Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
16:18 Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment.
Comment: The name of this portion is “Shoftim”, which means “Judges”, the first word in this sentence. Modern day judges judge on things such as child support for a divorce, or penalty for a traffic violation. The biblical judges do similar things, but they also judge on religious matters. This is why as an ancient Jewish rabbi, Rashi https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rashi “covered the following topics and themes in his responsa: linguistic focus on texts, law related to prayer, food, and the Sabbath, wine produced by non-Jews, oaths and excommunications, sales, partnerships, loans and interest, bails, communal affairs, and civil law”. Even nowadays, Jewish rabbis still judge on things such as whether one can use dental floss on sabbath or which foods are kosher for Passover. I prefer to regard biblical judges as Torah leaders who help people to practice Gd’s teachings and live accordingly. Since Torah encompasses all aspects of life, including trade, marriage, holidays, shaving, clothes, foods, …, the biblical judges are in some sense more powerful than modern day judges.
Shoftim (judges) is plural here. A Jewish court usually consists of three people. In making real life decisions to live according to the Bible, we should try to avoid making it a habit to decide things alone. It is recommended to consult other people. There is a Jewish teaching that only Gd has the wisdom, discernment, and knowledge to judge alone: “judge not alone, for none may judge alone save one”. See, e.g., https://www.sefaria.org/English_Explanation_of_Pirkei_Avot.4.8?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en
“Shoftim” or “judges” in the biblical sense, is an occupation that strong Christians may be rewarded with and should aspire for. Learning God’s words is just the beginning. Practicing them in life is the ultimate goal. Teaching God’s words is important, but teaching and helping many people to practice them is more important, and the latter is the job of a biblical judge. When Jesus told his disciples that (Matthew 19:28) “… in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” I think he is referring to his followers becoming judges in the biblical sense, each leading a tribe in implementing Gd’s teachings in all aspects of life. This will happen “in the regeneration”, which (I think) means in the world to come or in the millennium kingdom, after their resurrection (compare Revelation 20:6, which says that “… they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will be ruling with him a thousand years”).
17:16 But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.
Comment: Egypt has many good horses (so that the Egyptians used them to pursue the Israelites 40 years ago near the Red Sea, see Exodus 14:9). But Gd does not want Israelites to return to Egypt.
For Christians, Egypt may represent the slavery of sins. After they are redeemed from the slavery of sins, they should not want to return there, even if there are many good “horses” there, which may represent worldly riches or powers or fames that are associated with the sins.
18:10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.
Comment: Faith is not superstition. Our faith is against superstition. We shouldn’t change an appointment only because it’s on the 13th. We shouldn’t try to predict the future in any way that is unclean spiritually.
18:13 Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God.
Comment: The hebrew for “perfect” is תמים. It is the same as the word “Thummim” of the “Urim and the Thummim” (Exodus 28:30, see Rashi’s comment there), which is a device that Gd sheds lights (Urim) on to lead His nation (Numbers 27:21). Ancient Israelites don’t need astrology to predict the future, since Gd has established for them the system of “Urim andThummim”. Nowadays we don’t have the “Urim and Thummim” physically, but if we are “perfect” in following the leading of Gd’s “lights” , it is as if we still have the “Urim and Thummim”.
We should wholeheartedly follow Gd, and trust that He, the creator of everything, is enough, and He is a good Gd, our Shepherd. We do have to fulfill our own obligation to assess and plan for the future, but sometimes we don’t know what will happen, but it is enough to know that the future is in G-d’s hand, and He will lead us and we will follow Him wholeheartedly.
18:20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
Comment: The punishment on prophesying inappropriately is very severe. Nowadays most of us are not as close to Gd as the biblical prophets used to be. Usually we should avoid telling people that Gd told me such and such specific things that are not explicitly told in the Bible. We could say instead that I got an idea or an intuition, or a strong feeling about such and such, and try to explain how you get this intuition.
18:21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?
Comment: This is a question that the Gd-believers have nowadays.
18:22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
Comment: The ultimate test is whether spoken things are realized. If the words are from Gd, then they will be realized, as Psalm 33:9 says: “For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.”
This chapter 18 about a prophet follows the previous chapter 17 that mentioned a judge (17:9) and a king (17:14). This helps me to recall two biblical stories about how a judge and a king were confirmed. Judge Gideon asked for two signs to confirm Gd’s calling on him (Judges 6). Prophets Samuel foretold three signs before anointing King Saul (1 Samuel 10). Maybe we shouldn’t believe a prophecy to be true without two or three agreements either. This idea may also be hinted at by the fact that chapter 18 on prophecy is bracketed by two chapters that talk about two or three witnesses (17:6 and 19:15). To be cautious, we shouldn’t believe any supernatural intuition as being from Gd unless we have at least two or three agreements that serve as “witnesses”.
