God created the nation of Israel from the smallest of people groups and took them from out of one of the largest people groups in the world around 1440BC. He established this nation and set up its codes of moral, spiritual, and civil law. God taught through Moses about the leaders the people would need to appoint and follow, too. Last week, we read about the judges, officers, and kings. This week our reading tells us about priests and prophets. In our present day and age, a distinct difference between civil and religious judges and kings exists. In the time of Israel’s foundation, judges and kings presided over the people using God’s laws to guide the moral, civil, and spiritual aspects of society. Today, we rarely find out about a country that does not separate church and state issues. From the current separation of church and state, judges and kings only rule on issues of civil law. In this study, the position of prophet will be considered again, as in Deuteronomy 13, but it will be juxtaposed with the secular form of prophets at the time – witches, sorcerers, et.al. Let us now look at Deuteronomy 18.
Eight verses in Deuteronomy 18 speak of priests, but we know more about them from 245 other references in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible). Verse 1 begins, “The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel.” The word for priest is kohen. It means priest, principal officer, or chief ruler. The word kohen came to mean, over time, the line of priests descended from Aaron, the grandson of Levi. Yet, when Moses taught the Israelites before crossing the Jordan River, kohen meant every Levitical priest. Moses denoted it with the dependant clause in verse one. No distinction is obvious between kohanim and levi’im (the other tribes of Levi not from Aaron’s line) during the early days of the nation of Israel. The people of Israel recognized, in time, Aaron’s line as the high priests in the house of God.
God did not give the Levitical priests an inheritance of land as He did the other eleven tribes of Israel. He said, in the latter half of verse one, “They shall eat the LORD’s offering by fire and His portion.” The Levitical priests received the burnt offering the Israelites offered at the sanctuaries and later at the temple. The “portion” of which Moses spoke was their inheritance or share of the bounty for the year that the Israelites took to the temple or sanctuaries. Deuteronomy 10:9 says, “Levi does not have a portion or inheritance with his brothers; the LORD is his inheritance.” 1 Corinthians 9:13 says, “Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar?” Moses reiterated Deuteronomy 10:9 in 18:2. God promised the Levitical priests an inheritance from His portion. He said this to Aaron in Numbers 18:20, too. God was specific in verse three about what part of the burnt offering and sacrifices the priests received. In the first part of the sentence of verse three, Moses spoke of the priests’ due. “Due” comes from the Hebrew word mishpat and means proper, fitting, measure, and plan. He said they received the shoulder, two cheeks (jaws), and the stomach (see Leviticus 7:32-34). Other passages in the Pentateuch speak of what is due to the priests. Leviticus 7:32-34 says food was to come from the peace offering (the thigh) and from the wave offering (bread). In Numbers 18:11-12, the priests received from the wave offering the best of the fresh wine, grain, and first fruits. Deuteronomy 18:4 speaks of first fruits, new wine, oil, and the first shearing of their sheep, too. (The first shearing was most often the softest.) God ensured the Levitical priests had enough to eat, a place to live, and wool from which to make cloth.
Why did the Levitical priests get the first and best of what the other Israelites grew and raised? The main answer is because the LORD chose and set them apart to serve Him alone. Because of Aaron’s faithfulness to God, God chose the tribe of Levi to serve Him. Exodus 29:9 says that God chose them as priests by a perpetual statute. The priests’ service to Him was to be single-minded. For priests, serving God was their sole duty whether they lived in Jerusalem or in an outlying town serving in the tabernacles/sanctuaries (pre-temple). God provided for the priests who journeyed/moved from towns to Jerusalem to serve in the temple, too. He considered no one priest or group of the priests any better than another. He did, though, give priests from Aaron’s line a more sacred duty, that of being chief priests. Whether the priests came from outlying towns or Jerusalem, God told them they each would eat equal portions (18:8). He, too, allowed the priest whose father’s estate had value to receive and keep the money from that estate. Since they did not own land, the estate value came from the animals and personal property his father owned. The important point is that one person was not greater than another was. Service to the LORD was different for just a small few.
God created each person equal to the others. None of them had more worth than any other. The difference lay just in the service God had them offer. Their service to Him did not make him have more worth. Even today, one person is not more worthy than another based on their humanity. Each person deserves food, shelter, and clothing. For God, this meant life. When the Israelites kept their covenant with God, God kept His covenant to them and gave them prolonged life in the land of Israel. When the people did not keep their covenant with God, His promise of a curse fell upon them. The curse was death - immediate or delayed. By keeping covenant with God, the Israelites kept His laws (the Ten Commandments), statutes, and ordinances.
