1. The Exclusiveness of the Lord and His Worship (12:1–16:17)
(1) The Central Sanctuary (12:1–14)
1These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. 2Destroy 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. 3Break 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.
4You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. 5But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; 6there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. 7There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.
8You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit, 9since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance the Lord your God is giving you. 10But you will cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and he will give you rest from all your enemies around you so that you will live in safety. 11Then to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name—there you are to bring everything I command you: your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, and all the choice possessions you have vowed to the Lord. 12And 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. 13Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. 14Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you.
12:1 The general stipulation section had been introduced by Moses’ exhortation to obey the decrees (ḥuqqîm) and laws (mišpātîm) he had spoken to them (5:1), and the special stipulation section repeats these very words (12:1). Moreover, the previous section ended with the identical injunction (11:32), thus enveloping the whole and marking it off as a unit and, at the same time, creating a clear bridge between the general and specific stipulations. This is not surprising inasmuch as the general stipulations, as just suggested, are an amplification of the first two commandments—those having to do with the person of the Lord and his exclusive worship—and this is the theme of Deut 12:1–32 as well (and, indeed, of 12:1–16:17).
12:2 The first Mosaic interpretation of the exclusivity of the Lord as revealed in the first two commandments (Deut 5:6–10) has to do with the public worship of the Lord at one central place. The first commandment (5:6–7) identified the Lord as the only God, the one who redeemed Israel and who would countenance no competing gods. The second dealt with such “gods” by absolutely forbidding their worship or even their iconic representation. The order of these is reversed in Deut 12, for it obviously would be difficult if not impossible for the Lord alone to be worshiped in Canaan as long as there were pagan centers of worship. Thus the idols and their shrines first had to be demolished (vv. 2–3), then a single, central place for Yahweh worship had to be established (vv. 4–7), one to which the whole covenant community would resort at stated times and for stated purposes (vv. 8–14).
The command to destroy is couched in the strongest terms, for there must be no residue of paganism remaining after the conquest. And the strategy of destruction would be, first, the elimination of the “places” of worship and then their paraphernalia. “Places” (hammeqōmôt) is a quasitechnical term referring to sites thought to be holy because of a special visitation by deity. These were usually in groves of trees (representing fertility) and on high hills, esteemed by the very height to be in closer proximity to the gods. In contrast to such “places” would be the “place” where the Lord must be worshiped. Seven times (vv. 5, 11, 13, 14, 18, 21, 26) this single place (māqôm) is mentioned in this passage in which the exclusiveness of the Lord is emphasized.
12:3 The specific objects to be destroyed—altars, sacred stones, Asherah poles—had already been singled out in Deut 7:5, a chapter that shares much in common with Deut 12. All of these are accoutrements of idol worship, so the idols themselves must be dismantled and their very names (that is, memory) obliterated (v. 3). This figure of speech in which the name represents the reality (metonymy) is most significant in this passage, for the removal of the names of the heathen gods makes possible the introduction of the name of Yahweh, that is, his very presence, a major theme in the centralization of Yahweh worship (cf. vv. 5, 11, 21; 14:23–24; 16:2, 6, 11; 26:2).
12:4 Having commanded the removal of idols and their places of worship, Moses turned to the matter of where and how the Lord must be worshiped. Whatever else may be said, it was to be totally contrary to pagan practice (v. 4). More positively, it must be in the place to be chosen (bāḥar) by the Lord himself, one place and one alone amongst the tribal allotments. There he would place his name, that is, there he would live (v. 5). That this is tantamount to God's residence is clear from the command to literally “seek his dwelling place and go there” (v. 5b), a juxtaposition not clear in the NIV.
All of this is in line with the idea, inherent in suzerain-vassal treaties and relationships, that the great king resides in a palace in the central (capital) city to which the client princes and peoples must come periodically to assert their loyalty and present their tribute and other symbols of submission. The place of the Lord's name, then, is his “palace,” that is, the tabernacle or temple in which he resides among his people. Obviously, in line with human covenant analogy this could be only one place at a time, a place determined solely at the king's discretion.
It is precisely this unambiguous call to cult centralization that gave rise to the view that Deuteronomy was the impetus for Josiah's reformation in 622 B.C., a reformation that, among other things, included the destruction of pagan shrines and the renovation of Solomon's Temple as the only legitimate place of community worship (2 Kgs 23:1–25; 2 Chr 34:8–33). Since Deuteronomy specifically calls for such measures, it is assumed that this was the “book of the covenant” (2 Kgs 23:21) or “book of the law” (2 Kgs 22:8; cf. Deut 31:26) that was found in the temple and that motivated Josiah to his godly course of action. It is further assumed that Deuteronomy was composed only in the seventh century, perhaps to achieve the very reformation that did indeed take place. Such hypotheses gave rise to the documentary or source-critical analysis of the Pentateuch (in which P presupposes D and D presupposes the prophets) and to the so-called “Deutero-nomistic history,” an approach that views Joshua to 2 Kings as an interpretation of Israel's past based on the philosophy or theology of history embedded in Deuteronomy. Clearly the late date of Deuteronomy is crucial to both of these interpretations.
