In this part 1 of the commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy you will find an introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy which it is important to read if you are to have a full understanding of the book. The Book of Deuteronomy contains God's covenants with Israel as summarised by Moses prior to entry into Canaan. It had a huge impact on the life of Israel and was cited by Jesus a number of times. For the Book of Deuteronomy contains the life blood of Israel.
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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
Part 1. (1.1-4.43).
Introduction to Deuteronomy.
(For those who simply wish to study Deuteronomy verse by verse without regard to its important context this introduction, which is rather long, can be omitted, but it will be referred to in the commentary and we would advise that it be read. It is written in order to give the background to the book, to consider in more detail some of the questions that will arise when studying Deuteronomy, to explain its framework as a covenant, and in order to consider its essential Mosaic authorship).
That Deuteronomy is essentially Mosaic is declared in the book, which claims to record the words of Moses (1.5, 9; 5.1; 27.1, 8; 29.2; 31.1, 30; 33.1, 30) and specifically records that ‘he wrote’ at least a part of it (31:9, 22, 24). As morally speaking it is too grand and ethical book to be based on deception, however excused, this claim must be treated seriously. Someone with the type of conscience revealed in the book could never have knowingly deceived others. And as we shall see in the commentary there are further indications in the speeches of the fact that these were the very words of Moses. Certainly its early date is stressed by the fact that in it there is no mention of the ‘high places’ (bamoth) which were so common a feature of later religious life, and so condemned by the prophets. They were clearly unknown to the writer. There is also no mention of Baal by name. Both these facts suggest, although do not finally prove, an early date.
Furthermore the clear chiastic pattern that pervades throughout the book passage by passage points to one overall author and militates powerfully against the idea of a number of redactors. It demonstrates that apart possibly from a very occasional minimal insertion the final author was the overall author, who manipulated any sources that he used into his own pattern. And the same pattern in Exodus and Numbers may be seen as suggesting unity of authorship in those books.
Other Old Testament books also assert the essential Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy demonstrating the strong tradition supporting the claim (see 1 Kings 2.3; 8.53; 2 Kings 14.6; 18.6, 12). No one ever thought that they were written by anyone other than Moses. More importantly Jesus Christ Himself saw the Pentateuch as the writings of Moses (John 5.46-47), as without error (Matthew 5.17-18), and indicated Moses’ connection with Deuteronomy (Matt. 19.7-8; Mark 10.3-5). See also Peter (Acts 3.22), Stephen (Acts 7.37-38), Paul (Romans 10.19; 1 Corinthians 9.9), and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10.28).
That is not, however, to deny that he used a scribe (or scribes) to assist him, who may well have mainly been his ‘servant’ Joshua, and/or Eliezer the Priest. ‘Moses wrote’ could well signify ‘caused to be written’ under his supervision, for that was usual in those days. This may be seen as confirmed by the fact that someone living at the time recorded that Moses ‘made an end of writing the words of this law in a book’ (31.24), and that it included an account of his death. While both could have been written by Moses, it seems far more probable that the words of Deuteronomy were the words of Moses, and the recording that of his scribe who also provided under God part of the overall literary style of the book and its framework (34.5-7).
It is no secret that the authorship of Moses has been questioned, we might even say subjected to a battery of criticism, and yet it has stood this test remarkably well to such an extent that it has still not been demonstrated that it is not genuinely true. There are still genuine scholars who argue cogently for the essential Mosaicity of the book. Given the forces of scholarship that have been arrayed against it, this must be seen as in itself a testimony to its authenticity, especially as the opposing scholars cannot agree among themselves, differing so widely that once we start to speculate it makes anything and any date possible.
That the Bible has shaped Western civilisation, in spite of the fact that its requirements have then basically been ignored, cannot be questioned. And it is a remarkable fact that such is its importance that in large parts of the world whole departments of universities, containing some of the astutest minds in that world, both devout and antagonistic, have concentrated on and are concentrating on its study. Given that, we would have expected it to disintegrate (some have certainly tried to make it do so) if it were not genuinely what it claims to be. But the fact is rather that it has flourished, and its message is still sought today as much as ever before.
But, it may be asked, have we solid grounds for thinking that Moses would have put these things in book form? The answer is a resounding ‘yes!’. For after the first ‘major’ battle after crossing the Reed Sea God specifically told Moses to record what had happened as a memorial for the future (Exodus 17.14). From that command it was hardly a step of unimaginable brilliance for him then to recognise how important such a history could be, and to see that God approved of the idea, which would make it reasonably certain that he would continue to record subsequent events, especially when he came to know that they would be in the wilderness for forty years prior to entering the land. This was especially so as later he would make that history the basis for urging the invasion of the land of Canaan, and it was common in his world to record basic covenants with their historical background in writing. We have other references to his recording information in writing as well (Exodus 24.4-8; 34.27; Numbers 33.1-2; Deuteronomy 31.9, 22, 24), and it was hardly something that needed to be mentioned every time he wrote. The assumption to any sensible person would be that God wanted him to record important events.
