Jehoshaphat's Judicial Reform
Parashat Shofetim lays out the process of adjudicating disputes and organizing courts to handle both criminal and civil matters. It describes a two-tier court system.
- First tier: Judges and officials in local courts
טז:יח שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק.
16:18 Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates, that the Lord your God is giving you for your tribes, and they shall render just decisions for the people.
- Second tier: Central court of Levitical-Priests and judges where the Temple stands
יז:ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ.יז:ט וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט.
17:8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make, between blood and blood, between ruling and ruling, between affliction and affliction, any such matters of dispute in your gates, then you shall go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose. 17:9 And you will come to the Levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; and you will inquire, and they shall announce to you the decision in the case.
Chronicles: King Jehoshaphat Establishes Courts
The book of Chronicles (2 Chron 17-19; Kings has no parallel account) tells the story of how Jehoshaphat, king of Judah in the mid-ninth century BCE, established a major reform of the country, including, a judicial reform; his reform relates directly to the laws appearing in Parashat Shofetim about the two-tier system.
ב דברי הימים יט:דוַיֵּשֶׁב יְהוֹשָׁפָט בִּירוּשָׁלִָם וַיָּשָׁב וַיֵּצֵא בָעָם מִבְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַר אֶפְרַיִם וַיְשִׁיבֵם אֶל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם.
2 Chron 19:4Jehoshaphat resided at Jerusalem; and he went out again among the people, from Beer-sheba to the hills of Ephraim, and brought them back to the Lord, God of their ancestors.
Jehoshaphat’s Local Courts
The Chronicler’s description of the judicial reform begins with Jehoshaphat’s establishment of local courts; these are in some ways similar to and different from the description of local courts and that of Deuteronomy.
טז:יח שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק.
יט:ה וַיַּעֲמֵד שֹׁפְטִים בָּאָרֶץ בְּכָל עָרֵי יְהוּדָה הַבְּצֻרוֹת לְעִיר וָעִיר.
|16:18 Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates, that the Lord your God is giving you for your tribes, and they shall render just decisions for the people.||19:5 And he appointed judges in the land, in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city.|
The repetitious, description of the places in which Jehoshaphat placed his judges, “in the land, in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city,” is likely meant as an interpretation of Deuteronomy. Specifically,
- “In the land” and the reference to “Judah” may be seen as equivalent to Deuteronomy’s “for your tribes,” naturally adjusted to the reality of the divided monarchy.
- “In all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city” may be how the Chronicler read “gates” since unfortified towns do not necessarily have gates.
Furthermore, both Chronicles and Deuteronomy simply refer to the appointees of the local courts as “judges;” neither require the judges to be priests or Levites or part of the royal bureaucracy, as in the second tier court.
Jehoshaphat’s instructions to the judges, with its emphasis on fearing no one and avoiding bribery, also reflects the language of Deuteronomy in other places:
דברים י:יז כִּי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד.
יט:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הַשֹּׁפְטִים רְאוּ מָה אַתֶּם עֹשִׂים כִּי לֹא לְאָדָם תִּשְׁפְּטוּ כִּי לַי-הוָה וְעִמָּכֶם בִּדְבַר מִשְׁפָּט. יט:ז וְעַתָּה יְהִי פַחַד יְ-הוָה עֲלֵיכֶם שִׁמְרוּ וַעֲשׂוּ כִּי אֵין עִם יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַוְלָה וּמַשֹּׂא פָנִים וּמִקַּח שֹׁחַד.
|Deut 10:17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe.||19:6 And said to the judges, “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord; he is with you in matters of judgment. 19:7 And now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes with the Lord our God.”|
The similarity in wording, organization, and content show that the Chronicler had some form of the book of Deuteronomy in mind.
Jehoshaphat’s Jerusalem Court
Verses 8-11 tell of Jehoshaphat’s establishing a court in Jerusalem. Although the concept of a centralized second tier court fits with the overall Deuteronomic concept, here the differences in the details are starker.
Heads of Families in Israel
יט:ח וְגַם בִּירוּשָׁלִַם הֶעֱמִיד יְהוֹשָׁפָט מִן הַלְוִיִּם וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וּמֵרָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפַּט יְ-הוָה וְלָרִיב וַיָּשֻׁבוּ יְרוּשָׁלִָם.
