Chapters 12-16 of Deuteronomy fit into a larger section of the stipulations of this covenant treaty. Deuteronomy 5 began, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules…learn them and be careful to do them.” This is followed by the list of the Ten Words. Deuteronomy 6 began, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules…” And it is followed by a section of covenant stipulations that does not read as much like a list of laws as chapters 5 or 6-12 do. Then chapter 12 opens, “These are the statutes and the rules that you shall be careful to do in the land…” The need for more to be written down on these stipulations has been amply demonstrated in the previous chapters (recalling the Golden Calf chs 9-10 and the rebellion of the Reubenites 11:6).
A quick review of the history of the laws regarding altars will enlighten the primary reason for needing Deuteronomy’s explanation of the Torah. Back in the second phase of the covenant, Exodus had said, “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, you sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it” (Exo 20:24-26).
In that earlier phase of the covenant there were to be sacrificial offerings performed on altars in multiple locations. But this was before the Golden Calf incident and then the incident with goat idols (Lev 17:7). Thus Leviticus had said that the burnt offering or sacrifice was to be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting (17:9). Deuteronomy further explains then that there will only be one altar for such offerings and sacrifices. It is making explicit what was implicit in Leviticus 17.
The chapter begins by reiterating that Israel is to “destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. You shall not worship YHWH your God in that way” (12:2-4, recalling 7:5). Considering Israel’s propensity to idolatry, this is an excellent reason for having only one altar.
“But you shall seek the place that YHWH your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name and make His habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before YHWH your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which YHWH your God has blessed you” (Deut 12:5-7). This looks forward to the eventual revelation of Jerusalem as the place God will choose.
The next verse is interesting, “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes…” (12:8). This sounds similar to the refrain of the book of Judges, which was not yet written at this point. Thus it is with King David that this will take full effect – as later Scripture reveals. “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, but at the place that YHWH will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you” (Deut 12:13-14). This foreshadows what will eventually happen as the Northern and Southern parts of Israel split into separate nations and then the people from the north did not want to travel to Jerusalem any more but to offer sacrifices within their own borders at a new Golden Calf setting.
The rest of the chapter makes explicit what was implicit in Leviticus 17 regarding the slaughter of animals for food as compared to the slaughter of animals for sacrifice. For example, Leviticus implied that the slaughter of animals for food could take place anywhere (unlike the slaughter of animals for sacrifice) but Deuteronomy 12:15 explicitly says it.
The chapter ends much the same as it opened: “When YHWH your God cuts off [language of circumcision] before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?–that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship YHWH your God in that way, for every abominable thing that YHWH hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deut 12:29-32).
The last verse in the English numbering really goes with the next chapter: “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (12:32). While the revelation of God’s will to Moses was face to face, revelation to the Prophets would be through visions and dreams. And the prophets would perform signs or wonders to verify the authenticity of their message. However, Deuteronomy makes it clear – “If…the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams. For YHWH your God is testing you to know whether you love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 13:1-3). But the prophet or dreamer of dreams did not mean it as a test from the true God. The prophet or dreamer would be put to death.
The chapter continues with the example of others (your brother, your son or daughter, or your wife or friend) trying to entice you to go and serve other gods. They too would be put to death. If a city did this, then the city would be devoted to destruction.
These issues arise again in Chapter 18: “…you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a wizard or a necromancer (talk with the dead), for whoever does these things is an abomination to YHWH. And because of these abominations YHWH your God is driving them out before you” (Deut 18:9b-12). “You shall be blameless before YHWH your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortunetellers and to diviners. But as for you, YHWH your God has not allowed you to do this. YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” (Deut 18:13-15).
At first reading you would expect this to refer to the prophets who would come and would write the next section of the canon (Joshua-the Book of the Twelve). Especially because it speaks generally in the passage, like saying, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” This passage clearly should be read together with Deut 13 because the way that you know the prophet is false is that “the word does not come to pass or come true” (18:22).