Added to this is the fact that there was a strong tendency among ancient peoples to record covenants made through theophanies in writing. The covenant would be recorded together with its surrounding history. The covenant principle is prominent in the Pentateuch. It can be argued that every chapter in Genesis up to the time of Joseph is based on a covenant saying. Furthermore covenant ideas underlie Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, and that the covenant idea is especially emphasised in Deuteronomy is clear.
To appreciate the book of Deuteronomy it is vital to first appreciate the circumstances under which it was written.
The Background To The Book.
All had begun with Abraham who had responded to God’s call to leave his homeland and had travelled down from the north to Canaan because of God’s instruction. He came to ‘the place’ (maqom) of Shechem (note Deuteronomy 11; 27). Initially God (Yahweh) made promises to Abraham in the form of what we call a ‘covenant’, that is, in this case, an agreement made by a Superior arising from His lovingkindness, and declared to His beneficiary, and responded to by him. This covenant stated among other things that one day He would give to Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan (see Genesis 12 onwards), because he had obeyed Yahweh’s voice, left his home and his family and come to the land of Canaan in response to God’s call. This promise was repeated to Isaac and Jacob/Israel. The complementary inference in Genesis 15.16 is that any who were unworthy, who were idolaters and not responsive to the covenant, would one day be excluded from the land.
This idea of the gift of the land, and what it required in return, is prominent all through Deuteronomy, and is the basis of much of its argument. This is especially so in the legal section, where it is emphasised that because God has graciously given them the land and has delivered them from Egypt and brought them there, they must respond similarly. Thus the doctrine of presence in the land, and also therefore, in contrast, warnings of exclusion from the land, are firmly based in the Abrahamic covenant. The stress is on the fact that the land is to be given to those who serve Yahweh fully, who faithfully respond to the covenant, while those who do not respond will be excluded from the land. Later in Scripture this idea will expand into inclusion or exclusion from the Kingly Rule of God.
After a time, as a result of a severe and extended famine, and as a result of God’s activities through Joseph, Jacob’s family with their households of servants left Canaan, the land that God had promised them, and settled in the great land of Egypt to the south of Canaan, one of the great powers of the ancient world. There they expanded and grew. But eventually they came into disfavour in Egypt and were oppressed and virtually enslaved. However, God saw their need and by the hand of Moses delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt by mighty acts of power (see Exodus 1.1 onwards). He did this in fulfilment of His promises to their fathers (Exodus 2.24 and often). And now after many adventures He had brought them back to the very edge of the promised land, the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, the land which provided both necessity and luxury, His land.
These mighty acts were brought about by their great leader and prophet Moses whom God had raised up for this purpose. But the people he led were now a total mixture. As well as the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel, together with their households (which themselves were a mixture of races, consider for example Eliezer the Damascene (Genesis 15.1) and Hagar the Egyptian (Genesis 16.1)), who had gone down to Egypt (Exodus 1.1), they had left Egypt accompanied by a ‘mixed multitude’ from many nations (Exodus 12.38) who were taking the opportunity to get away, and they would all have customs of their own. Thus he had the difficult task of blending these people together into one nation. In order to do this it would be necessary in a fairly short time to rid them of their idolatrous connections, connections which were also prevalent among many of the Israelites (Joshua 24.14), unify their major laws and bring them all together into a unified cultus. The process would necessarily commence as soon as they had left Egypt, as indeed we are told (Exodus 15.25).
This was given a great boost forwards at Mount Sinai in Horeb, when God appeared in vivid manifestation and declared His overlordship covenant with them, binding them all together as one in the covenant, and adding to this His various covenant stipulations (Exodus 19.1 onwards). As a result of this covenant a Central Sanctuary was set up in the form of a magnificent tent which was called God’s ‘dwellingplace’ (mishkan, often translated ‘tabernacle’) at which Yahweh was worshipped. This was to be the centre of their worship, and the focus of the covenant. The covenant process would later be sealed with the covenant seal of circumcision for all who opted into the covenant (Genesis 17; Exodus 12.48-49), once they entered the land (Joshua 5.2-9). Thus were these conglomerate people all united together as one.
