Thursday, September 1, 2022

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shoftim – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18-21:10


Last week’s Parashat R’eh ended with: "Every man shall (‘give as he is able’ – is not in the original text), according to the blessing of YHVH your Elohim which He has given [natan] you” (Deuteronomy 16:17 italics added). Parashat Shoftim (“judges”) starts with: “You shall appoint [“titen”/give] judges and officers in all your gates, which YHVH your Elohim gives you [noten]…”  Thus “giving” (in various conjugations) is clearly emphasized here, with the “giving” of YHVH making it possible for those who are His to do likewise. In fact, His “giving” appears throughout the Parasha, especially, but not exclusively, regarding “the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you…”        

Several institutions, and/or their relevant supervisory regulations are being set up here for the future administration of Yisrael’s national life. To begin with, as we noticed already, the appointment of judges and officers is provided for, leading to a number of prohibitions regarding just conduct. Idolatry and the consequences of its practice follow. The establishment of arbitrators and judges in all matters leads to instructions concerning the monarchy, and the conduct of the Levites and priests with, once again, severe warning against idolatrous practices such as witchcraft. From here we skip to the much-discussed topic of cities of refuge and the blood avenger, touching also on setting up boundaries. Matters pertaining to witnessing a crime and false witnesses come next. The many issues associated with wars, and how to deal with the corpse of a slain person whose killer is unknown, seal off our Parasha.

The expression that we encountered in last week’s Parashat R’eh, namely, “You shall put away [purge] – literally burn or consume - the evil from among you” (13:5), is another repeated theme in Parashat Shoftim, almost like a refrain (ref. 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:9), thus subtly pointing to the results of incurring YHVH’s burning anger (as we also saw last week). 

Right at the core of this list of subjects, there is a passage, which although at first glance may appear to be compatible with the others, pointing to yet another authority figure in the life of the future nation of Israel, is nevertheless of an altogether different genre and purpose (18:15-19). It is, above all else, prophetic in nature, describing an individual who will appear on Yisrael’s horizon. This individual’s qualifying characteristics are specified to some extent in this passage, and are contrasted with potential false claimants or counterfeits (see vs. 20-22. For more on the latter refer to 13:1-5 in Parashat R’eh). The instructional aspect of this text is simply, “Whoever will not listen to My words which he [this prophet] shall speak in My name, I will require it at his hand” (18:19). Moshe says of Him: “YHVH your Elohim shall raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, one like me; you shall listen to him” (v. 15), and again in verse 18 YHVH Himself is speaking, addressing Moshe: “I shall raise up a prophet to them from among their brothers, one like you; and I will put My words in his mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him”. Mention is also made in verses 16 and 17 of the fact that before the giving of the Torah in Chorev (Horeb) the Israelites had asked Moshe to interpose between them and YHVH, and YHVH apparently looked favorably upon that request (even though His ‘favorable’ attitude may have only been relative to knowing their inability to ‘draw close’ to Him. Regarding this matter see, for example, Deut. 5:26, which reveals the Father’s depth of heart for His children immediately after declaring His so-called approval of their request).

The future prophet, like Moshe, will also have this characteristic of mediation. By inference (re Moshe) some of his other attributes will be: granting deliverance from bondage, being mighty in word and deed, offering strong leadership yet being humble beyond any other human being, willingness to offer up his own life for the people, acting as a teacher and a judge, and being raised from among the ranks of his own people. Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 34:10 appends more about Moshe, making an implication also about the future prophet, “And never has a prophet like Moses arisen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face”. Does the placing of this passage, amid the Torah’s judicial, civil and clerical instructions, which flank it on each side, point to the reason and end-all of these instructions themselves, and to that which imbues them with life? In Romans 10:4 we read: “For the goal at which the Torah aims is the Messiah”. Shim’on Keyfa (Peter) also identifies this prophecy with the “One proclaimed to you before” (Acts 3:20, 22), that is Messiah Yeshua. 

In comparison with this passage, which portrays Yisrael’s supreme ruler, we read in 17:8 – 12 about the Levites and the priests who are to judge and instruct Yisrael: “If a matter is too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between cause and cause, or between stroke and stroke, matters of strife within your gates… And you shall come in to the priest, of the Levites, and to the judge who is in those days, and shall inquire. And they shall declare the sentence of judgment to you”. Summarizing the above passage, we see the following points: (1) The place where these arbitrations are to take place, is “the place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose” (17:10). (2) The litigants’ response is to be obedient “to the word which they [the judges] declare to you” and “you shall do according to the mouth of the law which they direct you, and according to the judgment which they deliver to you. You shall not turn aside from the word, which they declare to you right or left” (vs. 10, 11). (3) The consequences of disobedience are: “And the man who acts with pride so as not to listen to the priest who is standing to serve YHVH your Elohim there, or to the judge, even that man shall die…” (v. 12). 

