Deuteronomy 12:1-28

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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Historical Context

            The context of the story that we read in the pages of Deuteronomy is the prepping of Israel for entry into the Promise Land.  Moses is addressing the people and re-affirming the covenant that God had made with the people at Mt. Sinai.  This is primarily done by the giving of the Law and the expansion of that Law.  This is how Israel is to conduct themselves in the land.  The first few chapters remind Israel of their past infidelity and the consequences that ensued.  In order for them to maintain the land, they must live in it on God’s terms.

Not only is the Law re-instituted among the people but new leadership is promoted.  Caleb and Joshua will both be remembered due to their obedience, even when the wilderness generation faltered.  However, it is primarily Joshua that is replacing Moses as the leader of Israel.  Before Moses’ passing, he gives final instructions and development of the Law that had been given at Mt. Sinai.  The Law has far reaching implications for every aspect of life, which are only touched upon (although very detailed) in chapters 12-26.

Fast forward many centuries to the time of the Divided Kingdom.  Judah and Israel are now two separate entities.  Israel, who lives to the north of Judah, is captured in 722 BCE.  Danger is lurking on the doorstep of Judah.  It seems to be only a matter of time before they too are attacked.  The onslaught of Israel brings refugees to Judah, those fleeing the sword and destruction.

2 Kings 22 records the story of Hilkiah, the high priest during the reign of King Josiah, finding the Book of the Law, which had somehow become obscure and forgotten.  Chapter 23 dictates the revival that happened in the land at this time.  Idols and the high places of worship were destroyed.  Josiah then renewed the covenant, much as Moses had done in Midian, with the people.  The Book of the Law, namely Deuteronomy 12-26, that was discovered is often thought to have been the core bulk of Deuteronomy.

Martin Noth’s theory of the Deuteronomistic History has come under scrutiny, however.  K. L. Noll “argued that Deuteronomy 12 and related passages emerged in the Persian period,

when Persian imperial policy permitted Yahweh to choose but one place among all the

tribes of Israel. Political reality results in theological rationalization” (332).  If this checks out, a small portions of Deuteronomy, and related books, would have been constructed during Josiah’s reign.  The process of redaction would have been exercised for approximately 300 years, the bulk of which would have occurred during the Persian reign.

In fact, according to Noll, there is little or no archaeological evidence for either Josiah or Hezekiah having centralized worship.  To have centralized worship would have weakened the ability to collect taxes from the people.  There are also other concerns within the text that might point to a later dating.  For instance, the law code is very much Assyrian styling.  In other passages of the Deuteronomistic History, there are obvious Persian influences, such as language.

If this is the case, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings could not be considered the “Deuteronomistic History.”  Rather, it might be called the Deuteronomistic Debate, as K. L. Noll deems it.  In other words, although some similar Deuteronomistic theology is being dealt with, it is not always dealt with in a good light, nor is it always adhered to.  K. L. Noll notes:

Toward the end of this long process (ca. 200 or so, for most portions of the text), a few superficial attempts were made to link the four books into a single narrative framework, but these meager glosses could not stitch together massively differing blocks of material. It was, rather, the sheer will of later religiously minded readers, intent on viewing the whole as a sacred history, that created Noth’s Deuteronomistic History (344).

Perhaps the best way to view the bulk of this literature is to see it as a conversation among several traditions that are interacting with the ideology of Deuteronomy.  In that sense, it may be referred to as the Deuteronomistic History.

Literary Context

            The book of Deuteronomy finds itself as a hinge point between two traditions: Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic History.  In one sense, this literature is an ending.  It concludes the story of Genesis through Numbers, detailing the beginning of the world and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  Deuteronomy ends just as Israel is about to take possession of the Promise Land.

However, Deuteronomy is also a beginning.  The book details how Israel is to live in the land that God is giving them.  Everything from Joshua to 2 Kings is rooted in the Deuteronomic tradition.  Deuteronomy, therefore, provides an interpretive lens for “the rest of the story.”  Essentially, it is the hinge point for a large narrative relaying the story of God’s people.

Patrick D. Miller notes:

Having set forth the primary commandment, the most important words, Moses now presents further instruction: specific cases and rules that spell out the basic guidelines set forth in the commandments and the summary word of the Shema (6:4-5)… one may see a move now to show what the guiding principles set forth in chapters 5 and 6 mean for specific matters that arise in the lives of people in community with one another and God (128-29).

