Peace, Jerusalem, and David
In the book of Deuteronomy God commands Israel to establish righteous judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). Immediately thereafter we are enjoined not to plant an idolatrous tree near the altar, nor to designate a “matzevah” (- a single stone) for ourselves as this is something that God hates (Deuteronomy 16:21,22).
The association between justice and the altar is not coincidental; it is also found in the book of Exodus where certain laws pertaining to the altar are presented and immediately thereafter we are instructed concerning matters of justice (Exodus 20:21 – 21:1). What is this connection between justice and the altar? And why does God hate the “matzevah”? Didn’t our forefather Jacob offer to God on a “matzevah” (Genesis 28:18)?
A civilization is not a group of people that happen to be living in the same geographical area. Civilization is only achieved when the group of people coordinates their efforts and work together to create a complex society that is much greater than the sum total of the individuals that it includes.
Justice is the glue that keeps a civilization together. Without justice a civilization quickly degenerates into a jungle where the strong crush the weak and the powerful grind the faces of the poor. It is only a society that respects the rights of each individual and only to the degree that the rights of the individual are respected that the society can hope to function as a successful civilization.
The primary function of the king is to ensure that the society he rules over functions as a civilization and not as a jungle. This duty includes synchronizing the efforts, the resources and the various energies of the country to work as one for the good of all. But above all the king must uphold the ideal of justice within the society that he controls.
The concept that stands at the foundation of true justice is the idea that all human beings were equally created by God. Job expresses this thought when he describes how he was dedicated to the principle of justice: “if I ever spurned justice for my servants or maidservants when they contended with me, then what would I do when God would rise up? When He would attend to me, what would I answer Him? Did not the One who made me in the womb make him too?” (Job 31:13-15).
In Job’s society it was very easy for a master to see himself as one who is above the arguments of his slaves and maidservants. Landholders saw themselves as standing on a higher plane of existence than the slaves and maidservants. But Job did not see things that way. Job recognized that there is One Creator who created all men and all are equally subservient to the One who created them all.
Many civilizations have risen and flourished; each with their own version of justice and each with their own set of ideals and aspirations. God did not choose these civilizations. This was not the society that would serve as His dwelling place on earth.
Then Abraham came. He separated himself from the society around him and he established a family on the foundations of charity and justice (Genesis 18:19). It was here that God found a heart that was completely loyal to Him and God chose Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob (Nehemiah 9:8). God made a covenant with the patriarchs that it would be their children who will be identified as His people; this will be the civilization that He favors (Genesis 17:7).
When God redeemed the people of Israel from the house of bondage He established a dwelling place for Himself amongst His holy nation (Exodus 29:46). But God still did not choose a permanent “House of God” amongst his people. The society of Israel had not yet reached its full potential as a civilization that is worthy of a permanent dwelling place for God.
Then God found His servant David (Psalm 89:21). David established justice in Israel (2Samuel 8:15) and this justice was rooted in a deep recognition of the absolute sovereignty of God as represented in the songs of the Psalms. In the book of Psalms David gave voice to the heart of Israel in their complete submission to God and with this he consolidated and gave permanence to the true epicenter of Israel’s civilization as a society that is dedicated to God.
When God made the choice of David’s dynasty as the permanent rulers of Israel, then Jerusalem, David’s capital, became the permanent center of Israel’s civilization. Once Israel’s civilization achieved this quality of stability and permanence then, and only then, was God able to establish His permanent dwelling place at the political center of this society (1Kings 8:16).
Let us now return to the questions with which we opened this article. What is the connection between justice and the altar? Everything! It is only when the society is held together by the Godly ideals of justice that God favors their offerings and that His presence can be manifest in their midst.
Why does God hate the “matzevah”, the altar of a single rock? And why was it appropriate for Jacob to offer on this rock?
The altar that God favors is made up of many rocks symbolizing the harmony and unity that exists in the collective of Israel (1Kings 18:31). Once Israel is established as a national entity it is inappropriate for an individual to offer to God on a single rock. The single rock declares that I stand alone and apart from the people around me. The man who offers on the single rock sees himself as an entity that is above and separated from the people around him; the very opposite of the ideal of justice expressed by Job. When our forefathers had not yet established a nation whose heart is dedicated to God then God desired that they stand apart from the idolatrous nations that surrounded them. At that point in time the single rock altar was an appropriate structure for offering to God. But once a society is established on the foundation of loyalty to God; then the man who insists on standing apart is attacking the principle of justice which is the foundation of the civilization.
“A song of ascents, by David. I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go up to the House of the Lord.” Our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem. The built up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together. For there the tribes ascended, the tribes of God, a testimony for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For there sat thrones of judgment, thrones for the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you will be serene. May there be peace within your wall, serenity within your palaces. For the sake of my brethren and my comrades, I shall speak peace in your midst. For the sake of the House of the Lord, our God, I will request good for you.” (Psalm 122).
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal