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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Deuteronomy 18

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

II. INSTRUCTION CONCERNING THE GOVERNING OF THE COMMUNITY (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 19:21).

Having established the principles of worship and religious response for the community based on the dwellingplace where Yahweh would choose to establish His name, Moses now moved on to various aspects of governing the community. He had clearly been giving a great deal of thought to what would happen when he had gone, and to that end had been meditating on God’s promises in Genesis and the content of God’s Instruction (Torah).

Moses was doing here what he described himself as having done for the previous generation (Deuteronomy 1:15-18). There he had established them with a system of justice ready for entry into the land but they had refused to enter it when Yahweh commanded. Now he was preparing their sons for entry into the land in a similar way.

Justice was to be provided for in a number of ways:

1). By the appointment of satisfactory judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

2). By rejecting Canaanite methods of justice (Deuteronomy 16:21-22). He reiterated the necessity for the abolition of idolatry and religious impropriety, and called for the judgment of it in the presence of witnesses (Deuteronomy 16:21 to Deuteronomy 17:7).

3). By setting up a final court of appeal. Here he dealt with what to do when major judicial problems arose (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

4). By legislating what kind of king to appoint when they wanted a king. At present they had him. Shortly he would be replaced by Joshua. Then would come a time when they needed another supreme leader and here he faced up to the issue of possible kingship, an issue that, in view of certain prophecies revealed in the patriarchal records (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 36:31) would certainly arise in the future, and which Balaam had recently drawn attention to (Numbers 24:17) as on the horizon. Thus it needed to be legislated for so that when the time came they might not appoint the wrong kind of king, and especially they were to be guides as to the kind of king that they should consider (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

5). By providing for the sustenance of the priesthood and Levites who watch over their spiritual welfare (Deuteronomy 18:1-8).

6). By warning against looking to the occult for guidance and promising instead the coming of other prophets like himself (Deuteronomy 18:9-22).

But while we may see this as a separate unit it is not so in the Hebrew. As we would expect in a speech not prepared by a trained orator it just goes smoothly forward. ‘Thee, thou’ predominates as befits a section dealing with commandments with an occasional subtle introduction of ‘ye, your’.

Chapter 18 The Maintenance of The Levitical Priests and the Levites. Avoidance of The Occult. Yahweh Will Provide A Prophet Over Against False Prophets.

In some ways in contrast with any king were the priests. They were chosen by Yahweh and were not to have personal wealth. They were to be maintained by the people, being dependent on provisions that belonged to Yahweh. Those of the tribe of Levi chosen by Yahweh to minister in His name must also be properly maintained and catered for. These are the ones to whom Israel must primarily look for justice and for guidance in God’s Instruction as we have already seen, as men who minister before Yahweh.

And if Israel, unsatisfied with that, seek a divine message they must not look to those who profess to reveal the future or the secrets of the dead. Rather they must look to prophets raised up by Yahweh, prophets who will be like Moses, the test of whom will be that what they prophesy comes about. That will distinguish the false prophets from the true.

Pronounwise the passage is an interesting one. In the first three verses it continues the third person approach used of the description of the king, ‘he, they’, then in Deuteronomy 18:4 turns back to ‘thee’ thou’. This demonstrates the unity of this passage with the previous passage, demonstrating that the words about the king are an essential part of the whole. ‘Thee, thou’ is then used for the remainder of the chapter, stressing both individual responsibility and oneness as a nation, apart from ‘you (ye) shall hearken’ in Deuteronomy 18:15 where it suits it as an ‘aside’.


Verse 1-2

Chapter 18 The Maintenance of The Levitical Priests and the Levites. Avoidance of The Occult. Yahweh Will Provide A Prophet Over Against False Prophets.

In some ways in contrast with any king were the priests. They were chosen by Yahweh and were not to have personal wealth. They were to be maintained by the people, being dependent on provisions that belonged to Yahweh. Those of the tribe of Levi chosen by Yahweh to minister in His name must also be properly maintained and catered for. These are the ones to whom Israel must primarily look for justice and for guidance in God’s Instruction as we have already seen, as men who minister before Yahweh.

And if Israel, unsatisfied with that, seek a divine message they must not look to those who profess to reveal the future or the secrets of the dead. Rather they must look to prophets raised up by Yahweh, prophets who will be like Moses, the test of whom will be that what they prophesy comes about. That will distinguish the false prophets from the true.

