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Justice, Judges, and Priests
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 2: God: The Source of Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 23, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 17:8-13; 19:15-21
Key Scripture (NIV):
“Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly.” Deuteronomy 16:18
- To understand conflict as a natural occurrence in community.
- To understand the need for organization and order in addressing conflict.
- To understand the importance of wisdom and clarity in developing a response to conflict.
- To recognize the importance of humbly accepting the wisdom of others as we live in community.
Living in community is far from easy! Ancient Israel lived under a strong mandate to conform. That is, dissent was most often unwelcome. Remember, their world was violent. Surviving as a people was paramount. Naturally, survival depended upon military might. However, spiritual life and unity were equally important for Israel. Divisiveness could spell disaster for God’s people.
Though the need to conform was urgent and strong, the uniqueness of human personality and individuality still existed. In the United States, we have lived for more than 200 years beneath a fairly well-defined umbrella of moral and societal expectation. Still, new laws are always being written for two major reasons. First, people always seem to find a way to circumvent existing laws. Secondly, life is always in flux. The world is constantly changing as are groups and individuals. New circumstances arise. New discoveries call us to consider the ethical responsibilities that accompany that discovery. Consequently, we are continually writing new laws and creating new expectations.
In contrast to our modern community life, Israel was in its infancy. Prior to the Mosaic Law they were not a lawless people. Every tribe developed a moral code and a societal means of functioning. The Law of Moses was a gift to the world. The moral code of the Mosaic Law stood head and shoulders above all other systems of law and morality. However, learning to live within this remarkable gift was far from easy. New situations did arise, though not as rapidly as today. Still, new situations required a new moral and ethical response. Furthermore, many of the Mosaic laws needed interpretation. For example, they were to keep the Sabbath holy, which involved rest. Rest implied not working. However, how was one to define work? Was it work to rescue your donkey from a ditch? Was it work to cook? Etc.
Consequently, disagreements and misunderstandings arose. They will always arise when people live together in community! Even though Israel valued conformity, total conformity is impossible due to human individuality, frailty, and sin.
Can you think of a few major moral questions that have arisen just in the last 75 years? What laws now exist that were not needed in the past? Can you list a few moral expectations that are still being interpreted? What moral attributes do you believe are most necessary in creating new laws and interpreting current laws?
Certain necessities were needed for Israel to live as God’s people. Their life together needed the means to address new situations and settle disagreements and conflicts. Our lesson this week offers a glimpse into exactly what were these necessities and why they were needed. There are three of them: 1. Order and Organization. 2. Wisdom and Clarity. 3. Humility and Acceptance.
Necessity One: Order and Organization
There must exist some hierarchy to articulate, dispense, and ensure social morality and expectation. A judge was appointed from each tribe. Israel rapidly grew in number. No single person could convey the moral and ethical expectations to the new nation. Thus, a representational system was created to ensure the people understood and obeyed what was expected. These judges were to be appointed by Moses. Without question, these judges were men. It was a patriarchal society and women were not yet perceived as equal. Again, biblical revelation is progressive. God speaks to people at a particular time in history as they are able to understand. Thus, the first judges were men. These men would have also been individuals known for their upright moral character. In the beginning, the appointed system for justice and righteousness was not yet corrupted through money or political power. Therefore, the moral character of the person was vital for serving.
The task of conveying and dispensing justice under the Mosaic Law was a major task. Helpers were needed. Consequently, “officials” were also appointed to serve under the judge. The same moral and character requirements for the judges would have applied to these officials. The expectation upon the judges and their helpers did not mean there were no mistakes. Sadly, corruption and selfishness would quickly begin to make inroads into Israel’s just system. Certainly, in their humanity, personal wants and wishes might have bled into their judgements. However, the initial appointment of 12 judges and officials provided a good system of checks and balances.
Can you identify parallels between ancient Israel’s judicial system and our (and your if living in another country) current system? Are there moral and ethical expectations upon those in our society that dispense justice? Are there checks and balances? Can you recognize the moral law of the Mosaic Law still alive and present in our judicial system? Do you think we pray enough for those in our judicial system? As Christians, what attributes do we seek in those elected and appointed to articulate, dispense and enforce?
