How did legal courts function in the Old Testament?
The right of the state to establish, interpret, and enforce laws plays a significant role in any society. The legal system in the Old Testament is difficult to define in detail, although its basic contour is quite clear. Like any legal system, in Israel it sought to reestablish justice, social harmony, and the order upset through a civil or criminal offense. In principle, the court of law was interested in finding and revealing the truth in a context of legal debate.
1. Moses to the Judges: After the Exodus, Moses functioned as the judge of Israel (Ex. 18:13, 16). This was based on family or tribal law, where the father of the extended family was responsible for preserving or reestablishing justice. In the case of Moses, this became an unbearable responsibility, and a new system was set in place that seemed to have influenced the legal system throughout the Old Testament (verses 17-27). It comprised three elements. First, people were to learn the laws that would regulate this new society in order to act responsibly. Second, lower courts were located throughout the camp. The jurisdiction of these courts was restricted to minor legal issues. The appointed judges were carefully selected, committed to the Lord, and ethically and morally reliable (verse 21). Third, there was a higher court for which Moses was the judge. This was not a court of appeal, but one in which major legal matters were to be resolved (verse 22).
The legal system was slightly modified before the Israelites entered Canaan (Deut. 17:8-13). The lower courts were located in the towns or the gates of the city (verse 2; cf. Ruth 4:1-12). The judges probably were elders of the town. The higher court was then located where the sanctuary was and would deal with cases of “bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults” (Deut. 17:8, NIV).* A judge, together with the priest, would always make a final legal decision (verse 9). During the period of the judges there were judges throughout the land (Joshua 24:1), and at least some of charismatic judges exercised judicial roles (Judges 4:4, 5; 1 Sam. 8:1-3).
2. The King as Judge: When people requested a king who could judge them, a monarchy was instituted (1 Sam. 8:20; 1 Kings 3:9). He became the judge of the land (cf. 2 Sam. 15:4), but he could not act alone. David appointed judges (1 Chron. 26:29), probably to officiate in minor courts. The king’s court was for more difficult cases, and perhaps for appeals (2 Sam. 14:5-10). It is difficult to establish how the king’s court operated, but the legal reforms instituted by Jehoshaphat could be helpful to our understanding. He reappointed “judges in the land throughout all the fortified cities of Judah” (2 Chron. 19:5). A higher court in Jerusalem was composed of priests and Levites and some of the “chief fathers of Israel” (verse 8; the elders). It dealt with more difficult cases, perhaps referred to them by lower courts (verse 10), which may have included religious, civil, and criminal cases. The king appointed his representative to this higher court (verse 11). Obviously he had his own judicial authority, but we lack specific details.
3. Theological Significance: In Israel God was the supreme judge, not only of His people but of all the earth. He was the only one who could restore justice, harmony, and wholeness to society and the land. Judges were appointed not to “judge for man but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment” (verse 6).
In the New Testament, Jesus assumes the role of God as universal judge. He is the judge, the priest, and the king, who through His sacrifice revealed the evilness of evil and the love of God, and can then pronounce a final verdict in the supreme court of the universe, the heavenly temple, against His enemies and in favor of His people.
* Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez lives in Texas, after retiring as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.