DEUTERONOMY 11:26 – 12:10
Israel always had multiple sanctuaries, places where figures as revered as Samuel and Elijah would make offerings to God. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers say nothing about a requirement that there should be only one place for the national worship of Israel. It is only in the latest source of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, that we find a strict “one sanctuary” law.
Scholars have long detected that the editor of the historical books (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) has much in common with the language of Deuteronomy. Many believe the same author who wrote Deuteronomy edited the history. And we see two conflicting trends in the history regarding the view of the temple.
On the one hand there is realism, from the sources the historian used, depicting great leaders like Samuel making a circuit between altars located in various locations throughout the land. On the other hand, there is the speech of Solomon at the dedication of the temple and also the record of the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, tearing down the unsanctioned altars (high places) throughout the land. Solomon’s speech declares the temple to be the place where God’s name dwells on earth and even to be a place from which Israelites exiled to the far places of the earth would look to worship the One and Only God. Hezekiah and Josiah are depicted as kings whose righteousness can be seen, largely, by their commitment to eliminating all other places of worship.
Consolidating Israel’s worship into one central sanctuary seems to be a need that arose later in the nation’s history. When it became apparent that idolatry was encouraged by the diversity of altars and local places of worship, a reform movement sought to reclaim Israel’s singular allegiance by the simple measure of centralizing the national worship.
This “one sanctuary” law of Deuteronomy is one of the most visible examples of the fact that Torah changed with time and that the five books of the Torah did not come to us from the Mosaic era. A law completely unknown to the Israelites prior to the time of Hezekiah becomes one of the most important laws in Deuteronomy. Clearly some change has occurred. And Torah, as we can see, must adapt to changing times, needs, and circumstances while retaining at its core the message o the covenant between God and Israel.
The choice is blessing or curse (26-28), the ceremony on Ebal and Gerizim (28-30), observe Torah when you occupy the land (11:31 – 12:1), destroy Canaanite places of worship (2-3), bring all worship to the place God chooses for his Name to dwell (4-7), you must have centralized worship, not as you are doing now in the Transjordan (8-10).
Immediately before the collection of commandments in chapters 12-26, we find a reference to blessing and curse and, more specifically, to a place in the land where two mountains face one another. Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal will also be mentioned right after the section of laws in Deuteronomy 27:1-8. So the legal chapters come between bookends about the mountains Gerizim and Ebal. What is this all about?
We find out more in Joshua chapter 8. When Israel did enter the land, one of their first deeds was to perform a ceremony, of blessings and curses. From one summit, on Gerizim, some of the people recited aloud the blessings of the covenant (perhaps the text of Deuteronomy 28:3-14). From the other summit, some of the people recited aloud the curses (Deuteronomy 28:16-57). This covenant ceremony appeared to the author of Deuteronomy to explain exactly what the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah had experienced. Failing to keep devotion to the covenant, the northern kingdom fell completely and Judah had come to the brink of ruin.
The commandments section of the book finally begins with chapter 12. All that has come up to now has been prelude and exhortation.
The first section of laws is, as in the ten commandments, about the worship of God and rejection of idolatry. Deuteronomy has a unique requirement: all sacrificial worship must be centralized and not occur at local high places spread throughout the land. This requirement is a puzzle since, first of all, it has not been mentioned in the other Torah sources which we find in Exodus through Numbers and, second of all, it was unknown to Samuel, Elijah, David, and Solomon.
Oddly, Deuteronomy 12:8 refers to the people doing as they please. Since the context refers to people making offerings at unsanctioned altars, something does not seem to fit the context. According to the literal setting of Deuteronomy the Israelites are encamped around the tabernacle obeying Moses. There are no illicit temples and unsanctioned altars in the desert during Israel’s forty year journey. Instead, we have to imagine the reference is to the time after Israel entered the land, through the period of the judges and kings of Israel and Judah. This is one of the places where the true setting of Deuteronomy shows through the pretext. The author is, on the one hand, pretending to transmit speeches delivered by Moses but, on the other hand, is using this literary genre to comment on conditions five centuries after Moses.
Beginning in vs. 5, Deuteronomy takes up one of its most distinctive phrases, referring to “the place” (הַמָּקוֹם hammaqōm) where Adonai chooses to “place” (לָשׂוּם lasoom) “his name” (שְׁמוֹ shemō). Similarly the book will refer to the place Adonai “chooses” (יִבְחַר yivchar) to “cause his name to dwell” (לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם leshakein shemō sham). The implication is obvious: God himself is not there, but the place is where he has designated the people to call on his name. Whereas the other Torah sources have implied a more direct Presence of God (a manifestation of his being located inside the temple), Deuteronomy seems to back off from this. The importance of the temple is that God designated it as the place to remember and honor him. What exactly was the motive of the author for downplaying the divine Presence? Was it motivated by realism, by the knowledge of the author personally that no theophany was actually present in the inner shrine of the temple?