One aspect of these laws that were promulgated needs to be borne in mind. In the majority of nations such laws were seen as a guide rather than as a binding requirement. Thus a judge when considering his cases might look to law codes for assistance but he did not feel himself bound by them. The code of Hammurabi, for example, was not strictly applied. It was seen as giving general guidance, interpreted by local custom. Local judges did not carry a copy under their arm.
However, Israel had, alongside general law exemplified by particular examples, ‘if a man --- then ---’ (case law or casuistic law), an almost unique form of law often called apodictic law, where the law was given as a direct command (e.g. ‘You shall not steal, you shall not murder’). In this case the law was seen as having come directly from God and therefore as being more binding and more sacred. It was only, however, in days when religious zeal was high that such laws were seen fully in that way. At other times their effectiveness was blunted. The fact therefore that a law was not fulfilled in practise did not mean that the law did not exist. Local circumstances could change. Customs sometimes took precedence over law. At other times compromise could be accepted, or expediency was brought to bear. A particular law might not be brought to mind, or might be interpreted in the light of different customs. For most would be depending on memory, and however good that was it could not compare with the written record, and it could be affected by prejudice and wishful thinking.
By the time this book was written the majority of the original ‘strangers’ (non-Israelites) would, as a result of Sinai, have been fused into the twelve tribes, and have become ‘descendants of Jacob’. It is also indicates that in the process of fusing them together and of running the ‘camp’ from day to day Moses has gradually built up a mass of statutes and ordinances which he and they saw as revealed to him by God. These commenced even before Sinai (Exodus 15.25), and were extended at Sinai, and continued afterwards as the details of the Law had to be unfolded. And a moment’s thought will bring home the necessity for them. Uniformity of behaviour would be a necessity for their survival. That in the early days all this was concentrated in the hands of Moses is made clear (Exodus 18), and even after that major decisions which required a new interpretations were to be left in his hands (Exodus 18.22).
We are specifically told that he continually received revelations from God (Exodus 33.11; Numbers 7.89). And that many of these revelations were later put together by him or Joshua in the final part of Exodus, and in Numbers, and also in the book of Leviticus, which was basically a manual of religious and ethical ordinances (all part of the covenant), is emphasised by continual phrases like, ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’. By this means Yahweh revealed His will for His people, and provided the means by which when they entered the land they could keep separate from the depraved religion of those in the land, and by which they could maintain a theocratic society, governed by the people under God and under the oversight of the Central Sanctuary, which was ensured through their continued individual holding of the land. This individual holding of the land was to be maintained by a year of Yubile, which was to take place every forty nine (seven time seven) years, a year in which all land would return to its original owners, so that the land remained in widespread ownership. This was to be so because it was God’s land. Other statutes and ordinances were promulgated or expanded on in the book of Numbers, which also provides further details of their wilderness journey. They were all seen as God’s ‘instruction’ (torah).
It is clear from these writings that humanly speaking they were to some extent built up as they went along, and were then seemingly brought together with minimum change, thus sometimes seeming a little haphazard and disjointed, but while modern legislators might have spent considerable time in putting them together in one continuous narrative, rewriting them and blending them together in sections and subsections, this was not the ancient way, as is demonstrated quite clearly in a number of law codes from elsewhere.
In saying this, however, we must not suggest that they were totally haphazard. We should note, for example, the careful overall structure of Leviticus which brings order to seeming chaos. And the sections in Numbers outlining different laws were not just fitted into the context haphazardly. Indeed both Exodus and Numbers can clearly be seen to be based on a chiastic framework, which was a typical ancient approach and confirms the essential unity of the narrative (see our commentaries on those books). And there were no doubt basic reasons why sections were placed where they were, even if we may not fully agree on what they were. In fact the reason that sometimes they might not fit exactly together was precisely because of an unwillingness to alter the original sources to suit. They were cited as they were. They are thus the more reliable.
That Moses spent much time before God, receiving His inspiration, is referred to constantly. He received guidance at Marah (Exodus 15.25-26), further guidance during the time at Sinai (Exodus 19.3; 20.21; 24.12-18; 32.31; 34.2) and then constantly in daily life, first in the old Tent of meeting (Exodus 33.9-11) and then later in connection with the tabernacle (e.g. Numbers 7.89). Joshua also was a witness to much of it (Exodus 24.13) and kept busy with tasks not described to us (Exodus 33.11) which could well have included recording the words of God. This pattern would not cease when the tabernacle was built (Numbers 7.89). Thus Moses’ forty days with God in the Mount was a period of reflection and revelation (Exodus 24.12-18), something which continued on constantly as he brought his great gifts to bear on dealing with the problems of his people (Exodus 33.9-11). We may well argue that the necessities of the circumstances, and the fact that these were seen as a part of the covenant and as the result of theophanies, would ensure that they were recorded in writing.
