8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. 9 And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. 10 Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place that the Lord will choose. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you. 11 According to the instructions that they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the verdict that they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. 12 The man who acts presumptuously by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 And all the people shall hear and fear and not act presumptuously again.” – Deuteronomy 17:8-13 ESV
It would appear from these verses that the Israelites were to establish a system of judicial oversight where cases that fell outside the scope of the local judges. These more difficult cases were to be taken to the city in which the tabernacle would be set up, and presented to a judicial panel comprised of Levites and appointed judges. These men were assigned to task of adjudicating these these cases and their decisions were to be considered binding and final. They were to function as a kind of Supreme Court for the nation of Israel.
The size of the panel is not clarified, but it consisted of at least one Levite and a judge. The Levite was there in his function as a priest of God. He was responsible for applying the law of God to the matter in dispute. The judge provided an additional set of ears to hear the facts of the case and to assist in determining a just and righteous settlement.
The verdict passed by this God-ordained court was to be accepted and carried out by all those involved. There was no appeal process available.
“You must carry out the verdict they announce and the sentence they prescribe at the place the Lord chooses.” – Deuteronomy 17:10 NLT
The Levites and the judge who sat on the panel were not responsible for enforcing the verdict, the people were. It was their responsibility to carry out whatever judgment was assessed – to the letter.
“After they have interpreted the law and declared their verdict, the sentence they impose must be fully executed; do not modify it in any way.” – Deuteronomy 17:11 NLT
The verdict was to be based on the Mosaic law, so this ensured that any decision arrived at had the full backing of God Almighty. Anyone who dared to reject the decision of the court stood opposed to God and faced the full wrath of His judgment.
“Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must die. In this way you will purge the evil from Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:12 NLT
This sounds harsh to our modern sensibilities, but God was determined that Israel have a clear set of moral, legislative, and judicial guidelines by which to live. But those guidelines would mean absolutely nothing if the people were not held accountable to adhere to them. Laws that can be easily broken, with no threat of reprisal or punishment, are not laws at all. They are little more than suggestions, easily avoided or simply ignored altogether. Laws that lack enforcement are no more dangerous than a lion lacking teeth and claws. A judicial verdict that fails to be carried out has no weight. And the court that deliberates and delivers such a verdict ends up having no power to determine the well-being of a nation.
But if failure to carry out the verdict of the court was followed by capital punishment, “Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:13 NLT). Adjudication requires prosecution. For a verdict to carry any weight, it must be enforced. And refusal to follow the will of God’s appointed judges was going to bring His wrath. He would not tolerate disobedience, because disobedience was nothing less than rebellion against His will. And like any other sin, rebellion was an infectious disease that could spread among the people, if left unchecked. That’s why God demanded that they “purge the evil from Israel.”
They were to take rebellion seriously and deal with it immediately. To not do so would create an environment where everyone did what was right in his own eyes. All God-ordained authority would eventually become impotent and useless. And the people would end up ruling their lives according to their own personal standards. Rules would become purely subjective, determined by the individual. And the day was going to come when this very thing happened in Israel.
After the period of time in Israelite history when God had appointed men and women to act as His judges, the people of Israel would reach a point when they would no longer accept these leaders. And the book of Judges matter-of-factly states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV).
It was a time when autonomy ruled the land. There were no more judges and the people were doing what they deemed best. It proved to be an immoral time marked by spiritual anarchy. The people were not content to live by God’s law or to abide by the decisions of His judges. Self-rule was the law of the land and it had created an atmosphere marked by rebellion and rampant godlessness.
And it all begins when we fail to heed God’s call to purge the evil from our midst. Sin left unchecked and unpunished doesn’t go away, it grows. It spreads and eventually infects the entire camp. So, God demands that we take it seriously and deal with it decisively. Tolerance of sin sounds like the loving thing to do, but it actually results in death and destruction. So, God made it clear that the death of the one was to be preferred to that of the many. So, “purge the evil from Israel. Then everyone else will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly” (Deuteronomy 17:12-13 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.