Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shoftim – Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18 – 21:9
In Parashat Shoftim (“judges”) several institutions and their relevant supervisory regulations, are being set up for the future administration of Yisrael’s national life. To begin with, the appointment of judges and officers is provided for, leading to a number of ‘religious’ prohibitions and to the consequences resulting from breaking them. The institution of arbitrators and judges in all matters is followed by instructions concerning the monarchy, and the life of the Levites and priests. Cities of refuge and matters pertaining to witnessing crime, war regulations, and resolving cases of unknown murders seal off our Parasha.
The expression, which 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 repeated many times over, almost like a refrain (ref. 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:9) and thus subtly points to the results of incurring YHVH’s burning anger (as we also saw last week).
Right at the core of the account of these, mostly executive matters, there is a passage, which although at first glance may appear to be compatible with the others is nevertheless of an altogether different genre and purpose (18:13-22). 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 (vs. 20 – 22, with more on the subject refer also to 13:2-8, 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 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, a request that YHVH apparently looked favorably upon. This future prophet, like Moshe, will also have this characteristic of mediation. Some of his others attributes will be: granting deliverance from bondage, being mighty in word and deed, offering strong leadership yet being humble beyond any man who had ever lived, 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, “And never has a prophet like Moses arisen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face,” thus adding another trait to the portrait of this (Moshe-like) individual.
Does the placing of this passage, amid the Torah’s civil and liturgical instructions, which flank it on both sides, 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), 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” (v. 8-9). Summarizing the passage:
(1) The place where these arbitrations are to take place is “the place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose” (v. 9).
(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” (vv. 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).
If we compare this set of conditions to those applied to the “prophet” of 18:15 – 21, we find that there are marked differences. Whereas obeying the above-mentioned priestly judges has 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). Chapter 18 verse 19 points out: “And it shall be, whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I will require it at his hand.” And although the person who does not obey the priest or the judge is also subject to a death penalty, yet his proverbial hand is not being required by 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,” we read about the abominations of the people living in the land that Yisrael is about to enter. 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 “perfect – “tamim” -whole, wholesome, innocent, without blemish - with YHVH” (v. 13 emphasis added). 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 passage we have just looked at, and to the Person at its center. It is He who enables us to walk this way, 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).
We have seen that the “prophet” whose coming is predicted here, unlike the institution of the judging and teaching priests which is set up in response to the people’s needs, will be “raised up” by YHVH Himself. Unlike the priestly judges, He will not respond only to problem cases, but will represent YHVH in an overall manner. Another institution which is dealt with here is the monarchy (17:14-20), and it too will be set up in response to Yisrael’s request to have a king: “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 a king over me like all the nations around me’” (17:14). Once Yisrael decides to “place” (“sim” – “put”) a king over itself, this one is to be “from among your brothers” while YHVH will do the selecting. 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.” 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” (17:20).
Last week we examined the word “truma,” translated as “the offering of your hand”, and noted that its root “rah’m” means “lofty or high,” while here we encounter “lifted up” (in relation to the king’s heart) which is “rum” (or “room,” being again of the same root). The word for "king" in Hebrew is "melech." The root of m.l.ch (mem, lamed, final chaf) makes for a verb which means "consult, consider different views," such as we see, for example, in Nehmiah 5:7 where the verb is translated, "serious thought" or "consulted." Thus, the prime task of the king is to be consulting and considering different views; a very far cry from the common idea of kingship, certainly from the one that prevailed at the time.Chapter 18 verses 3, 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 would 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 will be handed from one person to another, from lay people to priests, these individuals will be meeting one another as well as exchanging views 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.”  In reference to “customs” (mentioned by the commentator above), the text (18:3) reads: “And this will be the priests’ due…”, with the word for “due” being “mishpat” – of the same root as the Parasha’s name, 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 blood avenging, in cases of unintentional killing. The blood avenger is called a “go’el dam,” literally “a blood redeemer.” 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. 19:10). All three of these terms, that is “meting out justice,” “cleansing” and “pollution” are described by the one verb - whose root is g.a.l (gimmel, alef, lamed). In this way the term’s tri-fold meanings portray 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, vav, gimmel), meaning to “move away” and therefore often accompanied by “achor” (“backwards”), hence “backsliding” (e.g. 2nd Sam.1:22: “the bow of Jonathan did not draw back” – “nasog achor”). According to Rashi, 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,” leads to the inference that it is He who set these boundaries in the first place, and therefore altering them would indeed constitute “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 inagugurated] his new house” (v. 5 emphasis added). The verb “chanach” (ch.n.ch, chet, noon, chet) also means to “train” (e.g. Gen. 14:14, Avraham’s trained servants are called “chanee’chim”; see also, Prov. 22:6) as well and “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 in Hebrew is “chalel” (of the root ch.l.l, chet, lamed, lamed, which we examined at the end of Parashat Yitro, Ex. 20:25), and also means “profane, pollute, defile, begin, bore holes, entrust, release, dance and a dead body” (example of the latter is found in 21:1). In a typical Hebrew fashion, we find here that ‘ends meet’ and come full circle. “Profane” (as stated, of the same root, ch.l.l) is also “hollow” (void of real content), but “release” (once again, ch.l.l) affords an opportunity for a “new beginning” – “hat’cha’la” (and for doing away with profanity). A dead body has certainly been “emptied out” of its content (soul and spirit), and is therefore “released” from obligations and duties, BUT at the same time, as our verb points out, this condition also constitutes a “new beginning”… albeit in another dimension. And so, like the term “chet,” “sin”, into which is built the means for reform (“cha’teh” – “cleansing”), here too, profanity and defilement are couched in a root which allows for transformation by way of a new beginning. The other two who are exempt from duty, are he who is betrothed but has not consummated the marriage, and whoever 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 italics added) – “z’churim.” Surprisingly, the same reference to males occurs here too (20:13), although applied to “all the men of a city which refuses to make peace” and who are to be “struck.” Thus, these men who are destined to be put to death are no less known and remembered by YHVH, who is indeed “over all and through all and in 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 pray that their own sin be atoned for, its killing is not a sacrifice or an offering and therefore it is not slaughtered. For this reason, 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, thus this occasion renders the opportunity for the elders of the area to “wash their hands off the matter,” and to be counted innocent of the blood of the deceased (21:6, 7). The language’s 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.” In this way, the elders’ action becomes a declaration that they have rejected and renounced the evil deed which has been committed. This then applies to the People of Yisrael as a whole (ref. vv. 8, 9), as well as to the land (19:10).
 Da’at Mikra, Dvarim, Aha’ron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001
[2[ Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebew, based on the commentaties of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu Clark, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, - New York, 1999.
 Da’at Mikra