But the problem was that when the people arrived at the borders of the land and heard about the opposition in the land awaiting them their faith failed and they refused to go forwards (Numbers 13-14). They turned their back on their covenant responsibility. Then when they shortly afterwards made a feeble attempt to enter the land they were driven out. This was inevitable. It followed the principle that God had laid down from the beginning. That if they were disobedient they would be excluded from the land. As they were no longer entering as a covenant people, the land could not receive a disobedient people. The result was that they remained in the wilderness for a further thirty eight years, first at Kadesh, and then by circling around the wilderness area, surviving on the manna and on what they could otherwise gather.
Details of the encampments of their wandering are given in Numbers 33 where verse 18 refers to Hazaroth (compare 11.35) from where they first went to Kadesh in the Wilderness of Paran (13.26). But this first visit to Kadesh is not mentioned in Numbers 33, for it was something that was a deep shame as a result of the failure to enter the land and needed to be blotted out. It was a shame which had to be excised from that record. But we know where it probably should have been mentioned, for it would directly have followed the arrival at Hazaroth (33.18; compare 12.16; 13.3 with 13.26). The places that follow in 33.18-36 were thus clearly visited after that episode and prior to their second arrival at Kadesh (verse 36). They are listed, from Rithmah to Ezion-Geber. For the few incidents mentioned concerning this period see Numbers 15.1-20.1, but little is really known about it.
However, that dreadful time had now passed. The generation that had failed had virtually passed away. The new Israel, responsive to the covenant, and never having known any other leadership than that of Moses, had therefore now to be encouraged to go forward so that they could invade Canaan from the east. That had been the main purpose behind the writing of Numbers (see our commentary on Numbers). And now like any good general Moses gathered them together a number of times on the way in order to harangue them and enthuse them with a view to the coming campaign. That is what Deuteronomy is all about.
He especially wanted to bring home to this new generation in a new way the details of the covenant given at Sinai to their fathers, the spectacular giving of which would still linger in the minds of the oldest of them, from their childhood memories, and its importance for their future success. However, his aim was not just to repeat the covenant in all its detail, but in order to bring home to them in what way the covenant was for them personally. He wanted to exhort them to obedience to Yahweh and to assure them that God had covenanted to give them the land, and further to point out that in return He expected them to respond to the covenant and be faithful to it. If they did not, he stressed, they too would be driven out of God’s land. There could be no place in the land for the disobedient.
The Speeches of Moses.
Deuteronomy claims to contain speeches of Moses. It is these speeches that we find recorded in it. His first speech is a long description of Israel’s recent history since the days at Sinai, a kind of preamble to the main speech (1.1-4.44), which was itself in mini-covenant form. In his second speech in 4.45-29.1 he then moves on to provide the basis of the covenant of Sinai as now renewed with the people in the Plains of Moab, explaining it in a popular way with emphasis on what applied to the people as a whole, rather than from a legalistic point of view. This covenant is given in 4.45-29.1. It commences with ‘These are the testimonies, the statutes and the ordinances which Moses spoke to the children of Israel --’ (4.45) and ends with ‘these are the words of the covenant which Yahweh commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant that He had made with them at Horeb (Sinai)’ (29.1). This may well originally have once been a written record in itself, with the first statement being its heading, and the last its colophon identifying the tablet or papyrus or leather scroll. 1.1-4.44 may be seen as another such tablet. But the clear connections between the two demonstrate that they belong together.
And as regularly with Moses, when written down the whole was put together in covenant form, a favourite methodology of his (compare Leviticus 18-19 and consider Exodus 20-24). Indeed the structure of Deuteronomy is such that, while containing covenants within the covenant in more than one speech, it is presented in the form of one long covenant based on the pattern of second millennium treaties and law codes.
It is very probable that the actual recording of the main details was by the young man who was his ‘servant’ from earlier days, the young man Joshua (Exodus 17.14; 24.13; 33.11), who by now was himself a mature, ageing and important man, but the source of the information we can only see as being Moses himself as the book itself makes abundantly clear (Deuteronomy 1.1; 31.9, 24). This is not to deny that later scribes may have added minor explanatory comments in order to explain things which by then may have been obscure, but there is no reason for thinking that they were major alterations nor that they altered the essential meaning of the text. They were explanatory or with a view to updating (as was normal with ancient literature) rather than expansionist, for the words would in general have been seen as too holy to tamper with. Nor is it to deny that the language may have been updated (as someone today might update Chaucer) in order to keep it readable and understandable. For the important thing was that its message should be understood. But reverence for its source would prevent this exercise from distorting it. It would be constantly read over at the festal gatherings, which in the worst times were clearly attended by the faithful, and the old and the wise would note anything that they thought varied its message.