There are marked differences between these conditions and what applies to the “prophet” of 18:15 – 19. Whereas obeying the priestly judges is to be preceded by some specific judicial matter, obeying the “prophet” is not subject to such prerequisites: “…I will put My words in His mouth; and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him” (18:18), says YHVH. And while it is YHVH who appoints this one, the judges are simply mentioned as, “the priest, of the Levites, and… the judge who is [that is, who happens to be officiating] in those days” (17:9). Whereas YHVH will “require at His hand… whoever will not listen to My words which he [the prophet] shall speak in My name” (18:19), the person who does not obey the priest or the judge, although subject to a death sentence, will not be accountable to YHVH Himself. In addition, the priests and judges, unlike the “prophet”, are not mentioned as speaking in YHVH’s name, but rather as “standing to serve Him” (17:12).

 Just prior to the passage about the “prophet like Moshe”, mention is made of the abominations of the people living in the Land of Promise. Yisrael is warned not to do as “these nations whom you shall expel [who] listen to observers of clouds, and to diviners” (18:14). Rather, Yisrael is to be “tamim” - “whole, wholesome, innocent, without blemish -  with YHVH” (18:13). This calls to mind Avraham, who was told, “walk before Me and be tamim” (Gen. 17:1 italics added). It appears that “wholesomeness” in one’s walk before YHVH is connected to the afore-mentioned passage, and to the Person at its center. It is only by Him that one is rendered tamim”, as Ephesians 1: 4-5 points out: “According as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, for us to be holy and without blemish before Him in love, predestinating us to adoption through Yeshua the Messiah to Himself” (Italics added).

The “prophet”, whose coming is predicted here, unlike the body of the judging and teaching priests which is set up in response to the people’s needs, will be “raised up” by YHVH Himself (ref. 18:15) and will represent Him in an overall manner. 

Chapter 18:1-2 states unequivocally that the Levites "shall no part nor inheritance with Israel… they shall no inheritance among their brethren, YHVH is their inheritance". Yet, verse 8 seems to indicate that the Levite could profit from that which "comes from the sale of his inheritance". However, in Hebrew, this verse reads differently: "They [the Levites] shall eat equal portions aside from the sale[s] of the fathers". Admittedly, this is not easy to understand, but even so, it is NOT saying that the Levites have property, which would be contrary to the above verses 1 and 2, in particular since the context here deals with food and not property. 

In 17:14-20 the institution of the (‘earthly’) monarchy is discussed. It will be set up in response to Yisrael’s request: “When you come into the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving to you, and have possessed it, and settled in it; and you shall say, ‘Let me set [place/put] a king over me like all the nations around me’” (17:14). Once Yisrael decides to “place” (“sim”- “put”) a king over itself YHVH will select him, providing he is “from among your brothers”, and not 'from among the subjects'. In this way the king would be like the “prophet” whom we just discussed, with the difference being that the coming of the latter (the prophet) will be solely by YHVH’s initiative.  It will be incumbent upon the king to study the injunctions of the Torah. In fact, he is to make a copy of it in a book for his own use, termed here “mishneh Torah” of the root sh.n.h, meaning to “repeat” or “secondary” (v. 18). The king is also to live modestly, “so that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left” (v. 20). The root for “king”, melech” in Hebrew, is anchored in the root (mem, lamed, kaf) and makes for a verb which means “consult, consider different views”, such as we see in Nehemiah 5:7, where it is translated “serious thought” or “consulted”. Thus, it is assumed that in making decisions Yisrael's king will be consulting and considering different views; a very far cry from the common idea of kingship, especially in the ancient world, when quite often divinity was attributed to the ruling monarch. 

Chapter 18 verses 3 and 4 present the “priest's due from the people, from those that offer a sacrifice, whether an ox or sheep, that they shall give to the priest the leg, and the two cheeks, and the stomach, the first of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your flock, you shall give to him”. Concerning “this order of giving the priests of the fruit of the land and the fruit of the flocks”, Daat Mikra observes that it was a way to ensure that the priests will not lack “even when there is shortage or famine in the land, because whatever the people have available will also be made available to the Levites. And moreover, since the gifts are handed from one person to another, from lay people to priests, these individuals will be encountering one another as well as exchanging views with each other, and thus drawing closer together. The Israelite (that is the “non Levite”) will learn the priest’s lofty manners, and the priest will get to know the customs and way of life of the ordinary farmer, his talk and concerns, and thus together all of them will become one single holy people”.[1] In reference to “customs” (mentioned by the commentator above), the text (18:3) reads: “And this will be the priests’ due….” The word for “due” is “mishpat” – sharing its root with the Parasha’s title, which aside from meaning “judge/judgment, litigation, govern” etc. also means “custom” or “manner” (e.g. Ex. 21:9). 

