Parashat Mishpatim - Exodus 21:1-24:18

Acting On Behalf Of God

Although Parashat Mishpatim is just over three chapters in length, it contains over fifty of the six hundred and thirteen commandments. It is densely packed with various commandments, particularly those involving civil issues. There’s a problem, however, with the application of these commandments if we are attempting to follow a literal reading of the text. Here is an example:

For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbor. (Exodus 22:9)

There are numerous problems with reading this passage literally, however. For instance: How do disputing parties “come before God?” Where is this to take place? Also, according to this passage, “the one whom God condemns” is liable to the financial penalty. But how do they know the verdict? What if both parties believe that God has judged in their favor? How is this resolved?

The problems with this passage revolves around translation. In this passage, both parties are to be brought before אלהים, elohim. The problem is that this Hebrew word has a wide variety of meanings. It literally means god(s), but can also mean God, powers, judges, mighty ones, etc. Although it use used frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the Creator, it also has numerous other uses. Psalm 82 begins:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah (Psalm 82:1–2)

Who is this divine council? Who are the “gods” among whom the Creator sits to hold judgment? These are the judges of Israel. Only they are able to judge with both justice and injustice and show partiality to the wicked. The angelic host is incapable of injustice, and are therefore not being referred to in this passage. These judges are admonished, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3–4). God is rebuking the judges of Israel for failure to deliver true justice.

Just a few verses further, God tells them, “You are gods (elohim), sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:6–7). This is the passage Yeshua quotes when defending his claim to be the Son of God in John 10:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:34–36)

Yeshua uses this argument to show that just as God has called the judges of Israel by His own designation of “elohim” in Psalm 82 because they act on His behalf, his accusers should not be upset with him claiming to be the Son of God, since he was acting with full authority from his Father.

In Parashat Mishpatim, we hear God conferring full authority upon His representatives to make rulings among the Children of Israel on His behalf. The Amplified Bible renders this in a way to help us understand. The Children of Israel are to “bring him to God [that is, to the judges who act in God’s name]” (Exodus 22:9, Amplified Bible). The only way a case can be settled is through a system of judges that have authority to interpret Torah and make judgments for Israel. 

Yeshua also confers this authority to his Apostles, saying, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). In each case, the authority acts on behalf of the issuer of that authority. Parashat Mishpatim is filled with a number of cases in which those authorities would need to mediate between the involved parties. Through His agents, God extends Himself into the realm of mankind through righteousness and justice.