The Deuteronomic Stress.
For it should be noted that it is quite apparent on reading it that the legal information provided in Deuteronomy is supplementary and has very much in mind the people’s side of things. It is not detailed enough in itself to provide a full coverage of God’s instruction, but draws on such a coverage in order to apply its own lessons. Indeed it is such that it could only be understood and carried into action by those who already had a background in the customs and laws of Israel, which it assumes.
In Deuteronomy the details of the cult are only described very secondarily and no great stress is placed on priestly activity and priestly responsibilities. And yet both are assumed. It is rather a popular presentation of God’s Instruction (Torah) as it related to the whole people. And this fact is the death knell to any theory that suggests that it was written specifically in order to encourage specific reforms at a later date, especially in connection with the Temple, for it was simply not detailed enough. Anyone writing such a document with reforms in mind would have ensured that fuller details were given within it so that it was sufficient in itself, and that it was written in a way to guide those who read it in the correct forms that should be followed. As a forceful presentation of a covenant to the people, the details of which have already been given, it is powerful; as a reforming document it is quite inadequate.
Indeed Deuteronomy is not only portrayed as a record of speeches by Moses, but bears all the marks of the weaknesses of such speeches, that they summarise and assume a background knowledge which is necessary in order to understand the details given in the speeches. Unless this background was known they would appear sparse and even contradictory, and be largely unintelligible. For a speech is no place for going into too much detail, and for too much precision, and we find this clearly revealed in Deuteronomy. It is exhortatory rather than precise.
Deuteronomy was written as preparatory to entering the land. Thus in it there is a great emphasis laid on the prosperity awaiting them there (6.10-11; 7.13-15; 8.7-13; 11.11-12, 14-15; 12.20). But there are also frequent warnings of its accompanying dangers, and of the grave danger of their succumbing to idolatrous practises, a warning which permeates all the way through the book in many different ways. Moses had learned a salutary lesson from the molten calf at Sinai. If Israel had tended to stray while in the wilderness, and even at the covenant mountain itself (Exodus 32), and he had received a further warning concerning this at Baal-peor (Numbers 25), how dangerous it was going to be when they entered a land full of idolatry of the worst kind. One of its central messages is therefore that all idolatry is to be driven out of the land, whether that of Canaanites or of Israel.
We are also introduced to new ideas which expand on the old, and put an emphasis on their coming prosperity, bringing an ordered pattern to the future. For example, each third year and seventh year were to be utilised in order to bless the poor and the stranger (14.28-15.11), so that the poor would always be catered for, and this because they would all so prosper in the land.
Three and seven were both significant numbers in ancient times, signifying completeness and divine perfection. And seven was already uniquely significant in Israel as a measure of time periods without reference to outside phenomena (such as sun and moon) in the giving of the Sabbath, which occurred every seven days regardless of natural phenomena (Exodus 16; 20.10). It was God-ordered and God-controlled, and thus had to be split up into such sevenfold periods. For this idea of sevenfoldness not only applied to the Sabbath, but also to very seventh year, and to every seven times seven (the year of Yubile).
Thus they also already knew about the sabbatical year, which was to occur every seven years, and which was to be a year of blessing for all, in which the produce of the fields was made free to all, and in which the ground itself, which ‘worked’ for them, was given opportunity to rest (Exodus 23.10-11). In Exodus it had clearly been connected with the weekly Sabbath (Exodus 23.12), which was to enable the rest for their servants who worked for them (5.14; Leviticus 25.1-7). Well, he says in Deuteronomy, a further factor is added. It was now, along with every third year and sixth year, to be a blessing to the poor, and was to be a Year of Release for debtors (Deuteronomy 15.1-3, 9; compare 31.10). This, in association with the three yearly cycle for providing for the needy, would control poverty in Israel so that the poor too could have rest (14.28-15.11). So all needy people were to benefit from both three and seven year cycles within the overall care and concern of God.
Moses had by this time no doubt had ample opportunity to see the burden that debt placed on some of his people, as he acted as their mediator and judge, and he recognised that it would expand once they were in the land. Thus he made prior provision for it so that it would not destroy the unity of Israel and be an offence to Yahweh.
