1 These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth.
2 You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. 3 Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places. 4 You shall not worship the LORD your God in such ways. 5 But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, 6 bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks. 7 And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.
8 You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, 9 for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you. 10 When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the LORD your God is allotting to you, and when he gives you rest from your enemies all around so that you live in safety, 11 then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, and all your choice votive gifts that you vow to the LORD. 12 And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you together with your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levites who reside in your towns (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you).
13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. 14 But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes– there you shall offer your burnt offerings and there you shall do everything I command you.
15 Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer. 16 The blood, however, you must not eat; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 17 Nor may you eat within your towns the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, the firstlings of your herds and your flocks, any of your votive gifts that you vow, your freewill offerings, or your donations; 18 these you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God at the place that the LORD your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God in all your undertakings. 19 Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.
20 When the LORD your God enlarges your territory, as he has promised you, and you say, “I am going to eat some meat,” because you wish to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you have the desire. 21 If the place where the LORD your God will choose to put his name is too far from you, and you slaughter as I have commanded you any of your herd or flock that the LORD has given you, then you may eat within your towns whenever you desire. 22 Indeed, just as gazelle or deer is eaten, so you may eat it; the unclean and the clean alike may eat it. 23 Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat. 24 Do not eat it; you shall pour it out on the ground like water. 25 Do not eat it, so that all may go well with you and your children after you, because you do what is right in the sight of the LORD. 26 But the sacred donations that are due from you, and your votive gifts, you shall bring to the place that the LORD will choose. 27 You shall present your burnt offerings, both the meat and the blood, on the altar of the LORD your God; the blood of your other sacrifices shall be poured out beside the altar of the LORD your God, but the meat you may eat.
28 Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.
29 When the LORD your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, 30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31 You must not do the same for the LORD your God, because every abhorrent thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.
In the first eleven chapters of Deuteronomy we heard the story of the people of Israel re-narrated, the Ten Commandments re-stated and some of the central practices highlighted for the people to hear and know. Beginning in chapter twelve we begin to see these practices expanded upon and within these commandments the practices that form the people to live out of this command are expressed. The exposition of chapters 12-26 roughly follows the pattern of the Ten Commandments with twelve and thirteen referring back to having no other Gods. As the author of Deuteronomy reflects upon how the people of Israel will live out these commandments in the Promised Land they will impact the everyday life of the community. As Deanna Thompson can state, “These laws concern practical matters of worship, politics, economics, business and judicial practices, sexuality and marriage, family life and relationships.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 113) The people of Israel were not attempting to create a community that happened to have a few religious practices but rather a community shaped by the covenant with their God and practices deriving from the Ten Commandments and the Shema where their lives are oriented around serving and loving their LORD. This is the beginning of a contextual theology where they try to understand how to form a people around these principles.
Part of covenant loyalty is celebration and feasting. It may seem strange to us that a chapter which is oriented on not worshipping other gods is so heavily concerned with eating together as a community but this is part of where identity is formed. The people are to come together for their offering and the offerings are not just burned up, they are eaten together with the priests and with others around the gathering place. Much like people gather together and tailgate before sporting events and they celebrate their common identity around a sports team, eating has always been a part of the celebrations around worship. One of the struggles of religious communities in a secular world has been the displacement of festival eating to other places, but it is not something that is gone from every religious tradition. My congregation is located next to a Hindu temple and they gather together to eat together frequently, especially on Saturdays. Orthodox Jews have a festival almost every month where they come together as community and part of that celebration is eating. Rather than allowing family and friendships to be the only places where people gather to eat if this is going to be a community that is able to love God and love their neighbor they need to come together to worship and eat together.
Priests for the Hebrew people also served a functional role as butchers in the land. Their job was not isolated from the dirty aspects of life, they may not have had farms and flocks to manage but they were woven into the agricultural system through their cultic role of preparing and offering the sacrifices of the flocks and fields. There will be stories of wandering Levites throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and while a part of their role was probably as story teller, the other part of their role is to make sure that the meat is properly prepared.
Deuteronomy also recognizes the struggle of distance in a larger community prior to the advent of motorized transportation. Most people probably did not make it in to the tabernacle or later temple for more than the occasional festival. People who lived in the rural areas certainly could not worship weekly at the tabernacle once the people were dispersed in the land. Distances made the journey impossible on foot very frequently while managing fields and flocks. So people are allowed to eat meat at times other than celebrations if it is available, and they are given only the restriction that they are not to eat the blood. These practices had less to do with health concerns and were about a recognition of their lives dependence upon the provision of the LORD. These actions have meaning assigned to them: “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” (Deuteronomy 12: 23) The blood is to be poured out before the LORD since the LORD is the source of life, but the people are not to consume the life since their life is derivative not of the animals that are killed but on the LORD their God.
The worship of the LORD is contrasted with the worship of other gods in relation to their practices as well. They are to come together, to offer their first fruits, their goodwill offerings and other offerings and to eat together and enjoy they bounty of the LORD in their land. The worship is primarily a gift to the gathered people and a celebration of their unity under the LORD. The worship of other gods may have been attractive in many aspects to the Hebrew people, but ultimately those practices are not to be followed. Especially the practice of child sacrifice is lifted up as something abhorrent to their LORD. In many cases the offering of a child was viewed as offering the very best to the deity which it was offered to, but the LORD is not a God who demands child sacrifices. Even the troubling story of Genesis 22 where the LORD commands Abraham to offer Isaac ends with the angel of the LORD providing the lamb instead of Isaac for the offering.
Often our identity is formed by the things we don’t do and the things we consciously do. As people of the LORD they do:
- Gather together at a common place of worship and offer sacrifices
- Gather together to eat and celebrate around this worship and sacrifice
- Bring their donations to the LORD
- Eat meat in their communities when they desire
But there are also things they do not do:
- They do not allow other worship sites to remain in their land
- They do not eat blood
- They do not worship other deities
- They do not sacrifice children.