As stated, Deuteronomy 12-26 gives an interpretive lens through which to view the commandments.  In fact, it is the expounding of the original commandment given at Mount Sinai, which signifies that the commandment’s implications are always being considered and exegeted.  In fact, several sections start with similar words: “These are the commandments.”  Each section, chapters 1-4, 6-11, and 12-28 all begin with this formula, introducing a new thought, expanding upon the previous section’s use of the commandments (Olson 62-65).

The Josianic reform is usually attributed the initial and concluding chapters of Deuteronomy.  It is also possible that these chapters were added by scribes during the Babylonian exile.  However, as discussed earlier, these passages might best shadow Persian concerns for centralization, which allowed them greater control over their provinces.

As it is, Deuteronomy 1-11 retells the narrative of exodus and the judgment of the wilderness generation.  Chapter 11 concludes with a choice before all of Israel: blessing or curse, land or landlessness, life or death.  This is symbolized by two mountains: Mount Gerizim (blessings) and Mount Ebal (curses).  Mount Gerizim is a beautiful mountain with lush vegetation, representing life.  Mount Ebal, on the other hand, is ugly and desolate, representing death.  This is to be the reminder of the choice continuously lying before Israel as they enter to take possession of the land.

Chapter 12 is the introduction to this expanded work on the commandments.  The passage is set up with command language, asserting what the people must do to be in compliance with the Law.  This particular passage is a working out of the first commandment: “Do not have any other gods before me.”  The passage is set up in a future tense, viewing God’s promise that they will enter the land and they will take possession of it.  The tone is more than hopeful, it is certain of what will be accomplished.

However, to say that these passages are Law Code seriously hinders the voice of the messenger.  There seems to be a clear pastoral concern, despite the historical circumstances, whatever they may be.  This pastor is concerned about setting apart true worship and true worshipers from the surrounding nations’ worship.  Furthermore, the centrality of the first commandment can be seen, not only in Deuteronomy 12, but throughout the corpus of Deuteronomy.  Which is to say, the pastor desires to set God above all others in the life of Israel.

Theological Context

The centralization of worship in Israel is the main concern of this passage.  In many ways, this passage parallels the commandment to have no other gods beside Yahweh.  The people are to destroy the high places, the idols, and the altars.  Worship is only appropriate in the place that the Lord chooses for His Name.

The Levites are a major winner in this scheme.  They are listed several times in chapter 12 as recipients of a portion of the sacrifice for food.  Moreover, the centralization of worship focuses power in one locale.  The monarchy and the ruling priesthood will now be able to construct and structure proper worship and employ their definition of holiness.  Essentially, they are able to shape who the insiders and the outsiders will be.  For the Deuteronomistic tradition, this will be those that are obedient to the Law.

However, stipulations are made for those who cannot travel to the central place of worship.  Sacrifices to Yahweh may be made in their towns, but only by the prescribed methods.  For those who do not comply, certain judgment will be meted out.  For example, in the story of 1 Kings 19, Elijah confronts 500 prophets of Baal at a high place.  Elijah wins the contest, destroys Baal’s altar, and has all of Baal’s prophets killed.

The centralization of worship also parallels the notion of One God, as proclaimed in the Shema (Deut. 6).  Again, the multiplicity of high places would only affirm a polytheistic viewpoint.  Those that viewed the spiritual realm being governed by many gods would be clear losers in this context.  If there is only one God, then He holds all the power.  And, if there is only one place to worship this God, power is shifted to that locale.  Thus, the Temple becomes more than just a symbol of God’s presence in the life of Israel.  Its destruction shadows the absence of God’s presence in the life of Israel.  The connection between God and the Temple is a visible reminder of God’s election, providence, mercy, and power.

The centralization of worship may not have been a novel idea to Deuteronomy alone.  The tabernacle that was built in the story of Exodus was also a centralizing act.  God’s presence among the people was represented by this place of worship.  This was to be the place where God would meet the people.  Of course, it is a precursor to the Temple.  However, chapter 12 announces that the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary, would not be the place of worship forever.  Instead, God would choose a place for His Name to be worshiped.  Perhaps a priestly concern had influenced the Dtr whereby one location for God’s Name became a major concern for proper worship.

There is a slight nationalistic bent to this passage.  Obedience requires the destruction of the gods of the other nations.  Essentially, it is about asserting the election of God’s people over the surrounding peoples.  It is the holiness of separation as seen in the Genesis 1 creation account.  God separates and declares creation “good.”  Again, in this context, God is re-structuring creation from chaos and pronouncing it “good.”  This is a call to come out and be separate from the surrounding nations and their false gods.

What sort of practices would need to be employed in order for this centralized worship to function?  Daniel I. Block notes several practices that Deuteronomy says are to be incorporated into the life of worship at this one place that God will choose.