This issue has been addressed in the Introduction, but it might be helpful to point out here that the notion of a central sanctuary was already implicit in the early prophets and that Josiah's own reformation, in which centralization was indeed an issue, had commenced before the recovery of the scroll in the temple (cf. 2 Chr 34:1–8). His reading of the scroll only confirmed the propriety of what he had already begun, and his actions before and after the scroll was found suggest he already was most familiar with the “Deuteronomic” tradition. It is also worth noting that if Deuteronomy was composed late in the monarchy period, it is incredible that it makes no mention of monarchy as an existing institution. There is not the slightest hint that the Davidic dynasty existed, nor is there even vague reference to Jerusalem as its capital or as the religious center prescribed by Deuteronomy. In fact, Deuteronomy is oriented to the east of the Jordan (cf. 12:9–10) and looks forward to a central shrine in a place so imprecisely defined as to be “the place the LORD your God will choose” (v. 5). One can only conclude either that the command to centralization was Mosaic, as the tradition unanimously attests, or that a person or party in later times developed it as a politico-religious tactic designed to enhance its own position or point of view, even if that required the historical anachronism and fraud of attributing that command (and, indeed, all of Deuteronomy) to Moses.
12:5 Once the place of community worship had become identified, the people of Israel were to go there to present their tithes and offerings. That this is worship of the community as a whole and in one place and one time is clear not only from the comparison of this command to that of festival gatherings (cf. Lev 23:37–38; Num 29:39–40; esp. Deut 16:2, 5–6, 11, 15–16) but also from the use of the plural pronouns throughout vv. 1–12. All the people were to come to the one place at designated times, a requirement set in contrast to the worship elsewhere by individuals or assemblies on occasions that were not of a generally theocratic and community nature (cf. 1 Sam 7:5–12; 11:15; 1 Kgs 3:4).
12:6 The gifts to be presented were burnt offerings (‘ōlôt), sacrifices (zĕbāḥîm), tithes (ma‘aśrōt), and “special gifts” (tĕrûmôt), all of which (except for tithes) appear together elsewhere only in Lev 7. As the beginning of Leviticus makes clear, all of these were gifts (qorbān), that is, presentations made to the Lord to effect and maintain peaceful fellowship with him (Lev 1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 4:23; 7:13–16, 29, 38). The tithe in particular should be viewed as tribute paid to the sovereign by his grateful and dependent servant (cf. Lev 27:30–32; Num 18:26, 28; Deut 14:23–25, 28).
12:7 The nature of these assemblies—times of covenant reaffirmation and renewal—is evident from the festivity carried out at those times and at the central sanctuary (v. 7). It consists essentially of a meal shared by all the congregants, a repast “in the presence of the Lord your God.” This does not mean only that the Lord was there but that he too shared in the banqueting as the Great King among his loyal subjects. This was standard protocol at times of covenant making or renewal as a number of biblical texts attest (cf. Exod 24:11; Deut 12:18; 14:23, 26; 15:20; 27:7).
12:8–9 Having introduced the concept of a central sanctuary (v. 5), Moses went on to elaborate the specifics about the timing of its selection (vv. 8–10), its function as the focal point of community worship (v. 11), and the procedures to be followed there (vv. 12–14). All of this is in stark contrast to the place and manner of worship from Sinai to the present (v. 8). By everyone doing “as he sees fit” cannot mean a complete lack of rule and regimentation because guidelines for cultic behavior had been established nearly forty years earlier (Exod 25:1–9; 29:38–45; 31:12–17). What is in view is the permanency of a central site, one to be chosen by the Lord at some indeterminate point in the future. Until that time the sanctuary would be portable (as it had been since Sinai), even in the immediately future period of conquest and occupation. As long as Israel was on the move and clustered about the tabernacle, that would be the central and exclusive place of convocation. In Canaan, however, a widespread distribution of the people following their occupation of the land would necessitate the erection of local altars in addition to that of the central sanctuary. Moses had, in fact, already made provision for these following the original declaration of the Ten Commandments. Wherever the Lord appeared, he said, would be a suitable place for worship (Exod 20:24). The only restrictions were that the altars must be of earth or unhewed stones (20:24–25), and the dress of the priests must be modest (20:26), both injunctions being designed to counter prevailing Canaanite custom in those respects.
12:10–11 As is well known, the first permanent location of the tabernacle was Shiloh (Josh 18:1), a site chosen only after the land had been brought under control. How long after the conquest Shiloh was chosen cannot be known precisely, but it seems to have been a minimum of seven years (cf. Josh 14:7–10). In the meantime it is clear that altars of the kind authorized by the Lord in Exod 20 were built in Canaan both before (Josh 8:30) and after the selection of Shiloh as the place of national convocation (Josh 22:10–11; Judg 6:24–26; 13:20; 21:4; 1 Sam 7:17; 2 Sam 24:18–25).
