Deuteronomy 1:13-15
The Biblical Pattern for Government

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Deuteronomy 1:13-15
The Biblical Pattern for Government

Copyright © June 19, 2016 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

Introductory Remarks.

Deut 1:13-15 deals specifically with the qualifications for civil leadership, or government. It extends by implication to leadership of any sort, whether personal, family, church, business, military or civil magistracy. (The latter is what most people think of when the term government is used.) Biblical government begins on a personal level, which is the self-government of the individual himself. From there government moves up through all levels of society. We are taught by Jesus Himself to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The goal of Biblical government is that “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Revelation 11:15). Every strata of the believer’s societal influence from his personal life to that of the nation and ultimately the entire world is in view.

Author’s Note.

I have spent at least two months writing this treatise, and no less than ten years researching the material for it. It remains an on-going study. I owe a debt of gratitude to many scholars whose abilities go far beyond my own. I owe those men and women my utmost respect and gratitude. For the most part these ideas originated with them. Any mistakes or failures I humbly admit belong to me.


Micah 6:8 makes clear what the life of the God-fearing man (or woman) consists. “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what (more) does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” What God has shown as being the good is an obvious reference to the law of God that Moses set forth before Israel, including Deuteronomy. “Nothing more is required” is the obvious answer to Micah’s rhetorical question. Justice, mercy and faith are all summed up in the Word of God.

Justice and mercy are the two faces of the person who is living in the presence of God. They are the essence of real self-government. When a man is living in a proper (humble) relationship with God then his life will display both of these traits. Justice and mercy, these two, are the attributes of a truly self-regulated individual. They are the governors; the rudders that guide his life.

James 3:4 refers to the rudder of a ship, which James uses as a simile for the tongue. His whole point is that we should properly govern our own lives. That is one of the chief arguments James uses in his first three chapters. From chapter three he moves on to government in the church and how those two forms of government are the basis for government of the whole community. The self-governed individual is the denominator of all the culture in which he exists.

All true government begins with the self-governed individual. Government moves from the person (as he walks in relation to God) to his family, and from there to his community, which in Biblical terms refers to his church and neighborhood; i.e., his ecclesia, since the two are related. The neighborhood is a part of the responsibility of the church, and the church is a ministry for the salvation of the neighborhood. Our neighboring community is a part of our responsibility as the ecclesia of God.

From the community our government moves out further to embrace the greater community: the municipality, the county, the state, and the nation, as well, from there, the rest of the world. Is there any doubt that that is exactly why the Apostles extended their missions far beyond Jerusalem so that Christendom (the Kingdom of Christ) eventually moved to all nations? Because the early Christians believed they had a responsibility to all men of every nation they unfailingly took the Gospel into all the world. (In fact, Deut 4 anticipates the New Testament ministry to all the nations in its’ insistence that Israel’s covenantal fidelity would be a testimony to the nations. The nations around her would see that YHWH was indeed the living and true God because of the transformative nature of their legal covenant.)

Deut 1:13-15 provides the pattern for Biblical government that we describe above. Moses calls on the people over whom he was in charge to appoint from among themselves those who were capable leaders. He acknowledges in 1:12 that he, as the federal head of the nation, does not have the ability to choose the best from among them, since they are so numerous. As a godly leader he recognizes that the people themselves know who the best leaders would be, since they live in the same communities. Moses understood that leadership must move from the local to the federal; from the bottom to the top if it is to be successful. Moses essentially decentralizes government so that leadership comes from the people being governed.

The concepts of decentralized, localized government as well as that of federalism are ideas we view as inherently American, or as a product of the Enlightenment. Instead, we find its’ roots set forth right here in Deuteronomy. In fact, from the time of the Patriarchs before Moses all the way to the earlier monarchies of Saul and David, Israel remained a confederacy of families and tribes. Not until Solomon does a centralized government begin to dominate their history.

