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Bible Q

what does “come before God” (RV) “come before the judges” (KJV) mean in Exodus 22:8-9?

The passage is as follows:

“If a man gives to his neighbour money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double. If the thief is not found, the owner of the house shall come near to God to show whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbour’s property. 9 For every breach of trust, whether it is for an ox, for a donkey, for a sheep, for a cloak, or for any kind of lost thing, of which one says, ‘This is it,’ the case of both parties shall come before God. The one whom God condemns shall pay double to his neighbour.” (Exodus 22:9)

The Hebrew word here is Elohim, which is one of those words where the ending can be an augmentative  ending great- or can mean plural number. The other well know example of this is the word Behemoth, with -oth, usually a feminine plural ending:

behemoth + singular verb = one great beast
behemoth + plural verb = beasts, plural


elohim + singular verb = one great God, Yahweh
elohim + plural verb = gods, idols

Unfortunately, in Exodus 22:0 the Hebrew text for “before God” is at the end of a sentence, end with preposition (before) + noun (elohim). So there is no verb to indicate whether elohim is singular (= great God) or plural (= gods, idols). However 8 “brought to God” (אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִים), and 9 “before God” (עַד הָֽאֱלֹהִים) here clearly is not intended to be before idols, as the Old Testament is clear that there is no elohim but One, Yahweh himself.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god – Hebrew no elohim (Isaiah 44:6 ESV)

So that brings us back to what the Hebrew “come before God” does mean. The consensus of scholars tends to some form of oracle by lot or test in the temple.

“come to God to seek in his Presence the oracle of divine pronouncement. The procedure for this step is left unspecified, no doubt because it was well known. Perhaps it involved the sacred lot, urim and thummim. Whatever the means of designation, the property owner or the trustee would be declared guilty of deception, and that declaration, which as a divine word was the final word,” John I. Durham, Word Commentary series Exodus 1987, p.474

Other commentaries offer similar comments. For example R. Alan Cole in the Tyndale commentary series, William H. C. Propp in the Anchor Yale series and James K. Bruckner in the NIBC volume.

Next comes the phrase “The one whom God condemns” (יַרְשִׁיעֻן אֱלֹהִים)  and this is where the strongest evidence for the reading of King James is strongest.

“and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double unto his neighbour.” (Exodus 22:9 KJV)

This is listed as a possible alternative translation by some commentators:

Hebrew yaršîun is plural, suggesting the alternative translation, “they [the gods] condemn.” (Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus – Eerdmans Critical Commentary 2009 p522)

However this reading is not common. Even if this is plural it could more likely be the lots, urim and thummim condemning as plural than any other plural test, or plural priests.

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