Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Judges, Households and the Law in Ancient Israel

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1250-587 BCE

Delivered on the Lord’s Day “Honoring our Judges Day.” | February 11, 2009

Judges 2: 6-23

Two scriptures are important for our hearing today. Judges 17:6 says that in “those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” Judges 2:16 which says, “God raised up judges who saved them.”

They were not judges in the sense that they tried people for violating the law. Their main task was not to hear complaints or make legal decisions. The Judges for whom the Book of Judges are named were charismatic leaders, not selected officially by the people but raised up by Yahweh. The Judge was the person-man or woman (Deborah was one of them) chosen by Yahweh to drive out the oppressor and give rest to the land and people.” (Survey of O. T. p. 155)

The men and woman God called to “judge” Israel had a vital role in saving the nation from complete annihilation and ruin. They were deliverers; liberators, heroes; people who at Yahweh’s command took to themselves the awesome and dangerous task of restoring peace and calling the nation back to God after it had broken its covenant and embraced the pagan Gods of their conquerors. Their role was more military than judicial, more ethical than legal.

They were selected by God. They judged Israel through the eyes of Yahweh. The era in which the events of the Book of Judges take place was volatile, turbulent and checkered. The pattern went something like this. God makes a covenant promise with his people. The people promise to abide by the covenant but eventually tum away from it through sin. A result of their sinfulness is they get into deep trouble and are conquered and oppressed by their enemies. After their suffering under the tyranny of their conquerors, they call on God to save them and in this case, God sends ten judges to rescue them. This pattern repeats itself during the reign of these ten judges. The Book of Judges chronicles the events of this period. In other words God says, “I love you and want to be in covenant with you. Obey my commands.” The people say “We love you too and want to be in covenant with you and we will obey your commands.” The people obey God for a while and then disobey his commands, get into trouble and cry out to God for help.

As the scriptures say this was a time when Israel had no earthly king. They were to follow only Yahweh. He was their king. Because the people fell away in their belief God sent judges who had an important role in helping Israel transition from a motley group of former slaves who were loosely organized into a powerful nation state with a monarch and standing army.

Read Judges 2: 6-23.

Were it not for these ten men and women who served as judges it is questionable whether Israel would have survived. It was not until the Hebrews had crossed into Canaan that they began to morph from a nomadic, Bedouin community constantly on the move into a stationary powerful nation that consolidated power during the reigns of David and Solomon. After entering into the Promised Land and after organizing themselves into villages and cities, a new type of Judge emerged; one who would make critical judicial decisions on behalf of households and villages. His role was more legal in nature. After the period of the Judges, these men were chosen to adjudicate life and death decisions that would affect the future of families, villages, cities and the entire nation.

We must remember that the Hebrews had organized themselves primarily by religious laws after leaving Egypt. Religious laws were primarily administered by leaders and priests. The first set of laws was the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20, which are a mixture of religious and communal laws. Exodus 20-31 delineates laws ranging from justice and mercy to atonement money and the garments of priests. Religious laws were the foundation of all the other laws in society including those in the books of Numbers and Leviticus. Those laws clarified certain religious and communal practices and helped those early communities organize themselves into coherent social units. The development of religious and social laws for community interaction and participation was an organizing factor of ancient communities such as Israel.

Although these religious laws were developed and disseminated while Israel was still in the Wilderness, they did not become codified into a system of general legal principles consistently applied in every situation. It was not until Israel had emerged from the wilderness and settled into the new land that both religious and social laws were canonized. We must remember that in the world of the Bible, the basis of law was not philosophy but crisis. Lawgivers developed specific laws to deal with households which weakened or threatened the well being of the state. (Social World.) As Israel expanded its territories, and settled into the Promised Land, religious and social laws fell into the categories of Village Laws and State Laws.

Village laws were primarily decentralized and dealt with the responsibility of households to feed their members. These laws were administered by fathers who were elders and a village assembly comprised of men of the community chosen because of their experience, wisdom and commitment to justice.