Moses does not negotiate a democratic form of government as a part of his design. Neither is his plan strictly a republic. Both of those political ideals are more Greek than Biblical in philosophy.

Democracy upholds the value of the individual over the community, even when the individual is wrong. Similarly, modern libertarianism too often insists on the rights of the individual, or the politics of splinter groups over the rights of the whole community, again, often despite their inherent failures. Libertarians too often insist that failure is an inherent right, so long as that failure does not adversely affect the community as a whole. Worse than that, such political self-centeredness leads to community disintegration, making the whole community vulnerable to political demagoguery. Blind idealism is the first step toward anarchy, and anarchy is the first step towards totalitarianism.

Republican political virtues are much closer to Mosaism than is democracy. Mosaism is that field of Old Testament Theology that refers to the teachings of Moses in the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch. Moses required the people to elect representatives from the local community to stand on behalf of that community as it interacted with the nation as a whole. (Mosaism was thus a very early form of federalism).

Republicanism reaches its’ apex in American culture via the Enlightenment philosophers’ influence upon the founders of our republic. Unfortunately, many Americans view the American form of government as a democracy, when in fact our nation was established as a republic. (See Mark R. Levin, Ameritopia for a thorough discussion of the influence of the Enlightenment philosophers on American political thought.)

The most serious flaw of republicanism is its assumption that the grass roots, or local community almost always has a better, or more informed opinion. This tends to populism: the selection of leadership based on personality cult status. The choice of local leaders who are not necessarily good or wise men but who are charismatic figures eventually creates a void of true leadership. (See the discussion of Jephthah below for more on this idea.) When an overabundance of local and state representatives is selected merely because of their association with pet doctrines or perceived injustices (however true or false), that local failure in the many communities adds up to a huge failure of the whole.

Of course, the founders of our nation designed the constitutional framework as a federalist system with the hope that it would curb such tendencies. For the most part they were right. This remains a workable model so long as the vast majority of the nation adheres to the same set of values. American federalism worked fine so long as the vast majority in every community in the nation were still committed to a Biblical law framework based on the previous 1800 years of Western civilization. As Judeo-Christian values disintegrated, so did the Republic.

Instead Moses insists that the people must only choose the best men as leaders and that he will afterwards appoint them to their offices (or disappoint them if they are not truly qualified). The people must choose from among themselves (i.e., local leaders) persons who are wise, understanding and knowledgeable. This implies that their choices must be god-fearing men who are obedient to the law of God, and who have had a long-standing place of honor within their communities. They must be persons whose commitment to the Mosaic Covenant was unquestionable. (In fact, failure to adhere to the Covenant was considered treason against the nation and her God!) No others would be considered or recommended to go up in rank by the people, nor would they be promoted without already having such a good report.

Deut 1:13-15 assumes that the chosen leader from any community must be a person who has consistently lived his life in fidelity to the covenant. He has guided his personal life and his family life by an uncompromised commitment to the devar YHWH (the Word of God). His personal life is beyond reproach and he is unquestionably faithful to Biblical ethics and doctrine. Of course, those are also the qualifications set forth by Paul for the leaders of the local church in the pastoral epistles. The basis for Paul’s application to the churches however, is Moses’ qualifications, found here, for all civil authorities. The strong implication is that all civil authorities are required to maintain fidelity, personally, and communally to God’s covenant stipulations. Good leaders are always Godly leaders. They govern their own lives first, and the lives of their families, and then their communities based on the Word of God.

While the election of leaders was the responsibility of the local community, their appointment to office was determined by Moses. Moses’ requirement for the ratification of the selected leaders was that their election by the people should be based upon certain requirements as seen above. Those requirements were to remain the same for every community in the commonwealth of Israel: wisdom, understanding and knowledge based upon the Covenant stipulations. There was no room for leadership that did not uphold fidelity to the Covenant. The local community and the federal nation were thus expected to maintain the same basic standards applicable to all their leaders. This goes far beyond mere republicanism.

