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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

Deuteronomy 12



Moses commands all the monuments of idolatry to be destroyed, and that the sacrifices be brought only to the place which the Lord shall choose: he permits them to eat flesh, but forbids the eating of blood.

Before Christ 1451.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. And under every green tree The use of sacred groves for the celebration of mysteries is of very great antiquity, and, perhaps, of all others, the most universal. At first, there were in these groves neither temples nor altars; they were simple retreats, to which there was no access for the profane, i.e. such as were not devoted to the service of the gods. Afterwards they built chapels and temples in them: in future times they became extremely frequented on holidays; and, after the celebration of the mysteries, public entertainments, accompanied with dancing, were held in them. See Tibullus, lib. 1: Elegy 11: ver. 51. They decked these groves with flowers, chaplets, garlands, and nosegays, and hung them about with donations and offerings, most lavishly, says Abbe Banier, in his Mythol. b. 3: ch. 7 on the sacred groves. See also Callimachus's Hymn to Diana, ver. 200 and Spanheim's note.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. Ye shall not do so unto the Lord your God That is, "Ye shall not adore him upon mountains, upon hills, and under every green tree; but you shall serve him publicly in one place which he shall choose." That this is the sense, appears from the following verse. Notwithstanding this prohibition, the sacred history shews us how prone the Israelites were to choose mountains and groves for the places of their worship, and therein to set up images, after the example of their heathen neighbours. 2 Kings 17:10-11.Ezekiel 20:28; Ezekiel 20:28. Hosea 4:13.

