Our reading begins today with a reminder to keep the three yearly feasts. We saw near the end of the book of Numbers (chapters 28 and 29) reminders about the offerings required at these feasts. Here, the focus is not on the specifics of the offerings, but of the why and the where of the feasts. For Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Israel should be reminded of the haste with which they left their slavery (16:3). And we see that the offerings must be made “at the place the Lord will choose, to make His name dwell there” (v. 2 – remember that the name of God is symbolic of God Himself). For the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), Israel should remember their slavery (v. 12) by offering freely to God (v. 10). Again, this feast is to be done “at the place the Lord will choose, to make His name dwell there” (v. 11). For the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) is not given a specific point of remembrance here (that is given in Leviticus 23:41-43), but we see that it is meant to be a feast of joy for God’s provision (v. 14, 15). Again, the place of God’s choosing is given as the place to hold this feast (v. 15). We see in this second giving of the law that the place of worship has been added to previously given instructions (see Deuteronomy 12). As we have seen, that place will be Jerusalem, but ultimately this is pointing to the church (which is the New Jerusalem). In our context as the New Testament church, this means that proper worship to God is given in a church context. We are the “holy convocation” God calls together. God then makes a call for justice. God makes justice an absolute requirement for life in the land (v. 20 – see Micah 6:6-8).
After detailing the purpose and place for the annual feasts, we enter into a discussion of how not to worship God. Israel is not to “plant any tree as an Asherah”* or “set up a pillar.” This is another injunction against idolatry. Chapter 17 continues the discussion about how not to worship God, but 17:1 is speaking of following His rules for worship by not sacrificing an animal with a blemish. A sacrifice to God must be without a single blemish. This points us to the perfection of Christ, the only acceptable sacrifice for sin, and the true object of our worship. In verse 2, the discussion returns to idolatry and we see that the punishment for confirmed (vv. 4-6) idolatry is death (v. 5). A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Note though that the witnesses that confirm the idolatry are to be the first to cast stones (v. 7). This is to discourage frivolous accusations, which would be a violation of the ninth commandment. It also shows that among God’s people, the accuser is to publicly come face to face with the accused. In verse 8, we return to the question of justice, and we see that God has made provision for judicial decisions by a plurality of qualified people.** The verdict is final (vv. 10-11) and deviation from it is itself a sin.
In verse 14, God gives instructions for when Israel will decide to set up a king like the surrounding nations. We will see that this is exactly what they will do (see 1 Samuel 8). Notice in verse 16 that God begins with instructions for this king, which we will see the kings of Israel and Judah disobey (this reaches its peak in Solomon, after whom the kingdom is fractured and it all goes downhill). In verse 18, we see that the king is to know, and reign according to, the law. We will see that this is not what happens, and that the law is rendered utterly irrelevant to kings (starting slowly with Solomon) until the Book of the Law is found under King Josiah (see 2 Kings 22).
Chapter 18 begins with another reminder that those who serve the Lord for a living should make their living by serving the Lord. In 18:9, we start another warning against idolatry. Note in verse 12 that God says it is because of these practices that the inhabitants of the land are being driven out (v. 12). Implied here is that if Israel does the same (they will), they will be removed from the land (they are).
In verses 15-19 we have a clear promise of the coming Messiah. He will be a prophet like Moses (but better – remember the book of Hebrews!), which means He will speak forth the Word of God and mediate the covenant between God and man. He will be from among their brothers (v. 18), which means He will be fully human. He will speak only the words that are given to Him to speak (v. 18 – see John 14:10 which is a claim to be the prophet Israel was waiting for!). Not hearing the words of this Prophet will result in guilt before God (see John 3:32-36).
The chapter ends with God through Moses telling Israel how to determine who is a true prophet and who is not. They will foretell the future with accuracy if they are a true prophet. But we need to remember that the controlling requirement is adherence to the Word of God (Deut 13:1-5). But there is much more here. This is in the context of the promise of the Prophet like Moses. This is ultimately pointing to His veracity and the truth of His words. This is pointing to the foretelling of the future by the Prophet Jesus of Nazareth, and the proof that all He said was true when He was crucified yet walked out of the grave alive! This is saying that the greatest and ultimate proof of the truth of God’s Word will be the resurrection of Jesus Christ!!
Chapter 19 begins with further instructions for the cities of refuge in the Levite lands. There will be three (19:2), because Moses already assigned three on the east side of the Jordan (Deut 4:41-43). Note that intent is a part of the distinction between murder and manslaughter (v. 4, 6, 11 – we again see the roots of our laws in the U.S.). In verse 13, we see that the sin must be removed from Israel. A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
Beginning in verse 15, we see that justice is not carried out unilaterally by anyone (except God, of course). Notice that he who wrongly accuses someone of wrongdoing will bear the punishment he sought for the accused (v. 19). Why? This shows that punishment is not just retributive, but meant as a deterrent (v. 20). This is something that is (theoretically) the basis for our modern penal system in the U.S. Verse 21 is again meant to limit punishment.
*Asherah is the Canaanite goddess of fertility, believed to be Baal’s consort. She was the supreme goddess of the Canaanite religion. An Asherah (plural: Asherim – see Ex 34:13) as used here would be a tree or a wooden pole that was used to represent this goddess.
**The American legal system is based on the Roman legal system, which is based on the Greek legal system, which has roots in the Hebrew legal system. Much of what God commands for a community to function properly is the genesis of many American laws.