They already knew that their tithes of one tenth of their produce had had to be set apart for Yahweh (Leviticus 27.30-33) and had had to be made available to the Levites with a tenth part of that going to the priests (Numbers 18.21-24, 26-28). But due to the prosperity in the land this tithe was going to produce far more than the Levites could possibly need. So while their tithes were now to continue being set aside to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 12.6, 11, 17-18), in the light of the prosperity anticipated in the land and the resulting huge growth in the quantity of content in the tenth of that product, especially as a result of the fruitfulness of the land, some of this was also to be used in order for all to enjoy celebratory meals before Yahweh at the great feasts (14.22-23; 15.19-20). Furthermore every third year it was to benefit the poor and aliens as well as the Levites (Deuteronomy 14.28-29; 26.12-13). There would, of course, still be plenty left over for the Levites, who would supervise the tithes, and who were always to be remembered and not forsaken in spite of this relaxation (Deuteronomy 12.19; 14.27), but in the new situation the tenth would be far more than they would need, or than could possibly be eaten at celebratory feasts. Thus must the poor be taken into account. Similar provisions applied to firstlings (12.6, 17; 15.19-20). These provisions underlined the certainty of the abundant future that would be theirs.
This was all because such would be their prosperity that the amount produced once they were in the land would be so much greater, with the result that the tenth share, and the firstlings would be far too much for just the Levites and priests. The idea was now that all must benefit under Yahweh, but with necessary restrictions so that the Levites would not go short; so that Yahweh’s tithe might be seen as belonging to Him; and so that the holiness of the offerings may be preserved. If Deuteronomy had stood on its own the Levites would have been in a very precarious position, very much dependent on charity, for it makes no specific provision for them. But tied in with previous legislation they would be well catered for. Levites who sold their properties in the levitical cities and came to serve at the Sanctuary were also to share in the firstfruits (they would then no longer share in the crops grown around their cities) as well as retaining what they have obtained by selling their properties (18.6-8).
They knew the provisions concerning the freeing of Habiru bondmen given in Exodus 21.1-6 did they not? There the strict conditions of such contracts were laid down. Well, there was another thing to be considered. Once they were in the land and prospering they were not only to release them with their families, giving them one free year, but when they were fellow-Israelites they were to ensure that when they were released these too were liberally provided for (Deuteronomy 15.12-15, 18), and that the law applied to both men and women. And this was to be because they themselves knew what it was to be bondservants in Egypt, although the provision about their remaining with their master, if they wished to, still applied.
Habiru bondmen and bondwomen were a feature of 2nd millennium BC. They were landless peoples moving around seeking sustenance in an uncertain world. Israel would have known such in Egypt, would meet up with some in the wilderness, and would find them aplenty in Canaan. Details of such seven year Habiru contracts were also found at Nuzi. All these expansions stressed how prosperous they were all going to be once they were in the land. And as Leviticus had emphasised, once they were they must love their neighbour, and the resident alien, as they loved themselves (Leviticus 17.18, 34).
Furthermore, once they were in the land Passover and Unleavened Bread were to be celebrated, at least by the men, at the Central Sanctuary and not within their own cities. But it will be seen at once that it is assumed that they will all know the details of the Passover celebrations (16.1-6), for no details are given. This assumption also applies to the feast of Weeks and the feast of Tabernacles which were to be times of rejoicing and remembrance (16.7-15). Full details are not given of these feasts. Rather than the emphasis being on the feasts themselves, in Deuteronomy it is on the oneness and rejoicing that were to be the feature of such feasts. All were then to give as they had been blessed (16.17). Their future in the land would be bright.
So assurances of wellbeing and warnings of temptations facing them are applied continually, just as we would expect in ‘sermons’ preceding their entry into the land which were to guard their future, although for the details they had to turn back to the earlier Instruction given by Moses. For once in the land they would be scattered, and it was necessary to prepare for that eventuality.
Deuteronomy’s Covenant Form.
As we have already pointed out Deuteronomy is not only a series of speeches but is also put together in the form of a covenant. What is given is not just exhortation, it is binding requirement based on the trustworthiness of their Benefactor. Thus as we approach Deuteronomy we should see it from three points of view.
Deuteronomy As A Solemn Covenant.
Covenants made in 2nd millennium BC followed a specific pattern. They began with an introductory preamble and by naming the Overlord, and then continued with a historical prologue by describing what He had done for them. Consider Exodus 20.2, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage,” which is a brief example. This was then followed by details of His covenant requirements, and an explanation as to how the covenant was to be documented, who were to witness it, and the cursings and blessings that would come on those who obeyed or disobeyed its stipulations. Stipulations would then be laid down for the public reading of it, and it would be lodged in a Sanctuary. This pattern is clearly reflected in Deuteronomy.
