- Laws regarding both sacred and secular legislation are addressed. The Israelites are told that in every dealing they should pursue justice in order to merit the land that God is giving them. (16:18–18:8)
- The people are warned to avoid sorcery and witchcraft, the abhorrent practices of their idolatrous neighbors. (18:9–22)
- God tells them that should an Israelite unintentionally kill another, he may take sanctuary in any of three designated cities of refuge. (19:1–13)
- Laws to be followed during times of peace and times of war are set forth. (19:14–21:9)
by Arthur C Greenfield
A lot of our American system of laws was inherited from English law. And a lot of English Law was inherited from biblical law. Does it matter that English law was inspired by laws enacted many years ago? I think it does as so many of the laws that inspired English law were handed down by Moses over three thousand years ago. Of course the language has changed and the penalties for breaking the laws have been modified. Never-the-less the intent of fairness in deciding guilt or innocence still remains. The biblical practice of requiring two or more witnesses before committing a person to death exemplifies the idea of sureness of guilt especially in capital crimes.
Parashah Shofetim focuses on Moses and his establishment of Law and Order, a structure for the Israelites to live by. Moses directed the tribes to appoint magistrates and officials, for their tribes to govern the people with justice, with impartiality, and without bribes. "Justice, justice shall you pursue." All the instructions and processes given to the Israelites were prior to, but anticipating, their entry into the Promised Land.
Moses further described the necessity of establishing magistrates and judges, so they might hear cases and settle disputes. The Mishnah describes three courts of hearing. The first had three judges and dealt with issues of money disputes, larceny, bodily injury, etc. A court of 23 judges presided over cases involving capital punishment and persons charged with unnatural intercourse etc. Courts of 71 judges involved cases of a tribal nature.
As a youngster, aged about 10, my friend and I decided to take up the hobby of train spotting. London, where I grew up, has many major railway stations with multiple platforms so there was no shortage of places to find trains. Train spotting requires the spotter to purchase a book with all the engines listed by the number assigned to them. When the engine is seen (or spotted) it is checked off in the book. Neither of us had the money to buy the books but this did not deter us—we figured we would just write the numbers down, who needs a book?
Because of my dad's work, we did not live in a Jewish neighborhood so there were not a lot of Jewish kids to choose as friends. Brian, my pal by default, lived very close by and the fact that he would have been voted the kid most likely to spend time behind bars was irrelevant to me, but we got along well and that was all I cared about. He may have grown up to be a fine upstanding member of society—but I wouldn't put money on it. Brian was light fingered; there's just no way to deny it. On our second trip to a station, we had just walked past a newspaper kiosk on our way to a platform, when Brian whips out a brand new train spotters book. "WOW, where did you get that?"
"I swiped it from the kiosk."
"Get me one" I blurted out—I suppose I thought I was not being sinful if he did the deed, (OK I was just a kid). In any event he refused; he didn't want to push his luck by stealing a second book. He generously offered to show me how it was done. In truth, I was torn— I may not have been a saint but I was not about to swipe a book. Well the tale goes on but, in thinking back, I knew I could not steal. For me it was not a legal problem but definitely one of morality and ethics. I really wanted that book but I would not steal to get it.
What was going on? Why did he think it was OK to steal and why did I know it was not. It was not just the fear of my parents finding out, I knew it was not the right thing to do. Were the same rules and laws that Moses set down, over three thousand years ago still echoing down the ages to make me recoil from stealing? I will leave you to decide. Time has flown by—I don't know what happened to Brian. If alive, he would be nearing eighty—I hope he is well and that adulthood helped to reform his character. There are times when we must remember and give thanks for the guidance we have been given.
Life can be very complicated but if we hang onto the essence of our religion I think our actions will tend to be the right ones.