Light from the Sidra

Shoftim (‘Judges’). 10th September 2016. 7th Elul 5776

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

Judges, Kings, Levites and the Prophet

I once heard a former politician recall how he became involved in local politics because he wanted to change society for the better. Almost as soon as he joined the local branch of his party, it became apparent that at that level you couldn’t do much to make a change so he ran for parliament and was elected. As a back bench MP, however, he couldn’t make any change so he managed to climb to cabinet level. But even as a high ranking politician he saw it was virtually impossible to change the system and make the country a better place.

Ancient Israel had a hierarchy of God-appointed leaders, 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 job was simply to keep the nation holy and faithful to HASHEM.

Shoftim or judges were to administer justice without partiality (Deut. 16:18-17:9). By the pursuit of justice, Israel would thrive and occupy the land God gave them. However, as we see from the book of Judges, the judges of Israel were as flawed as the people they were supposed to care for, so the book ends with a depressing summary: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; a man would do whatever seemed proper in his eyes’ (Jdg. 21:25).

A king was required 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 had to write a personal copy of Deuteronomy under the supervision of Levites: ‘It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book, from before the Kohanim, the Levites. It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear HASHEM, his God, to observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren…’ (Deut. 17:18-20).

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). ‘The Torah of HASHEM is perfect, restoring the soul… making the simple one wise…’ (Ps 19:8,9). In the very first Psalm, David recognises that the truly godly man is one who meditates on the Torah day and night.

Higher in authority than the king was the Levite. The kings ruled the people on behalf of God but the kohens were the ones 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, HASHEM would raise up prophets to bring the king and 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 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 ancient Israel the prophets played a vital role in calling the people, kings and Levites back to God. But the promise of Deuteronomy 18 is not of 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, ‘Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom HASHEM had known face to face, as evidenced by all the signs and wonders that HASHEM sent him to perform’ (Deut. 34:10,11).

None of the prophets of Israel were like Moses in terms of ‘signs and portents’. Little wonder that Jewish people refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Master). Among the future prophets, Elijah and Elisha came closest to being like Moses in terms of ‘signs and wonders’ but, great as they were, neither of them was ever regarded as ‘the Prophet’.

Muslims claim that Deuteronomy 18 foretells the coming of their prophet but Mohammed can be ruled out of court simply because he was not Jewish: ‘I will establish a prophet for them from among your brethren, like you…’ (Deut. 18:15). Neither did Mohammed perform any signs or wonders. Apart from the fact that Moses and Mohammed were male and Semitic, it’s impossible to find any other similarities between them.

The only other contender for the role of the prophet like Moses is Jesus of Nazareth. He turned water into wine, miraculously fed 5,000 Israelites in the wilderness, calmed a storm on the sea with a word, walked on the sea, cast out demons, 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 rose from the dead and physically ascended to heaven.

Moses issued a solemn warning that HASHEM would personally call to account anyone who failed to heed the words of the Prophet. And in case anyone was in doubt about the marks of a true prophet, ‘If the prophet will speak in the Name of HASHEM and that thing will not occur and not come about—that is the word that HASHEM has not spoken…’ (Deut. 18:22).

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

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 that generation, some 37 years later, Jerusalem was a smouldering heap 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 Prophet like Moses, then for 3,500 years HASHEM has failed to raise up a prophet from Israel ears. Either that or Moses failed the very test he set for identifying a true prophet!

The Good News for Israel and the world is that HASHEM has raised up a Prophet like Moses, who was mighty in both word and deed, and he calls both Jews and Gentiles to pay heed to him or be called to account.



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