The larger passage of which Deut 1:12-18 is a summary is Exodus 18. There it is clear that judges were men appointed by the people from among their military heads. Typically, they were elder military commanders whose long years of service as battalion leaders instilled in them the wisdom and understanding needed to judge the whole congregation of Israel. The ability to judge in the more common matters associated with civilian life was derived from their long service in the harsher fields of battle. Statesmanship was an outgrowth of sound military leadership. (Think of General Eisenhower or General Washington.)

It is impossible to completely separate civilian and military leadership in any State. Any federation of communities is continually defending itself against individuals or groups that are opposed to its existence. The existentially utopian state of peace is a non-entity. War is inherent to the State because there will always be enemies of the State. This is true for the good community as well as the evil. The defense of the State is a necessary part of its existence despite the syrupy idealism of Libertarians.

From Deut 1 and Ex 18 we see that the most qualified statesmen and judges, as leaders of the community and the nation, are the elder military leaders. A significant part of the knowledge base accrued under such leadership is a part of the qualification for civilian leadership. Military leadership is not however, completely sufficient for real statesmanship, as we see below.

Exodus 18 clarifies the ideas of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Verse 21: “Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” These were “able” or capable men, not flighty, but those who had proven their ability to make sound decisions. They were God-fearing men who were obedient to the covenant. They adhered to the truth, i.e., to the sound doctrine and ethics set forth to all the nation by Moses at Sinai. And last, they hated covetousness both in themselves and in others. As such, they were not succumbed to greed or avarice, or to the bribery that is endemic among leaders whose reputations are too often questionable.

This last quality may in fact be the most important since the vast majority of cases that come before any judge involve covetousness of one form or another. Ex 20:13-17 is the last five commandments of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). Commandments six through nine are You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false testimony. The tenth commandment moves beyond those four with the implication that they are almost always the end results of covetousness.

Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” Nearly any crime, from lying to murder, that came before these judges was in one way or another, directly related to covetousness. The priority of the judge and statesman, as the leader of the people, not being susceptible to greed, avarice, bribery, or skewed judgment that favored persons or groups, becomes evident. The great failure of American jurisprudence in the last fifty-plus years is found right here. The American people have somehow forgotten that our leaders’ personal lives are the best evidences of how they will govern our communities, and our nation.

National leaders, as much as local leaders, are to be held to the highest possible standards in both their private lives as well as their public lives. A leader of the local community or the church family whose life is not exemplary should never be promoted to higher offices; he will only bring his unfaithfulness in the lesser office with him to the greater office, thus corrupting the whole. No man can properly represent the nation who has not already represented his family, his church, or his local community faithfully and in the fear of God.

The example of Jephthah in Judges 11 displays these truths eloquently. Jephthah’s early career as a warrior was as an associate of brigands and renegades. He learned the craft of war by his association with evil men who were probably the equivalent of highway robbers or pirates. But he was good at what he did for a living. When his family tribe, the Gileadites, were threatened by the invasion from Ammon, despite the fact that they hated Jephthah’s status as a criminal, they sought him out for help because of his military prowess. Jephthah was not committed to the Covenant. In fact, he was openly rebellious to it, but he made concessions to the standards of the community in order to obtain their political favor. He apparently reforms his commitment to the covenant, but does so only for the sake of political expediency. Jephthah leads the Gileadites to victory over Ammon and is installed as a judge in their midst.

Despite Jephthah’s apparent reformation, he proves after the campaign against the Ammonites that he is still not a man of the Covenant. Because of an unwise vow made before his battles, he puts his own daughter to death as a sacrificial offering. This terrible event became a point of mourning and shame for the Gileadite community from that time on. His inability to exercise good judgment that was based on the Mosaic law covenant led to the perpetual shame of the whole community.