In my opinion, nowadays it is more appropriate to apply systematic biblical teaching, and also use scientific evidence and reasoning as much as possible to plan for the future, instead of relying on supernatural intuitions. For example, weather forecasts should be used in planning an outdoor event, instead of guessing the weather based on a Bible verse related to rain. However, human knowledge has its limitations. In urgent situations when we don’t have enough information, Gd may still use supernatural means to communicate with people.
A related real story: My father-in-law had cancer at age 59, and he was sitting at home, thinking deeply about whether to do chemotherapy or not. Then he heard a voice supernaturally, telling him “Do not do chemotherapy.” He then knelt down and prayed to Gd, “But what should I do if my wife brings back chemotherapy medicine?” Later, his wife came back from consulting an experienced doctor, and didn’t bring back any chemotherapy medicine! She met the doctor miraculously near the elevator. The doctor was in the middle of doing a surgery and wanted to get some additional equipment; and very unusually, he came out himself to get it, instead of asking a nurse to do it. The doctor heard my mother-in-law’s quick question and very firmly replied “Don’t do chemotherapy.” With these “two witnesses” agreeing with each other, both miraculously, my father-in-law didn’t do chemotherapy. Now he is healthy and already 87 years old, and the doctor whom my mother-in-law consulted has already passed away.
19:15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
Comment: When we apply for graduate school or for a job, we often need two or three names of references. When I submit my paper to a journal for publication, often I receive two or three referees’ reviews. This custom of western civilization was not so prevalent in the Chinese tradition. I wonder if this is related to the biblical teaching here from 33 centuries ago, requiring two or three witnesses in legal matters.
20:17 But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee:
Comment: The promised land is also called the land of Canaan. But to possess it “thou shalt utterly destroy” its inhabitants. The reason is not political, economic, or military, …
20:18 That they teach you not to do after all their abominations, which they have done unto their gods; so should ye sin against the LORD your God.
Comment: … but spiritual instead. Rashi comments here that the Canaanites who repent and accept Gd are not to be destroyed, but can join Gd’s people and live in the promised land. Rahab’s family (Joshua 2) is such an example.
The commandment of destroying the Canaanite nonbelievers does not apply physically nowadays, but its strong spiritual implication is still very relevant. In order to bring the kingdom of Gd on earth as it is in heaven, only the true Gd is to be worshipped, idolatry and false religions should be utterly destroyed. The proper way of this war of conquest nowadays is preaching Gd’s words, instead of killing physically.
21:1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him:
Comment: This verse until verse 9 of this chapter still belongs to this portion. It teaches an important practical lesson on how we should behave when we cannot perfectly implement Gd’s commandment. The commandment here to be implemented is “life shall go for life”, Deuteronomy 19:21.
21:2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain:
Comment: Near the conclusion of this portion “Shoftim” (judges), the keyword “judges” appears again as “thy judges”. There are cases that “thy judges” are unable to solve, or more generally, there are situations when we could not implement Gd’s teaching perfectly. Gd allowed this to happen and teaches us what a proper attitude should be.
21:3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke;
Comment: The murderer cannot be identified but the “next” (closest) city can still be established. So we should not completely give up.
21:4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley:
Comment: We try to apply Gd’s commandment (“life shall go for life”, Deuteronomy 19:21) as well as possible (with a “heifer” (girl cow), to avoid killing innocent people).
21:8 Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.
Comment: We need Gd’s mercy, for we are limited and could not perfectly implement the commandment of “life for life”.
21:9 So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the LORD.
Comment: Rashi comments here that the repetition “thou shalt do that which is right” implies that if the murderer is found after the heifer is killed, the murderer still needs to be put to death. This way we could improve our imperfect implementation of the commandment of “life for life”.
There can be many applications of this paragraph. For example, if there is no formally trained pastor, the Christians should still try to worship together weekly, until a pastor is recruited. If there is no grape juice to do the communion, one may use cranberry juice instead temporarily, instead of totally omitting the ceremony. If the parents have passed away and have not heard gospel, one still doesn’t want to give up opportunities to preach gospel to his parents-in-law. If one couldn’t go to church on Sundays, he could still try to attend a weekly meeting such as a Friday night Bible study.