19:8 And also in Jerusalem Jehoshaphat appointed of the Levites and the priests and the heads of families of Israel, to give judgment for the Lord and for disputes. And they returned to Jerusalem.
Deuteronomy describes the court being made up of “Levitical priests” (הכהנים הלוים). Chronicles, however, has Levites and Priests (הלוים והכהנים), as well as “the heads of families in Israel,” i.e., the aristocracy (a non-existent category in Deuteronomy).
The Heads of the Court
Deuteronomy 17:9 describes the head of the court as “the judge who is in office in those days (הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם).” Chronicles has a more precise description of its parallel institution:
יט:יא וְהִנֵּה אֲמַרְיָהוּ כֹהֵן הָרֹאשׁ עֲלֵיכֶם לְכֹל דְּבַר יְ-הוָה וּזְבַדְיָהוּ בֶן יִשְׁמָעֵאל הַנָּגִיד לְבֵית יְהוּדָה לְכֹל דְּבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְשֹׁטְרִים הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵיכֶם חִזְקוּ וַעֲשׂוּ וִיהִי יְ-הוָה עִם הַטּוֹב.
19:11 Behold, Amariah the head priest is over you in all matters of the Lord; and Zebadiah son of Ishmael, the governor (nagīd) of the house of Judah in all matters of the king; and the officer-Levites are before you. Be strong and act, and may the Lord be with the good!”
According to this, a “head priest” and a “civil” nagīd of the house of Judah oversaw the Jerusalem court. Nagīd is a term often used to describe the king (or the king designate), especially in Samuel and Ezekiel, and may also hint at the king’s early Second Temple parallel, the governor. In this case, the nagīd is likely a royal official, appointed over the judiciary of the kingdom of Judah. Although Deuteronomy does have a “judge” as the apparent head of the court, it does not refer to him as a head priest or a royal appointee. If anything, Deuteronomy seems to keep the king away from the judiciary, whereas Chronicles is placing the judiciary under the king’s thumb.
Shoṭerim (Court Officials)
An additional change in Chronicles, are the court officers (shoṭerim) that are appointed for the central court, and that they must be Levites. In Deuteronomy, court officers are appointed in every city, and it does not specify a group to which they must belong.
Four Categories of Law
After appointing the judges, Jehoshaphat gives them their commission and tells them what he expects from them:
יט:ט וַיְצַו עֲלֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר כֹּה תַעֲשׂוּן בְּיִרְאַת יְ-הוָה בֶּאֱמוּנָה וּבְלֵבָב שָׁלֵם. יט:י וְכָל רִיב אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא עֲלֵיכֶם מֵאֲחֵיכֶם הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין תּוֹרָה לְמִצְוָה לְחֻקִּים וּלְמִשְׁפָּטִים וְהִזְהַרְתֶּם אֹתָם וְלֹא יֶאְשְׁמוּ לַי-הוָה וְהָיָה קֶצֶף עֲלֵיכֶם וְעַל אֲחֵיכֶם כֹּה תַעֲשׂוּן וְלֹא תֶאְשָׁמוּ.
19:9 He commanded them: “Thus you shall act in the fear of the Lord, in faithfulness, and with a whole heart.19:10 Any dispute that comes to you from your brethren who dwell in their cities, between blood and blood, between instruction and commandment and laws and statutes, you shall advise them, so that they may not incur guilt before the Lord lest there be wrath upon you and your brethren; do so, and you will not incur guilt.
Focusing on the specific kinds of cases the high court is to adjudicate, we can see that on one hand Chronicles is attempting to interpret Deuteronomy and on the other, adjusting the categories to its own understanding:
יז:ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ…
ט:י וְכָל רִיב אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא עֲלֵיכֶם מֵאֲחֵיכֶם הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָרֵיהֶם בֵּין דָּם לְדָם בֵּין תּוֹרָה לְמִצְוָה לְחֻקִּים וּלְמִשְׁפָּטִים…
|17:8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make, between blood and blood, between ruling and ruling, between affliction and affliction, any such matters of dispute in your gates…||19:10 Any dispute that comes to you from your brethren who dwell in their cities, between blood and blood, between instruction and commandment and laws and statutes…|
Both Chronicles and Deuteronomy begin its list of case-types for the Jerusalem court with the same expression בֵּין-דָּם לְדָם, “between blood and blood,” a technical term for different types of homicide. However, while Deuteronomy continues to list different types of cases using the “between… and…” formula, Chronicles continues with a list of four different types of law: torāh, miṣwāh, ḥuqqim, and mišpaṭim.