State laws dealt with the responsibility of the state to protect its people and primarily administered by the king and those appointed officials who had jurisdiction over certain regions. These laws did not come into effect until after Israel had established the monarchy. This process began under Saul but did not reach its completion until the reign of David.

Village law was the most important law at that time because it lived at the grassroots communal level. If village law had to do with maintaining, strengthening and governing households, those households weakened or threatened the state when they failed to work their own land, feed and discipline their own children and contribute to the cooperative efforts of the state to collect taxes and raise an army.

In the ancient world as in today’s world, the family was the most important social unit. The well being, unity, vitality and prosperity of any society was based on how well fathers and mothers governed their households and made critical legal decisions that aided the survival of their families, communities and villages. If households could govern themselves well, the State would have little difficulty in maintaining order and protecting its citizens. Thus law, order and social stability were intimately bound to each other on all levels of society. If households did not maintain order, disorder spilled over into society and made the monarchs task all the more difficult at the state and national levels.

If Village law was the most important law, the most important judge then was the father who made critical legal decisions at the grass roots level where disputes within households and between households were made. How these disputes were adjudicated, set the moral tone and patterns of socialization for villages, cities and ultimately the entire nation. If decisions were fair and just at the household or village level, they laid the ground work for unity and continuity between families, villages, clans or tribes on the communal, state and national levels. If injustice prevailed in the household and village, it influenced the trajectories of justice in other parts of society which could eventually lead to strife, division and ultimately the disintegration of those communities in question.

Let me say a little more about the role of the Father in ancient Israel in order to understand his role as judge of households and villages. Protocols for the father were the following: Protect and provide for his land and children, adopt or excommunicate sons and daughters; recruit workers and warriors; negotiate marriages and covenants; host strangers; and designate heirs. The Father was the most powerful judicial figure in ancient Israel. The mother was also powerful and I will say more about her in a moment.” The father exercised the power of life and death in his own household but his power was not absolute. He did not have the power of life and death over his grandsons, his brothers, his father, his grandfather or uncles. His primary responsibility was for his wives and their sons and daughters by resolving conflicts among them and negotiating marriages and covenants. His primary focus was ensuring that justice prevailed in his own home. He was ruler and judge of household disputes. He had the power of life and death over his immediate family.

For example, at the time a child was born, the father had to decide whether to adopt it into the household. In the world of the bible, life did not begin with a viable birth, but only with adoption. Regardless of the status of the newborn at the moment of delivery, without adoption it was considered stillborn. If the father did not adopt the child, the midwife took it from the birthing room and left it in an open field to declare it eligible for adoption by another household. Thus if the father and mother had a child, the child did not become legitimately theirs until the father formally adopted it into his household.

Birth was not the only occasion on which the father exercised the power of life and death over his sons and daughters. The commandment to honor your father and mother has concrete meaning. Sons honored their father and mother by a willingness to farm, to rear and to bear children for the household. When a son failed to honor his father and mother, it was the father who had the authority to judge the case. Any son who refused to support the household financially or who physically assaulted the mother and father of the household could be sentenced to death. Exodus 21:15. An assault against one member of the household by another was also a failure to honor its mother and father. This was truly for conflict within the family and conflict between other families in the community. Fathers determined restitution for bodily harm done to the sons of their households on the basis of work days 10st. (Exodus 21:18-19) Since maiming the assailant would only extend the damage inflicted on the household by depriving it of two workers, restitution benefited the household of the assailant as well as the victim.

And whenever one member of the household killed another, the father of the victim’s household was responsible for prosecuting the case. Sometimes fathers prosecuted a murder by designating a legal guardian to execute the killer, but generally, they shared their power to prosecute with fathers of the other households of their village assembly. Fathers during this time period were the principal judges of their own households and villages. When conflict extended into the larger parts of the village affecting other households a village assembly was convened to try the cases.

The village assembly comprised of fathers of households who were elders who punished murder according to the norms of reciprocity, which required that life be given for a life. But even when an assembly sentenced a murderer to death, it executed its sentence in more than one way. For example, the assembly could impose the death sentence on the actual murderers, but it could also execute any other member of the household in their place. Likewise, the assembly could also allow the killer’s household to pay compensation to the victim’s household. The assembly imposed a death sentence when it determined that a swift execution of justice would best restore the balance of power in the village.

