Jehovah, the Impartial “Judge of All the Earth”
“The Father . . . judges impartially according to each one’s work.”—1 PETER 1:17.
1, 2. (a) Why should we be both fearful at and comforted by the thought that Jehovah is the great Judge? (b) In Jehovah’s legal case against the nations, what role do his earthly servants play?
JEHOVAH is the great “Judge of all the earth.” (Genesis 18:25) As the Supreme God of the universe, he has the unqualified right to judge his creatures. This is at once a fear-inspiring and a comforting thought. Moses movingly expressed this seeming paradox, saying: “Jehovah your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the God great, mighty and fear-inspiring, who treats none with partiality nor accepts a bribe, executing judgment for the fatherless boy and the widow and loving the alien resident so as to give him bread and a mantle.”—Deuteronomy 10:17, 18.
2 What a striking balance! A great, mighty, fear-inspiring God, yet impartial and lovingly defending the interests of orphans, widows, and alien residents. Who could wish for a more loving Judge than Jehovah? Portraying himself as having a legal case against the nations of Satan’s world, Jehovah calls upon his servants on earth to be his witnesses. (Isaiah 34:8; 43:9-12) He does not depend on their testimony to prove his godship and legitimate sovereignty. But he grants his witnesses the signal privilege of testifying before all mankind that they recognize his supremacy. His witnesses submit to his righteous sovereignty themselves, and by their public ministry, they move others to place themselves under the authority of the Supreme Judge.
Jehovah’s Way of Judging
3. How might Jehovah’s way of judging be summed up, and how was this illustrated in the case of Adam and Eve?
3 During the early history of mankind, Jehovah personally judged certain offenders. Examples of his way of handling judicial matters set the pattern for those of his servants who later would be responsible to conduct judicial proceedings among his people. (Psalm 77:11, 12) His way of judging might be summed up: firmness where necessary, mercy where possible. In the case of Adam and Eve, perfect human creatures who had willfully rebelled, they deserved no mercy. Hence, Jehovah sentenced them to death. But his mercy came into play toward their offspring. Jehovah deferred the execution of the death sentence, thus allowing Adam and Eve to have children. He lovingly provided their descendants with hope of deliverance from bondage to sin and death.—Genesis 3:15; Romans 8:20, 21.
4. How did Jehovah deal with Cain, and why is this case of particular interest?
4 The way Jehovah dealt with Cain is of particular interest because it is the first recorded case involving one of Adam and Eve’s imperfect descendants, “sold under sin.” (Romans 7:14) Did Jehovah take this into account and deal differently with Cain from the way He dealt with his parents? And could this case provide a lesson for Christian overseers today? Let us see. Perceiving Cain’s wrong reaction when his sacrifice was not accepted favorably, Jehovah lovingly warned him of the danger he was in. An old proverb states: ‘Prevention is better than cure.’ Jehovah went as far as he could by warning Cain about allowing his sinful tendency to get the mastery over him. He endeavored to help him “turn to doing good.” (Genesis 4:5-7) This is the first time God called on a sinful human to repent. After Cain showed an unrepentant attitude and committed his felony, Jehovah sentenced him to banishment, tempering this with a decree forbidding other humans to kill him.—Genesis 4:8-15.
5, 6. (a) How did Jehovah proceed with the pre-Flood generation? (b) What did Jehovah do before executing judgment against the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah?
5 Before the Flood, when ‘Jehovah saw that the badness of man was abundant in the earth, he felt hurt at his heart.’ (Genesis 6:5, 6) He “felt regrets” inasmuch as he regretted that the majority of the pre-Flood generation had misused their free will and that he must execute judgment on them. Yet, he gave them due warning, using Noah for many years as “a preacher of righteousness.” Thereafter, Jehovah had no reason to ‘hold back from punishing that world of ungodly people.’—2 Peter 2:5.
6 Jehovah was likewise obliged to handle a legal case against the corrupt inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. But note how he proceeded. He had heard a “cry of complaint” about the shocking conduct of these people, if only by the prayers of righteous Lot. (Genesis 18:20; 2 Peter 2:7, 8) But before acting, he ‘went down’ to verify the facts by means of his angels. (Genesis 18:21, 22; 19:1) He also took the time to reassure Abraham that he would not act unjustly.—Genesis 18:23-32.
7. What lessons can elders serving on judicial committees learn from examples of Jehovah’s way of judging?
7 What can elders today learn from these examples? In the case of Adam and Eve, Jehovah showed love and consideration for those who, while related to the guilty ones, were not blameworthy in the case. He showed mercy toward Adam and Eve’s descendants. In Cain’s case, Jehovah foresaw the danger Cain was in and kindly reasoned with him, trying to forestall the committing of sin. Even after banishing him, Jehovah was considerate of Cain. Further, Jehovah executed judgment on the pre-Flood generation only after showing much patient endurance. In the face of obstinate wickedness, Jehovah “felt hurt at his heart.” He regretted that men rebelled against his righteous rule and that he was obliged to judge them unfavorably. (Genesis 6:6; compare Ezekiel 18:31; 2 Peter 3:9.) In the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jehovah acted only after verifying the facts. What excellent examples for those who today have to handle legal cases!
