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the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 12

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-17

The Specific Terms of the Covenant Relationship (12:1-26:19)

With the beginning of chapter 12 the reader of Deuteronomy encounters the beginning of a long section of laws which express in detail God’s will for the life of Israel on its many sides. They are called "statutes and ordinances." They are not general principles, expressive of the basic character of Israel’s religious faith, as in the Ten Commandments, but detailed prescriptions—ceremonial, civil, criminal—for the regulation of daily life. Some seventy laws are here set forth.

The context in which they are presented is still that of preaching. Moses is represented as recounting these laws in his sermons to the second generation just prior to the entry into Canaan. Interspersed among the laws are to be found exhortations to obedience and motivating explanations. The atmosphere is not greatly different from that encountered in chapters 1-11.

The present-day reader of Deuteronomy may be tempted to skip over chapters 12-26 as of little importance for the life of our times. It is true that the laws here contained reflect and seek to regulate life in an ancient, Near Eastern, agrarian civilization, radically different from our own. But before crossing them off as irrelevant two considerations, at least, should be faced.

First, the entire Bible presents the word of God in relation to and in the idiom of a culture other than ours. The word of God spoken by Jeremiah to Zedekiah, the king, at the time of the foul betrayal of the liberated slaves, after the lifting of the siege of the Babylonian army (Jeremiah 34:8-22), can be exactly relevant to no other situation. It was formulated for that one time. But the Spirit of God can make that historical word unmask our shallow insincerities when we, like those ancient slaveholders, in a time of crisis make promises to God which we only half mean and which we deny when the crisis is past.

Second, a thoughtful consideration of these ancient laws which are based on the principles enunciated in the Ten Commandments—in other words, on the basic convictions underlying ethical monotheism—will lead us to ask to what extent our own laws express the spirit and outlook of ethical monotheism. How can the kind of God revealed in the events of Israel’s history be served in the everyday activities and relationships of contemporary life? Who can say that such reflection is irrelevant and unimportant?

Laws Concerning Religious Institutions and Worship (12:1-16:17)

This section deals with the following subjects: the proper locale of public worship (12:2-28), the handling of idolatry and idolaters (12:29-14:2) , permitted and forbidden foods (14:3-21), and sacred dues and seasons (14:22-16:17). It is appropriate that Israel’s relationship to God should be regularized before human relations are considered.

The first law orders the destruction of Canaanite places of worship and the establishment of public worship of God at a place to be selected by himself alone. The name of this place is not given, but Jerusalem is probably intended, at least by the man or men who put together the old Levitical traditions collected in Deuteronomy (see Introduction).

It is a well-known fact that in earlier days of Israel’s life in Canaan the God of Israel was worshiped at many sanctuaries: at Shiloh, Gibeon, and Shechem, for example. Exodus 20:24 seems to allow for the construction of many altars of sacrifice. It is furthermore demonstrable that the Israelites converted many Canaanite high places into places of worship of their own God. After the death of Solomon the northern tribes under Jeroboam split off from the southern and founded a separate kingdom. Sanctuaries for the continued worship of the God of the fathers were established at Bethel and Dan. The golden calves (probably golden bulls) set up by Jeroboam seem to have been wooden statues covered with gold plate. It appears that these were regarded as God’s seat or footstool, for in the ancient world, deities were frequently represented as riding on the back of an animal. It is clear, then, that the worship of the Lord was carried on at many different places in the earlier centuries of Israel’s existence in Palestine.

Two kings of Judah, Hezekiah and Josiah, undertook to centralize worship in Jerusalem. Hezekiah removed the high places and altars and said to Judah and Jerusalem, "You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem" (2 Kings 18:22; Isaiah 36:7). The Northern Kingdom had fallen, and Hezekiah wanted to unite his nation around a central sanctuary. Under Manasseh, Hezekiah’s successor, the centralizing program was reversed and the many local sanctuaries restored. Josiah in 622 B.C., after the discovery of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Temple, renewed vigorously Hezekiah’s policy of religious centralization. Deuteronomy 12, plus the many explicit commands elsewhere in the book to root out Canaanite places of worship, provided the stimulus and driving power.