Pronounwise the passage is an interesting one. In the first three verses it continues the third person approach used of the description of the king, ‘he, they’, then in Deuteronomy 18:4 turns back to ‘thee’ thou’. This demonstrates the unity of this passage with the previous passage, demonstrating that the words about the king are an essential part of the whole. ‘Thee, thou’ is then used for the remainder of the chapter, stressing both individual responsibility and oneness as a nation, apart from ‘you (ye) shall hearken’ in Deuteronomy 18:15 where it suits it as an ‘aside’.

The Maintenance of the Levitical Priests and the Levites At The Sanctuary (Deuteronomy 18:1-5).

The levitical priests and the Levites who served at the Tabernacle were to be supported by portions of the offerings and sacrifices, and by the offerings of the firstfruits, for they have been chosen by Yahweh to serve Him in His chosen place.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a The priests the Levites, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the offerings of Yahweh made by fire and his inheritance (Deuteronomy 18:1).

b And they shall have no inheritance among their brethren. Yahweh is their inheritance, as He has spoken to them (Deuteronomy 18:2).

c And this shall be the priest’s due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, whether it be ox or sheep (Deuteronomy 18:3 a).

c That they shall give to the priest the shoulder, and the two cheeks, and the maw (stomach) (Deuteronomy 18:3 b).

b The firstfruits of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, shall you give him (Deuteronomy 18:4).

a For Yahweh your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand to minister in the name of Yahweh, him and his sons for ever (Deuteronomy 18:5).

We note that in ‘a’ the priests are to have no inheritance in Israel but to be totally dependent for their provision on Yahweh, and in the parallel this is so because Yahweh has chosen them out of all their tribes to stand to minister in His name. In ‘b’ their inheritance is declared to be Yahweh, and in the parallel they are to receive the firstfruits of both vegetation and beasts, which are Yahweh’s. In ‘c’ the priests’ dues are prepared for and then described.

Deuteronomy 18:1-2

The priests the Levites, all the tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel. They shall eat the offerings of Yahweh made by fire and his inheritance. And they shall have no inheritance among their brethren. Yahweh is their inheritance, as he has spoken to them.’

The opening phrase ‘The priests the Levites, all the tribe of Levi’ raises questions as to whether this covers both levitical priests (the priests the Levites) and Levites (all the tribe of Levi) or just the levitical priests alone. However in Deuteronomy such phrases in apposition regularly represent the item in apposition as signifying something greater than the first phrase. See Deuteronomy 3:4-5; Deuteronomy 15:21; Deuteronomy 16:21; Deuteronomy 17:1; Deuteronomy 23:19; Deuteronomy 25:16. Compare also Deuteronomy 3:18 where there is a reduction in the idea. They are never just a description of the same idea. In Deuteronomy 2:37; Deuteronomy 3:13; Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 5:8; Deuteronomy 20:14; Deuteronomy 29:10 the clauses in apposition are always of one against a number and therefore not strictly comparable. This would confirm that ‘all the tribe of Levi’ is an extension of, and addition to, the idea of the levitical priests thus referring to both priests and Levites. Significantly there are no examples the other way.

So it is both levitical priests and all the tribe of Levi who were to have no portion in Israel. They would have no tribal area of their own. Nor were they to be given land as individuals. The priestly cities and the levitical cities were to be jointly owned along with the land around them, although individuals would own their own houses. Both did later purchase property for themselves and thus came into ownership of houses and property outside this sphere, but that was not part of the original plan (e.g. 1 Kings 2:26; Jeremiah 32:7-10 with Deuteronomy 1:1).

The ideal behind this was that they should be unworldy, independent, and able to keep the civil power in check. Their whole existence was to involve being taken up with Yahweh, Who was their inheritance, with keeping the nation right before Him, and with making known His law and ensuring that His covenant requirements were maintained.

“They shall eat the offerings of Yahweh made by fire (ishsheh) and his inheritance. And they shall have no inheritance among their brethren. Yahweh is their inheritance, as he has spoken to them.” The levitical priests and Levites will therefore ‘eat the offerings of Yahweh made by fire and His inheritance’. Part of each offering made by fire, apart from the whole burnt offerings, was given to the priests (Leviticus 2:3; Leviticus 2:10 and often; Joshua 13:14). Yahweh’s inheritance as mentioned here included all that was sanctified to Him and included offerings and sacrifices, firstfruits, tithes, firstlings, and so on, and His specific inheritance to the Levites was the tithe (Numbers 18:24-26), which would include grain, wine and animals (Numbers 18:30 with Leviticus 27:30-33). But the Levites would also share in the peace offerings made by the people, which were offerings made by fire (Leviticus 3:9) as they did in the firstlings (Deuteronomy 12:11-12; Deuteronomy 12:17-18). Thus was provision made for both priest and Levite out of the variety of offerings made by the people. For a wholesale coverage of this see Numbers 18 where the distinctions are made clearer, although through the years circumstances had expanded on them.

