The Higher Judicial Court at the Place of the Sanctuary. - Just as the judges appointed at Sinai were to bring to Moses whatever cases were too difficult for them to decide, that he might judge them according to the decision of God (Exo 18:26 and Exo 18:19); so in the future the judges of the different towns were to bring all difficult cases, which they were unable to decide, before the Levitical priests and judges at the place of the sanctuary, that a final decision might be given there.
“If there is to thee a matter too marvellous for judgment (נִפְלָא with מִן, too wonderful, incomprehensible, or beyond carrying out, Gen 18:14, i.e., too difficult to give a judicial decision upon), between blood and blood, plea and plea, stroke and stroke (i.e., too hard for you to decide according to what legal provisions a fatal blow, or dispute on some civil matter, or a bodily injury, is to be settled), disputes in thy gates (a loosely arranged apposition in this sense, dispute of different kinds, such as shall arise in thy towns); arise, and get thee to the place which Jehovah thy God shall choose; and go to the Levitical priest and the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire.” Israel is addressed here as a nation, but the words are not to be supposed to be directed “first of all to the local courts (Deu 16:18), and lastly to the contending parties” (Knobel), nor “directly to the parties to the suit” (Schultz), but simply to the persons whose duty it was to administer justice in the nation, i.e., to the regular judges in the different towns and districts of the land. This is evident from the general fact, that the Mosaic law never recognises any appeal to higher courts by the different parties to a lawsuit, and that in this case also it is not assumed, since all that is enjoined is, that if the matter should be too difficult for the local judges to decide, they themselves were to carry it to the superior court. As Oehler has quite correctly observed in Herzog's Cyclopaedia, “this superior court was not a court of appeal; for it did not adjudicate after the local court had already given a verdict, but in cases in which the latter would not trust itself to give a verdict at all.” And this is more especially evident from what is stated in Deu 17:10, with regard to the decisions of the superior court, namely, that they were to do whatever the superior judges taught, without deviating to the right hand or to the left. This is unquestionably far more applicable to the judges of the different towns, who were to carry out exactly the sentence of the higher tribunal, than to the parties to the suit, inasmuch as the latter, at all events those who were condemned for blood (i.e., for murder), could not possibly be in a position to alter the decision of the court at pleasure, since it did not rest with them, but with the authorities of their town, to carry out the sentence.
Moses did not directly institute a superior tribunal at the place of the sanctuary on this occasion, but rather assumed its existence; not however its existence at that time (as Riehm and other modern critics suppose), but its establishment and existence in the future. Just as he gives no minute directions concerning the organization of the different local courts, but leaves this to the natural development of the judicial institutions already in existence, so he also restricts himself, so far as the higher court is concerned, to general allusions, which might serve as a guide to the national rulers of a future day, to organize it according to the existing models. He had no disorganized mob before him, but a well-ordered nation, already in possession of civil institutions, with fruitful germs for further expansion and organization. In addition to its civil classification into tribes, families, fathers' houses, and family groups, which possessed at once their rulers in their own heads, the nation had received in the priesthood, with the high priest at the head, and the Levites as their assistants, a spiritual class, which mediated between the congregation and the Lord, and not only kept up the knowledge of right in the people as the guardian of the law, but by virtue of the high priest's office was able to lay the rights of the people before God, and in difficult cases could ask for His decision. Moreover, a leader had already been appointed for the nation, for the time immediately succeeding Moses' death; and in this nomination of Joshua, a pledge had been given that the Lord would never leave it without a supreme ruler of its civil affairs, but, along with the high priest, would also appoint a judge at the place of the central sanctuary, who would administer justice in the highest court in association with the priests. On the ground of these facts, sit was enough for the future to mention the Levitical priests and the judge who would be at the place of the sanctuary, as constituting the court by which the difficult questions were to be decided.
(Note: The simple fact, that the judicial court at the place of the national sanctuary is described in such general terms, furnishes a convincing proof that we have here the words of Moses, and not those of some later prophetic writer who had copied the superior court at Jerusalem of the times of the kings, as Riehm and the critics assume.)
For instance, the words themselves show distinctly enough, that by “the judge” we are not to understand the high priest, but the temporal judge or president of the superior court; and it is evident from the singular, “the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord” (Deu 17:12), that the high priest is included among the priests. The expression “the priests the Levites” (Levitical priests), which also occurs in Deu 17:18; Deu 18:1; Deu 21:5; Deu 24:8; Deu 27:9; Deu 31:9, instead of “sons of Aaron,” which we find in the middle books, is quite in harmony with the time and character of the book before us. As long as Aaron was living with his sons, the priesthood consisted only of himself and his sons, that is to say, of one family. Hence all the instructions in the middle books are addressed to them, and for the most part to Aaron personally (vid., Ex 28 and 29; Lev 8-10; Num 18:1, etc.). This as all changed when Aaron died; henceforth the priesthood consisted simply of the descendants of Aaron and his sons, who were no longer one family, but formed a distinct class in the nation, the legitimacy of which arose from its connection with the tribe of Levi, to which Aaron himself had belonged. It was evidently more appropriate, therefore, to describe them as sons of Levi than as sons of Aaron, which had been the title formerly given to the priests, with the exception of the high priest, viz., Aaron himself. - In connection with the superior court, however, the priests are introduced rather as knowing and teaching the law (Lev 10:11), than as actual judges. For this reason appeal was to be made not only to them, but also to the judge, whose duty it was in any case to make the judicial inquiry and pronounce the sentence. - The object of the verb “inquire” (Deu 17:9) follows after “they shall show thee,” viz., “the word of right,” the judicial sentence which is sought (2Ch 19:6).
They shall do “according to the sound of the word which they utter” (follow their decision exactly), and that “according to the sound of the law which they teach,” and “according to the right which they shall speak.” The sentence was to be founded upon the Thorah, upon the law which the priests had to teach.
No one was to resist in pride, to refuse to listen to the priest or to the judge. Resistance to the priest took place when any one was dissatisfied with his interpretation of the law; to the judge, when any one was discontented with the sentence that was passed on the basis of the law. Such refractory conduct was to be punished with death, as rebellion against God, in whose name the right had been spoken (Deu 1:17). (On Deu 17:13, see Deu 13:12.)