Thus it has been suggested that the covenant basis of Deuteronomy can be briefly seen as follows:
This basis in all this detail is mainly as found in treaties of the second millennium BC. It also interestingly in general follows even more closely the pattern of ancient law codes of that millennium. Thus in the Code of Hammurabi we have the pattern - history, laws, document clause, blessings and cursings, as here. While it cannot be said to actually prove it, and there are also similarities with 1st millennium treaties, although not so close, this does in general support the claim of the book itself to be a 2nd millennium BC document, and thus a record of the actual words of Moses.
This covenant as set forth in Deuteronomy is based on two main speeches by Moses, each of which forms a mini-covenant, which are found in 1.6-4.44, and 4.45-29.1. But that the two are to be seen as connected comes out in that in 1.6-4.44 no detailed covenant stipulations are laid out (its ‘statutes and judgements’), although they are referred to within it as having been given ‘this day’ i.e. ‘at this time’ (4.5, 8, 40), while 5.1, 31; 6.1 onwards are clearly linked to these ‘statutes and judgments’.
This covenant form was central to Israel’s religious thought. They believed that Yahweh had chosen them, was their sovereign God, and had a special relationship with them. This was seen as incorporated in the earlier covenants with the patriarchs, and as summed up in the covenant at Sinai, a covenant made with them by their gracious sovereign God to which they were called on to respond, forty years earlier. But as can so often happen to covenants, (consider that of marriage), while often entered into eagerly, their impression can die down until there does not even appear to be a covenant relationship at all but all becomes a matter of routine. The excitement and force of the covenant can wither.
The Reason Why Yahweh Has Brought Them To This Place And Will Enable Them To Enter The Land.
God makes quite clear in Deuteronomy why He has brought them to this place and why He is encouraging them to enter the land. It is in order to receive it as His gift. This idea of the land as His gift to them comes out constantly throughout the book (e.g. 1.8, 20, 25, 35, 36, 39; 2.29; 3.18, 20; 4.1, 21, 38, 40; 5.16, 31; and often).
Firstly this is because of the promises that He made to their fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This too is stressed constantly throughout the book (1.8, 21, 35; 4.1, 31, 40; 6.3, 10, 18, 23; 7.12, 13; 8.1, 18; 9.5; 10.11; 11.9, 21; 12.1; 19.8; 26.3, 15; 27.3; 28.11; 29.13; 30.20; 31.7, 20, 21, 23;34.4).
Secondly it is because of the sinfulness and idolatry of the people who at present dwell in the land (9.4; 20.16-18 compare Genesis 15.16). He can no longer stomach their sinfulness (Leviticus 18.28; 20.22). They must therefore be got rid of at all costs for they make Him sick. This necessity for the removal of their idolatrous behaviour and all connected with it again comes out throughout the book, and explains His remorseless attitude towards the Canaanites. Israel were to be His instruments of judgment on them, and His instruments for the purification of the land.
And thirdly it is because He loves His people and has set His love on them for the sake of their fathers (7.8; 10.15). But He immediately stresses in the same context that in His love for them He expects their love and faithfulness in response (7.9). His love is covenant love and demands response to the covenant. His giving demands response from them. Those who reject His covenant do not come within His love because they have failed to accept it.
Thus They Must Learn From The Example Of Their Fathers And From The Example Of The Canaanites That Unbelief Will Result In Expulsion From The Land.
The first chapter of the book (or literally 1.6-2.1) is not only a historical description of the past, but a stark warning about the possibilities of the future. What is described later in Deuteronomy as being their future if their faith in Yahweh fails is here first of all portrayed in terms of the past, in terms of the failure of their own fathers.
For the first chapter deals with how, having received the covenant from Yahweh, their fathers had been commanded to go forward (verses 6-8), had willingly with Yahweh’s help established themselves as a populous and just nation (verses 9-18), and had proceeded to enter the land (verses 19-43), but because of unbelief and failure to respond to the covenant had been driven out of the land to wander in the wilderness (1.44-2.1). They had failed to obtain what should have been theirs. And it was not because Yahweh had failed, but because they had failed in faith and obedience.
To those who heard his words it was a grim warning. It had been relatively recent (38 years earlier), it was factual, and they had good cause to remember it. It had actually happened within living memory and it had been a shattering experience! It had sentenced them to the hardships of the wilderness. It was historical proof, that could not be forgotten, of what Yahweh would do to all who, having received His covenant and acted on it, turned back to unbelief. They had learned from it that the land belonged to Yahweh and was for covenant keeping people, and for them only, in accordance with the promise to Abraham, and that there was no place in it for unbelief. Let them remember their lesson well. Unless they entered the land with full faith in Yahweh they could expect to be ejected.