Most of chapter 19 is devoted to the cities of refuge and to the “ancient boundaries”. The cities of refuge were set up in order to prevent the avenging of blood, in cases of unintentional killing. The blood avenger is called a “go’el dam”, literally “redeemer of blood” (vs. 6, 12). The role of a redeemer is to mete out justice (within his family), and bring about the required cleansing from pollution created by the shedding of innocent blood (ref. v. 10). All three of these terms, that is, “meting out justice,” “cleansing” and “pollution” are designated by the root g.a.l (gimmel, alef, lamed). In this way the term’s tri-fold meaning portrays accurately the ultimate Go’el – Redeemer - whose death, whereby He has taken upon Himself sin’s pollution, accomplished all of these and more.

As to the “ancient boundaries” - in 19:14 we read: “You may not remove your neighbor's landmark, which those formerly have set in your inheritance, which you shall inherit in the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you, to possess it”. The word for “remove” is “tasig”, of the root “sug” (samech or at times sin, vav, gimmel), meaning to “move away” and therefore often accompanied by “achor” (“backward”), as is seen in 2nd Samuel 1:22: “the bow of Jonathan did not draw back (nasog achor”). He who moves the marking of a property (in order to extend his own lot) is actually “backsliding”, or “retreating” away from the ones “formerly set” and from the way they were originally determined. The emphasis here on “the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you to possess it” implies that it is He who set these boundaries in the first place, and therefore altering them would also constitute spiritual “backsliding”. In Proverbs we find the same verb, “sug”, used very similarly in 22:28 “Do not move the old landmark which your fathers have set”. 

The war regulations (chapter 20) stipulate who will be exempt from the obligation to go to battle. In 20:5-8 four such cases are cited. The first is a man “who has not dedicated [or consecrated or inaugurated] his new house” (v. 5 emphasis added), being the verb “chanach” (, chet, noon, kaf/chaf) which also means to “train” (e.g. Gen. 14:14, Avraham’s trained servants are called “chanee’chim”. See also, Prov. 22:6) as well as “consecrate and habituate”. 

The second person to be exempt from army service is he “who planted a vineyard and has not begun to use it” (v. 6 emphasis added). The verb used here is “chalel” (of the root ch.l.l, chet, lamed, lamed, which we examined at the end of Parashat Yitro, relating to Ex. 20:25) and also means “profane, pollute, defile, begin, to bore holes, entrust, release, dance and a dead body” (example of the latter, “chalal,” is found in 21:1). In a typical Hebrew fashion, we find that ‘ends meet’ and come full circle in the various meanings of ch.l.l. Thus, if we follow this root, starting with ‘profane’, considering that it also means ‘hollow’ (void of real content), but then comes ‘release’ (once again, ch.l.l)2, which affords an opportunity for a (new) ‘beginning’ (ch.l.l) and for 'eradicating profanity'. Applying this picture to a dead body; a deceased person has certainly been released from any obligations, BUT at the same time, as our verb points out, there is also a new beginning here… albeit in another dimension. This is similar to the term “chet” - “sin” - into which is built the means for reform (“cha’teh” – “cleansing”), here too, profanity and defilement are couched in a term that provides for a transformation by way of a new beginning.

The other two individuals who are exempt from army duty, are he who is betrothed but has not consummated the marriage, and one who is fearful. 

In last week’s Parashat R’eh we discussed the meaning of “male”, being “he who remembers”, and then pointed out the special reference there to those who belong to YHVH as “those who are being remembered” (16:16) – “z’churim”. Surprisingly, the same reference to males occurs here too (20:13), although this time it is applied to “all the men of a city which refuses to make peace” and who are to be “struck”. Thus, even these men who are destined to be put to death are no less known and remembered by YHVH, who is indeed “in all and over all” (Eph.4:6)!

Lastly, the Parasha deals with the “decapitated heifer” – “egla arufa” (21:1-9), in connection with the case of an unknown murderer: “And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing stream, which is not plowed nor sown. And they shall break the heifer's neck there by the stream” (v. 4). The word for the “nape of the neck” is “oref” (such as in “stiff-necked” – “k’sheh oref”), hence the verb for “breaking the neck” is “arof”. Although the heifer is killed while the elders declare that their "hands have not shed this blood" (v. 7), its killing is not a sacrifice or an offering, which is why it is slaughtered in this manner. Thus, its carcass is buried rather than burnt. The heifer symbolizes the restitution (atonement) of the blood of the dead person, as he cannot be fully avenged without his murderer being found. Additionally, the shedding of innocent blood defiles both people and land, therefore this occasion renders the opportunity for the elders of the area to “wash their hands off of the matter” and be counted innocent of the blood of the deceased (ref. 21:6, 7). The usage of the “nape of the neck” for the action of decapitating the heifer also alludes to the Hebrew idiom of “turning the neck”, which means to “turn away from” or “reject” (Jeremiah 2:27 for example). In this way, the elders’ action constitutes a declaration that they have rejected and renounced the evil deed which has been committed, also applying it vicariously to the entire people of Yisrael (ref. vs. 8,9) as well as to the land (see 19:10). Just to add an observation – 5

this action, taken by the elders, denotes a conscientious moral oversight the likes of which do not even come close to what we can expect from our nations’ leaders!  


1 Davrim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.

2 Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, based on the commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, JerusalemNew York, 1999.




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