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Parasha Shoftim (Judges): The Hebrew Connection Between Justice and Righteousness

Parasha Shoftim (Judges)
Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9; Isaiah 51:12–52:12; John 1:19–27

“Appoint judges [shoftim] and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge [shafat] the people fairly [tzedek mishpat / righteous judgment].”  (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Scales of justice-gavel-Israel flag

“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Last week, in Parasha Re’eh, we read that Moses told the Israelites that God had set a blessing and a curse before them.  The blessing would come when they obeyed God’s commandments, and the curse if they forsook them.

This week’s Parasha opens with the Biblical concepts of judges, righteous judgment and justice.  The very first word of the Parasha reading is shoftim (judges), which is derived from the word shafat (to judge or to govern).

To emphasize the theme of justice, the Hebrew word tzedek (justice) is repeated twice in verse 20:

Follow justice and justice alone [tzedek tzedek tirdof / justice justice pursue], so that you may live and possess the land the Lord [YHVH] your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 16:20)

In Hebrew, justice (tzekek) is closely tied to righteousness and holiness.  In fact, the words righteous (tzadik) and charity (tzedakah) are related to justice (tzedek).

It only follows, then, that God is a God of Justice.

He is called the Lord our Righteousness (YHVH Tzidkenu), the Righteous God (Elohim Tzadik), and Righteous Judge (Shofat Tzadik).

The prophet Isaiah declared, “But the Lord Almighty will be exalted by His justice [mishpat], and the holy God will show Himself holy by His righteousness [tzedakah].”  (Isaiah 5:16) 

supreme court-Jerusalem-night

Israeli supreme court building in Jerusalem

Justice is the foundation of the Torah’s humane legislation, as well as God’s requirement that Israel be characterized by righteousness, integrity, and charity.

“When the righteous [tzadikim] thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.”  (Proverbs 29:2)

Where there is no justice, there is no appreciation of the right of every human being to be treated with fairness, respect, and kindness.

Those who oppress, mistreat, or take advantage of others—especially orphans, widows and strangers—are the enemies of God and man (see Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 14:29, 24:19–21, 26:12–13, 27:19; Isaiah 1:17; James 1:22, 27; 1 John 3:16–18; etc.).

What is the end result of justice and righteousness?  Peace (shalom) and security!

“The fruit of righteousness [tzedakah] will be peace; the effect of righteousness [tzedakah] will be quietness and confidence forever.”  (Isaiah 32:17)

We can see why it’s so important that everyone in a position of authority needs to be righteous and just, including our government leaders and officials, bosses, and even fathers and mothers.

Knesset-Israeli Parliament

The Knesset building, home to Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem

A Kingly Model of Justice

In his farewell message to the nation of Israel, Moses addressed the subject of authority.  He prophesied that Israel would ask for a King to rule over them in the Promised Land:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses.  He must be from among your own brothers.  Do not appoint a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.”  (Deuteronomy 17:14–15)

As Moses predicted, after almost four centuries in the Land, the people of Israel demanded a king.  Both God and Samuel the prophet were displeased with their request, regarding it as a rejection of the reign of God over Israel.

Torah scroll-rabbi-Torah mantles

A rabbi inspects two beautifully decorated Torah sleeves.

“Listen to the voice of the people according to all that they say to you for they have not rejected you but they have rejected Me from reigning over them.”  (1 Samuel 8:7)

The problem wasn’t that Israel wanted a king; Moses had prophesied that they would have a king over them in the Land.  It was the way they asked and the motivation behind the request.

They told Samuel, “…  Now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have….”  (1 Samuel 8:5)

God never intended for Israel to be ruled by a king like the ones found in the pagan nations.  The King of Israel was to be a model of justice and righteousness–an example for the rest of the nations to follow.

Yeshua: Model of Servant-Leadership

The ideal Jewish king or leader is unique among the nations.

He’s a servant-leader that is scholarly, pious, righteous and God-fearing.  He’s someone who encourages the Jewish People to fulfill their mission to be a light to the nations.

Yeshua (Jesus) perfectly modeled servant-leadership.  He also trained His disciples in this style of leadership:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave–just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.  (Matthew 20:25–28)

Shepherd-sheep-Israel-traditional garb

A shepherd dressed in traditional garb leads his sheep through the pastures of Israel.

When Yeshua washed His disciples’ feet, He showed us a beautiful example of how we should serve others.  

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”  (John 13:14–15)

The Hebrew language itself reveals that God intends those in positions of authority be examples for others to emulate.

The Hebrew word for government is memshalah, which is related to the word mashal (to rule or to govern).  Mashal comes from the Hebrew root m-sh-l, meaning “to be like” or “to compare” and therefore, carries the connotation of “example.”  Consequently, mashal also means proverb or parable.

Yeshua is the eternal King of Israel who rules and reigns on the throne of David in righteous judgment and justice.  And in all our leadership roles, we are to follow His example of ruling or governing.

When Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, he wrote that “a child would be born, a Son given, and the government would be upon His shoulders… of the increase of his government and peace [shalom] there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment (mishpat) and justice (tzedakah).”  (Isaiah 9:6–7)

waterfall-En Gedi

Waterfall in En Gedi named for King David as this is thought to be the location of the cave in which David hid and cut off a tzitzit of King Saul’s tallit but refused to kill him.

King David: Model of Righteous Authority

King David also practiced righteous authority.

David was God’s anointed one, a type of the Messiah.  The word ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew is ‘moshiach’ which means ‘anointed one.

God set David on the throne when He removed Saul as king of Israel because of his disobedience.  God chose David because he was a man after His heart who would rule Israel with righteousness and justice.

That’s not to say that David was a perfect man by any means; as we all know, he took another man’s wife (Bathsheba) and set up her husband Uriah to be killed in battle.  Despite this brazen sin, David was also a God-fearing, humble man who repented of this terrible transgression.

This quality is essential to righteous authority–a willingness to listen to a godly rebuke, and to repent and turn back to God.

A leader must possess a combination of strength and humility.  He must be able to get the job done without bullying and to exercise compassion without belittling.


Women praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem

The Gold Standard of Leadership

Parasha Shoftim details the appropriate behavior of the king of Israel.

The king wasn’t to gather for himself a bevy of beauties or piles of money.  Instead, he was to treasure the book of the law (Torah) and diligently read it.  He was to fear the Lord and keep His laws and statutes.

Only he [the king] shall not have too many horses for himself….  And he shall not have too many wives… and he shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself….  It shall be that when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah….  It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of the Torah… so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren.  (Deuteronomy 17:16–20)

According to the Talmud (oral tradition), the king of Israel possessed two copies of the Torah: one that he kept in his private collection and one that he carried with him.

Today, 3000 years later, the Bible still guides leaders in wise decisions.

For instance, when British monarchs are crowned, they are presented with a Bible along with the words, “We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing the world affords.  Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the living oracles of God.”

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh-Benjamin West

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, by Benjamin West

Pray for Those in Authority

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”  (1 Timothy 2:1–2)

We need to pray that our government leaders and those in authority over us are wise, just, and righteous, so that we may live in shalom (peace).

People in positions of power make mistakes that can have devastating consequences on the people they govern.

In the book of Exodus, we see a perfect example of this in the Pharaoh of Egypt.  All the Egyptians, even innocent men, women and children suffered because of the hardness and stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart.

Solomon-temple-Elliott's Tales for Girls and Boys

Solomon at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Illustration from “Elliott’s Tales for Girls and Boys” 1830.

Although people in positions of leadership and authority often have more privileges than the common man, they also carry greater responsibility.  The greater a person’s position, the higher the standard required.

The book of James reveals that even teachers will be judged more harshly than others (James 3:1).

The smallest mistakes of our great Jewish leaders were severely punished.  Even Moses himself did not enter the Land because he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God commanded.

King Solomon (Shlomo) understood this well.  And because he did, he fervently prayed to God for the wisdom to discern right from wrong in judging Israel.  (1 Kings 3:9)

Shlomo asked God for a lev shome’ah,’ which literally means a ‘heart that hears.’

“So give your servant a discerning heart [lev shome’ah] to govern [shafat / judge] your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.  For who is able to govern [shafat] this people of yours?”  (1Kings 3:9)

Despite all the wisdom God gave to Solomon, his downfall was that he didn’t listen to the word of the Torah forbidding many wives (Deuteronomy 17:17).  In the end, King Solomon’s many foreign wives turned his heart away from the Lord to serve their foreign gods.

In order to make righteous judgments about people and situations in our life, we need to have a heart that both hears from God and is willing to be submit to the Word of God.


Jewish men wearing tallitot (prayer shawls) pray with tefillin (phylacteries) and siddurim (Jewish prayer books).

Judging Others

Judgment is a strong theme running through Parasha Shoftim.  Yeshua (Jesus) also spoke about judgment.

He cautioned, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  (Matthew 7:1)

Does this mean that we’re never to make any kind of judgment about anything or anyone?

No.  Yeshua warned us to judge fairly, without hypocrisy and to examine ourselves first.  There’s a righteous kind of judgment that we’re expected to exercise carefully:

“Do not judge according to appearance but judge with righteous judgment.”  (John 7:24)

In the end, however, God alone is perfectly righteous and just.  Only He can achieve that perfect balance between justice and mercy.

We can be eternally grateful that through Yeshua’s death on the execution stake, we have escaped the judgment we so rightly deserve.  Hallelujah!

We can be thankful, that in Yeshua, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).

“Surely the righteous [tzadik] still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges [shafat] the earth.”  (Psalm 58:11)

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