The book of Deuteronomy (last in the Pentateuch) is known as the Book of Law since it lays out how Israel was to be structured religiously, politically, and economically. The book starts with an historical prologue and renewal of the covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites who had been delivered from Egypt forty years earlier and who were now on the cusp of entering the Promised Land. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) is repeated (with slight modifications) in chapter five, which then forms the structure for chapters 6-25 which expounds on these commandments. There is a great deal in Deuteronomy that we should take to heart and apply to our government and society today because in this book Yahweh structures Israel as a counter-cultural, egalitarian society where the values of life and justice were most important.
Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22 is considered to be a literary unit. Many scholars and commentators have labeled this pericope as “constitutional proposals” because it outlines the basic structures of society at the local and national level. In addition, it is thought to be elaborating on the fifth commandment given in Deuteronomy 5:16 about honoring one’s parents. In the same way that you honor and respect your parents, you are to honor and respect your fellow citizens with whom you live and work. Although some portions of this text may seem strange or even bizarre to the modern mind (16:21-17:1 about not planting Asherah trees or sacrificing blemished animals), there is much in this passage that is very instructive for us today.
One of the most important and striking things about this passage is that it divides the power in Israel into four separate offices and positions: judges (16:18-20; 17:2-13), kings (17:14-20), priests (18:1-8), and prophets (18:15-22). Arguably, the first and last of these offices are most important: the judges who made decisions about contentious issues on a daily basis, and the prophets who served as God’s spokespersons and messengers. Vitally, the king is placed second in this list, relegating him to a less prominent role in society. Why is this? Kings in the ancient Near East were almost always wealthy and oppressive at the expense of the common man and woman. Israel herself had experienced this in Egypt, and Yahweh did not want his people to follow the other nations. Instead, an egalitarian political structure is laid out where power was shared and responsibilities delegated. This power structure is an admission and embrace of the principle of the balance of power that needs to characterized every government at the local and national level in order to avoid one person or group from amassing power and privilege for themselves. This is exactly what the founders of the American republic recognized and wrote into the fabric of our federal government by dividing power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Deuteronomy 16:18-20 introduces the role and duty of judges in Israel. First, judges were to be appointed by the people, which specified Israel as a collective whole. Since these judges were to be presiding over the issues of the people, it was only right that the people elect them to have fair representation and to avoid stacking the “court” in favor of only a few individuals. Second, these were to be local judges chosen from the elders of certain households and tribes, emphasizing that “righteous judgment” (v. 18) was to be administered at the local level by the people themselves. Third, the responsibilities of the judges are explained in three negative commands: not to pervert justice, not to show partiality, and not to accept a bribe (v. 19). To avoid these three is the essence of “righteous judgment,” which in effect meant to judge the people fairly. In addition, not letting these three wrongs occur reflects the essential character of Yahweh. Fourth, contrary to these three evils, justice is emphasized: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue!” (v. 20). Promoting justice was not only connected to God’s blessing and prosperity in the land, but it was the key to the preservation of society. Without justice, criminal activity and violence go unchecked and society disintegrates; and if justice itself become perverted and corrupt, then there is no hope. In these three verses (16:18-20), we see God’s heart for justice and his desire to see righteousness and fair treatment flourish. The theme of justice continues throughout the following two chapters as the responsibilities of judge, king, priest, and prophet are outlined in further detail.
In many ways the U.S. Constitution was written for the same purpose of maintaining justice in our own society. The framers of our Constitution were learned men who studied political theory and history, including Israelite theocracy, Athenian democracy, Cicero’s natural law and the Roman Republic, and Anglo-Saxon common law. The Constitution was based on natural law (coming from God) and specifically provided for equal treatment of every person under the law and protection of our God-given rights (to life, liberty, and property). These things are what constitute justice in a society where partiality, bribery, and avoiding just punishment are forbidden. Despite the fact that our founders hailed from many different religious backgrounds (Protestant, Catholic, Deist, etc.) they believed that justice was impossible unless it was based upon the ideas and principles of God’s just and natural law that is available to us all. Although our Constitution is by no means revelation from God the way Deuteronomy is, the same priorities of justice and equal treatment for all people are found in both. We should be thankful that our government was established on these truths and we should work hard to maintain it, for the preservation and flourishing of our society depends on it.
In the next article, we will explore Deuteronomy 17:2-13 regarding judicial and legal matters in ancient Israel.