It may also be that ishsheh actually simply denotes gifts and offerings without necessarily meaning ‘by fire’. Compare the use of usn at Ugarit. Note also the threefold use of ‘inheritance’, each use with a slightly different meaning. Yahweh’s inheritance, that which was set apart for Him and given to Him, included all that is mentioned above, including the tithes which He gave to the Levites as an inheritance. His inheritance to the people is the land. But Yahweh Himself, and His service, is the inheritance of the priests and Levites (compare Deuteronomy 10:9; Joshua 13:33; Numbers 18:20; Joshua 18:7).

“They shall have no inheritance among their brethren. Yahweh is their inheritance, as he has spoken to them.” This contrasts with the words spoken about their king. ‘His heart is not to be lifted up above his brethren’. The king was to be one with his brethren in obedience to Yahweh and to His Instruction. His inheritance was to be among them. But the priests and Levites had no inheritance among their brethren. They were lifted up above it. Yahweh was their inheritance. Thus their ideal king was not to have control over priestly activities or over matters to do with the sanctuary. That would be between the priests and Yahweh. They would act as a balance to the king’s powers, especially as they were the experts whom the king would consult when seeking to understand Yahweh’s law.

In Egypt the Pharaohs had always had to recognise the might of the priests while being a god over them. He had constantly manoeuvred with them. Much had depended on the strength of the Pharaoh. But in Israel the king was always to be in submission to Yahweh’s Instruction and was to be submissive to the Sanctuary, and to those who expounded Yahweh’s Instruction. Thus Yahweh, not the king, would still be over all. This will especially come out shortly when we learn of the independent prophet ‘like Moses’. He will speak directly from Yahweh, and both king and priest will have to listen to him. For all are in the end subject to Yahweh’s Instruction and His will.


Verses 3-5

The Maintenance of the Priests (Deuteronomy 18:3-5).

Deuteronomy 18:3

And this shall be the priest’s due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, whether it be ox or sheep, that they shall give to the priest the shoulder, and the two cheeks, and the maw (stomach).’

Here there is an extension to what is give to the priests from the offerings and sacrifices (other than the whole burnt offering), possibly to compensate for the loss of their portion in animals slaughtered in the cities and not sacrificed. They were to be given the ‘shoulder’, the two ‘cheeks’ and the ‘stomach’. Discoveries in the Canaanite sanctuary at Lachish reveal many right shoulder bones of animals suggesting that their priests too received the shoulder from sacrifices. In Leviticus 7:28-36; Numbers 18:8-19 the priest’s portions were the shoulder and the right ‘thigh’ (or breast). This may simply therefore indicate different terminology for similar parts, or an improvement in the priests’ portion, or both. The shoulder was a special waveoffering. The ‘thigh/breast’ was a special heave offering or contribution, but as it was not for the priests generally, but given to the individual priest who offered the sacrifice, it may have been omitted here. It would be assumed without mention due to its special nature and long custom (Leviticus 7:32-34).

Compare here 1 Samuel 2:12-17 where the priests insisted on parts being set aside before the boiling so that they were not soaked, and then claimed further parts as the meat was boiling by ‘pot luck’ (although this method was frowned on). They had, possibly unilaterally, extended their rights.

Note On Differences in Technical Sacrificial Terms.

To say that the technicalities of an ancient cult are not always apparent to us is to understate the case. Technical language would be used in regulations for the cult which had its own specialist meaning, and might be very different from those used in popular speech. Compare how in Roman Catholic usage the 'chasuble', for example, is a technical term, but might in popular usage be simply called a 'priestly garment' or 'robe'. Leviticus/Numbers used technical language, Deuteronomy uses 'popular' language (it is in a speech to the common people). Comparisons are therefore not always easy. So before we try to reconcile the two we have to solve the problem of the meaning of the language.

We must recognise that while our versions translate as best they can, the actual meanings of many ancient Hebrew terms, especially technical ancient Hebrew terms to do with the cult such as are mentioned in Leviticus/Numbers, are not always fully clear to us. It partly depends on how often they were used and in what context. Thus RV/ASV margin has 'shoulder' as a possible alternative rendering for 'thigh' in Leviticus 7:28-36 because they recognised the uncertainty as to the meaning of the word, while the word translated 'shoulder' in Deuteronomy 18:3 usually means 'arm' when referred to men (but of course cannot with domestic beasts). LXX actually translates both as the same word, brachion.

