(L.F. Schulze)

Read: Num 35: 29-34; Deut 19: 14 -21.

Sing: Ps. 25 2  (Afrikaans).

Text: Deut 19 :15:

A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong inconnection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained  ( Quotes from RSV).  

It is said that the religion of Israel was built upon the religion of other Near Eastern nations. Indeed, it is possible to show some parallels between Israel ’s religion and that of its neighbours, but these are by far too few to sustain such a statement. If we ask back “Where did their neighbours in their turn find their religious ideas?”, we are inevitably referred to the social life, or the psychological need of the individual, or to both  as ‘seed beds’ of religion. I have expressly used the word inevitably.

Why?Because the above mentioned statement is one of the standard ‘explanations’ of biblical religion by modern people who are called ‘Secular Humanists’ who like to give a ‘scientific’ account of religion. They will never refer to God or the metaphysical world as the source of religion.  Never, ever would you hear the statement that Israel ’s religion has its origin in revelation. They regard such an explanation not only unreasonable but as totally unacceptable, for Secular Humanists are ferocious atheists whose aim is to rid our world from the superstitious memory of a ‘god out there’.  

And yet … every known religion  calls on one or other form of revelation as its origin!  

It is also said that Israel ’s religion ‘developed’ from ‘a ‘primitive’ sort of tribal polytheistic religion (Rachel and the household gods, Gen 31:19) to the high ‘ethical monotheism’ of the prophets. This second ‘rational’ explanation of Israelitic religion was among others, propounded by Julius Wellhausen, an exeptionally gifted orientalist. Like Marx and Darwin he took his cue from Hegel’s theory of history and devised his History of Israel (1878) – a mirror image of Darwin ’s biological evolutionism and Marx’s socio-economical evolutionism in which everything can be explained without God.

So, according to Humanism and Evolutionism God is very much absent. According to these two world views God is scientifically proved to be absent – at least, that is what they try to make us believe.

To counter the above mentioned ‘scientific claim’ let us look at God teaching his people. This will lead us to a short analysis of our text, and to the scriptural and historical contexts of Deut 19: 15.  

God teaching his people

 In Deuteronomy 19 vers 15 God is very much present. Of course, it is Moses who is talking to the people. But he explicitly states that the LORD has told him what to say (e.g. Num 35: 1, 9). In fact, at Mount Sinai God has spoken audibly to Moses in order that the people may hear when I speak to you, and may also believe you for ever (Ex 19: 9).

 But note:

 …the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, and said to Moses,”You speak to us, and we will hear, but let not God speak to us, lest we die (Ex 20: 18 (b)-19).

Indeed, God did speak. By speaking he taught his people. This is expressly stated in Deut 4: 36: Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice, that he might instruct thee (King James Version).

Note how little attention is paid by theology to God the Teacher, the LORD as Educator (Instructor) of his people. Yet the Bible is full of teaching.

Take for example the very next verses of Exodus 20. God has revealed his majesty at Mount Sinai , and now he teaches the Israelites how they should acknowledge his overwhelming majesty in the way they draw near to him (Ex 20: 21 - 24(a)):

And the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was . And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel : ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings …

The following chapters are lessons in the building of a civil society, including prescriptions for judges (e.g. Ex 23: 1-6) on how to comport themselves.

The Text

Our text contains a prescription for legal procedure. Here God demands that there must be multiple witnesses if a charge is to be sustained and a proper verdict is to be rendered. This practical command is given to Israel in order that they may be a holy nation (Ex 19: 6). Apart from this overarching aim, the purport of the command is a) to preserve justice; b) to establish the truth; c) to walk in love.

a)      Justice means “to give everyone his due”, or, “to give to everyone what he deserves”. God rates the life of men so highly that he exacts the most severe punishment for murder. In other words, the murderer deserves death.

On the other hand, if an accused is innocent, he does not deserve death, but must be acquitted. The justice of God demands this.