In Deut. 17:8-13 we learn that even in the beginning of Israel’s community life, difficulties were expected. Our individual perception of events is not always accurate. Our interpretation of events can be faulty. Furthermore, not every situation is clearly visible or easy to comprehend. Attempting to clearly identify all of the issues and motivations involved when a law is broken can befuddle the greatest of minds. Israel was to be prepared for dealing with the “gray” when all situations were far from “black and white”. Truth always exists. There are always true facts involved in any case. Our fallen and frail humanity on occasion is not enough to perceive this perfect truth.
However, a society cannot simply walk away from laws and expectations that have been violated. We cannot simply throw up our hands in surrender when truth is elusive. The truth must always be sought, no matter how difficult or long the process. Consequently, a process is created to pursue elusive justice.
Implied in our text is an important process for resolving difficult conflicts. First, it is understood that the individuals involved in the conflict should attempt to rectify a wrong or seek agreement between themselves. One should not immediately take another into the judicial system. Many conflicts can be solved through compassionate dialogue. As a clergyperson for more than 40 years, I can attest that many painful situations could have been resolved with a single conversation. People on occasion would articulate to me a problem they had with another church member or staff member. My first question should always be, “Have you spoken personally with them?” Many would prove surprised that the vast majority of the time there had been no attempt to personally rectify the dilemma. Instead of individuals seeking peace between themselves, they would often share with uninvolved others their anger and accusation. This action brought innocent people into a conflict of which they initially had no part. Israel was to settle disagreements, if at all possible, on a personal, loving, and respectful level. In I Corinthians 6, Paul sternly warns Christians against taking each other to court. He expected them to deal with the issue themselves. Granted, there are moments when entrance into the judicial system is necessary for justice. However, prior to such action all attempts should be made to reconcile personally and privately. We should still recognize that not all situations can be reconciled without outside judgement. It is for this reason that a judicial system exists.
Why do you think people are reluctant to settle disagreement between themselves? What are the destructive ripples that can emanate from involving others into a dispute of which they have no part? What is our witness to the world when we cannot reconcile issues between ourselves?
When Israelites could not rectify a disagreement or wrong between themselves, they were told to take the disagreement to the priests. The priests were among those officials who would assist the judges. They were the descendants of Levi. Priests not only administered the rites and offered sacrifices in the tabernacle, they were also teachers of the Law. Why go to the priest prior to seeking a judge? A priest possessed a knowledge of the Mosaic Law. They served as the intermediaries between the people of Israel and God. For example, the priests offered sacrifices “on behalf” of the people. The actions of the priests were vicarious. The priest would do for the people that which they could not do themselves. The very presence of a priest in a dispute reminded the parties involved that justice is a gift from God. Their deliberations and actions were being carried out in the presence of God. The priests added the awareness that all human activity possessed a spiritual dimension, and that justice was the gift of God. Hopefully, approaching the priests in a difficult situation might help achieve reconciliation and truth. Though the priests are not mentioned in the opening verses concerning judges and officials, they are specifically mentioned when addressing the difficult moments when truth is not always easily perceived.
Christians in difficulty will often seek counsel from a minister. Why do you think this is? What does a pastor bring to and into the difficulty that cannot always be provided by the secular world? Are there hinderances involved in seeking pastoral counseling in general? Can you respectfully and lovingly identify them? How do you think church members could better handle conflict between themselves? Can you recall an experience in which pastoral counsel helped two parties reconcile? If so, what was the contribution of the pastor that most helped?
Israelites are told to take their difficult conflicts to the priests and the judges. There are occasions when the truth will remain elusive. There are decisions to be made that will not satisfy the parties involved. Difficulties between people almost always involves a degree of anger. People are passionate about justice and should be. However, when a decision is reached with which we disagree, our passion and anger can quickly arise and act in a destructive manner. Accusations of favoritism, injustice, etc. can be hurled in anger. Sadly, many walk away from such decisions “angry at the world.” Naturally, every attempt to avoid favoritism should be avoided. All attempts to discover the truth and act upon truth should be taken. However, our humanity continues to stifle and limit us. Decisions can be reached that are not understood by one party. One of my dearest friends served a Superior Court Judge. He once told me, “As soon as I render a verdict, half of the court room will become angry at me.” He is a just, kind, and Christian man. Still, he recognizes that decisions are not always clear, understood, and especially not embraced by all involved.