The point still remains, however, that something decisive would occur with the establishment of a central shrine, something quite different from the religious practice of the desert and conquest years (Deut 12:8–9). Whereas it was permissible to do as each individual saw fit (lit., “what is right in his own eyes”) in the years of wandering, this would no longer be the case when the community reached the “resting place,” that is, the land of inheritance. This does not suggest that worship could be carried out in the place and manner dictated by personal whim, even in the desert, but only that no fixed and permanent site had yet been selected as the place of the Lord's dwelling. That state of affairs would be rectified once Israel had reached the safety and security of a conquered Canaan (v. 10). Then the Lord would reveal the place for his Name (Yahweh), that central shrine to which his people must come with their tokens of tribute (v. 11; cf. vv. 5–7).
12:12–14 The community nature of this injunction is clear from the all-inclusive character of the list of participants in the sacred festivals. Entire families, slaves, and even those without inheritance, such as the Levites, were to come to the central designated place, and to that place only (v. 13), and there render their worship to the Lord (v. 12). The reference to Levites confirms the view that community worship was to be undertaken by the community as a whole and in one place, for otherwise the Levites and others could officiate at services in the various towns of their allotment as both legal prescription (Deut 12:15, 20–23) and historical practice (Judg 6:19–24; 13:19–20; 1 Sam 6:14–15; 7:9; 9:11–14; 11:14–15) attest. This localizing of certain cultic activities in no way militates against the principle of a central sanctuary, for the former involved acts of a noncommunity nature whereas the latter pertained to the community-wide expression of submission and devotion to the Great King of the covenant.
(2) The Sanctity of Blood (12:15–28)
15Nevertheless, you may slaughter your animals in any of your towns and eat as much of the meat as you want, as if it were gazelle or deer, according to the blessing the Lord your God gives you. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat it. 16But you must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. 17You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. 18Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the Lord your God at the place the Lord your God will choose—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites from your towns—and you are to rejoice before the Lord your God in everything you put your hand to. 19Be careful not to neglect the Levites as long as you live in your land.
20When 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. 21If 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. 22Eat them as you would gazelle or deer. Both the ceremonially unclean and the clean may eat. 23But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. 24You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. 25Do 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.
26But take your consecrated things and whatever you have vowed to give, and go to the place the Lord will choose. 27Present 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. 28Be 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.
12:15 The theme of the central sanctuary finds continuing elaboration in vv. 15–28 but with special focus on the use (or misuse) of blood in animal slaughter and sacrifice, whether at a local altar or at the national one. What is clear is that blood in any case is holy inasmuch as it represents life (v. 16; cf. Lev 17:10–12), and therefore it must be properly disposed of whether shed in the process of obtaining meat for food or in the course of sacrifice offered to the Lord.
Life in the land would bring widespread settlement, so much so that it would be impossible from a practical standpoint for all acts of worship, including sacrifice, to be carried out at any one central place, to say nothing of the slaughter of animals for food. Thus animals could be slain in local villages—even those normally reserved for sacrifice—to provide a food supply (vv. 15, 20–22). Such animals could be considered as wild game in such circumstances, that is, they could be used for noncultic purposes. This is why both the ceremonially clean and unclean could partake of it (v. 15b).
12:16–19 Even so, the blood remained sacred and like that obtained in sacrifice had to be poured upon the ground like water (v. 16). The idea seems to be that blood, as the very essence of life, must be returned to the earth from which the Creator at the beginning had brought it forth (cf. Gen 1:24; 2:19; 3:23; 4:10–11; Deut 15:23). In a sense, then, even profane slaughter had overtones of worship and holiness and was subject to cultic regulation. This was also true of other foodstuffs. The Israelite could help himself to his heart's content except for the tithes of crops, the firstborn of animals, the subjects of vows, and freewill offerings and gifts (v. 17), all of which must be taken to the central sanctuary and there alone eaten before the Lord as a symbol of covenant oneness (v. 18). In this manner the Levite as well was to be sustained (v. 19; cf. v. 12; 26:12–13).
12:20–25 The rationale for this allowance of local animal slaughter follows in vv. 20–21. Granting that it was natural and proper for the individual to desire meat as part of his diet, Moses legislated that such could be done once the land was conquered and settled and great distances precluded easy access to the tabernacle or temple. Again he underscored the sanctity of even animal life by repeating his demand that the blood shed in such circumstances must be properly disposed of (vv. 23–24). Adherence to the prohibition against eating it would bring about the favor and blessing of the Lord (v. 25).
12:26–28 In a highly repetitive manner, Moses went on to insist that consecrated things and things vowed to the Lord must be taken to the “place the Lord will choose” and offered to him there (v. 26; cf. vv. 17–18). There the meat could be eaten as part of certain sacrificial rituals such as the “fellowship” or “peace” offerings (cf. Lev 3:1–17), but the blood, as always, must be poured out upon the earth (v. 27). Finally, in a summary and conclusion of the matter of the central sanctuary, Moses urged his hearers to absolute obedience to the words he had spoken, for in doing so they would please the Lord and make possible his good favor upon them (v. 28; cf. 4:40; 5:16, 29, 33).
—New American Commentary