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Thursday, June 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 5 / Ordinary 10
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 12

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Here we come to a major division in our study of Deuteronomy. Wright stated that Deuteronomy 12:1 “is the title of this section (Deuteronomy 12:12-28), and we do not encounter another major title until we come to Deuteronomy 29:1.”(F1) This strongly indicates that Moses considered this rather long section as a unit. Any orderly progression of the topics here considered is difficult to see, but, as Dummelow remarked: “As far as any orderly arrangement can be discovered, Deuteronomy 12-16 deals with strictly religious duties; Deuteronomy 17-20 is concerned with civil duties; and the rest of the section (Deuteronomy 21-28) discusses social and domestic regulations.”(F2)

As for what connection all this has with previous parts of Deuteronomy, Kline stated that, “It resumes that part of the mandate of conquest which required the obliteration of Canaanite cultic centers and installations (Deuteronomy 7:5; Deuteronomy 7:25; Exodus 23:24; Exodus 34:13).”(F3)

Moses’ application of the Law of God as previously given at Sinai is characterized by certain modifications and relaxations due to the changed circumstances which were about to be brought in by Israel’s possession of the land. However, “The authority of the Sinaitic system, far from being set aside or in any way abrogated, is taken as the starting point for all that is here prescribed; and an accurate acquaintance with it on the part of the people is taken for granted.”(F4)


Of course, this chapter is the focal point of the critical attacks against Deuteronomy. The theory is that Moses had nothing to do with writing Deuteronomy; it was a forgery fraudulently passed off as Moses’ book by priests of the eighth or ninth century B.C. who initiated a campaign to “eradicate the evils of syncretistic worship at the high places, which up until that time (in their view) was perfectly legitimate.”(F5) This theory is as irresponsible and complicated as any barrel of scorpions ever opened, but some of the features of it assert: (1) that the priests then hid this forgery in the temple and had it “discovered” during the reign of Josiah; and (2) that it was this book that really was the first of the Pentateuch! Note the very noble and commendable motives assigned to these unscrupulous, crooked priests. They were trying to purify God’s worship! Did any bitter fountain ever send forth sweet waters? In the halls of criticism, it is only the bitter fountains that produce the sweet waters. The theory also is credited with establishing Jerusalem as the only place where God could be worshipped.

Now we simply don’t have time or space to explore all of the ramifications of this crooked little fairy tale, but we shall include this excellent summary of a reputable and dependable scholar writing in 1979 and giving a few of the dozens of reasons why it is impossible to believe any of the allegations of this crooked theory:

a. This passage, and indeed the whole Book of Deuteronomy, has not a single reference to “Jerusalem.”

b. The emphasis in Deuteronomy 12 is not on having only one place of worship, but upon purity of worship.

c. There is no specific reference to worship at the high places (supposedly their chief concern).

d. Deuteronomy assumes a plurality of altars.

e. God specifically commanded that an altar be erected on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:1-8), NOT at Jerusalem.

f. The view that God in any sense whatever ever approved of any syncretistic worship at the high places is nonsense. The minor prophets remove any question whatever about this. God never approved of His worship being mixed with the rites of the Canaanites.

g. Contrary to critical opinion, there is visible in Deuteronomy no indication whatever that the author had any intention of “centralizing the cultus.” Of course the critics need such an “intention,” so they get it in Deuteronomy 12:5, where “the place” is mentioned! But can that mean there is only one place? NO! Look at Deuteronomy 23:16, where “the place” a slave may choose to live is mentioned. Subsequent references show that it simply means “any place” a slave may choose, and so the reference to “the place” God may choose to record His name means “any place” He may choose.(F6)

Verses 1-7

“These are the statutes and the ordinances which ye shall observe to do in the land which Jehovah, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. Ye shall surely destroy all the places wherein the nations that ye shall dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree: and ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto Jehovah your God. But unto the place which Jehovah your God shall choose out of all your tribes, to put his name there, even unto his habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come; and thither shalt thou bring your burnt-offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the heave-offering of your hand, and your vows, and your freewill-offering, and the firstlings of your herds and of your flock: and there ye shall eat before Jehovah your God, and ye shall rejoice in all that ye put your hand unto, ye and your households, wherein Jehovah thy God hath blessed thee.”

“High mountains… hills… under every green tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2). “The choice of such places for worship by most of the heathen nations was due to the widespread belief that men were closer to Deity in such places.”(F7) Also, the awe inspired by deep shade, as well as the privacy such places afforded, were probably other factors entering in to such choices.

“Ye shall not do so unto Jehovah your God… (Deuteronomy 12:4). Keil says this means, “Ye shall not build altars and offer sacrifices in any place you choose.”(F8) Many scholars have pointed out the significant corollary that worshippers today should derive from these instructions. “The possession of our inheritance necessitates the most rigid dealing with idolatry.”(F9) “The idea that we may worship God any way we like is refuted here, for worship to be worship it must conform to God’s wishes and instructions.”(F10) No more serious indictment against modern Christianity is possible than that which derives from “the traditions and teachings of men” which churches have adopted instead of and contrary to the doctrine of Christ (Matthew 15:9).

