SynopsisIn this passage, Moses reminds the Israelites of some rules about worshipping other gods.
First of all, they are not to erect any Asherah poles, nor any “sacred stones” (verses 16:21–22). Actually, it specifically says that they are not to set up any Asherah poles beside the LORD’s altar, but of course they aren’t supposed to set up Asherah poles anywhere. But this just leads me to believe that the LORD knows that the Israelites are going to be tempted to mix worship of Him with worship of other gods. I don’t know what “sacred stones” are, specifically, but I know that Asherah poles are used in the worship of the goddess Asherah.
Moses also reminds the Israelites, in verse 17:1, that when they sacrifice to the LORD, they are not to use animals that have defects, “for that would be detestable to him.”
Finally, if any Israelite is caught worshipping other gods—or worshipping the sun, moon, or stars—that person is to be put to death, by stoning, to purge the evil from the nation of Israel. However, before any person can be put to death, the matter is to be investigated thoroughly, and there must be at least two witnesses to the crime. In fact, the witnesses are to be the first people to begin stoning the person convicted of the crime.
ThoughtsAs mentioned, Asherah poles were used in worshipping the goddess Asherah. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but this comes up over and over again in the Old Testament; worship of Asherah was a problem for the Israelites for most—if not all—of their Old Testament history.
Notice my assumption above, that the LORD specifically tells the Israelites not to put the Asherah poles next to the altar because He knows that they are going to mix their worship of Him with worship of other gods. It’s not good enough for the Israelites to worship the LORD, they have to do it properly, by following all of His rules perfectly; but even if they do that, it’s still not good enough—they also have to make sure that they’re worshipping Him and Him alone. Even if the Israelites follow all of the rules and regulations, and observe the feasts and festivals, if they’re also worshipping other gods, they’ve broken the first commandment, and their worship is not acceptable. Remember, as He said in Exodus:
Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (Exodus 34:14)
Which, really, shouldn’t be that much of a hardship, when you consider that there are no other gods, besides God Himself. In modern-day 21st Century North America, it’s hard for us to get our heads around idol worship; we understand things like pride, which is itself a form of idolatry, but actual worship of other gods, we don’t get.
On another note, the reason it would be “detestable” to the LORD for the Israelites to offer a blemished animal as a sacrifice is that they would not be giving their best to Him. They should not be giving Him second best, while keeping the “good” animals for themselves. Which sounds all very well and good, but I’m sure it would have been extremely tempting for them to do so; when the animal is simply going up in smoke—literally—I’m sure it wouldn’t really have seemed worthwhile give God the very, very best. Why not get rid of the lame animals that way, and save the good animals for where they could be put to use, or sold? Not that I’m justifying Israelites for doing so; I’m just saying that I understand how tempting it would be.