B'resheet/Genesis 31:48,52 And Laban said, "This mound is a witness between me and you today ... this mound is a witness and the stone is a witness ...
The Hebrew word (feminine form ), a witness, from the root , to repeat or testify (Davidson), is used three times in our text. It appears again in verse 50 - "G-d Himself will be witness between you and me" (JPS) - and is alluded to in verse 49, "May the L-RD watch between you and me" (JPS), where the function of watching or observing is invoked. TheSforno explains that Laban "declared that it be a witness of what he was about to say ... and let the adjoining place, Mitzpah (lit. watchtower) also be a witness, reminding us what will (now) be said. Because Laban said, 'May HaShem keep watch between me and you' - and be our Judge and Referee. Adding 'But see, G-d is a witness' - if you will betray me, you trespass against Him, and He will punish you."
What do witnesses do? A witness is someone who sees an event take place, who gives testimony in a court of law, or who signs a document to confirm that it happened. Jewish law goes one step further and also requires that a witness warn the people being watched that they are present. Witnesses are invoked to remind the parties that they took some action, swore an oath or made an obligation. Ideally, witnesses are assumed to hear and or see the action, oath or undertaking, so that they can repeat it if called upon to do so. In this case, the sight by either Laban or Ya'akov of the standing stone or the mound are supposed to remind them of their non-aggression pledge. Their divinities - "the G-d of Abraham and the god of Nahor" (v. 53, JPS) are also invoked, since gods hear everything so can be relied upon to arbitrate in a dispute.
At the end of his long teaching to the Children of Israel on the Plains of Moab, across from Jericho, before they crossed the Jordan to enter the Land, Moshe invokes two witnesses before the people: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the L-RD your G-d, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the L-RD swore to your fathers, to Avraham, Yitz'khak, and Ya'akov, to give them" (D'varim 30:19-20, NASB). The two witnesses are to confirm that Moshe has done what he needed to do; he has told the people about the choice before them. It is now down to them.
At the end of his life, Joshua called Israel together to confirm their intention to continue serving HaShem after his death. After the people declared that they would serve HaShem, "Joshua said to the people, 'You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the L-RD'" (Joshua 24:22, JPS) and then he "wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the L-RD. And Joshua said to all the people, 'Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the L-RD which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, lest you deny your G-d'" (vv. 26-27, JPS). Three witnesses: the people themselves, the words written in the book and the large stone.
In all these cases there are several witnesses. Why should this be? The Torah stipulates, "A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established" (D'varim 19:15, ESV). Moreover, Jewish law excludes women, minors and anyone who ever given a false oath from being a witness in court. This is why Yeshua teaches the disciples that in disputes between believers, "But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16, ESV) and Rav Sha'ul tells Timothy that "Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses" (1 Timothy 5:19, ESV). There must be several independent witnesses to verify that an event or an offence took place. This is particularly true in capital cases: "the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death" (B'Midbar 35:30, JPS).
This accounts for the trial of Yeshua before the Council on the night that He was arrested. After hearing from a number of accusers who attempted - but failed - to give matching testimony of an offence, the High Priest finally turned to Him and directly asked, "'Are You the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?' And Yeshua said, 'I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.' And tearing his clothes, the high priest said, 'What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?' And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death" (Mark 14:61-64, NASB). The whole Council had heard Yeshua's words with their own ears and a capital sentence could be given.
Earlier in His ministry in Jerusalem, Yeshua was involved in a dispute over who He was with the people. Not only did they think He was breaking the Shabbat rules, but that He was claiming that G-d was His Father. Yeshua responds by telling them that He is only doing what He has seen the Father doing - be that even raising the dead, which he hasn't yet done in John's gospel but will do later - and speaks of the coming resurrection and judgement. But, He reminds them, "If I alone bear witness of Myself, My testimony is not true" (John 5:31, NASB). Notice here that the phrase 'not true' does not mean that Yeshua is being untruthful or lying, but means ' not valid'; it is not admissible in court. Three chapters later, Yeshua covers the same ground - "In your Law it is written that the testimony of two people is true. I am the one who bears witness about Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness about Me" (John 8:17, ESV).
Here, however, Yeshua sets out clearly that He has multiple witnesses to who He is. The first is John the Baptist: "You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. But the witness which I receive is not from man, but I say these things that you may be saved. He was the lamp that was burning and was shining and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light" (John 5:33-35, NASB). What did John say? Twice he pointed to Yeshua and said, "Behold, the Lamb of G-d who takes away the sin of the world!" (1:29, NASB), adding, "I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him" (v. 32, NASB). John recognised Yeshua and spoke clearly about him: "I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of G-d" (v.34, NASB).
Yeshua's second and more significant witness is the things that He does: "But the witness which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me" (John 5:36, NASB). So far in John's gospel, we have had the Wedding at Cana and the healing of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda. John tells us at the end of the gospel that Yeshua did many other miracles and Yeshua later asked the people in the Temple, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone Me?" (John 10:32, ESV), which the people had to admit. Nicodemus tells Yeshua, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from G-d, for no one can do these signs that You do unless G-d is with him" (3:2, ESV).
Yeshua's third witness is both the greatest and the most difficult for the people to accept: "And the Father who sent Me, He has borne witness of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. And you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent" (John 5:37-38, NASB). The texts for this don't come in John's gospel, but Matthew tells us that when Yeshua was baptised, - "a voice from heaven said, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:17, ESV), while Luke reports that at the Transfiguration, "a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 'This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!'" (Luke 9:35, ESV).
Then Yeshua lists His fourth and last witness: "You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me" (John 5:39, NASB). The words of the Hebrew Bible, accepted as a sacred text by Second Temple times when Yeshua was ministering, speak of the One who is to come. Referring to the giving of the Spirit at His baptism, Isaiah says, "Behold My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations" (Isaiah 42:1, ESV). Daniel speaks of the Son of Man: "with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him" (Daniel 7:13, ESV).
Further Study: Isaiah 43:10-12; Luke 24:25-27
Application: Have you seriously considered the evidence and understood who Yeshua is? It's time to make a judgement and know where you stand so that you can be a witness to others.
© Jonathan Allen, 2016
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