“But unto the place… (Deuteronomy 12:5). Here is where the critics find all that nonsense about this meaning Jerusalem and nowhere else! God had already spoken on this subject, and all of the people already knew that God’s name was recorded in many, many places. How could any people have followed the moveable tabernacle for forty years, giving the demonstration that God’s name had been recorded in at least the “forty-two stations” of the wilderness wanderings! Moreover, there is the strongest statement in Exodus 20:24 on this subject, “In every place where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.” The obvious meaning of “the place” in this passage is “any place.” (See the chapter introduction for more on this.) It is simply untrue that Deuteronomy here designated Jerusalem as the ONLY place to worship God. Harrison pointed out that Ebal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc, were other places where God had authorized His worship to be conducted.(F11)

It was NEVER any part of God’s intention that His Holy Name should be known and associated with only one place on earth! What a ridiculous assertion! “As God of the whole earth, wherever it might be necessary for the preservation and promotion of his kingdom, God could and did make his presence known.”(F12) Therefore, “to understand `the place which Jehovah shall choose’ as relating exclusively to Jerusalem is a perfectly arbitrary assumption.”(F13) We might add that it is a totally false and unjustifiable assumption.

Verses 8-14

“Ye shall not do after the things that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes; for ye are not yet come to the rest and to the inheritance which Jehovah thy God giveth thee. But when ye go over the Jordan, and dwell in the land which Jehovah your God causeth you to inherit, and giveth you rest from all your enemies round about, so that ye dwell in safety; then it shall come to pass that to the place which Jehovah your God shall choose, to cause his name to dwell there, thither shall ye bring all that I command you: your burnt-offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave-offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto Jehovah. And ye shall rejoice before Jehovah your God, ye, and your sons, and your daughters, and your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and the Levite that is within your gates, forasmuch as he hath no portion nor inheritance with you. Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt-offerings in every place that thou seest; but in the place which Jehovah shall choose in one of thy tribes, there shalt thou offer thy burnt-offerings, and there shalt thou do all that I command thee.”

Deuteronomy 12:8-12 here are the second pronouncement of what some have called “The law of the one altar.” There are three such pronouncements in this chapter:

(1) Deuteronomy 12:2-7

(2) Deuteronomy 12:8-12

(3) Deuteronomy 12:13-19

The law of the one altar, however, actually should be read as “one altar at a time,” and not that any place, wheresoever, should be honored as “the ONLY altar.” Shiloh and Shechem were just as legitimately “the place God chose,” as Jerusalem was. In fact, God himself made the change to Jerusalem through His prophet David. “In patriarchal times, when a succession of altars was built in the course of the patriarchs’ journeyings, there was apparently but one central family altar at any given time.”(F14) Thus, all Israel was familiar with what was meant by “the place which God would choose.” From Exodus 20:24, we must conclude that “the place” always meant at “at any place,” where God revealed His glorious nature by some special, supernatural theophany, “the place of God’s symbolical dwelling place in the midst of His people.”(F15)

Verses 15-19

“Notwithstanding, thou mayest kill and eat flesh within all thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul, according to the blessing of Jehovah thy God which he hath given thee: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the gazelle, and as of the heart. Only ye shall not eat the blood; thou shalt pour it out upon the earth as water. Thou mayest not eat within thy gates the tithe of thy grain, or thy new wine, or of thine oil, or the firstlings of thy herd or of thy flock, nor any of the vows which thou vowest, nor thy freewill-offerings, nor the heave-offering of thy hand; but thou shalt eat them before Jehovah thy God in the place which Jehovah thy God shall choose, thou, and thy son, and thy daughters, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates; and thou shalt rejoice before Jehovah thy God in all that thou puttest thy hand unto. Take heed to thyself that thou not forsake the Levite as long as thou livest in the land.”

As Israel was about to enter Canaan with the resulting scattering of the people, and when the difficulty of killing all their meat at the central sanctuary was considered, Moses, here, upon Divine authority altered the regulations given at Sinai so that they could kill whatever animals were required for food at any convenient location, only with the proviso that the blood not be eaten, but poured out like water upon the ground. It is a gross mistake to suppose that we have here a new set of laws. The Sinaitic covenant still stands, as always, and only in certain specific instances would there be any changes, and those for very good reasons. “Deuteronomy was never intended to be a repetition of the whole law.”(F16) “All of the supposed discrepancies between Deuteronomy and Exodus-Leviticus (concerning the tithes and firstlings) vanish into mere appearance when Deuteronomy is thus properly understood.”(F17)

“After all the desire of thy soul” (Deuteronomy 12:15). In the KJV, this reads, “Whatsoever thy soul lusteth after”; however, “In Old English, `to lust’ meant simply to will, to choose, to desire, and did not at that time, as now, imply anything evil.”(F18)

“The place which Jehovah thy God shall choose” (Deuteronomy 12:18). The critics must have a “Jerusalem” in this chapter, so how do they get it? Here is the way Davies got it: “Although Jerusalem is not mentioned here (nor anywhere else in the whole Book of Deuteronomy - parenthesis mine J.B.C.), it is fairly evident that no other place can be intended by, `the place which Jehovah shall choose.’“(F19) Once more we have the fantastic affirmation of the critics that they know what the holy writer “intended to say,” which is radically different from what he said!