In Deuteronomy 12:5 (and in some twenty other places in the book) the nation’s great place of worship is called the place where the Lord God has caused his name to dwell (literally, to "tabernacle"). In contrast with many passages of the Old Testament in which God’s actual presence in the Temple at Jerusalem is referred to, the Deuteronomic writers prefer to say that his name tabernacles there. How could an earthly temple contain the God whose true dwelling is in heaven? (See 1 Kings 8:27.) But his name, which represented his character and his will to shepherd and save his people, could "tabernacle" there. Israel could hold fast to this name as the sufficient assurance of God’s revelation and presence.

It is made clear in 12:15-28 that the command to offer the prescribed sacrifices at the central sanctuary and to consume portions of them in the sacred festivals there is not meant to prohibit the eating of meat at home. In ancient Israel the slaughter of animals was regarded as a sacrificial act, and before the flesh could be eaten the fat and the blood had first to be presented at an altar (Leviticus 17:1-7). Now a distinction is to be made between slaughtering animals for food and slaughtering them for sacrifice. With only one sanctuary in existence it is no longer feasible to present at one altar portions of all animals slain; hence, only sacrificial victims must be presented there. Although in nonsacrificial slaughtering the blood need not be presented at an altar, it is absolutely not to be eaten, "for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh" (vs. 23). As the seat of life, the blood was regarded as too sacred for human consumption; it belonged solely to God. Hence, it was to be poured out on the earth that it might return to its Giver.

Deuteronomy as a whole says relatively little about sacrifices; they are dealt with here only in connection with the law concerning the one sanctuary and in chapter 18 in connection with the rights of Levitical priests. For a detailed picture of Israel’s sacrificial system the Book of Leviticus must be consulted. But Deuteronomy presupposes the legitimacy of the sacrificial system. What meaning did Israel see in the sacrifices of the Temple? The question is one of great difficulty. But it is likely that at least three conceptions underlay the sacrificial system.

First, the sacrifices were regarded as a gift to the Deity from whom all good things come. It is right that man should give back to God part of that which has been given him. By a gift of that which is precious to him man acknowledges his debt to God, expresses his gratitude, and to an extent binds the Deity to gracious attitudes and actions in the future.

Second, certain kinds of sacrifices were thought to establish and maintain communion between God and man. Some sacrificial victims were divided three ways: the fat and the blood for God, certain parts for the priests, and the rest for the worshipers. The holy meat was consumed in solemn ritual in the Temple and thereby God, the priests, and the worshipers were united, even as men who seal a contract by eating together strengthen the bonds between them (see Genesis 26:28-31; Genesis 31:44-54).

Third, sacrifices, when accompanied by sincere repentance, were thought to bring about forgiveness of sin. The blood was considered to be peculiarly efficacious: "it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life [that is in it]" (Leviticus 17:11). The sacrifices were of various kinds for people of different rank and economic status. In some cases the blood was carried into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled against the veil, rubbed on the corners of the altar of incense or on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and poured at the foot of the latter. On the Day of Atonement the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the mercy seat with the blood of a bull and of a goat. In the offering up to God of the very life of the victim, of a possession valuable to man, in a spirit of true repentance, it was felt that God’s anger was turned away, the sin covered, and fellowship with God restored.

In some parts of the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the flawless sacrificial victim by whose death forgiveness of sins is effected (Hebrews 9:11-14; see 2 Corinthians 5:21). "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Hebrews 9:22).

The second group of laws here concerns the handling of idolatry and idolaters (12:29-14:2). The earlier chapters of Deuteronomy drive home the importance of monotheism and the peril of idolatry; now practical procedures are suggested for ensuring the perpetuation of the former.

Several sources of enticement into idolatry are envisaged: a false prophet, who attempts to authenticate his vicious teachings with miraculous deeds (13:1-5); a family member or intimate friend (vss. 6-11); a particular community, led astray by "base fellows" (vss. 12-18). In 17:2-7 any Israelite, male or female, is considered a possible seducer.

The penalty in all these cases is to be death: when individuals are responsible, by stoning (13:10; 17:5); when a whole community is involved, by the sword and burning (13:15-16).

Such a penalty seems extreme to us, the method of establishing guilt—the testimony of at least two witnesses (17:6)—inadequate, and the way of execution repulsive and inhuman. It is inconceivable to us that a man should stone his own wife or child!

