Light from the Sidra

Shoftim ('Judges')

Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Judges, Kings, Levites and the Prophet

I once heard a former politician (who it was, I’ve forgotten) say that he went into local politics because he wanted to change society for the better. Almost as soon as he became involved in the local branch of his political party, he realised that at that level you couldn’t really do anything to make a change so he ran for his party and was elected to Parliament. It quickly became apparent to him that as a back bench Member of Parliament he couldn’t make a change so he climbed to cabinet level. But even as a high ranking politician he began to see it was virtually impossible to change the system and therefore to make the country a better place.

There was a hierarchy of leadership in Israel, which the Parasha presents to us in ascending order: the judges, the kings, the Levites (including priests) and the prophets. Ideally, Israel’s leaders shouldn’t have had to strive to make the country better; their responsibility was to keep the nation holy and faithful to God’s covenant.

Shoftim or judges were to administer justice without partiality (Dt. 16:18-17:9). By the pursuit of justice, Israel would thrive and occupy the land God was giving them. In the book of Shoftim, the judges of Israel were often as flawed as the people they were supposed to care for and so the book ends with a depressing summary: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Jdg. 21:25).

An authority higher than the judge was required. A king was needed but, as Alexander Pope observed, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There had to be a check on the king and so, on ascending to the throne he was to write a personal copy of Deuteronomy under the supervision of Levites: ‘But it shall be: when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this [Torah] in a document, before the presence of the Levitical priests. It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for YHWH his God, to be careful concerning all the words of this [Torah] and these laws, to observe them, that his heart be not raised above his brothers . . .’ (Dt 17:18-20, The Five Books of Moses. A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes. Everett Fox).

The king was not to be instructed in an ‘Oral Torah’; he was not required to memorise an oral tradition. He was to make his own copy of the written Torah! Little wonder then that King David was the man after God’s heart because he loved God’s written word with its precepts and commandments (see Ps 19:8-18 and Ps 119). That written Torah is ‘perfect, renewing life . . . enduring, making wise the simple . . .’ (Ps 19:8,9, Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures). The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. Jewish Publication Society, 1986). In the very first Psalm, David recognises that the truly godly man is one who delights in the Torah and ‘recites’ or ‘utters’ it day and night (Ps 1:2).

Higher in authority than the king was the Levite. The kings ruled the people on behalf of God but the Levitical priests were the one who made atoning sacrifices for the king and people, and they were therefore set apart and maintained by the tithes of the people.

Higher still in authority were the Prophets. If the judges, kings and Levites went off the rails, prophets were raised up to bring them and the people back in line. The prophets spoke with direct authority from God. In David’s reign, Nathan played the vital role of setting David back on the right path after the king had seduced the wife of one of his most loyal men, and conspired to have her Hittite husband Uriah killed in order to cover up his sin (2 Sam 11-12).

Throughout the history of the Israelite monarchies the prophets played a vital role in calling the people, kings and Levites back to God and his word. But the promise of Deuteronomy 18 is not just of prophets but of a Prophet ‘like Moses’. Moses was unique. Indeed, a future editor thought it necessary to add at the end of the book that that ‘there arose no further prophet in Israel like Moshe. Whom YHWH knew face to face, in all the signs and portents that YHWH sent him to do in the land of Egypt’ (Dt. 34:10,11, The Five Books of Moses).

None of the prophets of Israel were like Moses in terms of ‘signs and portents’. No wonder that the Jewish people refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Master). The closest any of the prophets came to being like Moses in terms of ‘signs and portents’ were Elijah and Elisha. But, great as they were, neither of them were ever regarded as ‘the Prophet’.

There have been only two contenders for the role of the Prophet like Moses. Islam claims that Deuteronomy 18 foretells the coming of their prophet. But Mohammed is ruled out of court for the simple reason that he was not Jewish: ‘A prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like myself will YHWH your God raise up for you . . .’ (Dt. 18:15, The Five Books of Moses). Neither did Mohammed perform any ‘signs’ or ‘portents’. Apart from the fact that Moses and Mohammed were male and Semitic, it’s impossible to find any other similarities at all.

The other contender for the role is Jesus of Nazareth. In terms of ‘signs and portents,’ he turned water into wine, he miraculously fed 5,000 Israelites in the wilderness, calmed a storm on the sea with a word of command, walked on the sea, cast demons out of those possessed, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the crippled walk, the lepers clean and the dead live again. Three days after his death he was raised from the dead by God and physically ascended to heaven.

Moses issued a solemn warning that YHWH would personally call to account anyone who failed to heed the words the Prophet spoke. And in case anyone was in doubt about the marks of a true prophet, ‘If the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the LORD; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him’ (Dt. 18:22, Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures).

Moses foretold the disaster that would befall Israel if they did not hear and obey his words (see Dt. 28:15-68). Jesus prophesied the disaster that befell Jerusalem and the temple in 70CE. The Gospel According to Mark, regarded as the earliest life of Jesus written, records an incident that occurred just days before the death of Jesus:

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Rabbi, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’

And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down . . . Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place . . .’

Within a generation, some 37 years later, Jerusalem and the temple were smouldering heaps of rubble.

For about 600 years, from Samuel to Malachi, Israel had prophets, though none of them was like Moses. If Jesus was not the great Prophet, the Prophet like Moses, God has not raised up a prophet from Israel for almost a millennium and a half. Why? Has God failed to keep his word? Or has Moses failed the very test he set for identifying a true prophet?

The Good News for Israel and the world is that YHWH has raised up a Prophet like Moses and calls both Jews and Gentiles to pay heed to him or be called to account.

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