Jephthah was a highly valued warrior but he was a self-centered man without wisdom. He was not properly qualified as a statesman because he refused to submit his life to the life of the Covenant people. A biblically qualified statesman is both a warrior and a judge of his people as determined by the law of God. Jephthah is possibly the best example of a military leader who did not have the ability to lead as a statesman because he was not personally faithful. See D L Christensen’s valuable commentary on this point (Word Biblical Commentary 6a, pp. 21-22, First Edition).

The implications for the church leadership should be evident here as well. Leaders who are not wise bring the whole church into disrepute despite their ability to raise a huge following. The world around us sees our inconsistencies often long before we do, and they become our shame. Our pastors, elders and deacons, before they ever are elected to those places of leadership should first be proven consistent to Biblical ethics and doctrine, not just as a requirement for the congregation, but personally, for their own lives. Government begins first in the individual’s self-commitment to the Word of God.

Returning again to the Micah reference that we opened this discussion with we can interpret the concepts of mercy and justice as referring to the dual nature of God’s people as leaders individually and societally. We are both warriors and judges, kings and priests, prophets and intercessors, but as Christensen points out, mercy takes priority over judgment. Jephthah, because he was a self-serving man not accustomed to being governed by the law of God missed this point. As a result, he lost his own daughter and brought shame and sorrow to his own people.

Instead, through our fidelity to God’s Word, we may bring glory and joy to our own.

Most Valuable References:

Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. 2002. The Bahnsen Family Trust. To date the most critical (and criticized) exegetical study on the Biblical foundations for all law in Western society. This is a hard read, but well worth the effort. It is, in my opinion as valuable as Rushdoony’s Institutes (below).

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Civil Government (Ch. 20). N.d. Puritan Commentary Series, from Associated Authors and Publishers Inc. Discusses the responsibility of all government, including the civil governments, to adhere to the law of God.

Gary Demar, God and Government. (Three volumes.) Vol.1: A Biblical and Historical Study, revised version, 1990. Vol. 2: Issues in Biblical Perspective, 2001. Vol. 3: The Restoration of the Republic, 2001. All volumes published by American Vision, Inc. A thorough discussion of the history and various forms of government including self-, family-, church- and civil-governments and their individual responsibilities to fulfill the law of God.

Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King. The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy. Studies and Commentary. 1963. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Discusses the five-fold structure of the Mosaic Covenant and its accordance with ancient middle-eastern suzerainty treaties. This book is foundational to most modern understandings of Covenant and Dominion theology, especially the Christian Reconstruction movement.

Hans Martensen, Christian Ethics. Translated from the Danish, with the Sanction of the Author, by C. Spence. Section III: The Law. 1873, T&T Clark. A sound discussion of the importance of law as a Biblically based method of leading the community and nation to Christ. The law is shown to be the first teacher of grace. (It is highly unlikely the reader will find a copy of this book. I think I have one of the few copies still extant. If there is enough interest, I will photocopy the relevant portions and put them on my website.)

Joel McDurman, Restoring America One County at a Time. How Our Freedom Was Lost and How We Get It Back. 2012, American Vision, Inc. A nitty-gritty how-to-get-it done manual for changing things starting in your own home town and moving from there to the rest of the nation.

Gary North and Gary Demar, Christian Reconstruction. What It Is, What It Isn’t. 1991. Institute for Christian Economics. How the Great Commission applies to every aspect of society and culture and what we need to do to make it work.

Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law. 1973. The Craig Press. A thorough discussion of the Ten Commandments and their implications based on case law from the Old Testament and its applications for American culture.

Ted R. Weiland, Bible Law vs. The United States Constitution. The Christian Perspective. (A Primer). 2011. Mission to Israel Ministries. A small book that eloquently critiques the Constitution as a humanistic compromise against the original Puritan foundations of the colonies. The opinions expressed are not always my own, but I think the ideas presented are worth consideration.

Enoch Cobb Wines, Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews. 2009, American Vision, Inc. Originally published: 1853, Presbyterian Board of Publication. Discusses why Biblical law is applicable to all society and culture, and why the Church/State dichotomy of modern political theory is a failed system that needs to be replaced.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


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