SynopsisIn the last chapter, the Israelites were once again urged to love and obey the LORD. In this chapter, Moses hands down some additional rules about their place of worship.
First of all, the Israelites are to remove the current places of worship in the Promised Land, where the current residents worship their gods. They are to
Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. (verses 2–3)
Remember that “Asherah poles” were items used for worshipping the goddess Asherah, which was very common, in those days. (I mentioned this briefly in the post for Deuteronomy 7.)
The Israelites are not to worship the LORD in the same way that other nations worship their gods; in fact, He is going to give them one specific place, where He will put His Name, and they are to worship Him there. That one place is the place where they are to make their sacrifices, and bring their offerings.
Currently, the Israelites’ worship of the LORD is a bit more haphazard; people are worshipping “everyone as he sees fit” (verse 8). God is allowing this because they haven’t yet reached the land that He is giving them. But when they get there, this is no longer to be the case; once they have crossed the border into the Promised Land, and the LORD has given them rest from their enemies, they are to do their worshipping at the place where He will put His Name.
And there rejoice before the LORD your God, you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns, who have no allotment or inheritance of their own. Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you. (verses 12–14)
Of course, the Israelites will still be allowed to slaughter animals for food wherever they are—they won’t have to go to the central worshipping place for that. (Moses does remind them, however, not to eat the blood from the animals, as prescribed in Leviticus 7.) But outside of the central place of worship, they are not to eat: their tithes of their new grain, wine, or oil; the firstborn of their flocks and herds; anything they have vowed to give to the LORD, or their freewill offerings. These things are to be eaten at the place of worship.
After giving these rules, Moses reiterates them for the Israelites:
When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, “I would like some meat,” then you may eat as much of it as you want. If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want. Eat them as you would gazelle or deer. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat. But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is right in the eyes of the LORD.
But take your consecrated things and whatever you have vowed to give, and go to the place the LORD will choose. Present your burnt offerings on the altar of the LORD your God, both the meat and the blood. The blood of your sacrifices must be poured beside the altar of the LORD your God, but you may eat the meat. Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God.
The LORD is about to drive out the people currently living in the Promised Land, but the Israelites have to be careful not to become ensnared by the gods these people worship. The Israelites are also not to worship God in the same way that these other gods are worshipped, because worship of these gods involves “all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates”—including the sacrifice of children (verse 31)!
Moses ends the chapter with a final thought:
See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it. (verse 32)
ThoughtsThe Israelites already have the Tabernacle, which is a big portable temple they bring with them. The Israelite camp is arranged around the Tabernacle, so that it is always at the centre of their camp. (See Numbers 2.) But when they reach the Promised Land, they will have something more permanent; first, the Tabernacle will be set up at one particular, permanent place, and, eventually, it will be replaced by a permanent Temple, where the LORD will “put His Name.”
Which brings us to another point: What does it mean that the LORD will “put His Name” there? What does Moses mean when he says in verse 5 that this central place of worship will be the LORD’s “dwelling?” Since God is the God of the entire universe, and exists everywhere, how is the Tabernacle/Temple any different? Is the LORD somehow more present at this place? Does His Presence exist there more than it does in other places in the world?
My answer is that I don’t think so. I think this is a symbolic thing. As King Solomon said, when he dedicated the Temple:
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)
So I think it’s symbolic, but there may be more to it than that—especially since the Israelites were to treat the Tabernacle/Temple as if the LORD did, physically, live there.
In future chapters and books, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this a lot more.