Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9: Learn to judge life & death righteously & mercifully

There are shadows of the Messiah in the Torah passage שֹׁפְטִים Shoftim (“judges,” Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9), even down to the ceremony when a community is unable to bring a murderer to justice. There are levels of investigation and a careful pursuit of justice and a balance between the rights of the “avenger” and the rights of the accused.

In Shoftim, Moshe (Moses) elaborates on practical application of the Fifth and Sixth commandments. One lesson is that if you do not have respect for your parents, you lose respect for all kinds of authority, from the babysitters to teachers, employers, police officers, judges, prophets and priests. That disrespect will go all the way up the chain of authority to God Himself.


The Torah tells us how the children of Israel were to appoint judges in every town. The people shouldn’t have to travel a long way to obtain justice.

Moses’ father-in-law was the first to establish a tiered legal system. (Ex. 18:14-26) It was a system that called for leaders of tens, hundreds and thousands. The most difficult cases were handled at increasing higher levels.

The priests were near to the top of the judicial food chain. When you gave respect to the judges of the lower level, that respect extended all the way up the chain to the Supreme Judge. When we talk about “honoring our father and mother,” that extends all the way up to honoring God.

The only way these judges could give good decisions is if their decisions followed Torah. And the higher level of judges were there to insure that the lower levels of the judiciary were well trained enough to perform their duty.

They were not to favor the rich over the poor or the poor over the rich. That is a tough one. We hear in our culture the common refrain “that’s not fair.” We live in a society where people may be disadvantaged by prejudice, poverty, etc., and many want to put their thumb on the scale in favor of these people. But that is a violation of real fairness.

We often forget that the command that there were to be 2-3 witnesses to discern the truth of a particular charge. The accused him or herself is one of the witnesses. In our judicial system, the accused does not have to testify but if the accused does testify than he or she is a witness.

No one should be quick to being an “avenger of blood.” Someone who is quick to avenge is not loving one’s neighbor.

Whether you appear in court in an Armani suit or an orange jumpsuit, the judge is supposed to look beyond that, be blind to that and discern the truth.

Many in the modern church don’t want to talk about the part of God’s personality that requires a community to purge evil from them. It’s like a cancer, it has to be cut out but many don’t want to do that.

In a culture that creates euphemisms for euthanasia such as “pulling the plug” and “mercy killing” and calls denying children medical care a “mercy,” there will be abuses.

One can go back into our own history in America and find all sorts of judicial abuse from the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to the decisions in the early 20th century that gave the government the “right” to sterilize “undesirables” in the name of eugenics, there are many cases where the government will oppress individuals for the sake of a collective good.

Using our parents sins against as an excuse to act wickedly on our community will drag our community down to shame if we allow those excuses to stand.

King David put up with all sorts of injustice and egregious abuse from King Saul, yet he still respected Saul and his office because God Himself anointed Saul as king.

When we think about people such as Daniel or Joseph, they had to suffer through many injustices at the hands of the “lawful” authorities, yet they didn’t commit treason. They had to stand for God while still respecting the authorities above them.


The ancient Israel legal system is said to have had three levels of courts (m.Sanhedrin 1:1-4, 6):

בית דין Beit Din (“house of judgment”)

  • For cities with fewer than 120 people.
  • Three judges.

בית דין הקטן Beit Din haQatan (Small Sanhedrin)

  • For every large city of each tribe or in cities with more than 120 people.
  • 23 judges.
  • Could level death penalties.

בית דין הגדול Beit Din haGadol (Great Sanhedrin)

  • One, based in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).
  • 71 members, led by the nonvoting High Priest initially then an appointed Nasi (president).
  • A precedent for this was when YHWH told Moshe to select seventy elders of Yisrael to interact directly with Heaven (Num. 11:16–30).

In the New Testament, the Messianic community set up a similar structure, calling them deacons, overseers and apostles. The deacons weren’t merely those who mopped the floors and turned the lights out. They were also well-trained apologists and theologians, as we see with the deacon-martyr Stephen.

There’s something else we should consider when talking about courts. Yeshua and the Apostle Paul talked extensively about how to make wise decisions.

Followers of Mashiakh must use judgment, aka discernment, but not be judgmental, i.e., condemnatory. Yeshua said true citizens of Yisrael have to be able to judge, to use the Law as intended.

“For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:2 NASB)

The trappings of respect such as “sir,” “ma’am,” “Ms.,” “Mr.,” etc. aren’t supposed to be mere words. They are supposed to mean something. But Yeshua warns us that there are those who call Him “Lord” who don’t really know Him at all and He doesn’t know them, and that’s a dangerous place to be spiritually, but it will also be a dangerous thing physically at the Day of the LORD.