Moses began the next section with negative commands reminding the Israelites of earlier commands and teachings he gave them. He began with the command to serve the LORD alone by not doing specific abominable acts (Deuteronomy 18:10). God said doing abominable things was rebellion against Him. The Israelites should remember He rescued them from slavery, brought them to the Promised Land, and promised to be there for them if they kept their covenant with Him. God cared about them so they should love Him and be obedient to His laws.
Moses did not speak in generalities, but in specifics in verses ten through eleven. He said,
There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. [NASB]
When he told them not to pass their child through fire, he alluded to the religious ritual of neighboring nations of appeasing Molech/Baal (see Deuteronomy 12:31). The people of the nations thought offering a living sacrifice to this god ensured a fruitful harvest. Since God cherishes human life, humankind should, too. Besides this, burning a person has no effect on a harvest. God determined the harvest based on the Israelite’s faithfulness to His covenant. Faithlessness led to death – no harvest, starvation, and death – and faithfulness led to life, the opposite of death.
Since Moses recognized the sanctity of life and the importance of remaining faithful to God’s covenant, he spoke of seven acts/roles involved in spiritism that God called abominable. He spoke against divination, witchcraft, omens, sorcerers, casting spells, mediums, spiritists, and calling up the dead. To understand this better, let us define each of these. Divination is seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown through supernatural means. Divination is interpreting omens - observing signs and taking them as omens. A sorcerer is one who uses magic or witchcraft to do spells or enchant. The attempt to influence nature or people through magic (being a sorcerer or witch) is what Moses called casting spells. A medium is a person who mediates between the dead or a deity to a living person to communicate with them. A spiritist is similar a medium and is a person familiar with the dead. The final act, witchcraft, is the practicing of magic, divination, spiritism/being a medium, sorcery, conjuring (doing tricks), and casting spells. As you realize with this list, witchcraft encompasses each of the six of the other acts of spiritism on which Moses spoke. Moses spoke earlier in Exodus 22:18 and in Leviticus 19:26, 31 and 20:6 against these practices. He said they would defile the person who did them and the LORD would find them abominable. God would turn His face from them, Moses said. Jeremiah 27:9-10a spoke on point when he said,
Do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers who speak to you saying ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they prophesy a lie to you in order to remove you far from your land. [NASB]
If God removed a person from the Promised Land, that meant the person or people were unfaithful to their covenant with Him. So if a person did something to be removed, then the one who instigated their unfaithfulness - Satan and his followers - was the antithesis to God. Hence, these seven things of which Moses spoke against and God considers abominable are from Satan.
What is the punishment for doing these detestable things? Separation from God - death. Moses stated it for the Israelites in verse twelve. He said God would drive out from the Promised Land those who did these detestable things. Moses gave this as the reason God removed the Canaanites’ from Canaan when the Israelites moved into the land in Leviticus 18:24. On the positive side, Moses said in verse thirteen, “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God.” God encouraged them to stay faithful to their covenant with Him, which would make them blameless. The word “blameless” is the Hebrew word tamiym. It means to be complete, perfect, and innocent. As we know, though, the Israelites and the rest of humanity through the ages were never blameless. The writer of Genesis used the word “blameless” to describe Noah in Genesis 6:9 and Abraham in Genesis 17:1. They rebelled against God, as humankind does, but they repented and returned to God. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that people are to be perfect (blameless) just as the heavenly Father is perfect.
As we comprehend from the reading of our Bibles and as Jews and Christians realized, nothing a person does can make him or her perfect. Only the perfect sacrifice can make that happen. God offered the perfect sacrifice through the life, death, and resurrection of His only Son, Jesus Christ. For the Israelites 1400 years before Christ’s birth, the means God gave them to be blameless was to follow His commandments and be faithful to their covenant with Him. God said the Israelites would dispossess the nations who practice these detestable things. He did not allow the Israelites to follow them (18:14-15). God had something better planned for them.
As the alternative for following the practices of the surrounding nations, God promised to “raise up” a prophet for them, similar to Moses, from within their nation. God had this same requirement for the leaders He allowed the people to have in Deuteronomy 16:18-17:20. Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 18:15 that they listen to the future prophet. “Listen” comes from the Hebrew word shama, which comes from the same root word as shamar. It means to hear, listen, and follow. The Canaanites attempted to get advice by speaking with their gods, dead leaders, and dead loved ones by using witchcraft and sorcery. The people of Canaan did what these prophets of Satan required instead of what God required. God promised to give the Israelites a prophet who would be like Moses. Moses was their leader, mediator, intercessor, judge, and prophet. In Matthew 21:11, Luke 2:25-34, 4:19, 7:16, and John 1:21, 25, and 4:19, people speak of the prophet of which Moses spoke. The Israelites feared God when they heard His voice and saw the fire on Mount Sinai/Mount Horeb. Because of that, they requested Moses as the mediator between them and God (Exodus 20:18-19, Deuteronomy 5:23-27). God said they spoke well when they asked Moses to be their mediator with Him (Deuteronomy 18:17, 5:28). The Israelites awe and fear of God continued through history and they still required a mediator to go between them and God. God fulfilled Moses’ prophecy in verse fifteen about the future prophet many times through Old Testament prophets and through Jesus Christ. Moses was a foretaste of Jesus Christ. He was a visible representation of what Jesus Christ would be for humankind.