“God’s presence in Deuteronomy,” says Stephen Cook (Reading Deuteronomy), “. . . is mysterious.” The author here has a new way of describing the connection between God and the temple, between God and the people. Instead of insisting as the priestly texts of Torah do that God’s visible manifestation is always inside the shrine, Deuteronomy says his “name” is at the place. As Cook says, “The book emphasizes a striking presence and absence of God.”
Israel’s history up to that point has included many close encounters with God. God had brought Israel out “by his Presence,” in other words, in person in a tangible appearance (Deuteronomy 4:37). The people heard God speak out of the fire on Sinai (4:33). God went “before them” during the conquest in Joshua’s time (1:30; 9:3). God is said to be presently “in your midst” (7:30). God’s care and blessings will be over the land where the people live (11:12). As Stephen Cook observes, Deuteronomy even asks, “What other nation has a god so near to it?” (4:7).
But Deuteronomy also takes pains, says Cook, to emphasize absence or only partial presence. The people did not see any shape or semblance of God on Sinai, but heard only a “voice” (4:12). In the historical writings which are edited by the author of Deuteronomy, Elijah goes to Horeb (Sinai) and does not see God there, but hears only a voice (1 Kings 19:12). What the people will find at the temple is God’s “name.”
It is vague. God may or may not be actually present, but his name is always there. Cook says with an idol, a statue thought to concentrate the divine energy into a physical object, the god is forced to be there. Idols are objects used for trapping deities in a place, for making divine beings do the will of human beings.
But God is free. The relationship between human beings and God is subject to the will of the Omnipresent, the Transcendent One, who is always a mystery to us.
He may or may not be present in any tangible sense, but God is in the world, in the land of Israel, and in the place of the temple in varying degrees of potency. In one sense the whole earth is under his care. In a heightened sense, the land of Israel is a place God potentially will bless with supernatural conditions unlike anything experienced in any other place on earth. And at its most potent, the divine Presence is potentially at the site of the temple, the place where God chooses for his name to dwell.
People need not limit their worship to places and times when God appears in a visible manifestation. We can honor his “name” from anywhere at any time. In Judaism there is a longing for God’s actual presence and thus, like Daniel in Babylon, we face Jerusalem several times a day and pray in the direction of the temple site. As Solomon is represented as saying in his great prayer in 1 Kings 8, when the people of Israel find themselves thrown out of the land, living in exile in some far country, may “they pray to you in the direction of their land which you gave to their fathers . . . and of the house which I have built in your name” (1 Kings 8:48).
The idea of God’s “name” being with us is a fitting description for the situation we find ourselves in, where God’s proximity to us is a matter of mystery, where presence and absence both seem to be true.
Bring all kinds of offerings and people to the central sanctuary (11-12), changing the Torah to allow secular slaughter (13-16), tithe and sacrifice to be eaten only at the central sanctuary in public feasts (17-19), repetition and expansion of secular slaughter provisions (20-25), repetition of provisions concerning holy offerings (26-27), blessing of following the single sanctuary laws (28).
The new single sanctuary law in Deuteronomy seems to promote the unity of all Israel, as the people will gather for feasts and bring all vows, offerings, and tithes to one place for the purpose of rejoicing together as a community. It is the “place Adonai will choose to cause his name to dwell” (vs. 11). Brueggemann (Deuteronomy: Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries) suggests the emphasis that God’s “name” dwells in the temple, as opposed to his Glory or Presence, is a way of declaring that God may choose to withdraw or be present. The place is holy whether God chooses to be present or not.
All the things commanded by God to be brought by the people are to come there, to the temple: offerings, tithes, first fruits and other kinds of donations things vowed. And it should be a place for rejoicing. This fits with an emphasis in Deuteronomy that the ordinances are for the people and not for the benefit of the king or the priests.
Vs. 15 represents another change in Torah. Whereas Leviticus 17:3-4 had required all slaughter to occur at a sanctuary (with multiple temples envisioned), Deuteronomy represents the new situation where only one temple is permitted. People will be too far away to limit slaughter to the sanctuary, so the Torah is changed. Secular slaughter will now be permitted anywhere as long as the blood is poured out into the earth. Yet sacred slaughter and all vows and regular tithes are still due at the one sanctuary where God chooses to place his name.
The public feasts of Israel require only males to attend (Deuteronomy 16:16), but children and women normally came as well (“your sons and daughters”). The purpose of the feasts is rejoicing and sharing the abundance as a community so that Levites, slaves, and the poor (see 14:29) will also have plenty. The Levites are especially mentioned because they might suffer as a result of the new single sanctuary law. Under the previous system, Levites at many different sanctuaries received offerings. Now with one centralized shrine, there is a concern that their livelihood will be maintained.
