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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Sanctuary, One God, One Holy People (part 1) Deuteronomy 12

Deuteronomy 12

            From Deuteronomy 12 through Deuteronomy 25:19, Moses gave Laws from God about one sanctuary, one God, and one holy people. In the Bible passage of this study, Moses expounded on the law of the single sanctuary. Before we study this though, I must bring a theological theory about the authorship of Deuteronomy to light. Many modern theologians believe Moses did not write all or part of Deuteronomy. The modern theologians of this group state that parts of Deuteronomy are included in the writings of a few of the prophets’ later in the Bible. They give eight other points to back up their belief that several writers added to what Moses preached in Deuteronomy 5-11. Other modern theologians believe Moses wrote all of Deuteronomy except the ending that tells of Moses’ death. I agree with the latter stance. I believe that where parts of Deuteronomy are included in later Old Testament texts the authors of those books of the Bible used Moses’ writing for their teaching. As to the other eight arguments for multiple authors of Deuteronomy, this Bible study is not the vehicle for discussing historical theological matters. This Bible study is aimed at teaching what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy, for whom, and for what purpose. Moses, in Deuteronomy, revisited for the Israelites their covenant with God and all His statutes, laws, and judgments. By doing this, they would remember their covenant with God before they took possession of the Promised Land. As Moses did for the Israelites, later biblical authors did for the people of their era. They edited and reapplied God’s commands to the people of their time so that its truth was not lost, but was applicable to the people. That is the job of every Bible teacher today.

            Because the love and reverence of God through worship and obedience to His laws and commandments is the supreme purpose for the faith of the followers of the LORD, the place and method of worship was of supreme importance. Moses commanded the Israelites often to “utterly destroy” the nations in the land to which God was giving them. He restated this again in 12:2. Moses further told them completely destroy the Canaanite places of worship (Deuteronomy. 7:5, 12:3, Numbers 33:52). Why would a God of love, who wants relationship, demand whole nations of people and their worship sites be annihilated? People often query how God can be loving and yet destroy a people/nation. This is a quandary to them. To understand this, one must understand about the gods of Canaan that the people worshipped. In ancient Canaan, the people worshipped a Mesopotamian deity associated with agriculture, but who later became their greatest god, the giver of life. This god’s name was Baal, which means “lord” or “master.” Baal had three mistresses - Anath, Astartem, and Asherah, sisters. These goddesses governed fertility and war. In the Old Testament, Asherah appeared as the goddess by the side of Baal. Most biblical references to Asherah point to a cult object of wood. The gods required of their devotees many things that Yahweh considered abominable - sacred prostitution for fertility of the land, flocks, and herd, sacrifices of bulls and sheep, and sacrifices of first-born children who were burnt alive (Leviticus 18:23-24, 20:3). Instead of people enjoying their sexual nature in ways God planned, the Baals and Asherim required the licentious use of the sexual nature the LORD gave them. These actions used and abused people. The attractiveness of the licentious character of the worship of these gods would be a temptation for the Israelites so they would stop following the LORD. As to the burning alive of the first-born, the Old Testament often told of the burning of people alive by saying the victim “passed through the fire” (1 Kings 16:3, 21:6). These were common acts of obedience and a reverence to Baal and Asherah in Canaan from fear, not respect, honor, and awe. The Ugaritic texts uncovered at Ras Shamra speak of these gods of Canaan and their required acts of worship. Because of the detestable acts of the Baal and Asherah worship and the worship of false gods (broken first commandment), God judged the Canaanites. Added to this, because the Canaanite people did not turn to the LORD God after seeing His actions with and for  the Israelites for the forty years of their wandering, God’s judgment fell on them. These explain why God commanded the Israelites “utterly destroy” the people and their places of worship. It was not impossible for the Canaanites to see God’s hand guiding and protecting the Israelites. Rahab saw God’s hand and believed (Joshua 2:10-14). As we read further in the Bible of the Israelites’ history, we note they succumbed to the attraction of the fertility rituals. This led to a weakened faith in YAHWEH and a weakened ethic. The LORD told the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land that they may wonder what god made the land so fertile and the people wealthy and be tempted to worship the god of the Canaanites because of it. God said, though, that He is the one who watered the land (Deuteronomy 11:2-7). He is the one who led, protected, and fed them from Egypt until the Promised Land and He would continue to be their great, mighty, and awesome God. So why did the God of love command the Israelites utterly destroy the Canaanites? The Canaanites were to be dispossessed from the land to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). They worshipped false gods and committed detestable sins.

