Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Parshat Shoftim

The King: A Biblical Argument

We have discussed in previous Sedra Shorts whether having a king, as brought in this week’s parsha, is an ideal (see below). This week we will see that this discussion was an ancient one, going as far back as the prophets.

Sefer Shoftm (Judges) teaches about the biblical era before Israel was governed by kings. While a quick survey of that period seems to suggest that it was dark and difficult, a more close reading will show that that the long periods of peace and quiet far outnumbered those of despair. The author of Sefer Shoftim does not dwell on the peaceful periods as it does not fit in with his aims. Yet, Israel’s tranquil lifestyle during the rule of the Judges, as recounted in the Book of Ruth, highlights the quiet of the period.

What is interesting is that throughout the book, Sefer Shoftim follows a cycle. Israel sins. This leads to a nation conquering them. This leads to Israel repenting which in turn leads to a judge (another name for a leader) saving them (See Shoftim 2:11-19). The cycle then begins again.

The prophet suggests that Israel’s difficulties and success has nothing to do with the lack of a strong leader, i.e., a king. It is all down to their loyalty to God. If Israel was loyal to God, the people flourished, however, if they were unfaithful, they suffered. Indeed, that is the main message of Sefer Shoftim.

However, Sefer Shoftim contains five chapters at the end of the book which give a different picture. There the statement: “It came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, each man did what was right in his own eyes”, appears a number of times. The author is stressing that these terrible events occurred simply because Israel had no king and the people were therefore, lawless. The suggestion is clear: Israel needs a king.

How do we reconcile this contradiction within one book?

The final chapters of Sefer Shoftim do not fit in with the general style of the book. The first 16 chapters all focus on the different judges who ruled Israel in the pre-monarchial era. The last five chapters do not fit in with this style. They are simply two terrible stories that occurred in that time period.

Many modern scholars suggest that these two sections were written by different authors, but that since they dealt with the same era they were put together into one book, the final chapters acting as an appendix to the main part.

On the same line, we can suggest that the Rabbis combined these books to act as a debate into the benefits and the drawbacks of the monarchy. The first section arguing that Israel does not need a king; all it needs is to be loyal to God. While the second part argues that Israel needs a king for without a strong leader, everyone will do what is fitting in their eyes, leading to unfaithfulness to God.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "Why Not a King Now?" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King and Sha'ul" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Shoftim entiled: "The King" appears at

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