So the Hebrew terminology in use is not as certain in meaning as the English suggests, and comparisons are therefore fraught with difficulty. Deuteronomy is a speech and uses terms in a popular sense giving the general idea. The word translated ‘stomach’, and sometimes 'inner part', is used only in Deuteronomy 18:3 and nowhere else although a cognate is used in Numbers 25:8, where it could simply generally mean a vague 'body'. In both cases the exact meaning has to be guessed at in the context. It could equally be a popular term for the rough equivalent of breast (in beasts breast and belly can be pretty close together). This being so the passages could quite well be saying a similar thing, but merely in different terminology, technical and popular. On the other hand it is equally possible that for different reasons there had been alterations to the detail.

Secondly we should note that it is not at all certain that Deuteronomy 18:3 is referring to the same sacrifices as the more technical verses in Leviticus and Numbers. The latter are referring to certain specific offerings and sacrifices, while Deuteronomy is simply referring to a general 'offering sacrifices'. Furthermore Leviticus is referring to heave offerings, what is 'waved' before Yahweh (difficult with the guts), before being given to the priests, Deuteronomy is referring to what is given to the priests in general, not what is specifically waved before Yahweh, and that from what are not necessarily technical offerings. The cult and related activities were in fact far more complicated than we tend to realise, much of it regulated by custom, something which comes out when we try in our simple way to reconcile everything as though it was not very involved. We must not try to make it simplistic. It was not. If we had a full knowledge of the complicated requirements of and differences in the cult under varying circumstances and a dictionary of its technical terms we might perhaps not have so many problems as we do.

And in all our considerations we have to remember that like any language Hebrew developed. It was relatively primitive at the time of Moses, a tribal language, whereas by the time of the Exile (over 700 years later) it had become much more sophisticated, and even more so by the time of Jesus (another five hundred years). Even if we ignore the technicalities, languages, and the meaning of words, change over long periods (try reading Chaucer in the original). Modern Hebrew may give us a little help as to the meaning of ancient Hebrew, but on the whole it is positively misleading. The only way we can know the meaning of ancient Hebrew is by comparison of the use of terms in different parts of Scripture written at the same period (a problem in itself) combined with a comparison with uses in Ugaritic literature which used a fairly similar script. Where words are rarely used we regularly have to guess, especially in the case of technical terms. We usually do have a general idea as to their meaning, but not so as to be too specific. This being so what are called 'discrepancies' are not necessarily as clear in the Hebrew as it may seem in English versions. Sometimes the attempt at a translation creates an apparent discrepancy that is not actually there in the original. This must ever be kept in mind

(End of note.)

Deuteronomy 18:4

The firstfruits of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your sheep, shall you give him.’

The priests also received the firstfruits, that which ripened first, of the grain, wine and oil, and first fleeces of the sheep, giving them all round provision (compare Numbers 18:12). The fleeces are an addition which had probably become the custom. Deciding what was and was not firstfruits would presumably have been sorted out with Moses by Aaron.

Deuteronomy 18:5

For Yahweh your God has chosen him out of all your tribes, to stand to minister in the name of Yahweh, him and his sons for ever.’

The reason for these gifts was that they were the chosen of Yahweh out of all the tribes for the purpose of standing to give priestly service in the name of Yahweh (compare Deuteronomy 17:12; 1 Kings 8:11; 2 Chronicles 5:14; for ‘stand to minister’; Exodus 28:43 for ‘to minister’. Contrast Deuteronomy 10:8; 2 Chronicles 29:4-11 where it includes the service of the Levites). They, and they alone, had this privilege. The priesthood was their inheritance (Joshua 18:7).

As king, priest and sanctuary dominated ancient society, so here in Deuteronomy all were (as here), or were to be (Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 17:15), the chosen of Yahweh, as well as were the people (Deuteronomy 7:6). All was under His sovereignty.


Verses 6-8

The Maintenance of Levites Who Elect To Come To Serve At The Sanctuary (Deuteronomy 18:6-8).

The Levites were to be spread all over Israel. But when they came to serve at the Tabernacle permanently they would need to be provided for.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a And if a Levite come from any of your gates out of all Israel, where he sojourns, and come with all the desire of his soul to the place which Yahweh shall choose (Deuteronomy 18:6).

b Then he shall minister in the name of Yahweh his God (Deuteronomy 18:7 a).

b As all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before Yahweh (Deuteronomy 18:7 b).

a They shall have like portions to eat, besides that which comes of the sale of his patrimony (Deuteronomy 18:8).

