By Israel Drazin
There are many phrasings in this portion (16:18-21:9) that allows us to examine the biblical writing style: obscure and ambiguous texts, apparently unnecessary word, God’s view of non-Israelites, and which people should guide us.
Obscurities and ambiguities
I mentioned previously that all good literature contains obscurities and ambiguities allowing readers to participate in the “writing” of what is said and an opportunity to delve deeper into the text, search, and find new meaning. Shoftim’s opening verse is a good example. 16:18 states that the Israelites must have shoftim and shotrim wherever they live. It is clear that shoftim are “judges,” but who are shotrim? The meaning is obscure, but is generally understood as court officers who aid judges in implementing judicial decisions. The word is used today for “police officers,” but it would be a mistake to suppose that it had this meaning in the biblical period because we have no evidence that the Israelite society had police officers. But for that matter, we have no evidence that there were officers who implemented court orders, although documents have been found showing pre-Israelite cultures had them. Thus the word is obscure although its generally accepted translation is reasonable.
Abraham ibn Ezra has an interesting interpretation. The requirement to have judges follows the laws of the holidays to teach that even though Israelites will go to the Temple in Jerusalem (when the temple is constructed there) during holidays and are able to bring litigation cases to the court in this capital city, they must still create courts in all localities because courts help maintain peace and stability.
Does God dislike statues?
Some Bible commentators understand Torah passages in unusual ways, ways that other commentators consider unreasonable. 16:22 prohibits setting up pillars “that the Lord your God hates,” and 12:3 states “you must break down their (Canaanite) altars and break their pillars.” But Exodus 24:4 states that Moses wrote down the words he heard from God at Mount Sinai “and rose up early in the morning and built an altar under the mountain and twelve pillars equaling the number of the twelve Israelite tribes.” The patriarchs also built pillars to worship God in the book Genesis. Apparently, Israelites were forbidden to use only pillars previously used for idol worship.
However, Rashi, relying on Midrash Sifrei, ignores Moses’ act and states that “although he loved them (the pillars) during the days of the patriarchs, he hated them now because these (the Canaanites) used them for their idol worship practice.” Rashi seems to understand that 16:22 is now forbidding all pillars even though this is not the plain meaning of the verse that only prohibits pillars “the Lord your God hates.” However, ibn Ezra states the prohibition is only against using the pillars for idolatry.
17:3 raises many questions including whether the Torah recognized that many gods exist, but the Israelites were only allowed to worship the God who rescued them from Egyptian slavery. 17:3 prohibits Israelites from serving “other gods…or the sun or the moon or any host of the heaven.” Why are the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies separated from “other gods”? Is the Bible saying that there are “other gods” and there are also physical bodies that people worship? Is the Torah recognizing the existence of “other gods,” or does it mean, despite not saying so, “what some people consider gods”?
Why mention “man or woman” three times?
Why do verses 17:2- 5 repeat three time “man or woman” in its decree that they are killed if they worship “other gods,” one time would have been sufficient? Ehrlich suggests that the repetition was done to emphasize that all men and women are killed for this misdeed. He supposes that many ancient Israelites married non-Israelite wives who continued to worship idols, just as King Solomon’s pagan wives did. The Torah is stating that even these non-Israelite wives are killed for such worship.
Ehrlich may be right. We know of many instances of Israelites marrying non-Israelites. Ezra and Nehemiah criticized Judeans for doing so. However, we also know that the Torah uses repetitions frequently to enhance the biblical writings, and this may be the reason for the repetitions here.
Why mention justice twice?
Abraham ibn Ezra interpreted 17: 20’s twice-stated “justice, justice, you must pursue” in these “deeper meaning” and “literary” ways: (1) people must pursue justice whether it be for gain or loss, (2) the repetition denotes all the time, and (3) simply for emphasis. However, the repetition could be understood as “you should pursue justice and only justice.”
Two or three witnesses?
17:6 states that justice is determined by two or three witnesses. Mishna Makkot 1:7 and 8 asks, if two are enough why are three mentioned, and the rabbis develop various halakhot rules from the phrase. They may certainly do so, but we should also note that the verse’s plain meaning is that justice is determined by two or more witness, but two are sufficient.
Should we be guided by decisions rendered by now-dead judges?
17:9 states that people should seek judgments from “Levitical priests and judges who will be in those days,” and people must do as they decide. The consensus among scholars is that “levitical priest” indicates that there were priests among the Israelites in ancient times who were not descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, and this verse emphasizes that proper priest are from the levitical family. The priests decided ritual questions and the judges all other litigation.
Why does the Torah state that people should consult living judges? This teaches that people should not rely on legal decisions mentioned in books. They were rendered by judges examining cases before them based on the then-existing culture and conditions. People should place their case before competent contemporary judges who would consider precedents but also present needs (Ehrlich).
Are monarchy regulations in chapter 17 ambiguous?
17:14-20 seem to state clearly that when Israelites settle in Canaan and desire to appoint a king, they may do so, but the king is restricted in certain ways. Yet I Samuel 8 and 12 describe Israelites requesting the prophet Samuel to appoint a king for them, and he tells them he is opposed to a monarchy. Why didn’t the people respond by reminding him of Deuteronomy 17? Is it possible that neither they nor he knew anything about Deuteronomy 17? Or should we understand 17 as “allowing” a king, but not encouraging a monarchy or saying it is a preferable government?