerbrandt: The Hebrew translated too difficult literally is too wonderful, with the connotation of relating to the divine. “Such ‘wonderful’ cases are beyond human knowledge (Job 42:3; Ps 131:1; Prov 30:18; cf. Gen 18:14) and thus require priestly intervention” (Nelson 2002: 221). At The Place the priests and the judge then would determine how to proceed, perhaps through divine oracle, perhaps through the use of the Urim and Thummim (instruments given the priests to determine God’s word/direction), or perhaps in some other manner (cf. Exod 28:30; Deut 33:8).
b. (:8b) Travel to the Designated Location for Adjudication
“then you shall arise and go up
to the place which the LORD your God chooses.”
c. (:9) Trial before the Appropriate Priest or Judge to Determine the Verdict
“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.”
Duane Christensen: Together with the tradition of the seventy elders in Num 11 and the establishment of judges in Exod 18 and Deut 1:9–18, the law of the central tribunal in 17:8–13 was subsequently used in Judaism to legitimate the Sanhedrin (see Josephus, Ant. 4.8.14 §218; Sifre Deut 152–55).
Gerald Gerbrandt: The verdict of the central court is divine authority: The Hebrew term translated consult (v. 9) may be used of coming before God to seek a word from God (cf. Exod 18:15; Deut 4:29; 12:5; 1 Sam 9:9). The decision is announced from the place the Lord will choose (v. 10). The priests have been appointed to minister there to the Lord your God (v. 12).
2. (:10-11) Didactic Role of the Implementation of Righteous Law
“And 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. 11 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.”
David Thompson: What is interesting is that God considers this to be something that does “teach you.” In other words, as various judgments take place, it teaches the people to function in a way that pleases the Lord.
3. (:12) Death Sentence for Resisting Their Verdict
a. Resisting the Verdict
“And 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;”
Eugene Merrill: There was no court of higher appeal beyond that of the priest and judge of the central place of jurisdiction, so the verdicts rendered had to be accepted by those who had sought redress there (v. 10). The text is most insistent that the law (tôrâ) and decisions (mi a ) (that is, the rulings of the court) must result in unswerving compliance on the part of the litigants. Failure to do so and thus to manifest insubordination to the court (lit., “in insolence and without obeying”) and, more seriously, to the Lord himself, whom both priest and judge represent, was to invoke self-destruction (v. 12). The reason for such harsh measures was to preclude any similar contempt for law in the future (v. 13). Behind it all, of course, was the inextricable linkage between law and covenant. It was absolutely incumbent on the kingdom citizen to demonstrate loyalty and obedience to the Great King, evidence of which, among other things, was strict adherence to theocratic law and its application.
Charlie Garrett: Now the man who acts presumptuously — It is a preposition and a noun, not an adverb: v’ha’ish asher yaaseh b’zadon – “And the man who acts in presumption.” It is a new word, zadon. It signifies insolence or presumption, coming from the word zud, meaning “to boil.” In other words, the person is like a boiling pot that refuses to act properly.
b. Excising the Evil
“thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
Daniel Block: Moses ends this panel as he had the previous one (v. 7b) with a declaration of zeal for the purity of the nation. By executing persons who defy God by noncompliance with his verdict, the evil of rebellion is purged from Israel and righteousness is maintained. Whether rendered by local adjudicators or the central tribunal, every decision advances the agenda of ṣedeq ṣedeq (“righteousness, only righteousness”; see 16:20).
(:13) Summary Conclusion: Deterrent against Future Evil
“Then all the people will hear and be afraid,
and will not act presumptuously again.”
Duane Christensen: When godly discipline is exercised, whether in Moses’ time or our own, “all the people shall hear and they shall fear; and they shall not act presumptuously again” (v 13).
David Whitcomb: Moses stated the reason for swift punishment. And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again (v.13). The reason for swift, capital punishment against the rebel was to cause others to fear. Obviously, our Creator concludes that fear is an effective means for encouraging obedience. Progressive thinkers reject this idea because they are sure they know more than God. In reality, because they have rejected God and His law they cannot exercise wisdom. Therefore, they know nothing about human nature.