Note that in ‘a’ it is speaking of the Levite who comes to the place which Yahweh has chosen, burning with seal to serve at the Tabernacle. In the parallel their portion is to be similar to that of the priests and Levites already there. On the top of that they may retain any silver obtained from selling the family home in the city from which he comes. In ‘b’ then he will minister in the name of Yahweh his God, in the same way as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 18:6-7

And if a Levite come from any of your gates out of all Israel, where he sojourns, and come with all the desire of his soul to the place which Yahweh shall choose, then he shall minister in the name of Yahweh his God, as all his brethren the Levites do, who stand there before Yahweh.’

It was the Levites and not the priests who tended to be spread around the land. But at times they would seek to take their part in the worship of the sanctuary (not necessarily permanently). Here one comes ‘with all the desire of his soul’. He is fulfilling a great desire. Once there he must be allowed to serve in the name of Yahweh his God, along with all his brother Levites who ‘stand before Yahweh’. To stand before Yahweh is not necessarily a priestly ministry. Compare Deuteronomy 10:8; Deuteronomy 19:17; Deuteronomy 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:15; 1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:15; 1 Kings 19:11; 2 Kings 3:14; 2 Kings 5:16 see also Numbers 11:16. Nor is ‘to minister in His name’. Compare Deuteronomy 10:8. In 2 Chronicles 29 ‘you Levites’ (which includes both priests and Levites specifically distinguished - Deuteronomy 18:4-5) are chosen to ‘stand before Him, to minister to Him, and to be his ministers, and to burn incense’, again a mixing of levitical and priestly duties. In 1 Samuel 2:11 the child Samuel ‘did minister to Yahweh before Eli the Priest’. At his young age this could not include direct priestly ministry. In Numbers 8:25-26 the Levites ‘minister with their brothers in the tent of meeting’. The idea is of general service in His Tabernacle.

To be in the Tabernacle courtyard (Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:5; Leviticus 1:11 and often, see Leviticus 4:15), or even gathered round it (Exodus 34:23-24), was always to be ‘before Yahweh’. (See also Numbers 7:3; Numbers 8:10; Numbers 14:37; Numbers 15:15; Numbers 32:21-22 etc; Deuteronomy 1:45; Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 6:25; Deuteronomy 12:7; Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 16:16 etc).

Examples of Tabernacle service would include repair and maintenance within the limits of where they were allowed to go and making replacements for worn out sections of the tabernacle (compare Exodus 38:21), organisation of visitors who came to the tabernacle and general guardianship (Numbers 1:53), assisting those who found difficulty in slaying their sacrifices (compare Ezekiel 44:11), assisting with sanctifying the house of Yahweh (2 Chronicles 29:16) and certainly later singing and music. Thus they ‘ministered before Yahweh’.

Deuteronomy 18:8

They shall have like portions to eat, besides that which comes of the sale of his patrimony.’

They were to be given equal shares in all the portions that fell to the Levites. And this was not be affected by any rents they received from letting their own house, or capital received from selling it.

It is not absolutely certain what 'patrimony' includes - the Hebrew rendered baldly translated would be 'the sale concerning the fathers'. The general meaning is, however, clear. When the Levite left his levitical city, or wherever he was resident, and took up residence at the Sanctuary, he had a right to keep any wealth obtained from family possessions, which might include property owned in the levitical city.


Verses 9-14

Association With The Occult Is Banned (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).

The nations in the land into which they were about to enter practised all kinds of abominations, things that were hateful to Yahweh. These occult practises are outlined here with a warning that they must be blotted out from the land. Israel are not allowed by Him to take any part in such things.

Analysis using the words of Moses.

a When you are come into the land which Yahweh your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations (Deuteronomy 18:9).

b There shall not be found with you any one who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practises augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

c For whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 18:12 a).

c And because of these abominations Yahweh your God drives them out from before you (Deuteronomy 18:12 b).

b You shall be perfect with Yahweh your God (Deuteronomy 18:13).

a For these nations, that you shall dispossess, listen to those who practise augury, and to diviners, but as for you, Yahweh your God has not given you permission so to do (Deuteronomy 18:14).

In ‘a’ they are not to learn to do all the abominations of the nations who live there, when they enter the land, and in the parallel the abominations of those nations are described. In ‘b’ are listed all who seek to influence the spiritual world and the future who are ‘imperfect’ for they do it in the wrong way, and seek to many influences. in contrast are to be Israel who are ‘perfect’ with Yahweh their God. They seek Him only and have nothing to do with other influences. In ‘c’ the doing of what is described previously is and abomination to Yahweh, and therefore in the parallel because of these abominations Yahweh their God will drive out those nations before them.

Deuteronomy 18:9

When you are come into the land which Yahweh your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations.’

