A Biblical Look at the Judiciary Debate

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Hashem your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.




(the israel bible)

March 14, 2023

6 min read

As the world watches Israelis debate the proposed overhaul of their Judiciary, what advice can a non-attorney give? As tens of thousands march in the streets to make their voices heard, some in support of the proposed changes and some in protest, how can students of God’s Word with no formal legal training contribute to the conversation?  What might the Bible add to today’s national crisis concerning judicial reforms?

The Hebrew verb שָׁפַט   shaphat means “to judge” or “to govern” and first appears in the Bible in Genesis (Bereshit) 16:5 in the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. 

This verse reads, “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge (verb שָׁפַט   shaphat) between you and me.’”

Jewish and Christian students of the Bible who read the weekly Torah portions annually study a passage known as “Parashat Yitro” covering Exodus chapters 18-20.  Exodus 18 describes the leadership activities of Moses in the wilderness and describes his role as acting as one who oversees the people of Israel and seeks resolution for their disputes.  Moses is not called a “judge” (the noun), but his role is depicted as one who actively “judges” (the verb).

In Parashat Yitro, the Midianite father-in-law of Moses, a priest named “Yitro” (also known as “Jethro” in many English translations), warned the leader of the Israelites that Moses would not be able to continue hearing and resolving all of the disputes among the multitudes who had recently escaped slavery in Egypt.  In that passage, we read Exodus 18:13-16…

           It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge (verb שָׁפַט   shaphat) the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people?  Why do you alone sit (as judge) and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”  Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge (verb שָׁפַט   shaphat) between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.”

Yitro’s ancient lessons for Moses could still be helpful for judges in Israel today. It takes a team working together with respect for one another to solve the people’s problems.  Judges must listen to the concerns of the citizens and seek outcomes that honor the Lord while obeying the law and protecting human dignity. People can expect timely justice in the legal system and should not have to wait endlessly for their day in court.

Yitro’s advice could be helpful in today’s arguments over the future of the judiciary.

For most of us, without the ability to vote in the Knesset or sit on the Supreme Court, let’s not attempt to dictate how judges should be appointed, the apparent root of the current dispute, but instead focus on the qualifications of a judge as given in the Bible.

Judges were historically a part of Israel’s governmental leadership in the scriptures.  Most obviously, we all can read from the Bible book named “Judges” in English and “Shoftim” in Hebrew.  Shoftim (שופטים) were specially appointed leaders of God’s people with special qualifications and important responsibilities.  

Not only is an entire book of the Tanakh (Old Testament) given this title, the 48th weekly reading in the Torah cycle is also called “Shoftim” (“Judges”) and covers Deuteronomy chapters 16-21. As we read these scriptures from over 3,000 years ago, we recognize that the need for a qualified, capable, and active judiciary is not simply a modern challenge.

In this passage, Moses instructed the people of Israel, when that future need would arise, to carefully select leaders of high character and integrity to serve as judges.  As we read in Deuteronomy 16:18-20,

“You shall appoint for yourself judges (plural noun שופטים   shoftim) and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge (verb שָׁפַט  shaphat) the people with righteous judgment.  You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.  Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”

I presume that modern Israelis who identify with either the political Left or Right would gladly welcome judges who display these prescribed qualities of righteousness, impartiality, a refusal to be bribed, and a commitment to “justice and only justice.”  

Additionally, Zionists everywhere would love to live in a world that finally accepts the biblical truth that the Lord God gave the Land of the Bible to the Jewish people.

The first person named in God’s Word to serve in the biblical role of “Judge” (שׁוֹפֵט) was Othniel (עָתְנִיאֵל), as explained in Judges 3:9-11.  He was one of about a dozen men to serve in this vital leadership role, along with famous men like Gideon and Samson. The only woman judge in the Bible was Deborah, the fourth judge of Israel whose leadership is mentioned in Judges chapters 4 and 5.

First mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 15:17, Othniel was from the Tribe of Judah and his Hebrew name means “Strength of God,” possibly derived from a more basic meaning, “Lion of God.”  The passage in Judges chapter 3 mentions three descriptions of Othniel, the first biblical judge, that ideally would apply to judges in Israel’s modern judicial system. 

First, Othniel rose to prominence during a time of crisis and need.  Consider today’s heated debates in the Knesset and the opposing arguments in the media when you read Judges 3:9… “When the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother.”  Generations ago, when Israel struggled spiritually and faced the dangers of neighbors who sought their destruction, the people “cried to the Lord” and the Lord answered their prayers with a righteous judge to “deliver them.”  We can assume that many modern Israelis are crying to the Lord today, asking Him for a deliverer.

Second, we read in Judges 3:10 about Othniel that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him.”  As a leader, he must have exercised courage and wisdom and discernment.  Othniel knew right from wrong.  He motivated the people of Israel to reject evil and pursue cooperation and collective peace.  Othniel was a man of true and deep faith.  How could today’s Supreme Court justices reflect these attributes?

Third, when the people of Israel committed to love the One True God and prayed for righteous leadership, the Lord blessed the land with rest for forty years, according to Judges 3:11.  As we watch the modern nation of Israel deal with protests and conflicts and worries about democracy, lovers of the Bible should pray for the Lord to give Israel judges whose righteous decisions would result in the calming gift of rest.

Not only can Othniel’s qualifications apply to today’s need for competent judges in Israel, but the timing of his leadership also seems surprisingly relevant to today.  As this article states, Othniel’s “judgeship covered a transitional period connecting the leaders of the past to the leaders of his time. He was related to Caleb, who had left Egypt as a freed slave and entered the Promised Land as a leader.” 

Israel today is also in a major transitional period. The legal systems of the past are not sufficient and need to be modernized. The Abraham Accords have opened and will open doors of cooperation with nations across the Middle East. The Jewish People are firmly established and thriving in their historic Promised Land. Israel continues its march away from its socialist past toward the blessings and challenges of capitalism. The Jewish State faces the dangers of growing antisemitism while also embracing the gestures of friendship from Christian communities around the world. 

“Transitional” is an understatement when one observes the current chapter of Israel’s seventy-five years as a modern state. Like in the days of Othniel, Israel needs judges who understand the struggles of the past and embrace the opportunities of the future.  Like in the days of Othniel, Israel needs “the Spirit of the Lord” to fall upon its leaders.  Maybe most of all, like in the days of Othniel, Israel needs rest. 

B’Ezrat HaShem.

Rev. Trey Graham is a pastor, writer and radio host in Texas who frequently leads tours of Christian pilgrims to study the Bible in Israel.  He actively serves with multiple organizations across Israel, helping build friendships between Christians and Jews.  Learn more at  www.IsraelByTheBook.com and www.TreyGraham.com.

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