Verses 5-7

Ver. 5-7. But unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose We meet with no clear or exact determination of the place; but only such general expressions as this, which the Lord your God shall choose: which, Maimonides supposes, was intended for these three reasons. 1. Lest the Gentiles might endeavour to seize on the place, or at any time enter into a war upon account of it, when they imagined that the taking of it would put a final period to the law. 2. Lest the people, in whose hand it was at the delivery of these precepts, should use their utmost endeavours to demolish and lay it waste. And, 3. Lest each of the tribes should be desirous of having it within the compass of their lot; and so it might occasion discontent and disagreement among them, as it happened in the priesthood. More Nev. part 3: ch. 45. However, in opposition to these customs of the heathens, and to preserve the Israelites from idolatry, the stated public worship of the one true God was to be fixed to one certain place, where God would put his name; i.e. make it the peculiar seat of his divine presence: on account of which Jerusalem was afterwards called the city of Jehovah, Psalms 1:6; Psalms 87:3. To this place they were to bring their burnt-offerings;—and their sacrifices, ver. 6 whereby are meant peace-offerings, which were always annexed to burnt-offerings; that so the owners, when they offered to God, might also feast upon the sacrifices, ver. 27. And their tithes; what the Jews call the second tithe, which was to be set aside after that of the Levites was paid. See ver. 17 and ch. Deuteronomy 14:22. And the heave-offerings of their hands; i.e. according to the LXX and Vulgate, the first-fruits of the earth, which are called the heave-offerings of their hand, because they were heaved, or lifted up, in token of their being consecrated to God. See Numbers 18:11-12. We may consider these precepts to be addressed to the priests, as well as to the people; and so understand the words in their utmost latitude: that whatever holy things were eaten by the priests, or people, they were to be eaten at the place of the peculiar Divine Presence, ver. 7 before the Lord their God; i.e. not in the tabernacle, or temple, where only the priests might eat the most holy things; Num 18:10 but in the court of the tabernacle, or in some place adjacent to the sanctuary. And ye shall rejoice in all that you put your hand unto; i.e. you and your family shall rejoice together, at these feasts, in the goodness of God, who has blessed the labour of your hands; for this phrase, all that you put your hand unto, signifies all your possessions, and all the labours of your hand whatsoever. See ch. Deuteronomy 15:10 Deu 23:20 Deuteronomy 28:8; Deuteronomy 28:20. Upon this passage we observe, 1. That the command to worship and sacrifice only at the place which the Lord shall choose was eminently calculated to prevent idolatry; not only as it hindered the Israelites from carrying their sacrifices to the idolatrous altars, but as it rendered more certain the law which enjoined the destruction of the monuments of idolatry. For these, and many other reasons of the same kind, see Spencer de Leg. Heb. vol. 1: p. 142. 2. We observe, that had the Jews been bound, as often as there was occasion, to bring their offerings to one certain place, suppose Jerusalem, however distant it might be from them, this would have been an insupportable expence to devout people. Therefore their doctors understand the precept, that they were bound to offer such sacrifices as were either for offences committed, or mercies received, &c. at the next national fear at furthest. See Lightfoot, de Templi Minist. 3. We observe, that it was an ancient and general custom, even before the law of Moses, for the people to feast upon part of the sacrifices of peace-offerings, as appears from Exodus 18:12; Exodus 34:15. By the law of Moses, the laity were not to keep there sacred feasts in the tabernacle or temple, but in some place near it; but the heathens feasted on the sacrifices of peace-offerings in the very temples of their idols: to which practice the apostle alludes, 1 Corinthians 8:10. If any man see thee, who hast knowledge, sit at meat in the idol's temple, &c. By this rite they owned themselves idolaters, and to have communion with false gods: and, on the other hand, by eating their sacrifices before Jehovah at his sanctuary, and no where else, they declared they had communion with him, and not with idols; for there could be no need of their eating there, but only to signify their adherence to, and to secure them in, the religion of the true God, by feasting in his presence, and thereby owning themselves to belong to him. This is very often repeated in the present book; as ver. 18 of this chapter, ch. Deuteronomy 14:23; Deuteronomy 14:26; Deu 15:20 and especially Deuteronomy 27:6-7. See Cudworth's discourse on the Lord's Supper, and Elmenhorstius's notes upon Minutius Felix, p. 108. We observe, 4 from Bishop Warburton, (Julian, p. 4.) that when God communicated himself to the Israelites, as the Maker and Governor of the universe, it pleased him to adopt them as his peculiar people, under the idea of their tutelary Deity; and, the better to secure the great end of their separation, assumed likewise the title and office of their king, or civil governor. Hence their religion came under the idea of a law, and their law was in the strictest sense religion. From this account of the Hebrew government one natural consequence ariseth, that the principal rites of their religion and law were to be performed and celebrated in some determined place. This, the object and subject of their ceremonial seemed equally to require; for their idea of a tutelary God and king implied a local residence: and a national act, created by the relations arising from them, required a fixed and certain place for its celebration; and both together seemed to mark out the capital of the country for that purpose. This consequent practice, which the nature and reason of things so evidently point out, these institutes of the Hebrew constitution order and enjoin. During the early and unsettled times of the Jewish state, the sacrifices prescribed by their ritual were directed to be offered up before the door of an ambulatory tabernacle; but when they had gained the establishment decreed for them, and a magnificent temple was erected for religious worship, then all the sacrifices were to be offered at Jerusalem only. Now, sacrifices constituting the substance of their national worship, their religion could not be said to subsist longer than the continuance of that celebration: but sacrifices could be performed only in one appointed temple; so that when this was finally destroyed, the institution itself became abolished.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. Every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes While the Israelites in the wilderness were destitute of many things requisite to the exact performance of all their sacred rites, and not yet sufficiently accustomed to the yoke of their new laws, they were excused from the observance of many of them. We have several proofs of this, particularly the total neglect of circumcision during the whole space of the forty years in the wilderness, though it had been carefully observed in Egypt: but that, in all the parts of their conduct, they were left every man to do what was right in his own eyes, is sufficiently contradicted from the former part of this history. Thus we find blasphemy, and a violation of the sabbath, punished, Lev. 35:23. Num 15:32 no less than the mutinous attempt to wrest the priesthood from Aaron's family. Moses, therefore, as the context abundantly proves, has an immediate regard, in these words, to the performance of their duties at the place which God should choose, to the payment of tithes, and such other things as belonged to the priests and Levites. In a word, the meaning is, that, in their present ambulatory and uncertain state, they could not practise those precepts which were annexed to the land, and required a settled condition. See Calmet and Le Clerc. In which view of the text, one cannot help reading, with astonishment, the very absurd deduction and false quotation made by Voltaire in the 12th chapter of his Treatise on Toleration.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. Thither shall ye bring all that I command Maimonides observes, that one design of this institution was, to teach the Israelites not to have too high an opinion of sacrifices, since they were not of such account in the sight of God as to be accepted everywhere; but were limited to one place, and to be offered only by one family. Prayers and praises, which were the essentials of religion, might be offered up everywhere; but sacrifices, and other ceremonies of worship, being appointed, not for any good in themselves, but only to reclaim the people from idolatry, and to establish the belief of the unity of God, were only acceptable when offered at the sanctuary of Jehovah. Hence the prophets are so zealous in reproving the Jews for their laying a stress upon sacrifices, as, of themselves, available toward procuring the favour of God; whilst they neglect the study of real holiness, which is the end of all those institutions. 1 Samuel 15:22.Isaiah 1:11; Isaiah 1:11.Jeremiah 7:22-23; Jeremiah 7:22-23. See More Nevoch. pars 3: cap. 32.