In verse 15, Moses spoke to Israel while in verse 18, Moses reminded the Israelites of what God said in Deuteronomy 13. He proved the appointment of prophets in chapter 18 came from God by referring to what He said in chapter 13. In verse 18, Moses recalled God said, “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth and he shall speak to them all I command him.” Many prophets came before Jesus speaking for God. They reminded the Israelites what God required of them, what His condemnation would be, and their need to return to their covenant with Him. Verse 18 ultimately alluded to Jesus Christ.
Moses said in verses 19-20 God had one requirement for the people of Israel and two for His prophet. The first of the two rules for the prophet was he had to speak what God required of him (vs. 19). The second requirement God gave was he speak just what God commanded and not speak for himself or other so-called gods (vs. 20). The one requirement God gave the Israelites about prophets was they listen (shama – hear, listen, and obey) to what the prophets told them. God demanded their obedience and promised life if they obeyed and death if they did not. This harkens back to the law of the ban earlier in Deuteronomy when God told the Israelites to remove every trace of the Canaanites and their worship.
With this warning in the Israelites’ minds, Moses realized the people might question how they could tell if a prophet spoke for the LORD. He reminded them that if a prophet prophesied something in the name of the LORD and it did not occur, then the LORD did not speak it (vs. 22). From Deuteronomy 13, we learned other ways to decide if a prophet is from God. If a prophet, friend, or family member says to serve other gods, that person is not from God (Deut. 13:6-8). In Deuteronomy 13:12-15, Moses said if a person in another town or city says to the town’s residents, “Let us go and serve other gods,” you shall not believe him or her, but shall put them under the law of the ban. So if a person says to follow and serve other gods or if what the prophet says does not come true, the person is not a prophet from God. To the Israelites’ fear of being punished by God if they do not listen to and obey a prophet, Moses told them, they need not be afraid (vs. 19, 22) of not following a false prophet.
God established the new nation of Israel. They were a religio-political state. Their judges gave verdicts based on God’s laws, statutes, and ordinances. The kings read and lived by God’s laws. The officers ruled under the leadership of the judges. The priests were the intermediaries between the people and God. They were the role models and enforcers of what God required of the people in their spiritual lives. The prophets were the voice of God calling people to obedience, to return to God, and telling of His punishments on the people. Because God established this nation from a people He called His own, His laws for governing society were moral and spiritual. When people transgressed a moral/civil law, they disobeyed God. Disobedience is rebellion against God and the breaking of covenant with Him. The people knew in advance what the blessing and curse of faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the covenant would be. They acknowledged it when they pledged themselves to God.
God provided these five different leaders to remind the people of their covenant and call them back to Him. He wanted everyone to be in relationship with Him. He did not and does not want anyone cursed with death. Death is eternal separation from God. When Moses said, “The LORD will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you,” he meant ultimately the LORD would send His perfect prophet, mediator, leader, priest, and sacrifice – Jesus Christ (Deut 18:15). Isaiah spoke of this prophet, Jesus, in Isaiah 40:3-5.
God’s hand is visible to everyone. People do not have an excuse to say they did not know about God. At Jesus’ birth, wise men and shepherds noticed He was God’s Son. At his death, some soldiers, Jews, and one of the thieves noticed He was the Son of God. At Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples, women, and a multitude of people saw Him and noticed He is the Son of God. Since then, millions across the ages and the world recognized and called Him the Son of God. Moses was the precursor of the future High Priest, Prophet, Savior, and Son of God. He was the precursor of Jesus Christ. God gave the Israelites a glimpse of the perfect Savior, Priest, and Salvation through Moses’ life. We in the 21st century have more than a glimpse. We have the testimony of eyewitnesses, Christians for twenty centuries, and our own experiences of God. We know Him firsthand. Can we turn our backs on this evidence? Can we say no to the perfect sacrifice who came to make us blameless similar Noah and Abraham (Deuteronomy 18:13)? Jesus can and wants to make us perfect, complete, and whole again. What keeps you from seeing and giving Him your imperfect life? What keeps you from abundant life?