Sunday, January 14, 2007

A system of judgment: Dt 1:12-15

“How can I alone bear the load and burden of you and your strife? Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads... So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you, leaders of thousands and of hundreds, of fifties and of tens, and officers for your tribes.” (Deuteronomy 1:12-15)

It is estimated that Israel, during the time of their wandering in the wilderness, may have numbered as many as three million souls. Initially, Moses was the only one who served as a judge among the people. “It came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.” (Exodus 18:13) Upon seeing this, Moses’ father-in-law (Jethro) counseled Moses that what he was doing was not right or healthy for him or the people. “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18) Jethro’s counsel was that Moses should establish a network of judges who could hear and adjudicate the cases brought by the people, bringing only the difficult cases to Moses. “Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.” (Exodus 18:21-22)

In establishing a system of justice, Moses teaches us two essentials of any judicial system. First, justice should be blind. “Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him. You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s.” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17) Justice was to be made available to all parties and each party was to be heard equally, without consideration to who they were, their social status, or their financial abilities. Justice was to be dispensed evenly and to equitably. Secondly, justice was not to be arbitrary but rather based on the rule of law. The judges were not to render their judgment based on their own personal beliefs or moral leanings, nor were they to render judgment based on foreign law or by what the nations around them did, but there were to base their judgments upon the law of God as delivered by Moses. Jethro urged Moses, “You be the people's representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do.” (Exodus 18:19-20) So Moses, after installing the judges, reminded them, “I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” (Deuteronomy 1:18) Moses taught the laws of God to the people and the judges, and then the judges decided the cases brought to them based upon that law.

A model for the church?

This scripture has been used by some, including some churches I have been apart of, as a model for a hierarchical structure of authority and care within the church. Others have used it to justify size limits on small groups, saying they should not be much larger than 10 people because that was the largest group managed by the lower levels in Moses hierarchical order. But is this a proper use of this scripture? For two main reasons, I do not believe that this scripture was meant by God for the establishment of a system of hierarchical authority in the church. First, the structure Moses was instituting was civil in nature and not an ecclesiastical system of authority. Moses was establishing a civil governmental system for dispensing justice, not a system of religious authority. Secondly, it is unclear if Moses judicial system was actually hierarchical at all. Moses mentions those who were over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. If this was a hierarchical system, and assuming six hundred thousand family units (as numbered in the book of Numbers), then, at the lowest level, there would have been the need for approximately sixty thousand judges! It is my belief that those chosen as judges were not ordered hierarchically (those over thousands had ten leaders of hundreds under them) but rather, because some families and tribes were larger than others and some judges were more capable than others, some judges were over thousands while others were only over tens. Also, they were most likely over family units and not individual families. Therefore, those over tens could have been over eighty or more family units. For these reasons, it is my personal belief that this scripture should be applied primarily to the establishment of a civil system of justice rather than any authority structures within the church.

David Robison

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