Verse 15

Ver. 15. Notwithstanding, thou mayest kill and eat flesh, &c.— During their encampments and travels in the wilderness, it was enacted, that all the beasts that were to be slain by any Israelite, for the use of his family, should be first presented to God at the tabernacle, by way of peace-offering, and there slain; Leviticus 22:1; Lev 22:33 which was no inconvenience to them, as the tabernacle was very near: but it is here allowed, that, after their settlement in Canaan, every householder may kill provision for his family at home, and in any place, without being obliged to bring any part of it to the altar; for, when their border was enlarged, the tabernacle must have been at so great a distance from some of them, that it would have been too heavy a burden to oblige them to kill every thing they ate at the tabernacle. They are, therefore, permitted to kill and eat flesh as they please, according to the blessing of the Lord: i.e. in a manner suitable to their state, and to the blessings which God had given them.

As of the roe-buck, and as of the hart Why not as of an ox, or a lamb, for they were of more familiar use? The reason is plain; because, (Leviticus 12:0.) to prevent idolatry, in offering of the blood to other gods, they were commanded to kill all the cattle they ate, at the door of the tabernacle, as a peace-offering, and sprinkle the blood on the altar. But wild beasts which were clean might be eaten, though their blood was not offered to God, ver. 13 because, being commonly killed before they were taken, their blood could not be sprinkled on the altar; and therefore it sufficed, in such cases, to pour out their blood wherever they were killed, and cover it with dust. And, for the same reason, when the camp was broken up, wherein all the people were in the neighbourhood of the tabernacle, and when they were scattered in their habitations through all the land of Canaan, those who were too far off from the temple were excused from killing their tame cattle at Jerusalem, and sprinkling their blood on the altar: no more was required of them than was required in killing a roe-buck, or any other clean wild beast.

Verse 16

Ver. 16. Ye shall pour it, &c.— That is, they might pour it out with as little religious ceremony as water.

Verse 17

Ver. 17. Thou mayest not eat within thy gates A free dispensation being given them to eat their common food without religious ceremonies, it is here enjoined what they were to eat with such ceremonies. The tithe here means, as in the 2nd verse, the second tithe. As the firstlings of their cattle were to be given to the priests, Num 18:15 and of course might not be eaten by the owners, anywhere, interpreters are of opinion, that firstlings here must mean, either 1. Females; for the males only are offered to God: or, 2. Such as, after setting aside their first-born, were then by the owner dedicated to God; for, as the tithe here is to be understood of the second tithe, so may the firstlings be understood in a like sense: or, 3. The word, which we render firstlings, may signify the fattest and best; for it sometimes denotes the most excellent in its kind; as the first-born of death is a very great and incurable disease: Job 18:13 so the poorest of all mortals are called the first-born of the poor; Isaiah 14:30. See Calmet and Le Clerc.

Verse 21

Ver. 21. If the place Because the place: Houb. כי ki, says he, should be rendered quia or quippe cum.

Verse 23

Ver. 23. Eat not the blood This is, says Mr. Locke, in opposition to the Zabii: for though, continues he, as Dr. Cudworth has remarked, blood was very impure and unclean in the sight of the Zabii, yet, notwithstanding, it was eaten by them, because they thought it to be the food of the daemons, and that he who ate it, had, by that means, some communication with those daemons; so that they conversed more familiarly with them, and shewed them future things.