Again the stress is on the fact that this land is being given to them by Yahweh. To practise the abominations described would be an insult to Him. Those abominations were to have no part to play in His land. They must learn to do what Yahweh has commanded (Deuteronomy 4:1; Deuteronomy 5:1) not do according to the abominations of these nations. They had His words. They did not need to look to the occult. And it was His land.

“Those nations.” We must immediately ask, which nations? The answer is given in Deuteronomy 17:14. It is those nations whom they wish to ape by having a king like them. But they are not nations that they should wish to ape, for they commit abominations, and their kings likewise. Thus though they may in some fashion have a king like them, in reality, as he has already demonstrated, it must be a king who was not really like theirs at all. And in the same way they were not to desire their abominations either, abominations which he now describes.

Deuteronomy 18:10-11

There shall not be found with you any one who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practises augury, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer.’

While we may not know the exact technical meaning of all the words used here, being not familiar with all the occult practises of the ancients, the general idea is clear, they are attempts to get in touch with and manoeuvre the ‘spirit world’ in one way or another. Kings would use them when seeking guidance or considering battle. Men and women would use them for guidance in the activities of life, in business, in farming, in love. Both would seek to affect them through the methods used by soothsayers, magicians, sorcerers, wizards and necromancers. And they would assiduously follow them, sometimes to disaster. But the lesson for Israel was equally clear, none must be found among them who did these things. They must avoid all contact with the occult, with what was hidden in darkness. They must avoid all attempts to contact the dead.

We do not know precisely what the ‘passing through the fire’ represented (compare 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6), but we know that children were passed through the fire to Molech (Leviticus 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35) and that that was almost certainly a child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5). It is mentioned here because of its hoped for magical effects, with the hope being that of determining or discerning the future. The king of Moab used it in desperation when he wanted to turn the course of battle (2 Kings 3:26-27). Compare both Leviticus 20:6 and 2 Kings 21:6 where it was again connected with the occult activities. It was clearly seen as powerfully effective.

For the use of divination (qosem qesemim - to divine divination) compare Numbers 23:23; Joshua 13:22 - of Balaam; Jeremiah 14:14; Jeremiah 27:9; Jeremiah 29:8; Ezekiel 13:6; Ezekiel 21:21; Zechariah 10:2. It was used in order to discover the minds of the gods. Sometimes the verb has a good meaning without magical means, referring to divining through the Spirit. But there were various occult methods. One method described in Ezekiel 21:21 was to shake arrows in a quiver and discover the message from the one that was first ejected. Others included discerning the patterns of birds as they flew, the arrangement of the organs of an animal offered as a sacrifice, or the relationship of the planets to one another. ‘Augury (‘onen - Leviticus 19:26).’ The word may signify reading clouds or muttering incantations.

The ‘enchanter’ (nachesh) may use a cup for divination by watching the reflections in the water, or the configurations of drops of oil on water, or by watching natural events (compare Genesis 44:5; Genesis 44:15; Leviticus 19:26; Numbers 23:23; Numbers 24:1). A sorcerer (cesheph - Exodus 7:11; Exodus 22:18; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Malachi 3:5) is ‘one who cuts up’, and may indicate the cutting up of herbs for charms and spells to produce magical effects. A charmer (chober cheber- Isaiah 47:9; Isaiah 47:12), ‘a knotter of knots’, is one who binds another by magic spells. A consulter of spirits (1 Chronicles 10:13), is a medium or consulter with a spirit of the dead. A wizard (yidde‘oni - Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:6; Leviticus 20:27; 1 Samuel 28:3; 1 Samuel 28:9; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Kings 23:24; Isaiah 8:19; Isaiah 19:3) is ‘one in the know’, or ‘one who knows a (familiar) spirit’, from an occult point of view. Possibly one who consults an astral spirit. A necromancer is an enquirer of the dead. Taken together the words indicate the wide varieties of supposed magical influences and fortune telling and attempts to breach the barriers into the spirit world and to contact the dead. All were seen by the ancients as affecting events, but to the people of Yahweh all were forbidden. They were an abomination to Yahweh. It is probable that this passage influenced 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 21:6.

Deuteronomy 18:12

For whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh, and because of these abominations Yahweh your God drives them out from before you.’

The one who practised any of these things was an ‘abomination’, something hated, to Yahweh. It is for this abominable behaviour that the nations would be driven out before them. The strength of feeling against them indicates that some of their powers were seen to originate from evil sources.

Deuteronomy 18:13

You shall be perfect with Yahweh your God.’

