Parashat Shoftim

DEUTERONOMY 16:18-21:9

Topic:  Political leadership

The people of Israel will soon be entering the promised land and this week’s parashah begins to lay out the framework for a new society.  The first concern is with judges (shoftim) and officers of the law:  the administration of justice takes clear precedence over everything else, including government and politics.  The parashah includes material on kingship, war, accidental murder and the responsibilities of local government.

There is a sense that the social fabric is always fragile and imperilled.  Prospective threats to society’s wellbeing include idolatrous temptations and the abuse of political power.  Law is necessary to prevent society descending into chaos:  there is a particular concern to forestall cycles of revenge killing following the accidental taking of life.  The outside world is a source of hostility and threat and war is taken for granted as a part of the political landscape.  A key responsibility of local government is to protect travellers from bandits and highwaymen.

The first and absolute priority is to ensure that justice is accessible to everyone – each city has to have its own court and judges must be reliable, righteous and trustworthy.  They must not be inhibited by status or receive gifts from litigants.

When it comes to political leadership, however, there is far less clarity and the focus is on avoiding the abuse of power rather than defining the tasks of government.  It is not clear whether there is an obligation to appoint a king:  when the people have settled in the land they will want a king so that they will be as all the surrounding nations (17:14).  In these circumstances they may (must?) appoint a king who will be chosen for them by God.  Wanting to be like all the surrounding nations is never a good omen for biblical Israel and when the request for a king was finally made (1Samuel 8 and 12:17), Samuel denounced it as an act of wickedness.

Seven verses are devoted to the king (17:14-20) but it is not at all clear what is expected of him.  He has a positive duty to write a Torah scroll, keep it with him at all times and study it assiduously.  This will instil the fear of God, ensure he observes the Law and protect him from becoming arrogant and lording it over his brethren.  The king must not lavish expenditure on the military, cause the people to return to Egypt (!), multiply wives to himself or amass silver and gold.

It is clear that the Torah has little interest in kingship, albeit that it was the major political institution of the ancient world.  Many chapters are devoted to the Priests and Levites and there is an abundance of legal material for the judges, but few verses are devoted to kingship and they are both anxious and highly ambivalent.

When Moses prepares Joshua to succeed him (Numbers 27:22), it does not occur to anyone that Joshua needed a royal office or a coronation, although he was to be a military leader.  Even the war passage in our parashah (chapter 20) has no role for a king – the troops are to be encouraged by a Priest anointed for the purpose.

The Torah’s ambivalence about kingship raises many questions, especially as the Hebrew Bible will later develop a royal ideology around King David and his descendants which, for readers of the Torah, is quite unexpected.

There are several possible approaches.  Firstly, the narratives of the Torah are dominated by the Egyptian slavery which is traditionally assumed to have lasted for centuries.  The Egyptian pharoahs were remembered by Israel as distant and anonymous persecutors, known only by their royal title, whose power was both brutal and arbitrary, with little or no interest in justice and just behaviour.

Moses’ leadership was radically different:  he had no royal title and was known only by his name.  Moses was a shepherd wholly devoted to his flock who once (Numbers 11:11) compared himself to a nursing mother.  Moses was a faithful servant (Numbers 11:7), a figure of great humility (Numbers 12:3), who identified leadership with dispensing justice to ordinary people and all who needed his help.  He had no interest in aggrandisement and never took anything by way of enrichment or remuneration (Numbers 16:16).

A second approach to the Torah’s ambivalence about kingship would focus on the reality of the Divine Presence at the heart of the people, in the Tabernacle.  It is God – and not any human leader – Who is the law giver at Sinai and the Divine power sustains the people in the wilderness.  There was no significant role for an earthly king;  the sense of God as ultimate ruler lasted for a long time and is still present today in the traditional Jewish liturgy.  It was clearly present in Judges when Gideon famously refused the people’s offers of kingship:  “I will not rule over you and my son will not rule over you;  the Lord will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23)  It was reiterated by Samuel at the end of his life, as we mentioned, and Samuel’s portrayal of kingship as exploitative tyranny is still well known.

The ideal of kingship that inspired the ultimate political visions of the Hebrew Bible is wholly different from Samuel’s portrayal and does not resemble the image that gave rise to such anxiety in our parashah.  It fused royal power with the ideals of the wilderness, giving a political vision that is quite new.  It is summed up in Psalm 72.  As in our parashah, the first values are justice and righteousness.  The role of government is to defend the poor, give deliverance to the needy and crush oppressive behaviour, redeeming the downtrodden from oppression and violence.  Later, Jeremiah (22:16) in a comment on King Josiah, will say that a king who realises these ideals is truly intimate with God:  “’Is not this to know me?’ says the Lord.”

The difference between the two forms of kingship is made clear in Solomon’s prayerful request to God and the Divine response in 1 Kings 3:9-13.  Solomon has expressed utter humility and used the language of service, both deeply reminiscent of the Mosaic model.  He then makes an extraordinary and beautiful request that God will grant him a “lev shomea”, literally a “listening heart” to judge the people and discern between good and evil.  God says in return that because Solomon has not asked for riches or military glory but that he wants only to pursue justice, he will indeed be granted the wisdom he has requested, and given a heart that is wise and understanding.

Jews and Christians together are called to be the “lev shomea” of our world.  We are often told that religion and politics do not mix.  From the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, that advice is wholly mistaken.

Jonathan Gorsky