Verse 27

Ver. 27. The blood of thy sacrifices i.e. Of the peace-offerings; (see on ver. 6.) for of these sacrifices only the people were allowed to eat.

Verse 30

Ver. 30. Enquire not after their gods, &c.— The pretentious of the heathen deities, as Bishop Warburton observes, being mutually acknowledged by their distinct and proper followers; and some, by the fortunate circumstances of these followers, being risen into superior same, the rites used in their worship were eagerly sought for and imitated. It was likewise a general principle, that the local god was to have a necessary share in the worship of all who settled in the country; and those who were loth to leave their paternal gods when they sought new settlements, at least held themselves obliged to worship them with the rites, and according to the usages of the country which they came to inhabit. Against this more qualified principle of paganism, Moses thinks fit to caution the Israelites in this and the subsequent verses. Div. Leg. vol. 4: p. 40.

Verse 31

Ver. 31. Their sons and their daughters they have burnt, &c.— To what we have said of this horrid custom on Leviticus 20:1; Lev 20:27 we shall only add, that it was notoriously practised by the Carthaginians, who, it is certain, derived it from the Phoenicians, the ancient inhabitants of Canaan; and at last it overspread all nations, and prevailed even among the refined Greeks themselves. See Banier's Mythol. book 3: ch. 10. But what is more surprising, we find the Israelites themselves, notwithstanding this admonition, seduced to commit the same abomination; Psalms 106:37-38. Ezekiel 37:28. Dr. Chandler, in his Vindication, justly observes, that though several instances of such inhuman offerings are to be found among the Phoenicians, Greeks, and others, yet they do not appear to have been sacrifices freely made, but with the utmost horror and reluctance, by the order of their priests, or the supposed command of their gods, or through the compulsion of some extreme necessity, and to avoid some dreadful calamity. Thus the king of Moab, in the distress of a grievous war, took his eldest son, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. 2 Kings 3:27. See Jac. Gensius, de Victim. Human. pars i. c. 11. et alibi.

Verse 32

Ver. 32. Thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it See on chap. Deuteronomy 4:2. One would wonder, says Bishop Patrick, that so learned a man as Maimonides should have laboured to prove from this the immutability of the law of Moses. It is strange that he could not see, what some of his brethren have seen, that though God did not permit the Israelites to alter these laws, he bound not up Himself from changing them; this another Jewish writer very well illustrates: "A physician prescribes a diet to his patient for such a time as he judges convenient, which he does not declare to the sick man; but when the time comes that the physician hath obtained his end, he changes the diet, permits the patient what he formerly forbade, and prohibits that which he formerly permitted." This exactly agrees with what our Blessed Saviour has done.

REFLECTIONS.—As nothing would preserve them more effectually from idolatry than forbidding all sacrifices and public offerings, except in one place under the immediate eye of God's ministers, we have this again and again inculcated. 1. God's promises, when they were in quiet possession of the land, to choose the place where he would put his name, erect his tabernacle, and manifest his presence in the divine Shechinah. He left not the place to their option, lest they should dispute about the choice; nor mentions it as yet, because it was enough for them to know his pleasure now, and they should have farther direction when it was needful. Blessed be God! all distinctions of place in Christ Jesus are now destroyed; every where we may have access to a throne of grace, and find our services accepted in the Redeemer. 2. When the place was fixed, they must there offer their sacrifices; and all their holy things must be eaten there, before the Lord, with joy and gladness of heart, by them and their families. God's service is delightful: to be melancholy, is to dishonour it. Religion was designed to be our pleasure, not our burden. 3. Though all their devoted things might only be eaten before the Lord, no restraint is said upon them respecting common and allowed meats: they might kill and eat without reserve, and both the unclean and the clean might eat them alike; with this proviso, that they lived according to the blessing of God upon them, neither luxuriously extravagant, nor penuriously saving. Excess and covetousness are alike dishonourable to God. He gives us his blessings richly to enjoy; and whilst he would have us eat our bread and drink our wine with a cheerful heart, he wills that we should use his gifts with that sobriety and temperance, which may satisfy our natural appetite, without making provision for our sinful lusts.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 12". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.