Vss. 20-25 expand on the new law of secular slaughter, adding some more reasons for the change. God is about the enlarge the territory and so the ways of the smaller community will need to change. Animal slaughtering will no longer be only in the context of peace offerings and worship. But the older restrictions on holy things (vows, offerings, tithes, blood) continue as before. Israel in this ideal system will be a large community, spread out, coming together three times a year in unity with rejoicing to the place of God’s Presence.
DEUTERONOMY 12:29 – 13:19 (13:18 in Chr Bibles)
Can we read the Bible as an infallible book of divine words? If so, few chapters will give us as much trouble as Deuteronomy 13. In our time we have seen a similar application of harsh, murderous religious laws in the form of groups such as the Taliban. The text of Deuteronomy 13 actually requires a person to hand over a loved one — a son or daughter, spouse or parent — to a court for execution for religious crimes.
Sometimes people falsely accuse the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) of being primitive and harsh and featuring an angry God while suggesting the Christian Bible (New Testament) is more advanced and based on love. There are a number of reasons to reject this assessment. First, these harsh passages are in the minority in the Hebrew Bible which is filled with a high sense of love and ethical religion. Second, the New Testament contains many harsh passages (even in Paul’s writing and certainly in Revelation). Third, the writers of the New Testament were dominated by a greater Roman power hostile to their religious views whereas the writers of the Hebrew Bible could imagine their government making Torah-religion the law of the land.
The Bible is human and flawed. The writer presents this all as a speech of Moses. But in reality he is looking for a solution to the problems of his time — a debauched, decaying culture in Judah enamored with the power and ways of empire. Surely the writer has gone too far in suggesting a religious court to execute idolaters, even asking families to turn in loved ones and then cast the first stone against them. This is not the way to reform a society, as we have too painfully seen in the history of religious theocracies including the Crusades and Inquisition in Europe and the extremes of Islamic tyranny in the Middle East and beyond.
How can a book be “Torah” and contain something “divine” when it also has in it such horrific calls for religious persecution? Perhaps readers will find that the good far outweighs the bad in the Bible, that for the very few examples of religious tyranny found in its pages, the Bible (including Deuteronomy) has an overall effect calling us to a higher ethic, to a belief in the divine presence. Perhaps readers can imagine God influencing a people through his direct presence, leaving them with a tradition that human beings would transmit. And that tradition would contain within it things both human and divine. And it would be valuable, a literary treasure, even with the bad parts. Where else can we go to find the divine voice operating through a culture, in a literary product? The Bible does not have to be perfect or infallible to be good.
Avoid Canaanite methods of worship and do not worship the Lord in this way (12:29 – 13:1), a prophet who tries to seduce the public to idolatry (2-6), a close relative or friend who tries to seduce one privately to idolatry (7-12), a town that has gone idolatrous (13-19).
On the surface, Deuteronomy has a concern, expressed by Moses to the generation about to enter the land, that they will adopt Canaanite practices. But beneath the surface, with the realization that the book is written in a much later period, the concern is really about something else: a nation which has copied the ways of empires, a royal administration taking advantage of the lower classes, a reliance on treaties and political deals for security, and an upper class intent on pleasure with little concern for what is good and right. We see these complaints in prophets like Isaiah about conditions in Judah. But this diatribe against imitation of the wicked ways of the nations is couched in a fictitious speech by Moses about the Canaanites.
The lowest low of debauched culture is represented here by a practice which was likely very uncommon: child sacrifice. This heinous practice is not named because it was typical, but because it represents the extreme result of abandoning a belief in the values of Torah. A relief painting in Egypt from the 13th century BCE shows Canaanites dropping dead children, who had possibly been sacrificed, over the walls in an Egyptian siege (Tigay). Child sacrifice is known from other ancient cultures, as for example in The Iliad, where Agamemnon offers one of his daughters to the sea-god to ensure safe sailing for his army. A more complete list of Canaanite practices is found in 18:10-11 (sorcery, divination, and necromancy).
Chapter 13 contains three horrific cases of capital punishment for religious crimes. A theocracy such as Deuteronomy envisions could perhaps exist in a land with a clear divine presence, with God himself actually guiding the priests and rulers. But historically theocracies have actually been the rule of human beings claiming divine sanction. The text here mentions three cases in vss. 1-5, 7-12, and 13-19. In each case there is a seduction away from Adonai (by a prophet, by a loved one, by an entire town). In each case there is a gruesome requirement: kill them all.
The text actually suggests a person should turn their spouse in for spreading belief in idolatry, handing them over to the court for execution. Vs. 10 helps to clarify, as does Deuteronomy 17:6-7, that this is execution by a valid and authorized court, not an individual murdering their own loved one for a religious crime. Nonetheless, these calls for execution of people in the land who spread ideas about idolatry is an example of the very human and flawed nature of the Bible. This is not a word from God. Rather, the author, disgusted with the injustice and debauchery of his time (five centuries after Moses) and longing for the divine Presence to be seen again amid the people, is going too far. The sanctions mentioned here were never carried out consistently or on a large scale, thankfully.