Fathers and the village assembly were the most important judges in those early communities. They knew the law and applied it in accordance to communal, religious and village norms. Law and order were their primary responsibilities and if those fathers were derelict in their duties, it had adverse ramifications not only in their households and villages but for other parts of society.

Mothers had an important role too in ancient Israel by managing the household, teaching the children, defusing conflicts and brokering out of court settlements of her households before they reached the village assembly. Some have observed that women at that time were of secondary or inferior status. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because women during this time in Israel’s history were not allowed to be judges in the formal sense of this word does not mean that they did not have a hand in critical decision making in their households and communities. Her power was not subordinated power, but the power to minimize conflict between households and act as a harmonizing force for peace in the community. Although women had the primary responsibility of caring for their children and managing their households, they were not considered second-class citizens. Maintaining the household and family were too critical and essential to the well being of society. The mother’s role was very important and she had great favor. Both mother and father had very important roles in maintaining order and unity not only within each household but among various households in each village.

So as fathers and the village assemblies emerged as the most important brokers of law in order in Ancient Israel at the grass roots level, Israel was able to strengthen itself into a nation state and consolidate power at the household, village, state and national levels. Without these judges, Israelite society might have for all practical purposes disintegrated into chaos because everyone would have interpreted matters as they saw fit and administered their own vigilante justice.

Let me say a little more about the Village assembly and the courts system at that time just for clarification 1) Fathers of the households of the village were its leaders and elders. 2) Villages and cities resolved criminal cases by assembly. 3) Elders were chosen to become part of the assembly to arbitrate disputes among households and residents. They were basically responsible for upholding the civil rights of the members of the village and protecting the rights of those dwelling there without a household such as widows, orphans and aliens. Not every resident could appeal to and serve on the assembly. The elders had to be upstanding and upright, not perfect. The perfect did not stand in the way of the effective. They had a sense of justice, provided appropriate interpretation of laws and applied them in ways that created stability and continuity in community.

4) In the village, the assembly met in the open-air setting of the threshing floor, where grain was processed. In cities, the city gates served as the primary courthouses where the assembly met. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; 22:13-21; 22:23-27) The city gates served as a place to hold court for anyone seeking judicial recourse. 5) Plaintiffs initiated proceedings by going to the gate and impaneling a jury of elders to review their course of action. (Ruth 4: 1-2; I Sam 16:14; Jer 26) This was usually done at daybreak. Standing at the gate when people were on their way to work in the fields outside the walls, the plaintiff shouted: “Justice! Justice! Justice!” When ten citizens convened to hear the case, they adjourned to one of the bays in the gate to deliberate. Locating the city’s judicial system at the gate not only gave the plaintiff access to a jury pool, but also kept the trial open. Since deliberations took place in front of the steady flow of people coming and going through the gate, the occasion for bribery and other manipulations of the judicial system were reduced. (Exodus 23:8, Amos 5:10-12) 6) There were no permanent officials for the assembly. Sometimes members functioned as legislators or judges; at other times, they were prosecutors. (Jer 37:1-21; 42:1-43:7), defense attorneys (Jer 7:16-34; 27:1-22; Ezekiel 14:12-23 and witnesses, Gen 23:10,18.e

Management and oversight of each household was an important aspect of maintaining harmony, stability and order in ancient communities. The Fathers and mothers played a vital role in governing the lives of their families and making sure that rules were reinforced with fairness. Each household understood the value of maintaining order and justice since it impacted the state’s capacity to govern and protect its citizens. What households achieved on the micro level in balancing power in families, communities and creating order and justice would have a great impact upon law and order in society at the macro level.

If the fathers and mothers were not managing their households properly, providing for their children, arranging covenants and adjudicating justice how could the king manage the greater household of society? If families and households at the grass roots level did not do their part in providing order and safeguarding society, it could have dire consequences on the collective level.

