Although Parashat Mishpatim is just over three chapters in length, it contains over fifty of the six hundred and thirteen commandments. It is densely packed with various commandments, particularly those involving civil issues. There’s a problem, however, with the application of these commandments if we are attempting to follow a literal reading of the text. Here is an example:
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 neighbor. (Exodus 22:9)
There are numerous problems with reading this passage literally, however. For instance: How do disputing parties “come before God?” Where is this to take place? Also, according to this passage, “the one whom God condemns” is liable to the financial penalty. But how do they know the verdict? What if both parties believe that God has judged in their favor? How is this resolved?
The problems with this passage revolves around translation. In this passage, both parties are to be brought before אלהים, elohim. The problem is that this Hebrew word has a wide variety of meanings. It literally means god(s), but can also mean God, powers, judges, mighty ones, etc. Although it use used frequently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the Creator, it also has numerous other uses. Psalm 82 begins:
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah (Psalm 82:1–2)