Among the ancient Israelites in the pre-Canaanite period disputes within the family or clan or tribe would be settled by the natural head of the family or clan or tribe. According to Exodus 18 Moses, as the leader of the tribes, settled all disputes. But he was compelled to appoint a body of magistrates--heads of families--to act in conjunction with himself, and under his judicial oversight. These magistrates settled ordinary disputes while he reserved for himself the more difficult cases. After the conquest of Canaan, the conditions of life became so complex, and questions of a difficult nature so constantly arose, that steps were taken
(2) to codify ancient custom, and
(3) to place the administration of justice on an organized basis.
It is significant that in one of the oldest documents in the Pentateuch--namely, in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:20-)--the miscarriage of justice was of such frequent occurrence as to require special mention (23:1-3,6-8). In fact the Old Testament abounds with allusions to the corruption and venality of the magisterial bench (Deuteronomy 16:19; Leviticus 19:15; Amos 5:12; Micah 3:11; 7:3; Isaiah 1:23; 5:23; Zechariah 3:3; Psalms 15:5; Proverbs 17:23). According to the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 23:8) `a bribe blindeth the eyes of the open-eyed.' This descriptive phrase indicates a prolific cause of the miscarriage of justice-- an exceedingly common thing in the East, in the present no less than in the past. The prohibition in Exodus 23:3, "Neither shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause," is rather remarkable and many scholars are of opinion that "a great man" should be read for "a poor man" as, according to 23:6 the King James Version, the common fault was "wresting the judgment of the poor." The rich alone could offer a satisfactory bribe. But it should be pointed out that Leviticus 19:15 legislates in view of both tendencies--"respecting the person of the poor:" and "honoring the person of the mighty." Sympathy with the poor no less than a bribe from the well-to-do might affect the judgment of the bench. Deuteronomy 16:19 reproduces the words of the Book of the Covenant with a slight alteration--namely, "eyes of the wise" for "eyes of the open-eyed" ("them that have sight"). Both phrases vividly bring out the baneful effect of bribery--a magistrate otherwise upright and honest--open-eyed and wise--may be unconsciously yet effectively influenced in his judicial decisions by a gift sufficiently large. A similar phrase is found in the story of Abraham's life (Genesis 20:16). A gift of a thousand shekels to Abraham was intended to be a "covering of the eyes" for Sarah, i.e. compensation or reparation for the wrong which had been done. For a gift of such magnitude she ought to wink at the injury. Job 9:24 declares in his bitterness that God "covereth the faces of the judges"--inflicts judicial blindness on them so that justice in this world is out of the question. Judicial corruption was the burden of the prophets' preaching--"judges loved bribes, and followed after rewards," with the result that "the fatherless" and "the widow" were helpless to have their grievances redressed (Isaiah 1:23). A satisfactory reward would always secure the acquittal of the offender (Isaiah 5:23). Micah combines judges, priests and prophets under a similar charge; they are all guilty of gross venality (Isaiah 3:11). \Pr 17:23\ defines the wicked person as one who is always prepared to take a "bribe out of the bosom, to pervert the ways of justice"; on the other hand the good man is he who will not take a reward against the innocent (Psalms 15:5) or "shaketh his hands from taking a bribe" (Isaiah 33:15). In regard to Yahweh alone is absolute incorruptibility affirmed--he "regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward" (Deuteronomy 10:17).
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