Human Judges in Patriarchal Times
8. What basic laws of Jehovah were known in patriarchal times?
8 Although there apparently was no written code at the time, patriarchal society was familiar with Jehovah’s basic laws, and his servants were under obligation to observe them. (Compare Genesis 26:5.) The drama in Eden had shown the need for obedience and submission to Jehovah’s sovereignty. The case of Cain had revealed Jehovah’s disapproval of murder. Immediately after the Flood, God gave mankind laws concerning the sacredness of life, murder, capital punishment, and the eating of blood. (Genesis 9:3-6) Jehovah strongly condemned adultery during the incident involving Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech, king of Gerar, near Gaza.—Genesis 20:1-7.
9, 10. What examples show that a judicial system existed in patriarchal society?
9 In those days family heads acted as judges and handled legal problems. Jehovah stated regarding Abraham: “I have become acquainted with him in order that he may command his sons and his household after him so that they shall keep Jehovah’s way to do righteousness and judgment.” (Genesis 18:19) Abraham showed unselfishness and discernment in settling a quarrel between his own herders and those of Lot. (Genesis 13:7-11) Acting as patriarchal head and judge, Judah condemned his daughter-in-law Tamar to be stoned to death and burned, believing that she was an adulteress. (Genesis 38:11, 24; compare Joshua 7:25.) When he learned all the facts, however, he pronounced her more righteous than he himself. (Genesis 38:25, 26) How important it is to learn all the facts before making a judicial decision!
10 The book of Job alludes to a judicial system and shows the desirability of impartial judgment. (Job 13:8, 10; 31:11; 32:21) Job himself reminisces about the time when he was a respected judge who sat at the city gate administering justice and defending the cause of the widow and the fatherless boy. (Job 29:7-16) Thus, there is evidence that within patriarchal society, “older men” were acting as judges among Abraham’s descendants even before the Exodus and the God-given legal constitution of the nation of Israel. (Exodus 3:16, 18) In fact, the terms of the Law covenant were presented by Moses to the “older men,” or elders, of Israel, who represented the people.—Exodus 19:3-7.
Israel’s Judicial System
11, 12. According to two Bible scholars, what distinguished Israel’s judicial system from that of other nations?
11 The administration of justice in Israel was quite different from the legal procedures followed in the surrounding nations. No distinction was made between civil law and criminal law. Both were intertwined with moral and religious laws. An offense against one’s neighbor was an offense against Jehovah. In his book The People and the Faith of the Bible, author André Chouraqui writes: “The juridical tradition of the Hebrews differs from that of its neighbors, not only in its definition of transgressions and penalties but in the very spirit of the laws. . . . The Torah [Law] is not distinct from daily life; it commands the nature and content of daily life by dispensing benediction or malediction. . . . In Israel . . . it is almost impossible to make a clear distinction in the juridical activities of the city. They were hidden in the unity of a life completely oriented toward the fulfillment of the will of the living God.”
12 This unique situation placed the administration of justice in Israel on a far higher level than in contemporaneous nations. Bible scholar Roland de Vaux writes: “Israelite law, for all its resemblances in form and content, differs radically from the clauses of the Oriental ‘treaties’ and the articles of their ‘codes’. It is a religious law. . . . No Oriental code can be compared with the Israelite law, which is ascribed in its entirety to God as its author. If it contains, and often mingles, ethical and ritual prescriptions, this is because it covers the whole field of the divine Covenant, and because this Covenant governed the relations of men with one another as well as their relations with God.” Small wonder that Moses asked: “What great nation is there that has righteous regulations and judicial decisions like all this law that I am putting before you today?”—Deuteronomy 4:8.
Judges in Israel
13. In what respects was Moses a fine example for elders today?
13 With such an elevated judiciary system, what type of man was needed to act as judge? Of the very first judge appointed in Israel, the Bible states: “The man Moses was by far the meekest of all the men who were upon the surface of the ground.” (Numbers 12:3) He was not overly sure of himself. (Exodus 4:10) Although required to judge the people, at times he became their advocate before Jehovah, pleading with him to forgive them and even offering to sacrifice himself in their behalf. (Exodus 32:11, 30-32) He poetically stated: “My saying will trickle as the dew, as gentle rains upon grass and as copious showers upon vegetation.” (Deuteronomy 32:2) Far from judging the people by leaning on his own wisdom, he declared: “In the event that they have a case arise, it must come to me and I must judge between the one party and the other, and I must make known the decisions of the true God and his laws.” (Exodus 18:16) When in doubt, he submitted the matter to Jehovah. (Numbers 9:6-8; 15:32-36; 27:1-11) Moses was a fine example for elders who today ‘shepherd the flock of God’ and make judicial decisions. (Acts 20:28) May their relationship with their brothers likewise prove to be “as gentle rains upon grass.”