The Apostle Paul wrote in the Body of Mashiakh should be able to judge matters between believers as much as possible:

“Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?” (1st Corinthians 6:2-3 NASB)

It’s a form of rest that we don’t have to make up our own standard of righteousness. God has done it for us. We should never bring our disputes between our fellow believers into the secular civil courts. What kind of testimony does that give when two members of the same congregation show up before the secular judge to air out their dirty laundry? It brings shame to Yeshua.

Graffiti on a wall in Lisbon depicting a priest chasing two children, denouncing the child abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church (which is still quite powerful in Portugal). Photo taken 2 Feb 2011

However, if an actual crime happens in the Messianic community, the Apostle Paul tells us these matters must be reported to the criminal court. Adjudicating matters such as assault and battery, domestic violence, molestation of children, etc., is not within the authority of the local church to handle. That must be reported to the secular authorities. If we refuse to report criminal matters to the authorities, that brings shame on Yeshua and our community.

What about Kings?

God didn’t want them to be a nation like the other nations.

“The LORD has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’” (Deuteronomy 17:16 NASB)

The Torah lays down several requirements for the king of Yisrael. He must:

  • Be chosen by the LORD.
  • Be native-born, not a foreigner.
  • Not have many horses nor turn to Mitsraim (Egypt) for horses. Jeremiah warned them not to go to  Mitsraim. God shut all the doors to Mitsraim, not only in Moses’ day but in the days of Babylon’s ascendency as well.
  • Write his own copy of the Torah — and read it.

God warns them not to aspire to be a military power?

“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help And rely on horses, And trust in chariots because they are many And in horsemen because they are very strong, But they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the LORD!” (Isaiah 31:1 NASB)

Much later in Yisrael’s history, she was emboldened to stand up against Nebuchadnezzer by trusting in Mitsrael, but Babylon defeated Mitsraim then came for the Kingdom of Yehudah.

“‘You shall never again return that way.’” (Deuteronomy 17:16 NASB)

After the “bad report” by the 10 spies of the Land the LORD led them to (Numbers 13), the parents of this generation sought a new leader to take them back to Mitsraim. The generation who believed the evil report of the 10 spies died in the wilderness because they believed what they saw with their eyes, not in what God could do.

“ ‘Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.’ ” (Numbers 14:3–4 NASB)

Among the warnings for the second generation of Yisrael, who were about to enter the Promised Land their parents rejected, was this warning about a return to the House of Slavery.

“ ‘If you are not careful to observe all the words of this law which are written in this book, to fear this honored and awesome name, the LORD your God, then the LORD will bring extraordinary plagues on you and your descendants, even severe and lasting plagues, and miserable and chronic sicknesses. … The LORD will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I spoke to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.’” (Deuteronomy 28:58–59, 68 NASB)

Parameters of the instruction for the King to write the Torah:

  • Write it in the presence of the priests.
  • He can ask them questions about the meaning and application.
  • They can correct any copying errors he makes.
  • Keep it with him and read it his whole lifetime.
  • He should remember the lessons learned while writing it.
  • If he questions those lessons, he should ask more questions and seek knowledge from the Testimony.
  • Yeshua is “the Word made flesh” (John 1).

Listen to the heart of the King of Kings

Deuteronomy is often called the “heart of God.” The word is supposed to be near to us, on our heart, on our lips, etc.

What does it mean when the New Testament tells us that Christ is supposed to in us? It’s a reference to having the testimony of God in us, the Torah. If we have the word of God without His Spirit, we can go off the rails quickly.

The Word and the Spirit/Comforter are both important. The Spirit reminds us of what we have learned.

Without the Spirit of God, the Torah is like a sledgehammer. It is a sledgehammer to those who have followed the evil one rather than the Righteous One.

The only one who accomplishes our Salvation is Yeshua.

Based on Israel’s history, it was not very good for them to have a king. God didn’t place them in the Promised Land to be land barons. Their legacy to the world was their connection to the Lord.

A Prophet like Moshe

  • What is a biblical prophet?
  • What is a false prophet?
  • What is a true prophet?
  • Who is “the Prophet”?
  • What do you do with a false prophet?

What is a biblical prophet?

The Hebrew word for prophet here is נָבִיא naviʾ (H5030). That can mean the following1:

  • Spokesman. The Semitic cognate verb nabaʾa in Arabic means “to announce, hence spokesman.”
  • One through whom words “bubble up” from within. The early Hebrew lexicon writer Gesenius posited that “the verb נָבָא nāḇāʾ came via an ע ayin softened to an א aleph from נָבַע nāḇaʿ, “to bubble up.”
  • Authorized spokesman, as in Aharon (Aaron) for Moshe (Exodus 7:1–2).”

What is a false prophet?

