Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

Deuteronomy 16:20-17:7 Only the LORD your God

1You must not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

                2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3 by going to serve other gods and worshiping them– whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden– 4 and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6 On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

For the author of Deuteronomy the first and central commandment that the people are only to have the LORD as their God. It comes at the head of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me

and in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Even before this Deuteronomy 4 emphasizes this same theme, as do Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9. Deuteronomy 12 again addresses this issue in relation to destroying places of worship for other gods, and all of Deuteronomy 13 addresses this issue in stark terms of what the punishment is to be for violating this covenant relationship by individuals or by entire towns. It comes up here again at the end of 16 and beginning of 17 because it is such a central issue for the Deuteronomist that the author wants no chance for the hearer/reader to miss it. Being an aural culture the things that are central will be repeated over and over to ensure that they are heard by the listening audience. The death penalty for following other gods may seem harsh to us, and I address this question in greater detail when I talk about Deuteronomy 13, but this unique relationship with the LORD is to be at the center of the life of the people of Israel.

The LORD is not to be worshiped in the same way that the gods of the nations around the people are worshiped, there is to be no blending of the gods of the nations and the LORD. The people are also to bring their best to the worship of their LORD, not the animals that are defective. For the Deuteronomist these are life and death decisions, and yet they are still bound by the due process of the law. Justice is expected and a thorough investigation of any claims of idolatry are to be made. Deuteronomy 17 probably lays behind the command in Matthew 18.16 of wanting claims to be confirmed with the testimony of two or three witnesses and also behind the command for the one who is without sin to ‘cast the first stone’ in John 8 (even though this deals with adultery). In a contemporary fictional setting it is similar to the insistence of Ned Stark in the Game of Thrones that the one who passes the sentence should swing the sword, but instead here it is the witness who has testified against a person who must cast the initial stone of the community’s judgment. As Walter Brueggemann can state, “The book of Deuteronomy is committed to a rule of law even if it is a severe rule of law.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 181) The nation of Israel is to be a theocracy where ultimately the LORD their God is at the center of their judicial, religious and political life and the central place of their LORD their God should, in the view of Deuteronomy, impact the way they structure the leadership and judicial life of their community

Deuteronomy 17:8-13 The Levitical Judicial Function

8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another– any such matters of dispute in your towns– then you shall immediately go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose, 9 where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case. 10 Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the LORD will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you. 11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

The vision of Deuteronomy is for a theocracy, a nation that is an extension of the covenantal relationship with the LORD their God, and so all of the functions of life are structured around trying to create that type of a nation. In many respects ancient Judaism and Islam share this desire to create nations that are structured in this manner and so in ancient Judaism, like some Muslim states, the highest court of appeals is a religious court and not a secular one. For people who live in Europe or the United States this may seem a strange concept because we live in a post-enlightenments modern society where religion is viewed as a private portion of a person’s life, but this is a relatively recent development. The law for the Jewish people was a reflection of their covenantal relationship with their God and it was viewed as a gift that God had given them. Even the judges that were a part of the tribes were expected to judge in accordance with the ideals outlined in the law. It doesn’t take long reading through books like Judges or 1 Samuel to find ways in which the judges often failed in this respect, but the ideal was that those entrusted with ministering to the LORD in the tabernacle or temple would be those most focused on the ideals of justice that the LORD called for. People are to obey the judgments of this religious and tribal courts, for a judge whose sentence holds no power is not going to be effective in enforcing this justice. So again, it is a harsh justice, where the penalty for disobeying a priest or a judge in their sentences is execution.

Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 The Model King

                14 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” 15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. 16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Willem de Poorter, 'De afgoderij van konig Solomo'-Solomon's decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Willem de Poorter, ‘De afgoderij van konig Solomo’-Solomon’s decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Most people assume that the monarchy, and particularly the Davidic monarchy, was universally embraced by scriptures and particularly King David and Solomon are the great kings where everything went well during their reign. The bible is not unanimous in endorsing having a king at all and for example in 1 Samuel 8, when the people are demanding of Samuel a king the LORD’s response is telling:

“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly want them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 1 Samuel 8: 7-9

The Deuteronomic history (the books beginning with Judges and stretching through 2 Kings) is pretty unromantic when it describes the failings of the kings that would rule over Judah and Israel, and it is telling the way that Deuteronomy describes the aspects of who the king is to be, they are the opposite of King Solomon. Most Christians know little of the story of Solomon, other than his request for wisdom and his building of the temple, but the way 1 Kings tells of his reign he quickly is drawn into a quest for wealth, military power and in making alliance is led astray from being faithful to the LORD, the God of Israel. Solomon imports horses from Egypt and has 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots. Horses in the ancient world are a sign of military might. With power centralized and the military muscle to back up that power the king of Israel may begin to act like the Pharaohs of Egypt and the people become plunged into dependence under the burden of supplying for the hunger of a large military budget. 1 Kings goes at length into describing the wealth that Solomon accumulates as well as the incredible investment in projects beyond the temple, like his own palace. Solomon’s reign is reported to have brought in more than five tons of gold a year in addition to countless other resources. Finally Solomon is lifted up as having seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines. All of these are direct counters to Deuteronomy’s vision of what a king is to be, and are ultimately blamed for the rising opposition to Solomon in his life and the splitting of the kingdom in two after his death. I tell about this briefly in the Place of Authority posts.

The title of the book of Deuteronomy comes from verse 18 where it refers to a copy of the law (in greek deutero nomos-second law) that the king is to read from each night and to be the way in which the king stays grounded in the covenantal life the people are called to.  Ultimately in the view of Deuteronomy the king is subservient to the will of the LORD. In reality, this rarely seemed to be the case in the story of the people of Judah and Israel. In a time where the majority of the population would be illiterate and not have access to written copies of the law they did rely upon the leaders including the king and the religious authorities guiding them in their actions. The bible evaluates the kings theologically: were they faithful to the LORD their God or did they lead the people to follow other gods?

I am writing from a Christian perspective, and in the church year we are approaching Christ the King Sunday and perhaps as Christians it might be worth examining how Jesus who we call Messiah or Christ (which means anointed king) lives into this identity. In Paul’s short statement of who Christ was in Philippians 2:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2: 6-8.

Many of the servant songs from Isaiah, which Christians read as talking about Jesus probably originally were trying to consider a monarch that might embody the vision of passages like Deuteronomy 17. Perhaps when the New Testament talks about explaining who Jesus was from the law and the prophets this is one of the places in the law where the early Christians went back to.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Biblical Reflections, Deuteronomy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord

  1. Pingback: Exodus 14 Passing Through the Waters | Sign of the Rose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s