At the place Yahweh chooses to establish His name His people may do the following. 1. ‘See the face of Yahweh” (31:11; cf. 16:16); 2. Hear the reading of the Torah (31:11); 3. Learn to fear Yahweh (14:23; 31:9-13); 4. Rejoice before Yahweh (12:18; 14:26; 16:11-12, 14; 26:11); 5. Eat before Yahweh (12:7, 18; 14:23, 26, 29; 15:20; 18:6-8); 6. Present their sacrifices, which would include ‘the holy things’ they owned, votive offerings, and burnt offerings (12:26-27), tithes of grain, new wine, oil, the firstborn of the herds and flocks (14:22-27), and the consecrated firstborn of herds or flocks (15:19-23); 7. Celebrate the three great annual pilgrimage festivals: the Passover (16:1-8), the Festival of Weeks (Pentecost, 16:9-12), and the Festival of Booths (16:13-17; 31:9-13); 8. Settle legal disputes before the Levitical priest or the judge (17:8-13); 9. Observe Levites serving in the name of Yahweh (18:6-8); 10. Present thanksgiving offerings and recall Yahweh’s saving and providential grace (26:1-11); 11. Demonstrate their covenant commitment to Yahweh by gifts of charity to needy people (26:12; cf. 10:12-22); 12. Demonstrate communal solidarity by celebrating with one’s children and servants, the Levites, and aliens (14:27-29; 16:11) (144).

However, within Deuteronomy 12 itself, there are five practices of note for the promotion of true worship in the life of Israel.

Moses’ instructions for worship in verses 5-7 include five verbs: “you shall make a pilgrimage to the place,” and “you shall come there” (v. 5), “you shall bring your offerings” (v. 6), “you shall eat” (v. 7), and “you shall rejoice in all activities” (v. 7).   These five expressions reflect the five dimensions of Moses’ paradigm for worship. Each has a profoundly positive sense and may be construed more as an invitation than as a command, yielding a picture of Old Testament worship that flies in the face of common perceptions (144).

Normally, Deuteronomy conjures feelings of stale, dry, boring worship.  However, these text show that worship of the living God is life giving!

Hermeneutical Synthesis

            As was evidenced in chapter 11, there are two choices that now lie before God’s people as they enter into the land of promise to take possession.  It is the choice of life or death, obedience or disobedience.  In order for Israel to continue to live under the provision and blessing of God (i.e. land), it is necessary for them to live in total obedience to the Law of God.  In other words, they are to observe the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Yahweh alone is the object of worship!

The motivation for worship is not in the initiative of the people.  Rather, it is the people’s response to God’s “giving the land, blessing the people, giving rest, giving a grant, and providing security” (Block 135).  This is in direct competition with the other “gods.”  Yahweh provides for his people.  Idols must be provided for.  Yahweh is the living God, who alone is worthy of worship.

Furthermore, true worship belongs to everyone, from the greatest to the least.  Unlike the nations who are lumped together and remain nameless, individuals that worship in sincerity are identified specifically.  It involves masters and servants, children, men, women, and all in the household (136).  In other words, God is not Lord only of the powerful but also of the weakest and most insignificant in society.  The presence of Yahweh is open to all.

And, much as Pharaoh remains nameless in the Exodus account, seven nations are designated as insignificant players.  Their worship is abominable to God, which means that they are worse than outsiders, they are non-entities.  Though they may be stronger and greater than Israel, these nations will ultimately fall against the power of Yahweh.  Their idols in which they place their trust will idly stand by as these nations are destroyed.

Finally, we find that participating in true worship is a life-giving activity.  We are able to rejoice because of the past from which God has delivered us, as well as, the future that He has promised us.  And, unlike today’s spiritual milieu, worship is to be a constant expression and reality in our lives.  Worship is not “doing as we see fit.”  Rather, it is the gathered community, rejoicing for what God has done.  It is an invitation to relationship, not simply a command or duty imposed upon us.  Furthermore, it is the re-establishing of covenant with God to the community.

 

Works Cited

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen. A Theological Introduction To The Old Testament. 2 ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Block, Daniel I. 2005. “The joy of worship: the Mosaic invitation to the presence of God (Deut

12:1-14).” Bibliotheca sacra 162, no. 646: 131-149. ATLA Religion Database with

ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 13, 2010).

Miller, Patrick D.. Deuteronomy (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: J. Knox Press, 1991.

Noll, K. L. 2007. “Deuteronomistic History or Deuteronomic Debate? (A Thought Experiment).”

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3: 311-345. Academic Search Premier,

EBSCOhost (accessed April 13, 2010).

Olson, Dennis T.. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.

 

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