In order to prevent the shedding of innocent blood the stipulation of Deut. 19: 15 was given (see also Num 35: 30; Deut 17: 6). Apart from taking the accused into account, the stipulation also counteracts the credulity and bias which often impell judges to condemn the guiltless (Calvin).

b)      God gives this rule in order that truth would be established. Without being convinced of the truth no judge can give his verdict and no justice can be done. Says Calvin in his commentary on our text:

 Although He has naturally inscribed this law upon every heart, yet He would have it written down, that its observance amongst the Israelites might be more sacred; for nothing is more dangerous then to expose men’s lives to the tongue of a single individual; but, where the consent of two or three is carefully weighed, any lurking falsehood is for the most part detected.

c)      The establishment of the truth is also the aim of the ninth commandment. The ninth commandment, in its turn, is part of the law of love. Because we should love even the accused, no false witness against him or her is permissable. Even more – God specifically demands truth and  neighbourly love from a witness towards an accused.

 In our text He demands truth and love to be part and parcel of a true legal process.

The text in  Scriptural context

Being part of God’s will for his people of the Old Covenant, it remains equally valid for his people of the New Covenant. It becomes a part of the teaching of Christ. The well known words of Christ in Mt 18: 16 prove the point:

But if he [i.e. your brother] does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses

This text in its context is, as you all know, one of the foundations of canon law. Seeing, however, that we habitually view the ‘church’ as a society of independant individuals, it is of paramount importance to reformulate the sentence in order to bring it in line with the reality of the Old Testament and with the intention of God: This text in its context is one of the foundations of the organic social life of God’s covenant people. By preserving justice, establishing truth, and act in love, they reflect some traits of their heavenly Father, or, as Paul says in Eph 5: 1, becoming imitators of God as beloved children.

By the way, seeing our text and Christ’s words in this context – which is the only scriptural one – the habitual dualism in our thoughts, attitudes and actions (or lack of actions) between the cold justice of ecclesiastical discipline on the one hand, and the commendable brotherly love on the other hand, disappears. This in itself would be commendable because, if we persist in our dualist perception, the false dualism is eventually transferred to the very essence of God Himself. This entails not only a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible but also a fundamental misunderstanding of God.

In this way we create our own idol: a ‘god of love’.  Full stop. A ‘god of love’ cannot judge his own beloved son, cannot punish him instead of others. Consequently the vicarious self-offering of Christ is denied, and he is seen simply as an example. This is one way in which our idol can lead us. A second way is to revive the Marcionite heresy of the second century, as it was current during the nineteen sixties in some circles of the WCC . Some were then saying something like the following: The God of the Old Testament demands his share, but the Father of Christ is a God of love. The meaning is:  The Old Testament reveals a ‘god of justice’ but the New Testament reveals a ‘god of love’.

Let us look at the positive side of Christ’s words in context. To admonish an erring brother in the presence of one or two others  (Mt 18:16 ), and not to hate your brother, but to reason with your neighbour (Lev 19: 17 ) is expression of the neighbourly love, demanded by the law, and now written in our hearts by the Spirit. Therefore this prescription was transmitted to the heathen Christians and became a cornerstone of church law.

A note of caution. Don’t jump too easily to the popular conclusion that it belongs to the individual or collective “Christian” thought to determine what love means in different situations. Or, to put it philosophically: it is not the primary task of the Christian(s) to positivize the law of love because firstly, what the law demands is not an unqualified love; secondly, the Bible does not give simply ‘principles’, but concrete prescriptions for  the conduct of God’s people; thirdly, the will of God is the norm, not Christian thought, feeling, or sentiment.

A commentator has put it succinctly:

Humanity, as reborn in community (sic) with Christ is a new humanity, whose way through life is not determined by human reason nor by Christian conscience, but by the will of God speaking in his word.