            Now that the religion in Canaan and Deuteromonic authorship is understood, let us look at Deuteronomy 12. There is an outline in this chapter which begins with the common statement to the Israelites that these are God’s commands and they “shall carefully observe” them in the land where the LORD was taking them (Deut. 12:1). Before we go further into this Bible study, notice that Moses used the word “shall” repeatedly when preaching this chapter to the Israelites. He used the word “may” in just three verses, 15, 21, and 21. Moses was adamant the Israelites knew the commands from God. From verse one’s command to “carefully observe” (shamar- hear, listen, and obey; to take heed), the general command comes to “utterly destroy” the places where the Canaanite nations served their gods (vs. 2). Next God told them what to do to the places of worship. Moses said it in Deuteronomy 7:5, too (Deuteronomy 12:3). After the destruction of the Canaanites’ gods’ altars and temples, Moses taught them how to worship the LORD God, including what and where they could eat flesh (12:4-14). He further explained what flesh they could eat (12:14-16, 20-22). In this section, regarding the eating of flesh outside the temple, Moses used the word “may” instead of the command “shall.” Further in this passage, Moses re-emphasized what was not to be eaten except in the temple (12:17-19, 26-27) and what to do if the temple was too distant too travel to often (12:21-25). At the end of the chapter, Moses gave them a final warning about inquiring after and becoming ensnared by other gods. He told them not to act before the LORD God like the Canaanites do before Baal and Asherah. Moses gave a final imperative, like at the beginning, with an addition. Now, let us dig deeper into this chapter.

Moses began with the basis of the first commandment - there is only one true God - and expounded and extrapolated it for the immediate future benefit of the Israelites. He gave them rules by which to worship and serve God. Moses began by saying the Israelites should carefully observe God’s statutes and judgments in the land He gave them to possess for as long as they live (12:1). For their immediate present, when they overtook the Canaanites, that meant removing the temptation to follow the gods of those seven nations. Moses commanded them saying,

You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods…You shall tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherim with fire and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place.

These acts were intentional, not accidental, while they took over the Promised Land. To “tear down,” in this passage, means to break and cast down the altars - their temples and holy places. They were to smash (break into pieces and crush) the sacred pillars (monuments and places where the idols stood). The Israelites were to burn the Asherim (the wooden image of Asherah or the groves where idol worship occurred). They were to chop into two the engraved/graven images and idols of their gods. Numbers 33:52 and Deuteronomy 7:5 give these instructions, too. We know from Judges 2:2 that the Israelites did not destroy all the Canaanites and the angel of the LORD rebuked them. One added instruction Moses gave them was to obliterate the gods’ names from Canaan. The Israelites did not do this either. Read Exodus 23:13, Psalm 16:4, and Zechariah 13:2 to confirm this.

