Wibble Wednesday: Kings and Things (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)

No excuse for this being late. Yes, I’ve had other interesting things going on, but I should have the time to devote to this properly. Particularly since for once we have something more interesting than dire warnings against idolworship, here in פָּרָשַׁת שפטים (“Judges” portion).

The quick snarky summary: Your nation needs to be a just and well-organized one, so set up a bunch of local tribunals, and defer to the priests, And you can have a king too, if you really want one. This kind of love of structure is what sets you apart from the common ruck of humanity. Well, that and not worshipping idols and performing divinations. No, really, you better not worship idols. I’m afraid you might’ve forgotten it since the last time I warned you, so let me tell you a couple more times how awful idolworship is.


We start with some important civil-order matters. The end of Deuteronomy 16 urges the people to establish judges, and urges the judges to judge impartially, not being swayed by bribes or power. That’s basically good stuff, but it’s followed up with rules not to plant sacred trees or monuments (presumably to other gods). The rabbinical analyses are full of justifications for why this follows logically, how the trees are the judges and the monuments the elders of the community, but, seriously, it’s Deuteronomy, and they can’t go more than 3 verses without being all hostile about idols, and no other explanation is needed.

Once Moses finds a theme he likes (read “how awful idolworshippers are”), he’s loathe to let it go, so Chapter 17 treats us to a lot more of the same. There’s a quick bit at the beginning about not offering an animal with a blemish, which feels out-of-place and Levitical in this context, and in fact is a repetition of a Levitical law, but we quickly return to the theme of what one does with idolworshippers for verses 2–7. So, a quick quiz: based on what we’ve seen so far as regards this transgression, what do you think is the appropriate treatment for idolworshippers:

  • Kick them out of the community and don’t invite them to festivals.
  • Try to understand their lapse, and maybe try out some of their rituals yourself to comprehend the temptation.
  • Convince them to come back to the true faith.
  • Publicly execute them, with the person who discovered their blasphemy casting the first stone.

Did you select the fourth answer? Good job! Those of you who guessed the first and third, go back to Remedial Deuteronomical Conduct. Those of you who guessed the second can stand up on that pillar and wait until I’ve collected enough rocks to throw at all of you.

Verse 8–13 are indicative of a central theme of Deuteronomy: deference to the central authorities, especially the ecclesiastical authorities. This is basically another aspect of the whole no-idols business: based on everything we know about its authorship, Deuteronomy was a justification for consolidation and centralization of power. The local judges are in some way a pragmatic renunciation of that: the central power can’t be everywhere at once, but verses 8 and 9 indicate the course of appeals, namely towards the magistracy and priesthood in Jerusalem, and verses 10–13 are essentially a blanket statement of their unappealable authority.

Apropos of authority, verses 14–20 are about kings. These verses display a certain distaste towards the notion of kingship, with a vague sense in verse 14 of God saying, “you totally don’t need one, but if you insist“. There’s an obvious narrative reason for this. The narrative reason is easiest to present. The Book of Deuteronomy was almost certainly written contemporarily with the books of Samuel and Kings, or at the very least while the events of these books were of recent (possibly mythical) origin. Samuel echoes a negative viewpoint of kings as well, and Saul is in fact a pretty terrible king (opinions vary on David and Solomon; from Rehoboam on they were variously crappy or inconsequential). So the hesitancy here is probably, from a narrative sense, that cheap trick of foreshadowing and pretending it’s prescient.

This disdain for kings is actually rather at odds with other elements which worked their way into the Deuteronomic worldview: first, of course, is their authoritarian nature. As authoritarians, they liked kings (particularly Josiah, who reigned either at the time or quite recently). Well, they liked kings who deferred to the priesthood and the prophets, which lot of them didn’t do. So basically their authority-centralizing nature boiled down to the truism that they liked the kings which they liked, but weren’t sold on the notion of kingship generally.

The other Deuteronomic element bound tightly and favorably with kingship is one that doesn’t really come into play in most of the Torah, and which may even have been the view of a rival school of post-exilic thought which sleazed its way into canon under the nose of the Deuteronomical redactors. This thread would be messianism, which is hardly present in the Torah at all (the closest it gets is the peculiar prophesy in Numbers 24:17–24), or indeed in most of the Deuteronomical mythohistorical texts; only in Isaiah is it given free rein. But the messiah is very closely linked to the house of Judah, and the House of David, lending legitimacy to the concept of kingship.

Of course, another element of the Deuteronomical attitude is the fact that the nation of Israel was and remained divided from the kingship of Rehoboam on, and the Deuteronomist’s loyalties were generally with the royalist kingdom of Judah, and opposed to the rebellious kingdom of Israel. So all of this boils down to the Deuteronomists being crazy-conflicted about whether kingship is actually a good thing: it drew away from the priestly power structure, but sometimes reinforced that structure; it caused schism in the nation but the kings were supposed to be the “good guys” in the division. And a lot of that comes out here, with the lauding a king’s holiness at the same time as calling out possible failures of kings which seem directly to speak to Solomon’s weaknesses.

But if I dwell on that issue we’ll be here all day, so let’s move on. Chapter 18 continues with civic governance, moving to the issue of just how the Levites are supposed to live. Remember, there are two classes of priesthood: the Levites, consisting of every member of the Tribe of Levi, and the כֹּהֲנִים, or high-priestly class who hold power. Most Levites are apparently temple servitors with no actual property, living off of temple donations. So the first several verses here describe one of the tithes given to the priests, which is the first fruits of any agriculture. In addition, however, verses 6–8 provide a sort of Levite social safety net: any wandering Levite, if they minister to a community, obligates that community to provide him with support. So the lot of Levites is looking a little less bleak.

Verse 9–22 are about the proper Israelite ways to learn the future. As always, the practices of outsiders are firmly enjoined against: no divination or magic or Moloch-worship. Presumably the several forms of witchcraft described in these verses referred to specific practices of the ancients, because the Israelites used methods which could broadly be described as “divination” all the time. But the most accepted method, apparently, is divine revelation to a prophet, who then relays the words of prophecy to the Israelites. In presenting this method, there’s actually a lot of logic in the laying out of a sort of FAQ in two parts, namely, the answers to the question, “why can’t we divine for ourselves?” and “how do we tell good prophets from bad?” The answers are kind of simplistic, namely “you decided at Sinai that you couldn’t deal with direct divine inspiration, so you need intermediaries”, and “if their prophesies come true, they’re real”. The latter’s particularly rich, as these Assyrian-exile authors have the easiest task in the world, putting true prophecies in the mouths of the historical characters they liked and false ones in the mouths of the characters they didn’t.

Onwards to Chapter 19! Verses 1–13 cover matters which we saw before, in chapter 35 of Numbers, detailing the rules of cities for manslaughters. Some details differ here from there: that book claimed there should be six cities, three in Transjordan and three in Israel proper; here the core text suggests three cities, and only says that three more should be established if the nation grows. Or maybe, since these are ostensibly instructions Moses is giving to the community for after they take possession, they’re not counting the three already established, and the gist here is “make three more (bringing the total to six), and then add another three if the nation grows”. In other matters this presentation’s pretty similar to the previous discussions of the topic: we have a cute example, for people who might not understand what “accidental death” is, and the specific detail that these cities aren’t for intentional murderers, but we’re getting into “Cities of Refuge for Dummies” territory with these insulting details.

While dealing with capital and criminal matters, we have another nice dose of jsutice at the end of this chapter. First off: a prohibition on moving property lines (presumably fraudulently, although the text is a bit ambiguous). The next several verses deal with trustworthiness of witnesses, in a way that seems pretty progressive. To start with, the testimony of a lone witness is never regarded as sufficient, so at least two witnesses are needed to establish a fact. Second, testimony determined to be untruthful is harshly punished, with a punishment equal to that which would be established by his testimony (so apparently a witness could be executed for perjury in a capital case). This law is pretty harsh, but it at least seems motivated by an authentically good intent to determine true justice.

Man, is this ever a long parsha, rolling through a lot of topics of everyday life in Israel. Chapter 20 deals entirely with martial conduct in wartime. I’m guessing a lot of these weren’t put into practice, but they end up making the Israelite army look pretty good. Firstly, their conscription looks pretty wishy-washy, in that before battle they excuse not only those who have unfulfilled major life developments (new house, new farm, new wife — new child, surprisingly, is not in the list), but also those who are just afraid to die. So it seems like anybody who doesn’t really want to fight and kill and die for Israel doesn’t have to.

Further, before besieging a foreign city, the army needs to offer terms of surrender. Not great terms, mind: they basically offer to enslave the occupants, but the other option is death, so it’s still a preferable alternative. They also aren’t allowed to cut down fruit trees during the siege, because doing so is unnecessarily destructive.

Now, about that death option: the text specifically commands the army to massacre the adult male inhabitants of a city that doesn’t surrender. The children, women, and property in the city gets taken away. So, yeah, exactly the awful kind of ancient-world rape and pillage you might expect, only a little worse since enslaving conquered males usually was preferred to genocide. It gets worse when we drop the “foreign city” bit from the above rules, because they weren’t supposed to offer terms of surrender at all to the nations already resident in Israel, and to kill and destroy everything in them. OK, so this book doesn’t make the Israelite army out to be so very good after all.

The beginning of chapter 21 returns to civil matters, but in a peculiar ritual way. We’ve seen the proper treatment for the perpetrator of manslaughter or murder, but what do we do when we don’t have a suspect? Such a development is presumably something of a judgment on the whole people, as justice denied is considered an abhorrence, so there’s a propitiatory sacrifice to be made: the elders of the nearest city must sacrifice a cow in the waste land, swearing that they did not cause the crime. It feels a bit weirdly mystical, but the underlying impulse seems to be a good one: that unsolved murders are an imbalance, which requires action and acknowledgement by the leadership.

Whew. That was actually a lot of laws to go through, and some interesting byways to explore. Next week we might end up back on the “no, really, don’t worship idols” track again, so I’m grateful that this one, if long, was fundamentally interesting.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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