It must, however, be remembered that idolatry struck at the very foundations of Hebrew national life as founded on the Covenant at Horeb. The religion of the Canaanites and surrounding peoples was a debased form of nature worship, with revolting moral standards and practices (see the comment on 7:1-26; note the mention of child sacrifice in 12:31). We may not like the exact way in which the Hebrews sought to deal with their subversives, but we can recognize the legitimacy of their abhorrence of the offense and of their desire to guard against it. They were anxious, therefore, to keep out any marks of pagan customs, even mourning rites of bodily mutilation and shaving of the head (14:1-2). The barriers against pagan standards and practices must be high and thick, lest the nation eventually be engulfed by them.

The third group of laws concerned with religious institutions and worship has to do with permitted and forbidden foods (14: 3-21). Since God is holy ("cut off," "separated" from the common and profane), Israel must likewise be set off from the common and profane. This extends to the realm of foods. It is not simply a question of physical contamination, such as might result from improper slaughtering and handling, but of the impurity of the genus itself. Why some classes of animals were regarded as unclean is not known. Some unquestionably were sacred to heathen gods; the repulsive appearance or uncleanly habits of others may have offended early Hebrews; some may have been thought to be possessed of evil spirits; sickness, rightly or wrongly, may have been associated with the eating of certain animals. The prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (vs. 21) is a protest against the Canaanite practice of preparing a sacrifice by cooking it in milk.

Though Jesus unquestionably abided by most of the food laws of Judaism, he shifted the emphasis from defilement by external to defilement by internal causes: "Whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him . . . What comes out of a man is what defiles a man" (Mark 7:18-23). Mark, seeing the radical implication of this, adds, "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19). Against Gnostic ascetics of the second century, who forbade the use of "foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving," the author of First Timothy retorted that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:3-4). In the Gentile church, at least, sin was not a matter of eating the wrong food (as was partially the case in Judaism) but of harboring the wrong spirit (see Galatians 5:19-23).

The fourth group of laws in this section concerns sacred dues and seasons (14:22-16:17). A tenth of the agricultural products and of the firstlings of herds and flocks—or the equivalent in money—is to be taken to the central sanctuary two years out of three. There the tenth—or equivalents purchased on the spot —is to be consumed in sacred feasts before the Lord. These feasts are meant to remind God’s people that the land is his and that all good things come from his hands. At the end of the third year the tithe is to be kept in the areas where it was produced and is to be distributed to the landless and the poor.

Nothing is said here about gifts for the support of the priests officiating at the central sanctuary. However, in 18:3-4 designated portions of sacrificial animals and first fruits of grain, wine, oil, and the first shearing of sheep are prescribed. But in Numbers 18:21-24 the tithes are all said to belong to the Levites, the priestly clan. The difference between Deuteronomy and Numbers on the use of the tithes probably is to be explained by assuming that the former book reflects the practice of northern Israel and the latter that of Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy’s view—that the tithes are meant to keep Israel mindful of its debt to the Lord, the Giver of all, and to provide relief for the poor and landless—gives genuine religious and social meaning to this practice. If the tithe is considered to be simply a tax to support the religious establishment or if prosperity for the giver is held up as the reward of tithing—as in some modern-day preaching on tithing—the religious quality of the practice soon evaporates.

The provisions concerning the seventh year (Sabbatical) release highlight Deuteronomy’s constant concern for brotherly mercy (15:1-18). The appeal runs: since God has been merciful to us all in the events of our history and in his continuing providential care, we should be merciful to one another (vss. 14-15).

Jesus, who apparently nourished his life on Deuteronomy (see Introduction), emphasized strongly that we should imitate God’s attitudes and activities in our dealings with others. The injunctions to "open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land" (vs. 11) and to release debtors gladly during the Sabbatical year stand close to Jesus’ admonition: "Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again" (Luke 6:30). Jesus, of course, was more inclusive in his definition of one’s "brother." He did not limit the range of his ethical requirement to fellow Israelites, as does Deuteronomy (15:3; compare 14:21).