However, this pointed beyond the time of the Old Testament prophets, as is clear from the ending of the Second Edition that picks up on this language “a prophet like me from among you” and says, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders that YHWH sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (34:10-12).
Back to the regulations at hand, since Chapter 13 had brought up the issue of purging the evil from your midst, chapter 14 continues with a sampling of regulations concerning purity. The theme of these regulations is the same as Leviticus: “you are a people holy to YHWH your God” (Deut 14:2, 21).
Note the comparable texts in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy below:
Leviticus 19:28 “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves…” Leviticus 21:5 “They [priests] shall not make bald patches on their heads…nor make any cuts on their body.” Deuteronomy 14:1 “…You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.”
Leviticus 11 describes the kinds of clean animals that can be eaten without giving examples (v.3). Deuteronomy 14:3-20 Gives examples of clean animals that can be eaten (v.4-5). Leviticus 11 gives examples of clean winged things you may eat (v.21-23). Deuteronomy 14 says, “All clean winged things you may eat” without giving examples (v.20).
Exodus 22:31 “You shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs” (could be understood figuratively as dogs = Gentiles). Leviticus 17:15-16 those that eat what dies naturally or is torn by beasts, native or sojourner, is unclean. Deuteronomy 14:21 “You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner.”
Exodus 23:19b and Exodus 34:26b and Deuteronomy 14:21c all say, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
Deut 12:6 had mentioned “the firstborn of your herd and of your flock” as an offering. Now Deut 14:23 explains that “the firstborn of your herd and flock” is a tithe to YHWH. This part of the chapter explains the procedure for tithing. If “the place is too far from you, which YHWH your God chooses, to set His name there” then you were to turn it into money and then take it to that place God would choose at some point and you would provide for the Levites in your town from it.
Compare the text to those from Exodus and Leviticus below: Exodus 23:10f – “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Lev 25:2-7 – v.3ff “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land…You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine.” The land will provide food for you, your slaves, hired servant, sojourner, cattle, and wild animals.
Deuteronomy explains “But there will be no poor among you; for YHWH will bless you in the land that YHWH your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of YHWH your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (15:4-5). There should be no need for laws to protect the poor if the people would just obey God. However, since the people are unable to do so Jesus would one day say, “You will always have the poor with you” (Matt 26:11, Mar 14:7, John 12:8).
And so the chapter provides for how one was to provide for the poor brother. The focus on the heart is again instructive: “you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother…take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart…your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him…for there will never cease to be poor in the land” (15:7b-11).
The chapter also provides a six year limit on indentured servitude of another Hebrew man or woman. This builds on Lev 25:39 and Exo 21:2-7. Leviticus says that an Israelite could sell himself to another if he could not pay his debts. The Exodus passage states the same law as Deuteronomy except it has no protections explicitly for Hebrew women. Deuteronomy thus makes it clear that the same is true for the women.
Deuteronomy 16 gives us a religious calendar with Passover, the Feast of Weeks, Feast of Tabernacles/Booths, and a summary. Regarding Passover it makes it clear that the feast is to be celebrated in the place God would choose (cf. Exo 40:17). Also the summary (v.16-17) reiterates that these feasts will be “at the place that He will choose.”
Thus what Deuteronomy does is indeed give examples where Exodus or Leviticus did not, clarify some of the ambiguities that earlier texts had left, make explicit what was only implicit before (even providing further protection for women as we also saw in earlier posts), and apply all of these regulations to the central theme of one altar in the place where God would choose rather than multiple altars throughout the land. If you are interested in application to today, you will find the tools to do so by reading many of the other posts and listening to many of the sermons on this site. It would require that we explain Torah in a new context and at a new place in the history of redemption (i.e. read the New Testament Gospels and Acts) and focus on the changes that come from the form of worship at one altar to worshiping in Spirit and in truth. But understanding these things in Deuteronomy 12-16 better will help you understand what comes later.