Deuteronomy 1:16-17, “Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien (gur = “stranger,” “immigrant”). Do not show partiality in judging (“lo takkiru panim”); hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man (“lo taguru mippene is”), for judgment belongs to God.”
Exegesis and Application
The two key words in the verse for us are “fairly” and “partiality.” The Hebrew word translated “fairly” is the very important word “tsedeq.” The word can also be translated “righteous,” “justice,” “straight,” “true,” “upright.” Essentially, the term is a legal one referring to be clear with the perfect judge. This is an unswerving allegiance and commitment to honest, just and truthful decision-making. It is used to describe Noah, Job and Daniel. It is used to describe relationships that are equally fair and beneficial to all parties (Genesis 30:33). The Hebrew phrase translated “partiality” is the words “gur panim” literally meaning “be afraid of the face.” It is also translated “respect persons” or “acknowledge faces.” It is a noteworthy that in both verses 16 and 17 the same Hebrew word (“gur”) is used. The “alien” or “stranger” translation may come from the notion that the sojourner is not home and thus always a bit fearful in another’s country.
While these verses clearly refer to Israel’s judges in a legal proceeding, the principles of fairness and justice are applicable to all Israelites. These “aliens,” that is non-Jews apparently living peacefully among the Israelites where not to be discriminated against or slaughtered as were the rebellious non-Israelites (Deuteronomy 7). These resident aliens are to be treated with respect and equanimity throughout the Old Testament (Deut. 19 Lev. 23:22; Jer. 7:6; Ez. 22:7, etc.). These fairness principles may derive in part, from the existential experience of Israel being resident aliens in Egypt and suffering at the Egyptian hands (Deuteronomy 10:19). This was not to happen with the land governed by God’s people.
Furthermore, the individual Israelites was not to discriminate between the high bred and the low bred. There was to be no favoritism shown to the powerful and well-positioned in Israel. “The idea implies both straight dealing and loyalty within a relationship. Judgment therefore should be according to the true merits of a case, and ordinary human compassion. This means that the judges must not be deterred from a decision by any consideration other than the truth. No preference is to be given to the prestigious or powerful. The stress on this recognizes the natural human fear of others who are powerful. To show bias, however, runs absolutely counter to the vision of Israel, and of society, that is offered in the Pentateuch.
Justice is not a commodity in the hands of those who can control it, but it is in principle God’s alone” (Gordon McConville). A good example of this approach to impartiality is given by King Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 19:6-7). “Fairness in judgment is a theological as well as legal matter. There may be the need for due process at the practical and human level, but ht ultimate standard of righteousness and justice is that which inheres in the character of God himself. Therefore, when human capacity for equitable judgment reaches its limits, appeal must be made ultimately to God. Israel’s judges were to recognize this and conduct their legal proceedings in light of their accountability to him.” (Eugene Merrill).
Law in the Bible is the expression of justice and righteousness. This passage teaches that human judgment must be rendered according to the measure of God’s justice. God, Himself, acts in the justice dispensed by the judges of Israel. Human justice is to be God’s justice. Jacques Ellul notes two juridical conclusions from these verses: 1) The righteousness of God is an expression of God’s transcendence, and 2) Only what is in accordance with His will is just.
Christian journalist: You must fight for God’s concept of justice in your stories because that is the only form of true justice. As our culture elevates a secular concept of “social justice” to the heights of common acceptance you must insist that it is not our concept of justice which brings blessing and equity but rather God’s concept which needs to be established for human flourishing.