Verses 20-28

“When Jehovah thy God shall enlarge thy border, as he hath promised thee, and thou shalt say, I will eat flesh, because thy soul desireth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, after all the desire of thy soul. If the place which Jehovah thy God shall choose, to put his name there, be too far from thee, then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which Jehovah hath given thee, as I have commanded thee; and thou mayest eat within thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul. Even as the gazelle, and as the hart is eaten, so thou shalt eat thereof: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof alike. Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou shalt not eat the life with the flesh. Thou shalt not eat it; thou shalt pour it out upon the earth as water. Thou shalt not eat it; that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of Jehovah. Only thy holy things which thou hast, and thy vows, thou shalt take, and go unto the place which Jehovah shall choose; and thou shalt offer thy burnt-offerings, the flesh and the blood, upon the altar of Jehovah thy God; and the blood of thy sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of Jehovah thy God; and thou shalt eat the flesh. Observe and hear all these words which I command thee, that it may go well with thee forever, when thou doest that which is good and right in the eyes of Jehovah thy God.”

“Thou mayest eat flesh” (Deuteronomy 12:20). Cousins pointed out that, “In Israel, meat was rarely eaten except by the rich. Animals were kept for their produce, not for their flesh. Meat was a luxury.”(F20)

“Even as the gazelle, and as the hart” (Deuteronomy 12:21). “This means that the ceremonial distinctions did not apply in such cases, any more than to the gazelle or the hart, animals allowed for food but not for sacrifice.”(F21)

All of this is supplementary to what Moses previously wrote in the other books of the Pentateuch. The prohibition against eating blood, according to the view held by this writer, is indeed brought over and made binding in the New Testament as well as in the Old Testament. The Jewish insistence on Kosher meats is founded partially upon the Divine commandment here.

Verses 29-32

“When Jehovah thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou not enquire after their gods, saying, How do these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto Jehovah thy God: for every abomination to Jehovah, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I commanded you, that shall ye observe to do: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”

“This paragraph is an emphatic repeat of the warning given in the first four verses of the chapter.”(F22) Even the countless repetitions of the Old Testament were not enough to deter Israel from falling into the same “abominations” practiced by their heathen predecessors in Canaan.

Cousins warned against the tendency of men to look with favor and appreciation upon the religious practices that God has not authorized, saying, “God’s people in all ages have created appalling problems for themselves and distorted their own faith by incorporating alien practices and concepts.”(F23)

“Take heed to thyself” It seems incredible to us that an intelligent people like the Israelites would have been seduced to wallow in the debaucheries of the pagan Canaanites, but there was a near universal conception in those ages that every land had a whole family of local deities who required the adoration of any who occupied the land. Any failure to honor those “gods of the land” was supposed to bring disaster. “Now the Israelites themselves were well schooled in this old bug-bear notion of such deities who severely resented their neglect by all new-comers.”(F24) Even the king of Assyria who left many Israelites in Canaan, learned that the wild beasts were making ravages against the few who remained in the land concluded that it was because they had not properly “honored the gods of the land,” that being the king of Assyria’s estimate of who Jehovah really is! 2 Kings 17:25 ff. That accounts for the fact that priests were sent back to Samaria, having only the Books of Moses, which became known in time as “The Samaritan Pentateuch.” Thus, it was that God, in these verses, warned that all such “deities” were to be ignored, their shrines, altars, pillars, and groves be demonlished, and that their very names be obliterated from the face of the earth.

Scott paraphrased the larger paragraph above, as follows: “Neither curiosity nor self-interested desire must lead the Israelites to traffic with Canaanite gods and ritual. All such is intolerable to Jehovah, for (to take an extreme instance) even children are sacrificed.”(F25)

“Even their sons and their daughters have they burnt in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31). At other places in the Old Testament, this horrible practice is referred to as `making a child to pass through the the fire to Molech,’ (Deuteronomy 18:10), or simply, `pass through to Molech’ (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35). “This has led some to allege that the ceremony referred to here was not an actual burning of children, but some kind of a `symbolical’ passing of the child to Molech!”(F26) The stark and ugly truth shines here. Child sacrifice was widely practiced in Canaan, as “Archeology has dramatically proved.”(F27)

“Every abomination… which Jehovah hateth… have they done” Here is the reason for God’s removal of the Canaanites: It was due to their depravity, their unconscionable debauchery, and their shameful indulgence in every evil and licentious conduct, all of which things they did as “sacrifices to their gods.”

In the final verse of this chapter (Deuteronomy 13:1 in the Hebrew Bible), we have “essentially a repeat of Deuteronomy 4:2. Moses here again delivers the only true standard of ethics and godly service, i.e., the revealed will of God; no more; no less!”(F28)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 12". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-12.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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