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It is interesting in this chapter to see how legal and religious code were intertwined for the Israelites. 16:18-20 are about judges and justice (the same root word in Hebrew), but 16:21-22 and 17:1 are about forbidden religious practices. 17:2-7 are about judging someone who has sinned against the religious law, and then 17:8-13 describes how the priests and the judges are both provided by God to make correct judgments about difficult cases. Probably, for some of us, the most challenging aspect of all this is the capital punishment which is commanded (17:5-7,12).
Regarding legal practices, Moses sets up a system of judges for every tribe. They must judge righteously, without showing face (this is usually translated as showing partiality) or accepting bribes, which blind wisdom and twist righteousness. Righteousness will result in life and possession of the land. It seems that they would set up a special court, with both priests and judges, in ‘the place that God would choose’ for cases that were difficult to decide. Guilty verdicts could only be pronounced on the evidence of two or three witnesses, and capital punishment was to be exercised first by the witnesses themselves. Those who arrogantly or insolently rejected the law could also be put to death. The point of punishing by death was to get rid of the evil from the community, and also as a deterrent to others.
Evil was particularly manifest in the form of worshipping other gods and setting up idols. An Asherah pole was a symbol of a popular Canaanite goddess of fortune (see this article for more information), and a pillar was probably more of the same. The other specific case of religious wrong mentioned is offering a sacrifice which was blemished. If someone, whether a man or woman, was found by multiple witness to have worshipped someone or something other than Yahweh, they were liable to death by stoning for transgressing the covenant (cf 5:7-9).
What do we do with this passage in multicultural, pluri-religious communities of the 21st century? The first thing to recognize is that Moses spoke this law to the Israelites about their own community; we are not in the same situation. What we can learn is that: (1) justice and righteousness are to be pursued, with no hint of bribery or twisting of truth; (2) rejection of God’s law is evil and deserves punishment; (3) God desires all of our worship, pure and perfect. However, we ourselves are in no place to judge others. In fact, reflecting on ourselves we know that we have broken God’s law countless times, doing evil in his sight. What a relief that Jesus has taken the punishment that we deserve! Although Paul applies this passage to purging the evil from the community of believers (1 Cor 5:13), let us think rather in terms of those three fingers pointing back at us, rather than pointing out the sins of others. (Here’s another song to reflect on.) Let us be thankful for Jesus, and strive for righteousness in our own lives, rather than demanding it in others.
Prayer: Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and in what I have failed to do. For the sake of your Son who died for me, have mercy on me and forgive me, so that I may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.