            Moses commanded them that the way the Canaanites served and worshipped their gods was not the way they were to act toward the LORD God (vs. 4). God did not want their abominable rituals and rites to taint the true worship of the true LORD, Himself. Moses taught them how to worship God in verses five through seven. First, Moses said, the LORD would choose the place from the midst of the Israelite tribes to make His dwelling (shakan – residence). The Israelites would worship Him there (12:5). “Establish” in verse five comes from the Hebrew word suwm and means to appoint, make, or place. God appointed the place for His glory to rest and for the worship of Him. Judah was to be the place of His temple (Psalm 78:68). To God’s place of abiding, Moses commanded the Israelites bring six kinds of offerings – burnt offerings, sacrifices, tithes, contributions of your hand, votive offerings, freewill offerings, and the firstborn of their herd and flock. Each of these offerings to God had importance. The “burnt offering” is called olah in Hebrew. This offering was for atonement of which God received the whole thing - the body and blood. The Israelites were to offer the body of a ritually clean animal on the altar completely for God. “Sacrifices” are zebach in Hebrew and were sacrifices of righteousness where the priest slaughtered an animal brought by the person and offered it to the LORD for the forgiveness of sin (Leviticus 17:11). This sacrifice was like what the Israelites did at the Passover in Egypt. Moses instructed about tithes in Deuteronomy 14:22. Tithes were to be one tenth of what the head of household earned. God instructed His people to give back to Him first as His due and as thanks. The “contributions of your hand” were called teruwmah in Hebrew and were the heave offering. This offering was a present made to the temple or priest for the priests. The “votive offering” was a neder offering. This offering was a vow a person made to abstain from enjoying specific things. The “freewill offerings” are nedabah and were voluntary offerings. The offerings of the firstborn of the herd and flock were like the tithe. Even though the Israelite did not earn money from having his flock or herd increase in number, God commanded he give the firstborn of each animal to Him. After offering the firstborn animal to God and pouring its blood out on the altar, the family and servants could eat from it with the LORD while rejoicing in what their hand did and how God blessed their work. Verse 17 explains what of the offerings the Israelites could eat at the temple – the tithe, the firstborn animal, the votive offering, the freewill offering, and the heave offering. The final instruction Moses gave the people was they must not do what “was being done” at that point in time, each man worshipping in whatever means they thought best. When they arrived in the Promised Land, God mandated the way the Israelites were to worship Him. Before then, while the Israelites were not in the land of their resting place and inheritance, God did not command a particular method of worship. This implies then that when they arrived in the Promised Land and God chose where His name would abide, the Israelites were to worship Him at that place in the prescribed way of verses five through seven. This verse shows a unification of worship practices to one God at one place. There was to be one sanctuary worshipping, eating, and rejoicing with and to the one true God.

            From this point in the sermon, Moses reiterated in verses ten through twelve what he said in verses five through seven. This time though, Moses spoke about when the Israelites rested from their enemies and lived in security (vs. 10-12). When people feel secure, they are more apt to let their worship of and obedience to God lapse. Moses told them not to let that happen. Instead, God required them to bring the offerings and sacrifices mentioned in verse six to the temple to worship and praise God. Moses expanded the command this time by including the head of household, his family, servants, slaves, and the Levite in his town or city’s gate. God required each of these people together to rejoice before the LORD. Earlier Moses told the Israelites to rejoice with their household. God provided for His chosen priests, the Levites, by giving them food as they rejoiced with their neighbor in the temple. With this command came a warning, this time at the end. Moses said, “Be careful that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every cultic place you see, but in the place the LORD chooses in one of your tribes. There you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do all that I command” (vs. 13-14). The word Moses used for our English interpretation of “careful” was shamar, which means hear, listen, and obey; to take heed. Take heed, Moses said, that the Canaanite worship sites not be used to worship God. Instead, go where God will choose and do everything Moses commanded regarding sacrifices and offerings.

            God provided animals for meat to eat for the Israelites, just as he did plants for food. He provided for them to eat meat within their town/city gates so they could eat meat more often than when they went to the temple. Verses 15-19 tell of this part of God’s law. God allowed the Israelites to slaughter any meat within their town’s gates, as they desired with the LORD’s blessing. He warned them, though, that they must not eat the blood, but instead, pour it out on the ground. Blood represented life. By it, they atoned for their sin. The Bible states this in Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 7:26 and 17:10-12, 1 Samuel 14:33f, and Acts 15:20 and 29. As a reminder to the Israelites, Moses said the items set apart for God as sacrifice or offering in verses six and eleven must not be eaten within the gates of the Israelites’ towns/cities, but be saved for temple worship (vs. 17). God permitted them to eat all other flesh. The holy things set aside for God must be eaten in God’s presence by the head of the home, His family, servants, slaves, and the Levite who resided within in town’s gates. While eating those things, they would rejoice at the LORD’s blessing their endeavors. Moses gave a reminder warning here, too. He told the Israelites, “Be careful that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land” (vs. 19). Moses commanded the Israelites not to forsake the commands of God about the holy things set apart for Him and not to forsake the Levite whose inheritance came from the things of God, just as the temple priests received their inheritance from God.