These four descriptions or categories of law appear quite often in the Bible. The first and fourth appear in the very same passage in Deut. (17:11): “Do according to the torāh that they instruct you and by the mišpaṭ that they tell you; do not stray from what they tell you left or right.” The book of Nehemiah, Neh. 9:13, another Persian period work, specifically states that all four were included in the Sinai revelation.
נחמיה ט:יג וְעַל הַר סִינַי יָרַדְתָּ וְדַבֵּר עִמָּהֶם מִשָּׁמָיִם וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת חֻקִּים וּמִצְוֹת טוֹבִים.
Neh 9:13 You came down also upon Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right mišpaṭim and true torōt, good ḥuqqim and miṣwōt.
Thus, in the Persian period, these four terms likely made up a complete description of Israelite law. In other words, where Deuteronomy refers to different categories of cases, Chronicles refers to different bodies of law.
The Chronicler’s emphasis on these four different types of law—torāh, miṣwāh, ḥuqqim, and mišpaṭim—for the central court only, implies that unlike the lower courts, the Jerusalem judges were expected to refer to existing bodies of law. Japhet understands these four terms as referring to four “different kinds of written law”.
This would make sense, if we assume that Levites, priests and aristocrats living in the capital would have a higher level of literacy than the inhabitants of the small towns scattered throughout the kingdom. Just what this written code was and what relationship it had to the Torah as we know it, remains an open question.
Nevertheless, as demonstrated in some of the parallels above, it is clear that at the very least, the Chronicler has some form of Deuteronomy as part of this legal corpus.
Historicity of Reform
The story of Jehoshaphat’s “judicial reform” is not mentioned or even hinted at in Kings, and scholars differ concerning its historical reliability. Most scholars agree that Chronicles was written several centuries after Kings, and some have suggested that it is a sort of “midrash” on Kings, reinterpreting the older material in a new way. But this does not mean that all material in Chronicles that is absent from Kings is midrashic and ahistorical, and some scholars believe that the author of Chronicles had access to reliable First Temple sources not used by the author of Kings.
In the case of Jehoshaphat’s “judicial reform,” opinions range from those who consider the story to be “basically reliable” and use it in their reconstruction of the history of the biblical legal system, to those who believe that the author of Chronicles simply invented the whole story, perhaps presenting Jehoshaphat as the king who established judges based on his name, יהושפט, which means, “The Lord judges.”
Reintroducing the King / Civil Authority into the Judiciary
Amnon Shapira, in Democratic Values in the Hebrew Bible, sees Jehoshaphat as attempting to expand his own (indirect) influence on the judiciary, by taking it out of the hands of the tribal leaders and establishing a hierarchy that was ultimately answerable to the king. In that sense, Jehoshaphat’s reform is attempting to reinterpret Deuteronomy, in which these two branches of government are meant to be independent of each other.
This observation works in tandem with the observation in our previous essay, “Deuteronomy’s Justice System: Real and Ideal,” (TheTorah.com 2015) that Deuteronomy itself is battling an entrenched system in which the king directly controlled the central court. Ancient Near Eastern texts standardly present the king as the arbiter of justice, and this is also reflected in the stories of Israelite kings such as David and Solomon. Nevertheless, in Deuteronomy, the king is not mentioned in the section on judges, and dispensing justice is not mentioned in the section on kings. This is likely not coincidental, and reflects Deuteronomy’s interests in “separation of powers.”
Updating and Reinterpreting
Overall, the Chronicler hews closely to the Deuteronomic legislation. Thus, much of the account of Jehoshaphat’s reform can be said to be the Chronicler’s attempt to interpret and update Deuteronomic legislation. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the reform, such as the appointment of the nagīd to head of the court, reflect an attempt to subtly reinterpret Deuteronomy, or at the very least, to make it agree with the Second Temple practices that the Chronicler knew.
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September 4, 2016
March 29, 2020
Dr. Yigal Levin teaches the history of the biblical period at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin was co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present and is presently working on a commentary on Chronicles
Parry Moshe is a graduate student in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Judaism at Bar-Ilan University. She also serves as an instructor at the Israeli National Police Academy. She is in the final stages of writing her dissertation on Law Enforcement in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the Biblical Period.
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