God gave them tips as to what kind of teachings false prophets could bring in. When the priesthood became rotten, the people didn’t even want to come to the Tabernacle.

A false prophet would lead the people to “learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations.” Specific examples of the detestable practices in the Land:

  • Burning children in fire as a sacrifice.
  • Divination.
  • Witchcraft.
  • Interpretation of omens.
  • Sorcery.
  • Spell-casting.
  • Mediums.
  • Spiritualism.
  • Necromancy.

All of these are examples of looking for knowledge in places God has specifically forbidden. God specifically tells Israel they are to drive such people from the land and never learn their practices.

When the people told God they wanted a King because they wanted to be like the other nations, they lost touch with this lesson of not imitating the detestable nations around them. You need to make sure your king knows the limits of his power by studying the Torah and writing his own copy of it.

It’s our duty to give respect to authority but also respect those under us. It’s also our duty to kept the authorities accountable and to make ourselves accountable to those under us.

In the book of Revelation, we see a little book that tastes sweet in the mouth but turned bitter in the stomach.

The dark times that are coming will be brought to an end and the Messianic age will come in.

Sometimes true testimonies come from false prophets. It takes a lot of discernment to tell the difference between a real prophet vs. a false prophet.

Who is the Prophet?

The prophet greater than Moses will bring Moses’ testimony forward, not contract what Moses said but take his words further.

Messiah Yeshua brought the Living Word, a living testimony. He also lived out many of Moses’s life experiences in His ministry. Yeshua performed miracles. He brought down the Holy Spirit on His followers and they were able to speak with the same boldness as their Master.

The Orthodox Study Bible says of Yeshua:

“We have a Prophet who is the Truth, a Priest whose eternal offering is accepted by the Father and received by us, and a King who will rule and reign forever over His Kingdom.”

The Jewish Study Bible tells us that the prophet is independent of the offices of theocracy, such as the King and the Priest in so far as the prophet is not a hereditary office.

“That God alone appoints the prophet makes the prophet independent of all institutions and able to challenge them…. At Horeb, Moses established the distinctively Israelite model of prophecy as mediating God’s word to the people…. The prophet reiterates the word of Israel’s God.”

Deuteronomy 19:1–21:23: Sixth Devar: Killing

Deuteronomy 19:1–21: Cities of refuge and witnesses

Does it seem fair that the only way an innocent person can get a chance at justice is if he outruns the avenger of blood and gets to the city of refuge first? Does that seem just? Is it just to allow an avenger of blood to pursue a suspect and potentially kill him?

How does this fit with the LORD’s command, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay”? It’s a balance of justice and mercy working together.

The avenger of blood would know that vengeance is ultimately in God’s hands. The avenger of blood is not to be a bloodthirsty person. He is not a vigilante.

The weight of the unsolved murder is not simply swept under the rug and dismissed. The nearest town has to come out and acknowledge the horror of that person’s death. It is atoned for by the community. We see that in our criminal system. That is why our criminal cases in America are adjudicated as “The People of ….. v. so and so.”

Deuteronomy 19:15–21: Requirement for at least two witnesses and punishment for false witnesses
  • “Perjury” is the legal name for false testimony under oath to give true testimony.
  • Perjury is a violation of the Ninth Devar, against “bear[ing] false witness.”

Deuteronomy 20:1–20: Rules of war

We are to presume innocence. We are to presume that we don’t have all the facts. This is how we can avoid slander, gossip, and libel. This is how we can give others the benefit of the doubt. We aren’t to sentence people before all the facts are laid out publicly.

Killing is a serious thing because we are not creators. We can’t bring the dead back to life.

While cowardice renders one incapable or ineffective in defense, acts of violence for defense of others or self-defense can and often do leave deep mental wounds that those of us who live in bubbles of peaceful “normalcy” have trouble understanding.

These wounds can range from nightmares to crushing guilt to danger-response symptoms now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

“People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.” (National Institutes for Mental Health)

“Normalcy bias” — being paralyzed by fear and consumed with the thought, “This can’t be happening!” — is often cited as a reason why many have problems responding quickly to terrorist attacks or violent assaults.

Even if we act in self-defense or the defense of others, that act is still a profound burden to bear. We need to step in and help those who have to bear the burden of witnessing death, such as police, military, EMT’s, nurses, etc.

We need to listen to their stories and hold them up, pray for them.

Just as it pained God to have to destroy the entire world in the Flood, we also experience pain if we ever have to take a life. This is the burden we bear because we were made in His image.

Summary: Tammy.

Banner Photo: Even the Supreme Court will have to answer to a higher authority someday. Photo by Lat





  1. Harris, Editor, R. Laird. Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testatment (TWOT). Chicago: Moody Press, 1980. 

Recent posts in Discussions

Recent posts in Torah

What do you think about this?