Justice and Governance: Deuteronomy 17

In Summary: Justice and governance. These are the themes of Deuteronomy 17. The opening verse addresses the need for proper sacrifices but the rest of the chapter delves into the administration of justice. First, the Israelites are commanded to make a thorough investigation, but then penalties are required. The opening section deals with capital offenses.

Next, we see the idea of establishing a judicial system for those cases that are too hard to handle. Then there are rules established for the king, if the people ever have one. I still support the idea given for the king here. He was to make his own, by his own hand, copy of the Law of God. This likely would have been the book of Deuteronomy alone, but could have been the entire Pentateuch. My guess is just Deuteronomy, but further we do not see in Kings or Chronicles any evidence that the kings did this. In fact, under Joash we see the Law found as it had been missing! They apparently rarely did this. I think we’d be better off in America if everyone elected to public office had to at least copy the Constitution and Declaration of Independence…and if the President had to do the Tax Code, I bet it would get simpler!

Overall, we see that there were provisions for dealing with clear transgressions and for muddled situations. If it was clear and there were adequate, trustworthy witnesses, then justice was to be done swiftly and by the community. Think about how important the commandment of not bearing “false witness” becomes here: a false witness could cost someone their life! More complicated issues were to be taken up with trained judges, but clear cases could be handled by those who lived, day-to-day, with one another.

In Focus: Let’s put Deuteronomy 17:12 in focus. There are three necessary parts in this one verse.

First, there was the priest that served the Lord God and the judge that worked with him. Those who worked to establish and maintain justice in Israel were servants of God and His ways. It’s a subtle distinction between that and serving the people, but an important one. Justice is, at its core, a fixed issue: right is always right. Judges and legal systems are established to determine how to apply the law for right to happen. This is why the Hebrew system involved both judge and priest, to keep what is right in view.

Second, there was condemnation for anyone who refused to listen to the priest and the judge. Hasty judgment or refusal to honor the judgment was forbidden. Even if a person, apparently, was the aggrieved party they could still suffer punishment for not listening to the priest and the judge. Listening was a vital component.

Third, there was the clear connection between individual sinful behavior and evil in the nation. The justice system had to work to remove evil from the nation.

In Practice:

First things first: a justice system that is disinterested in the truth is one that will never do that which is right. There is a difference between the truth and the letter of the law, for there exist times when doing what is right is doing something that is not legal—and those are times when the law must be changed. It is for this reason that the American system allows judges to invalidate laws. Not for the convenience of people who cannot get a law passed, but to avoid punishing people for doing things that are right. Take Rosa Parks, for example here: the judge in her case should have cast aside the law both for her sake, because she had done nothing wrong and it shouldn’t have been illegal, and for the sake of the police who were responsible to arrest law breakers. They should never have been required to enforce a law that was wrong.

Justice systems should serve right and truth. When that does not occur, we see problems and eventual breakdown. Judges should never be bound to political expediency or even popular anger. Right is always right. This does not excuse wrongdoing by judges: there must be, because of the fallen nature of man, a way to correct for bad judgment.

Second things second: those who go to the judge must listen to what is said and recognize the decision. If it is wrong, there should be checks in the system to make it right. And while not mentioned here, throughout Scripture we see explicit condemnation of those who lock justice away from the poor. Our system does this: ever looked at what it would take to challenge something in court? I can’t afford it. Neither, most likely, can you.

Third: we must fight against evil personal behavior and its influence on society. We must also work to prevent evil societal action. But it starts with the individual. If we are slow to act on personal justice, if we allow delayed justice, then we are allowing evil to reign. That must stop.


In Nerdiness: The passages on the kingdom come into view here. Was Moses foreseeing a time when they would want a king? Or is this evidence that Deuteronomy was composed later? How you answer that is more a function of your presuppositions about Scripture than your Old Testament skills. I say that God inspired Moses looking forward, because my presupposition is that God is able to do so. Others take a different view. Passages like this test those assumptions.

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