DEUTERONOMY 16:18 – 17:13
Tzedek. Justice. So the Torah says, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף, tzedek tzedek tirdōf, “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
Pursue is an interesting verb for this classic statement about the value of justice, a statement which has become a motto for many Jewish thinkers intent on improving the world down to this day. Why does Torah say “pursue” rather than “observe, practice, keep”?
There is almost an idea here that justice is an unattainable goal, a thing so high we cannot completely reach it. Justice is not perceived as a simple thing, a black and white result which can be reasonably achieved. Instead it is lofty, it has levels and its highest aims ascend beyond human reach. Only God is truly just.
Ironically “justice” or “the justice of God” has become in some religious circles a synonym for “the anger of God.” While there is some truth to this, it has been misunderstood. God’s justice does include wrath against those who perpetuate injustice and cause suffering. It is not, as some would say, God punishing rule-breakers, but is about God’s desire to eliminate the forces of death and suffering. His desire is to do it by enlightening and transforming human beings, not by forcing us to accept his ways. God’s “justice” is not retaliatory and vengeful, but renewing, restorative, and redemptive. Yes, oppressors will meet with death when facing God’s justice, but this is about relieving suffering and not divine revenge.
As for human beings and the pursuit of justice, we have learned we cannot rely on the state or the economy to accomplish this for us. This is why in Judaism there is a concept of tikkun olam, literally “the repair of the world.” It is not for governments to repair the world or corporations. It is for people, individually and collectively, to do so. This must include individuals in government and in corporations who use their vocation to do good and it includes all human beings in their sphere of influence.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel write a treatise on the prophets of Israel that has become a class (simply titled, The Prophets). He asks why the prophets are so harsh, why their voices are so shrill. What are they so angry about? The answer, he says, is that they were in touch with God in a unique way. They felt God’s emotions and had a general, if not specific, sense of God’s will. God is emotional, we learn from the prophetic literature of Ancient Israel. He feels deeply and is not some philosopher’s God, detached an stoic.
And what does God feel so emotional about? Tzedek, tzedek. We can never stop pursuing it, in small things and great. Improving the lives of people around us. Brightening the world. Leaving it better than we found it. It’s like an exercise, like running, like day after day pursuing the same thing. Justice you shall pursue, says God.
Judges and officials in every town (18-20), three worship prohibitions (16:21 – 17:1), procedure for capital punishment for apostates (2-7), the Israelite high court (8-13).
The outline of Deuteronomy follows the ten commandments and this section beginning in 16:18 is, perhaps surprisingly, related to “honor your father and mother.” Parental authority over a child is a symbol of authority structures on a larger scale. So we will hear about judges, kings, and prophets.
In the wilderness, seventy judges heard lower cases and only the most important came to Moses. The wilderness legal system was centralized because the tribes were all together in one place. Once in the land, cases would need to be heard in the city gates of every town, as was the custom in other cultures. Therefore, the people required a new system of judges and officials in every town.
This justice system in the Torah was guided by three principles: fairness, impartiality, and the prohibition of bribes. 16:20 is a classic verse, one of the sayings in Torah that has come to define the Jewish ethos: “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” In modern times especially this has been a call to Jewish people to seek equity for the oppressed and it engages the Jewish imagination about the world to come where there will be no harm or lack. The emphasis on equity in judgment for all people recognizes that in society there is a tendency for the powerful to take advantage of those weaker or lacking resources. From the complaints of the prophets, such as Isaiah, we can see that Judah did not do well in following the ideal of justice.
16:21 – 17:1 (three laws about prohibited worship) is probably here because of its relationship to the capital punishment laws in 17:2-7 (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). In other words, the appointing of judges led to an example of dealing with apostasy (17:2-7) and apostasy led to a clarification of several cultic prohibitions (16:21 – 17:1). The patriarchs and Moses and Joshua used pillars (and Abraham a sacred tree), but this would have to be prohibited in general because it would lead people to idolatry.
17:8-13 establishes a high court of judges and priests. Their jurisdiction is specifically over difficult cases with bloodshed, legal disputes, and violence as examples. This is the text used as the basis for the formulation of a Sanhedrin in Jewish tradition. The authority of the sages to lay down rulings about how to follow Torah’s commandments and prohibitions is also derived from this. Israel is to follow the rulings of its officials without deviating to the right or left. The Torah recognizes that its commandments cover only generalities and the courts and sages would rule on specific customs and procedures. In other words, from the written Torah there is also a need to develop a tradition which fills in specific methods and regulations to make the general commandments practically applicable. This is the basis of authority for the Jewish halakhah, the principles for living God’s commandments from day to day in a practical manner.