Thus in surveying Israel’s history, law and order began in the home. Each Father and Mother was responsible for his or her own children and their own household. Members were in good standing in their communities if their own houses were in good order. Law and Order in society then depended heavily upon how well decisions were made within and between, households, communities, villages, cities and the nation as a whole. For unruly households lead to unruly communities and unruly communities lead to unruly villages, and unruly villages lead to unruly cities and unruly cities lead to unruly societies.

The role of the father and mother in keeping order in the home cannot be underestimated because each household was a microcosm of the larger society. The father was a man yes but someone who modeled God the father in caring for his family. The Father was care for his own household the same way that God cared for his children in the larger created order.

Furthermore, when households in larger numbers could not fend for themselves and administer justice, they amalgamated into larger groups known as clans and tribes. Unity within each household influenced unity between each household. Unity between households influenced unity within and between clans. Unity within and between clans influenced unity within and between tribes. Unity within and between tribes influenced unity within the nation.

It has been observed that much of the conflicts that lead to the eventual split between Israel and Judah into separate nations was tribal in nature and origin. And if they were tribal in nature in origin it stands to reason that much of that conflict stemmed from the divisions in the households and villages at that time.

My point is that without those every day judges serving as brokers of justice and stabilizers of households, communities, villages and society we wonder if Israel would have reached its place of prominence in the Ancient world. For it was not a mighty nation in terms of geography and territory. It’s power paled in comparison with Egypt, Persia and other world powers. So it had to have had a kind of familial discipline that would allow for tightly organized communities and values that insulated would against them against total and permanent annihilation. It could not have survived without household rules and values and a system of justice that promoted order and unity on all levels of society. The fathers played a prominent role in this as well as the mothers in adjudicating justice and brokering peace among families in villages. That’s why the stories of the Old Testament center around the importance of families from the slaying of Abel by Cain to the betrayal of Isaac by Esau at the instigation of Rebekah. We read these stories. in a vacuum without understanding that small decisions at the family level affected the morale of entire communities.

Thankfully today our system of justice whose origins go back to Greek, Rome and to some extent Egypt, have opened the door for men and women. judges. This co-intentional models of leadership are vital to the welfare of a just and balanced society. Men and women share in this process and we are to be proud of this model of leadership.

But another level, we may see parallels in Israel then and America today, for few can argue that a critical element precipitating law and disorder in our society may very well have to do with the absence of fathers (and God bless the mothers), acting as “judges” and leaders in their homes, ensuring the order and safety of their families and communities so that inordinate work is not done at other levels of our society to ensure order and equilibrium. If the fathers were important then they are certainly important now and part of the problem that judges and other persons face today is the problem of law and disorder and the lack of discipline in our homes, within our families, between families and in the nation at large.

Much of the time that judges spend hearing cases today, God bless you, and dealing with problems in the court system go back to the conditions of our households. If the children are not being raised and trained properly; if a sense of honor, commitment and responsibility is not instilled in them at an early age; if the fathers have abdicated responsibility for their children for whatever reason, a kind anomie or social disintegration occurs in our villages, towns and cities. The life and death decisions must be made at some level of society. Perhaps the old adage is true, if we love them in the high chair, we can keep them from the electric chair.”

One writer observed that a great tragedy of our society today particularly in the Black Community is that many black children had a greater chance of growing up with their mothers and fathers in slavery however reprehensible that institution than they do today.

Thank God for the judges and the role you have played in helping keep law and order but you cannot do this alone. For any society to experience success, there must be a coordinated effort on all levels of society but it starts in the home, extends to the schools and other places. Yes it involves interpreting and administering the law in the courts, but what we need today is more fathers and mothers holding court in their homes, doing the necessary work to train up the children the way they should go rather than relying on the justice system to do all the work.

Yes, we need justice. We need Village Justice, City Justice, State Justice and National justice. We need distributive and retributive justice. We need social, political and economic justice. But more than ever we need justice in the home. If each household can do its part with its family, to take responsibility for its children in making the right decisions perhaps we can build a better society for the future.

Thank you Judges for all you do. Thank you parents for all you do. Thank you community leaders and others for all that you do to help hold things together during these challenging times.


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