But His people on the contrary were to walk rightly. They were perfectly to obey the covenant avoiding all such nefarious activities. They were to be free of all such traits. They were to avoid all spiritual influence but Yahweh. They were to be constantly with God, seeking Yahweh’s means of understanding through prophets, through the word, and through the Urim and Thummim. They were to be free from the taint of the occult.

Deuteronomy 18:14

For these nations, that you shall dispossess, listen to those who practise augury, and to diviners, but as for you, Yahweh your God has not given you permission so to do.’

On the other hand the nations that they will dispossess listened to all these things. What use it would be to them is revealed by the fact that it could not prevent them from being driven out by Yahweh. But Yahweh has not given His people permission to listen to them, for He knows what foolishness they are and what harm they can cause to mankind.


Verses 15-19

Yahweh Will Raise Up Prophets For Them (Deuteronomy 18:15-22).

Instead of turning to the occult which can only deceive them they should rather turn to the prophets who will be sent by Yahweh. These verses have been taken to forecast the coming of a great Prophet in the future, and that may certainly be included in the thought, but the general idea is that Yahweh will raise up a prophet, like Moses was when he was in his prophetic mode, whenever needed.

We notice that these prophets would be ‘raised’ not chosen. They were to be Yahweh’s special weapon. They would watch over Judge, king and priest on behalf of Yahweh. They would be the source of revelation from Yahweh. But we must not think of them as being in opposition to either kingship or priesthood. They were only in opposition to bad kingship and bad priesthood. They strove to cooperate with both.

The promise here appears to be more than simply that there would be prophets. Prophets were fairly common in the Ancient Near East, as supposed sources of divine knowledge, and Israel would later have prophets attached to the cult (1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 10:10-12; 1 Samuel 19:20) who could be enquired of and could not always respond (1 Samuel 28:6). These latter are not all condemned and some of the prophets mentioned in Scripture as true men of God probably came from among them. But they were not in general seen as having the powers and authority described here. The ones spoken of here were prophets ‘like to Moses’. Such did not exist during the time of Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brethren, like to me (Deuteronomy 18:15).

b To him you shall listen, in accordance with all that you desired of Yahweh your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of Yahweh my God, nor let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.” And Yahweh said to me, “They have well said that which they have spoken.” (Deuteronomy 18:16-17).

c “I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like to you, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him.” (Deuteronomy 18:18).

c “And it shall come about, that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him” (Deuteronomy 18:19).

b “But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20).

a And if you say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which Yahweh has not spoken?” When a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the thing follow not, nor come about, that is the thing which Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

Note that the parallels here are contrasts. In ‘a’ Yahweh will raise up true prophets like Moses, and in the parallel they will be known by whether their prophecies come about. In ‘b’ he is a special person chosen as the people’ mediator, to speak to the people the words of Yahweh, and they must listen to him, and in the parallel if he speaks presumptuously he will die. In ‘c’ God will put His words in his mouth and in the parallel God will require it of all those who do not listen to those words.

Deuteronomy 18:15-17

Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brethren, like to me. To him you shall listen, in accordance with all that you desired of Yahweh your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the voice of Yahweh my God, nor let me see this great fire any more, that I die not. And Yahweh said to me, “They have well said that which they have spoken.” ’

Moses is probably indicating here that God will constantly raise up prophets for them, one after the other, to arise as needed. They would replace Moses as Yahweh’s mouthpiece. They would be prophets who would be in close touch with God like Moses was. That is the one to whom they must listen. Indeed they themselves had asked God for this. They had said that they did not themselves want to hear the voice of God directly, nor did they again wish to see His great fire. And Yahweh had agreed that they had spoken well. Compare Deuteronomy 5:23-28. So it had become necessary for Him to promise to raise up prophets, and raise up a prophet as was required He would.

These prophets were not to come from a dynastic line nor to be simply appointed by the cult. They were to be ‘raised up’. And it was ‘from the midst of your brethren’. They were to be homeborn not foreign. But they were to be raised up in order to bring the word of Yahweh to judge, king, priest and people alike.

“Raise up.” We note that these prophets were not to be ‘chosen’ they were to be ‘raised up’ when necessary. They were to be Yahweh’s unique instrument with special power from Him and answerable only to Him. Not all prophets were ‘raised up’ prophets. Many, even though some were genuine, were ‘professional’ prophets.

Deuteronomy 18:18

I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like to you, and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him.”

This continues Yahweh’s words. Just as He had raised up Moses so would He raise up other prophets. As each was required so would He raise up a prophet from among them who was like Moses. He would put His words in their mouth, and that prophet would speak to them all that Yahweh commanded. For because Yahweh had raised him up, Yahweh would provide him with the truth that he must speak.

Deuteronomy 18:19

And it shall come about, that whoever will not listen to my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.”