The sacred seasons of national life and the offerings appropriate to them are next set forth (15:19-16:17). According to 16: 16, three times a year all Hebrew males with their sacrifices and offerings must appear before the Lord God at the central sanctuary: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover); at the Feast of Weeks (later called Pentecost); and at the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles). The hardship involved in this requirement of thrice-yearly attendance at Jerusalem led to relaxation in practice, so that in the time of Jesus attendance once a year was expected of those living in Palestine (see Luke 2:41). Jews living in the Dispersion were able at best to make the pilgrimage a few times in a lifetime.

The feasts of Unleavened Bread and Passover were originally separate feasts. The former was an agricultural feast, probably taken over from the Canaanites soon after Israel’s settlement in the land. It marked the beginning of the barley harvest, the first crop to be harvested. During seven days, bread was made only with the new grain of the harvest. The feast marked a new beginning and gave expression to the people’s joy over the coming of a new harvest. The Passover seems originally to have been a feast of nomads. It centered in the sacrifice of a young animal with a view to securing fertility and prosperity of the flocks. Blood was put on the tent poles to drive away evil spirits. The sacrifice was offered and the flesh eaten during the full moon. The participants were belted, shod, and equipped with a shepherd’s stick. There is evidence that its origin lies far behind the time of the Exodus from Egypt.

Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Passover both fell in the spring, at almost the identical time, after the settlement in the land it became natural to associate them. The Passover was observed on the night of the full moon of the month Abib and the Feast of Unleavened Bread followed on the next seven days. From the time of Josiah’s centralization of worship in Jerusalem the two seem to have been observed together in the Temple at Jerusalem.

The meaning Israel put into these ancient feasts was new. Both became occasions on which the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt was commemorated, as Exodus 12 shows. This great event in which God delivered and sealed his people with Covenant bonds overshadowed all and reshaped many of Israel’s institutions and rituals. National ceremonies inevitably reflect the ongoing experiences of the people observing them.

The Feast of Weeks (Greek "Pentecost," meaning "fiftieth") fell on the fiftieth day after the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (that is, fifty days after the first barley had been cut). This feast marked the end of the cereal harvests. Thus Unleavened Bread and Weeks celebrated the beginning and end of harvest. Both were times of great rejoicing.

The ceremonies of the latter centered in the offering to the Lord of two loaves made out of new flour, baked with leaven. It is a farmer’s feast, by which gratitude for the crops is expressed to the Deity. Israel poured its own content into this Canaanite agricultural festival also. By the time of Jesus it had become an occasion for commemorating the giving of the Law at Sinai (Horeb). The Essenes at Qumran, who called themselves the "community of the new covenant," renewed their covenant with God at the Feast of Weeks. This for them was the most important feast of the year.

The Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) was the most popular and joyous feast of all. Josephus, the Jewish historian, called it "the holiest and the greatest of Hebrew feasts." In Exodus 23:16; Exodus 34:22 it is called "the feast of ingathering." It was held after all the crops were in and was celebrated with seven days of worship, feasting, and dancing. Its purpose was to give thanks to God for the gift of the harvest. After the Exile an eighth day of rest and worship, before the return to normal life, was prescribed (Leviticus 23:36; Leviticus 23:39; see John 7:2; John 7:37). During the seven days of the feast proper the people lived in huts, constructed from the branches of trees. This practice probably arose in ancient times when the reapers lived in such shelters in the orchards and vineyards at harvest time, both for the sake of convenience and for protection of the crops from thieves. By the time of Deuteronomy the festival had been centralized at Jerusalem. At some unknown time in its history, like the other feasts we have discussed, this feast was infused with new meaning: the huts were thought to commemorate the huts in which the fathers lived during the period of wandering in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42-43).

Through reinterpretation of ancient festivals, the deeds of God in the nation’s past were kept before the minds of the people. In the time of Jesus and later, as a result of the growth of the Messianic hope, the confidence grew that the God who had delivered Israel from the Egyptian bondage would again deliver his people from the bondage of the heathen (Rome); and that under a prophet like Moses, who would prepare the way for a Messiah like Moses (see 18:15, 18), God’s people would enter the blessedness of a new Promised Land. The three great festivals thus fanned the hope for the coming of a second miraculous exodus. Against this background one can understand why the author of the Gospel of John presents Jesus—the Messiah—as the fulfiller and actualizer of the inner meaning and intent of the great feasts of the Jews.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Deuteronomy 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/deuteronomy-12.html.
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