14. What were the spiritual qualifications of the men appointed by Moses as judges in Israel?
14 In time Moses was unable to carry by himself the load of handling judicial cases for the people. (Exodus 18:13, 18) He accepted his father-in-law’s suggestion to enlist help. Again, what kind of men were chosen? We read: “‘Select out of all the people capable men, fearing God, trustworthy men, hating unjust profit.’ . . . And Moses proceeded to choose capable men out of all Israel and to give them positions as heads over the people, as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties and chiefs of tens. And they judged the people on every proper occasion. A hard case they would bring to Moses, but every small case they themselves would handle as judges.”—Exodus 18:21-26.
15. What were the qualifications of those who served as judges in Israel?
15 It can be seen that age was not the sole criterion for selecting men to act as judges. Moses stated: “Get wise and discreet and experienced men of your tribes, that I may set them as heads over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13) Moses was perfectly familiar with what young Elihu had stated many years before: “It is not those merely abundant in days that prove wise, nor those just old that understand judgment.” (Job 32:9) Certainly, those appointed had to be “experienced men.” But above all they had to be capable, God-fearing, trustworthy men, who hated unjust profit and who were wise and discreet. It seems evident, therefore, that the “heads” and “judges” mentioned at Joshua 23:2 and Jos 24:1 were not distinct from “the older men” mentioned in those same verses but were chosen from among them.—See Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 2, page 549.
16. What should we note today about the instructions Moses gave to the newly appointed judges?
16 As to the instructions given to these appointed judges, Moses said: “I went on to command your judges at that particular time, saying, ‘When having a hearing between your brothers, you must judge with righteousness between a man and his brother or his alien resident. You must not be partial in judgment. You should hear the little one the same as the great one. You must not become frightened because of a man, for the judgment belongs to God; and the case that is too hard for you, you should present to me [Moses], and I must hear it.’”—Deuteronomy 1:16, 17.
17. Who were appointed as judges, and what warning did King Jehoshaphat give them?
17 Of course, a case could be brought to Moses only during his lifetime. So further arrangements were made for difficult cases to be referred to priests, Levites, and specially appointed judges. (Deuteronomy 17:8-12; 1 Chronicles 23:1-4; 2 Chronicles 19:5, 8) To the judges he appointed in the cities of Judah, King Jehoshaphat stated: “See what you are doing, because it is not for man that you judge but it is for Jehovah . . . This is how you should do in the fear of Jehovah with faithfulness and with a complete heart. As for every legal case that will come to you of your brothers who are dwelling in their cities, . . . you must warn them that they may not do wrong against Jehovah and indignation may not have to take place against you and against your brothers. This is how you should do that you may not incur guilt.”—2 Chronicles 19:6-10.
18. (a) What were some of the principles that judges in Israel had to apply? (b) What did the judges have to keep in mind, and what scriptures show the consequences of their forgetting this?
18 Among the principles that judges in Israel had to apply were the following: equal justice for rich and poor (Exodus 23:3, 6; Leviticus 19:15); strict impartiality (Deuteronomy 1:17); no accepting of bribes. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) Judges had to remember constantly that those whom they were judging were Jehovah’s sheep. (Psalm 100:3) In fact, one of the reasons why Jehovah rejected fleshly Israel was that their priests and shepherds failed to judge with righteousness and treated the people with harshness.—Jeremiah 22:3, 5, 25; 23:1, 2; Ezekiel 34:1-4; Malachi 2:8, 9.
19. Of what value to us is this examination of Jehovah’s standards of justice before the Common Era, and what will be considered in the following article?
19 Jehovah does not change. (Malachi 3:6) This brief review of the way judgment should have been administered in Israel and how Jehovah viewed any denial of justice should give pause to elders who today are responsible for making judicial decisions. Jehovah’s example as Judge, and the judicial system he instituted in Israel, established principles that set the pattern for the administration of justice within the Christian congregation. This we shall see in the following article.
□ How might Jehovah’s way of judging be summed up?
□ How was Jehovah’s way exemplified in his dealings with Cain and the pre-Flood generation?
□ Who acted as judges in patriarchal times, and how?
□ What distinguished Israel’s judicial system from that of other nations?
□ What type of men were appointed as judges in Israel, and what principles should they have followed?
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In patriarchal times and in Israel, appointed older men administered justice at the city gate