Deuteronomy 17 presents an idea for reform, a different kind of kingship, an ideal king. In the history of thought, people have dreamed of the perfect ruler, one who does only good and who restores the land (like King Arthur). Generations keep hoping for individual rulers who will be Messiah-like, solving the problems of the common person and at the same time bringing widespread peace and abundance.
Key to the success of the Deuteronomic king is his relationship to a written scroll containing the very words of Deuteronomy. The passage is notoriously difficult to translate. The JPS version depicts the king as commission the Levitical priests to make a copy for him of “this Teaching” (i.e., Deuteronomy). Other translations (and rabbinic tradition) have the king making his own copy.
The verse begins simply enough: “And it will be when he is seated on the throne of his kingdom.” After that each phrase could be interpreted in more than one way. וְכָתַב לוֹ vekatav lō (“and he will write for himself”). The JPS translates this rather as “he will have written for him.” Perhaps this is on the assumption that kings were not usually literate and also this may be how the JPS translators understood the last words of the verse about Levitical priests and their involvement. אֶת־מִשְׁנֵה ‘et-mishneh, “a copy.” What the king will write is a copy. הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת hatōrah hazzōt, “of this law” [alt. teaching, seemingly a reference to Deuteronomy itself]. עַל־סֵפֶר ‘al-sefer, “on a scroll.” It seems by the time of King Josiah, writing on scrolls was a known process (though possibly this could be papyrus leaves rather than a leather scroll). מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם milifnei hakohanim halevi’im, “from before the Levitical priests.” This last phrase is the one raising the most questions.
Is the last phrase of vs. 18 saying that the Levitical priests will actually do the writing for the king, as the JPS implies? The RSV says “that is in the charge of the Levitical priests.” In other words, Deuteronomy’s text is being preserved and edited by them. The ESV says “that is approved by the Levitical priests,” implying that they will review and approve the king’s copy. The NET Bible, oddly, chooses to render it “on a scroll given him by the Levitical priests,” making them simply the suppliers of the leather (or papyrus).
Of these suggestions the JPS and NET are the least likely. The idea that the priests wrote it for him does not fit the active verb in the phrase “he will write for himself.” The idea that the priests simply supply the writing material seems a waste of verbiage. The ideas represented in the RSV and ESV seem most likely, and perhaps are both true. Deuteronomy, as the reinterpreted Torah, as a complete text, is in the charge of the Levitical priests and they will verify that the king’s copy is accurate.
Why all this concern that the king rule according to a book, and a book whose text is carefully guarded at that? Deuteronomy sees itself as a great advancement in the teaching of Israel. We have here an idea of a sacred text, written by human beings but containing truth from the prophet Moses and thus possessing within it the authority of God (though perhaps diluted by human authorship). Does Deuteronomy see itself as infallible? Probably not, given that this reinterpretation of the Torah makes changes from earlier collections of Mosaic teaching (J, E, and P).
But Deuteronomy believes something genuinely divine is contained within. And the ideal presented is of a king who rules according to clear teaching about what is right, about justice, about fidelity to God, and about a covenant with supernatural promises of miraculous peace and abundance. The world has been waiting for, and still awaits, a different kind of rule, one that is good for each and every person and which brings the life, peace, and happiness that we perpetually seek but never achieve.
Choosing a king (14-15), the king forbidden to multiply horses or wives (16-17), the king’s relationship to Torah (18-20).
The Hebrew Bible has voices in support of and also against the institution of kingship. This pro-monarchy passage in Deuteronomy 17 is not the only word on the matter. Consider 1 Samuel 8:10-18, where the prophet Samuel warns Israel, “The day will come when you will cry out because of the king you have chosen.” And yet here in Deuteronomy we read, “You will be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God.” One obvious difference between the passages is the matter of how the king is chosen: by the people or by God.
The Samuel passage depicts kings taking the people’s sons and daughters into service, seizing fields and vineyards, and taking a tax from all the flocks and herds. Samuel warns that when the people cry out that they’ve made a mistake, God will not listen to their complaint.
The Deuteronomy passage also has a sense of warning about it. The king must not acquire horses (instruments of war), wives (political alliances made by royal marriage), or silver and gold (economic power). Instead Israel’s kings will keep (or write) their own copy of Deuteronomy and study it. We seem to be reading here an ideal, not a description of what has been.
What was God’s original intention for Israel in terms of leadership? Were kings envisioned from the beginning, from Mosaic times, as Deuteronomy makes it appear? The surface reading of the text is that Moses, the prophet-leader of the people, knows once they are in the land the people will need a different kind of leadership. Kings will be permitted as long as they follow the prohibitive and performative commandments of this passage. However, the original readers knew Deuteronomy was a reinterpretation of the Torah tradition, a modified and expanded Torah for the days of King Josiah.