Have you witnessed anger and its consequences related to “final decisions?” What good did the anger accomplish? Why do you think it is important to respect the decisions of those who fairly consider a situation or case? What are some positive healthy actions that can be adopted when we feel an inaccurate decision has been rendered?
Necessity Two: Wisdom and Clarity
I am moving quickly to the issues of wisdom of clarity, for they are directly related to the above material. In the process of justice, wisdom and clarity are of absolute necessity. When passions are involved in disagreement, vision can become distorted and words twisted. Distortion and twisted testimony muddy the waters. Passions not only inflame disagreements, they can blind us to the truth. Thus, great care must be taken to determine the truth, for only truth fully liberates. We are warned in the text against favoritism and partiality. In last week’s lesson these were addressed. Favoritism and partiality do not just involve wealth. Usually we consider the injustice of showing the wealthy favoritism. However, there are other destructive vehicles of favoritism. Sexism is one of those. In the biblical era, women could not testify in a court for no other reason than she was female. Even if she was an eyewitness to a crime, her word meant nothing. Thankfully, our society continues to move beyond such favoritism. However, a person’s ethnicity and race can also hinder the pursuit of justice.
Any reality that hinders the discovery of truth should be challenged and eradicated. God’s truth is that shining light in a dark world. Jesus is the embodiment of truth. Truth is what we must seek in all of life, especially in conflict. Verse 20 of Deut.16 states, “Follow justice and justice alone.” We could express this axiom in the phrase, “Follow truth and truth alone.”
Can you identify possible favoritisms and instruments of partiality that hinder justice today? Can these snake their way into our disagreements and conflicts with one another as Christians? What are the long-term consequences of allowing favoritisms and partiality to exist unchallenged? How can they be constructively and lovingly challenged for the sake of truth and justice? What does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus say about the importance of truth? What did Jesus teach about truth? What do you think it means to be a people of “the truth?” Are there subtle dynamics that can creep into our personal judgements? Can you identify some of them? What can we do personally, and together, in seeking truth in all areas of life?
Necessity Three: Humility and Acceptance
In Deut.17, Israel was instructed to accept the final decision of those God has appointed. The Israelite was never to “show contempt” toward those God appointed, even when disagreeing with the decision. This stringent acceptance was necessary for Israel, especially in the beginning of their corporate life together. Certainly, mistakes were going to occur. The command to accept the decision does not mean that truth is devalued or searching for truth should be surrendered. The only way social order could be maintained was through such acceptance.
Such total acceptance is not easy for us in our modern culture. Sadly, throughout history, systems designed for justice have become tainted and corrupted. However, in spite of such sins the system itself is still based on goodness and justice. Today, we are given the opportunity to challenge decisions through such vehicles as appeals.
Still, there is merit to accepting a decision when we cannot achieve full clarity. Life isn’t fair! God is fair; life isn’t! Again, this does not mean we are to become apathetic or lethargic in seeking truth. There are going to be situations when the decision will not appear fair. We can lovingly continue to the search for truth while choosing not to show contempt or disparage those who made the decision. They acted with the truth available.
Such acceptance requires humility. God is the Lord of justice. What goes around does come around. We do reap what we sow. In the end, true justice will always exist and win the day. Until that day comes, we must humbly trust God and continue to live a just life in the days following.
Can you recall and articulate a decision that appeared unfair? Was it unfair because clarity concerning the truth was too difficult? Was it unfair because bias and favoritism were present? What Christian responses would prove helpful in both cases? What can we do to increase our trust in God’s wisdom and justice? Since life is so often unfair, what should our response be as Christians who seek a just world?
Almighty God, we confess our human frailty. Our sin so often blinds us to truth. We confess our arrogance and pride in believing others should see life exactly as we see it. Free us to trust in your justice and righteousness. Free us to be patient in waiting for justice. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org