And woe betide the one who will not listen to this prophet whom Yahweh raises up. Whatever he speaks in Yahweh’s name will be required of each man in that generation.

So we have here the promise of a stream of godly ‘raised up’ prophets. It is apparent that, while in many cases connected with them, this promise does not just refer to the general prophets mainly connected with the sanctuaries. Those appear to have been a regular feature of cultic life. This refers to some who will be specially ‘raised up’ as Moses had been.

That is why this passage also came to be understood as referring to one particular prophet, a prophet ‘like to Moses’, one supreme even in comparison with the raised up prophets. Thus in Jesus’ time such a prophet was awaited. Indeed Jesus Himself was asked, ‘Are you that prophet?’ (John 1:21; John 1:25; John 6:14). And there can be no doubt that Jesus was ‘that Prophet’ more than any other prophet. He was the new Moses, and yet a greater than Moses, for Moses wrote of Him (John 5:46). And because they refused to listen to Him it was not He Who would testify against them before His Father but it was Moses who would do it, even Moses in whom they trusted (John 5:45), for it was he who had pointed to Him.


Verses 20-22

False Prophets will Arise. The Test of A True Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Deuteronomy 18:20

But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.”

But the danger was that false prophets would also arise. Let men beware of being false prophets. The position of the prophets was to be so important that anyone who feigned being a prophet was to be put to death. If men professed to be prophets but spoke their own words pretending that they were Yahweh’s, speaking their own wisdom presumptuously pretending that it was God’s, giving commands in His name which had not really come from Him, then they were to die. So also were any who came as prophets in the names of other gods.

Deuteronomy 18:21

And if you say in your heart, “How shall we know the word which Yahweh has not spoken?” ’

But this would immediately raise the question as to how they were to know whether this was so or not, how they were to know what God had not said and how they were to recognise God’s truth.

Deuteronomy 18:22

When a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, if the thing follow not, nor come about, that is the thing which Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You shall not be afraid of him.’

The solution was outwardly simple. If a man speaks in the name of Yahweh, and what he says ‘is not’ and/or ‘does not come about’, then that is the proof that Yahweh has not spoken through him, and that the prophet has spoken presumptuously. Thus they need not be afraid of his words.

The emphasis here is on the fact that Yahweh’s words always have genuine content and that He always does what He says He will do. In view of the non-mention of a positive perspective this would seem to be as much a careful declaration that Yahweh would honour the word of His true prophets as the simple test of a prophet. But the outcome of some prophecies would not be apparent for some considerable time. The people still had to weigh up their words and consider the likelihood of their fulfilment in the light of the Scriptures that they had, and in the light of the covenant.

But the corollary is that if a man speaks in the name of Yahweh and what he says has powerful moral impact and does continually come about, then unless there are grounds for thinking otherwise it would be an indication that he did come from Yahweh. Thus he should be heeded, and his words treasured, especially if he urged them to the fear of Yahweh. And they should listen and fear what he says. A prophet who does not bring them to the fear of Yahweh should certainly, however, not be heeded. Nor should one whose words failed of fulfilment. And certainly one who came in the name of other gods should be rejected immediately.

It will be observed that this proof could not in many cases be fully known at the time of the prophecy, although it would in some be apparent shortly afterwards, for the message of the prophet was regularly concerning immediate and local situations. Thus its manifest truthfulness or otherwise would become apparent. Once the prophet’s integrity was established he could then be trusted. There are many examples of such short term prophecies in Scripture, men who came, spoke truly, and went (Judges 6:8; 1 Samuel 22:5; 2 Samuel 24:11; 1 Kings 11:29; 1 Kings 13:1; and often). But although they disappeared from our point of view they would continue to be known in the community.

In the case of the prophets of whom we know most, because their words were recorded, much of their prophecy was looking into the future that was coming which would take time to unfold, but it is clear from their words that they expected their listeners to use their moral judgment, and recognise the truth of the situation. And that some did so comes out in that their words were preserved.

The very content of the prophecy often demonstrated its own truth. The true prophet’s warnings were unheeded, not because they were manifestly untrue, but because men did not want to hear what they were saying, because their hearts were hardened. We all like men who tell us what we want to hear. Had their hearts been right, and had they thought more deeply, they would have known. A clear example can be found of this in 1 Kings 2:5-18).

Later tests given would be that they must be tested against God’s own words received from the past (Isaiah 8:20). Another that they could be tested by the voice of God’s Spirit within Who would witness to what was true (1 John 1:20, 27). But in the end the prophet was recognised by those whose hearts were right and true to the covenant.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-18.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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