            As God extended the boundary of the Israelites’ land with the gradual conquering of the Canaanites, the distance between Judah (Mount Zion – Psalm 78:68) and the homes of many of the Israelites was too far to walk often. God knew this and provided an exception to eating flesh in verses twenty-one through twenty-five. He reiterated what he said in verses fifteen and sixteen. The Israelites could eat meat within their gates, but not the blood. God added in verses twenty-six and twenty-seven the caveat He commanded in verses seventeen and eighteen about the holy things set apart for God. The Israelites must not eat the things set apart for God as sacrifice and offering as Moses stated in verses six and eleven. As in the last two commands, which involve the eating of meat, Moses warned them at the end of this command to be careful (vs. 28). This time the warning came with a promise. Moses said, “Be careful (shamar - take heed to hear, listen, and obey) to listen to all these words which I command you so that it may be well with you and your sons forever.” The promise of joy and pleasantness awaited the people who obeyed God’s commands. On top of that was the reward of doing good and right in the LORD’s sight. The other reward was the LORD’s pleasure at His children’s obedience. Imagine how parents feel when they watch their child do the right thing. There is satisfaction, contentment, and gladness when a child does right and good. God feels that way when His children follow His commands.

            Moses closed this sermon about the one sanctuary and the worship of God with a final warning and command in verses twenty-nine through thirty- thirty-two. He said, “Beware that you are not ensnared to follow them (the Canaanites they destroyed) after they are destroyed before you and do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations serve their gods, that I also may do likewise?’” Moses commanded them completely follow the commands of the LORD God. Be rid of the corrupting influence of the Canaanites and their culture, including their gods. There was a reason God dispossessed them. The Canaanites were abominable and detestable to the LORD because of their service to their gods and because of their choice of Baal and Asherah, not the LORD God. The Canaanites saw for forty-years the LORD God’s hand protecting, leading, and providing for the Israelites as they wandered. They could have been like Rahab and admitted the Israelites served the one true God. The Canaanites continued to worship detestable gods in detestable ways. They did not value God’s gift of life when they murdered people for sacrifice. The Canaanites showed no value for human life when they corrupted the purpose God gave for sexual relations. This people filled their cup with sin and God’s judgment came upon them. Moses commanded them not to become ensnared/trapped into following them and asking about their gods. God commanded the Israelites remove every trace of the Canaanites from the land and their lives. Moses said in verse thirty-one, “You shall not behave thus toward the LORD your God, for every abominable act which the LORD hates, they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.” In case the Israelites considered how to stretch the laws of God, Moses added in verse thirty-two, “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.” This makes it plain with no wiggle room. Do not ask after or serve other gods of whichever land you call home.

            The Israelites were not the only people ever to encounter foreign gods. Our world is shrinking because of the mobility we have in the twenty-first century. We do not even have to move physically to encounter ideas about gods in other countries. We just have to turn on the computer or television to face them. There is good news though. The LORD God of the Israelites in 1400BC is the same God who is supreme today. No matter what or whom a person chooses to be god to them, the LORD God is greater. He made the whole world and keeps it in balance so we have rain and sun, night and day, and summer and winter. God keeps us from floating out of control in the universe so we are not too close to the sun and burn up or too far from the sun and freeze. This same awesome God is the one who chooses to love each one of us from the moment He thought and breathed us into being. He continues to choose us. He made a way for us to return to Him through His holy and blameless Son, Jesus Christ. As Moses taught and told the Israelites about the one true Lord God, and as Joshua told them to choose whom they would serve (Joshua 24:14-15), we can choose whom we will serve, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God of humankind. God leaves the choice to us to turn to Him. He promises that when we ask and seek for Him with all our heart, He will be found by us (Matthew 7:7-8). What is keeping you from seeking God and following Him? Jesus made the way for us to return to Him, what excuse gets in your way. Maybe today is the day to surrender all yourself, your plans, and your ideas to God and His best plan. Seek Him with all your heart and come to know the LORD of lords and the KING of kings forever.