Returning to our text it must be noted that the New Testament contains much more of it than the precipitation in Mt 18. Note, for instance, at Jesus’ baptism the three-fold evidence of the Baptist (Mt 3: 14), of the Spirit (Mt 3: 16), and of the Father (Mt 3: 17); the three witnesses (Peter, James, and John) of the transfiguration (Mt 17: 1-8; cf. also 2 Pet 1: 16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) three-fold are the signs of his coming (Mt 24: 8,9,11) and two women attest to his resurrection (Mt 28).

Do you see it now? Our text is the background music, filling the minds of the evangelists to convey the veracity of their gospel.

The text in historical context

It is said that the religion of Israel was built upon the religion of other Near Eastern nations. As regards the new Testament, it took its cue from Hellenism. At least so the scientific argument goes.

However, our text is a thorn in the flesh, causing the worldly wisdom of science to be a sitting duck. The reason for this depressing statement is obvious – there is no trace of the law of multiple witnesses in any known part of the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. It was unknown in ancient Egypt . So there was no way in which Moses could have borrowed the idea from his Umwelt, and it was extremely improbable that he should have tried to dream up a stipulation like this and to put it in God’s mouth. That would have been deception. Moreover, under these circumstances it becomes inexplicable that Christ has reiterated the command. Unless, of course, these words were also put into the mouth of Christ by scheming evangelists. This last mentioned view is peddled in our day with new vigour in the name of science.

Apart from the Sumerians, Babilonians, and Egyptians there were also the Greeks and the Romans.

As regards the Greeks: the stipulation was unknown in Greek law. Even more, Greek legal practice was very much the antipole of what is commanded in our text. A historian puts it as follows:

In later Athens the free decision of the judge was the rule. Formalism wholly disappeared. It was against the Greek way of life, with its high conception of human reason and judgment. The judge was the “living justice”. And the will of the people was often the source of this justice. Lawsuits were a kind of popular amusement…Truth was not the goal, but the victory over the opponent.

  The rhetorical art sought to influence the jury or the judges not by furnishing

scientific evidence, but often by mere deception through pseudo-logic.

This was humanist legal practice; a Godless practice; a practice gone bad. Yet, this prevailing ‘spirit’ of the Hellenistic age is supposed to have been  the source from which the authors of the New Testament drew their knowledge and religion! This is how far secular, atheist scientific ‘explanations’ want to stretch our faith. Don’t let Secular Humanists ever tell you that they do not believe in miracles. The ‘Helenistic roots’ of the Gospel is one, and they firmly believe it.

Roman law is an exception, or, at least a semi-exception. In the first centuries of the formation of Roman legal practice the stipulation of more than one witness was nowhere to be found. And then suddenly, at the final stages of Hellenism, it appears and is still with us in our courts to this very day. We know the cause and the date of the miraculous appearance of God’s stipulation to Moses in secular Roman jurisprudence.

On 23 August 334 emperor Constantine decreed as follows:

In a similar manner we sanctioned that no judge should allow the testimony of only one person to be admitted in any case whatever. We now manifestly sanction that the testimony of only one witness shall not be heard at all, even though such witness should be resplendend with the honour of the glorious senate.

The emperor did make an exeption: a bishop would qualify as a single witness. Yet, finally it was not the emperor’s exception, but God’s command that was ingrained in Roman Law. For this we should be thankful, seeing that even bishops can lie.

Guard the command of our text jealously. Allways search for justice, for truth, and for love in social life and in ecclesiastical life. Don’t ever play games with the Church Order; never regard ecclesiastical verdicts, whether about personal or impersonal matters, like the Greeks as a game to see who wins; don’t misjudge canon law as trivial and cold, because, if you do so, you would be as unlike your heavenly Father as you ever can be.

Apply canon law to God’s covenantal people where and when necessary with humilty. To test a case, to give a verdict is one of the best execises to test your own integrity and the true quality of your love.

Above all, remember that you are always confronted by the righteous God, by his Spirit of truth – yes by the triune God who is love, and whose characteristics you should reflect.