The words in this passage warning that the king must not “send people back to Egypt” is a rather clear reference to Josiah’s time. Various kings had sought help from Egypt in throwing off the yoke of Assyria. But Josiah ended up dying waging a campaign against Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco. The warning about going back to Egypt makes little sense in Moses’ time, but a great deal of sense in Josiah’s.
The monarchy passage in Deuteronomy is not an actual Mosaic ordinance, but rather a call for reform, for a kingship based on the reinterpreted Torah, for a scholar king, a priestly king, a king who trusted in the covenant rather than the usual means of military, political, and economic power.
The author of Deuteronomy believes that changing times call for changes in the Torah. In this passage the laws for donations to the priests, and even the definition of a priest, are changed from the commandments found in Leviticus 7.
Two things had happened before and in the days of Deuteronomy’s writing. In Hezekiah’s time, many people including Levites from the north migrated south into Judah to avoid the coming devastation of the Assyrian conquest. All of the northern kingdom was defeated, all the cities laid waste, and many of the people were forcibly migrated out of Israel when Assyria came in 722 BCE. But for those who foresaw events and migrated south into Judah, there was now a new situation. The north had its own slightly different version of Torah (the E source) originating with the priests of Shiloh (a town in the northern kingdom). Levites who were of a different branch of the Aaronid line had been serving as priests and Levites in general were regarded as priests at the high places (sanctuaries) of the north. These were now in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas living side by side with the official Aaronid priests of Jerusalem.
The second thing that happened in the era of Deuteronomy was the reform of King Josiah. All of the high places in Judah were destroyed, leaving even more Levites with no occupation. All of the priests and Levites were left with only the Jerusalem temple as a place to practice their work and earn their living.
Therefore, Deuteronomy seems to want to consolidate them. The unique term for priests in Deuteronomy is (כֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם kohanim halevi’im), “the Levitical priests.” These are defined in Deuteronomy 18:1 as “the whole tribe of Levi.” As far as the author of Deuteronomy is concerned, there should be no distinction between Levites and priests. All Levites may serve as priests, although they also may serve in other roles (musicians, guards, etc.).
This broader definition and blurring of the lines long established in Jerusalem between the smaller group of Aaronids and the larger group of Levites was an innovation of Deuteronomy and it did not take hold. History followed the older division between the two groups and continued to privilege the line of Aaron. Levites remained into the second temple period as the less sacred branch of temple functionaries.
Realizing these differences in the parts of Torah, however, has to effect our way of thinking about the Bible. It is not so much a divinely revealed text given all in one short period of time, but an unfolding tradition by people interpreting what seemed to them to be divine truth. Much was considered to be changeable. But all of this did not eliminate the deeply held belief of the authors that God had made himself known to the patriarchs and to Israel at Sinai. Torah is a balance between divinely revealed truth and the human manner of observing the covenant.
No inheritance for Levites (1-2), the due of the priests (3-4), the reason for the priestly dues (5).
The term “Levitical priests” (כֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם kohanim halevi’im) is exclusive to Deuteronomy. It seems to indicate that all of the Levites could be regarded as priests, although surely even Deuteronomy did not imagine every single Levite functioning as a priest (some must have filled other roles such as temple musicians, guards, and so on). The use of “Levitical” to describe the priesthood is only one of many differences between Deuteronomy and other Torah sources regarding the nature of the priesthood and its relationship to the people. Aaron is barely mentioned in Deuteronomy and the priesthood is never described as being limited to his family. Deuteronomy omits any reference to the ark (Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?) and changes many of the commandments regarding sacrifices, sacrificial portions to be donated to the priests, tithes, and more.
For example, in this passage, all of the “Levitical priests” will live off of the “offerings” of Israel. In fact, vss. 3-4 specify that the shoulder, jowls, and stomach of every offering (probably referring only to well-being offerings) belong to the whole tribe of Levi. This is quite a change from Leviticus 7:31-34 in which the breast and right thigh of all well-being offerings are for the Aaronid priests (a small sub-group of Levites). Some rabbinic interpreters have suggested that the Deuteronomy reference is to slaughter for meat whereas the Leviticus reference is to sacrificial offerings, but the word for the slaughtered animal here (זֶּבַח zevach) is used in Torah only for well-being offerings. Furthermore, it would be impractical (impossible even) for the people to bring portions of slaughtered meat from their towns all the way to Jerusalem to donate portions (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary).
One way to handle the discrepancy is to assume both laws were practiced together: give the breast and right thigh to the Aaron priests and the shoulder, jowls, and stomach to all the Levites. But we still have to ask why Deuteronomy does not clarify this by referring to the earlier law and stating that this new requirement is in addition to the former one. Given the fact that Deuteronomy makes a number of changes to earlier strands of Torah, it seems more likely this is intended to be a replacement of the earlier law.
What was going on historically that might explain this change in Torah? With the reforms in Israel’s worship initiated by Hezekiah and even more so by Josiah, the Levites from all of Judah and also from the northern kingdom consolidated in Jerusalem. In Hezekiah’s time, before Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom, people including Levites migrated down into Judah. Both Hezekiah and Josiah destroyed “high places,” alternative sanctuaries in the land, where Levites were employed as priests. Instead of groups of Levites and priests spread all over the land, they were gathered now in one place, in Jerusalem. Friedman even theorizes that the author of Deuteronomy was one of the priests of a line other than the family of Aaron and he considers Jeremiah or someone in Jeremiah’s circle to be the most likely candidate. Jeremiah was a priest of Anathoth, but he was an outcast among the Aaron priests there. Friedman speculates that Jeremiah was of the deposed line of priests from Shiloh, and one of the “Levitical priests” but not a descendant of Aaron.
It seems that Deuteronomy has an aim to count all the Levites as priests, in contradiction to Leviticus (from the earlier P source of the Torah). History, however, did not follow Deuteronomy, as the line of Aaron continued to dominate and the Levites continued to be separated from the priests as two separate classes in Israel.
Human beings have always desired to manipulate the future, to see it in advance, to obtain knowledge in order to procure a favorable outcome. Even in modern times, with all the accumulated knowledge we have about the biological and thermodynamic processes of death, we still have in our culture beliefs about magical means to delay or prevent it. The desire for immortality compels us to look for solutions.
In some forms of magical belief, the future is a fixed entity, mostly or entirely unchangeable. The clever practitioner of the arts of magic can simply obtain knowledge and act to improve life until the fated day arrives. In other varieties of belief, the future is moldable, unfixed. We desire to alter nature, to bend it to our will. We write science fiction still about longevity and a solution to the problems of death and suffering.
Most of these hopes are completely in vain. At best we extend our lives to their natural limit.
There is a supernatural realm, according to the Torah, but it is shaped by the One God like whom is no other. And the supernatural realm is completely beyond the reach of human beings to obtain knowledge or gain any sort of control. Life and death are completely in the hands of the Eternal.
Torah calls for us to believe the solution lies in his hands. “You must be blameless with Adonai, your God,” says Deuteronomy 18:13. This is yet another way of saying, as Deuteronomy does over and over again, that what the people need is to live as a community dedicated to God (to love, serve, obey, and cling to him). This is not because God withholds his love and redemption from people otherwise, like some sort of test. It is, rather, because the way to live the best life, the fullest and most rewarding, is to cling to the hidden presence of the One God, to practice what is good, and to live by trust that he will take care of our deepest, most ultimate needs. Rather than magic, we are asked to practice trust and patience.
All Levites may serve and share in the Temple dues (6-8), all forms of magic forbidden (9-13).
Vss. 6-8 complete the thought of vss. 1-5 about Levites, priests, and their dues. Some Levites apparently remained in towns throughout the land since Deuteronomy 14:29 called for an additional tithe raised in third years which was for the poor and for the Levites scattered across the land. Though forbidden to offer sacrifices outside of the central temple, Levites could lead in other ways, teaching the Torah and perhaps even leading in prayer or worship ceremonies without sacrifices.
Yet every Levite had the right to come to the temple and to be supported through the tithes and other dues. Deuteronomy does not distinguish the differences between the portions of the Levites and priests, so it seems Deuteronomy is based on a different notion of who may serve as a priest. In the Second Temple, the priesthood followed the laws in Leviticus-Numbers and was restricted to the family of Aaron. We are not aware of any age in which all the Levites functioned as priests the way Deuteronomy reads.
Vss. 9-13 forbid all forms of magic. Magic is a worldview that demotes deity to a lower level, regarding the gods as subject to a higher power. Divine beings, in the magical worldview, are above human beings and above nature, but the highest power is the mysterious force which causes magic to operate. This force is what gods tap into, giving them their abilities. Certain skilled human beings can tap into it as well, even at times being able to manipulate or harm the gods with it.
The words used here to describe various kinds of magic include: child sacrificer, augur, soothsayer, diviner, sorcerer, spellcaster, and necromancer. Practices of magic included things like reading the organs of dissected animals, keeping books of omens to predict the future, raising dead spirits to obtain information, and using of incantations (also known as spells). Rather than relying on any of these arts, the Israelites were to believe in providence (the hand of God guiding history) and trust in his prophets.