In the same way they were to learn that the reason that the Canaanites were being driven out was not because of Israel’s deserving, but because of their own evil ways (9.4). It was because they had worshipped images and false gods, with the especially degraded behaviour that resulted in their case, a degradation made clear from the excavations at Ugarit. So they had to recognise that both the Canaanites, and their own unbelieving fathers, were both driven from the land for the same reason, because of their unbelief. This land was only for covenant believers.
This is the pattern for the whole book. Israel too are now receiving the covenant from Yahweh, they too are being commanded to go forward, they too have taken the first steps in entering the land with the defeat of Sihon and Og, kings of the Amorites, they too are to establish themselves as a populous and just nation, but let them also beware. They too must recognise that if they turn to unbelief they also will be driven out of the land to wander in a ‘wilderness’ in far countries. It had happened to their fathers through unbelief (1.44). It was about to happen to the Canaanites, through Israel’s efforts because of idolatry and sinfulness (4.38). Indeed God’s hatred of this idolatry, which He warns again and again that they must get rid of and avoid at all costs, is the basic reason for the expulsion of the Canaanites. Let them be sure then that unless they remain faithful to the covenant it will also happen to them (4.27; 28.36, 63-68). Far from being declared after the event, this spoke of what was inevitable from the beginning unless they maintained their faithfulness. This was what they must recognise. The land was for the faithful. All others would be expelled.
But the objection might then be made, what about the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Surely those promises guaranteed their security in the land? Moses’ reply was a firm, ‘no’. What they did guarantee was that the land would remain theirs if they were faithful. And they also guaranteed that if, once they had been expelled from the land, there was then repentance and a turning to belief, those who believed and responded to the covenant would once again be allowed to enter the land (4.29-31; 30.2-5). That was what the promises to the patriarchs guaranteed. But they did not guarantee continual possession of the land if the people were unfaithful.
So Moses clearly saw two sides to the covenant. Firstly that its fulfilment and continued enjoyment depended on faith and obedience. And secondly that its ultimate fulfilment was guaranteed because of God’s promise to the fathers. What he says in the book revolves around and applies these factors. The two are held in tension. On the one hand there can be no place in the land for a disobedient people, but on the other there can be no ultimate failure in God’ promises to the fathers. Thus while disobedience will result in expulsion from the land, repentance and faith will result in restoration.
So while he is satisfied that the sovereignty of God will finally ensure the reception of the land and the final blessing of the world through the seed of Abraham, he wants Israel to be in no doubt that if they were to be a part in it, it must be by faith and obedience. Otherwise they would be excluded. This was all the consequence of the covenant and the receiving of the land as a gift from Yahweh once He had turned others out of it because of their sinfulness. It would only remain theirs on their being faithful to Him.
Possession of the Land.
This is a major theme on which the book concentrates. The land promised to the fathers is to be possessed. But it is to be no ordinary possession. The land is to be possessed in righteousness (6.25), that is by those who ‘live rightly’ by doing the will of Yahweh. The whole idea behind the rejection of the previous generation (chapter 1) and the driving out and slaughter of the Canaanites, was the cleansing of the land preparatory to the setting up of a holy nation there, a nation who do the will of Yahweh. Only such a nation could safely dwell in it.
This had begun with Abraham. Yahweh’s purpose for him in bringing him into the land was in order that he might multiply, possess the land and bring blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12.1-3). But this had been delayed because ‘the iniquity of the Amorites (Canaanites) was not yet full’ (Genesis 15.16). However, the iniquity of the Amorites was now full and Israel were therefore to replace them, and be there as a ‘holy nation, a kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19.6). The ‘kingdom of God’ on earth was about to be established.
So in Deuteronomy is outlined the requirements of that kingdom and the covenant that is designed to bring it about, although it is built on and assumes much of the previous legislation. His people are to possess the land and establish in it a righteous ‘kingdom’ under the overlordship of Yahweh. He will be King (melek) ‘in Yeshurun’ (‘among His righteous ones’) (33.5). All that is evil must be purged from it. But if they fail to achieve this and turn from righteousness to idols let them not fail to recognise that they too will be removed. This idea is a central theme in the book.
And in that ‘kingdom’ Yahweh will raise up prophets ‘like to Moses’ (18.15-22) and the people will no doubt desire a king (17.14-20) as had been promised in the past (Genesis 17.16, 20; 49.10; Numbers 24.17). But if so the king is not to be like the kings of the nations. He is rather to be a king under Yahweh. He is to be a king whose heart is set in God’s instruction, one from among them, who will live as they live. (Their later demand for a king went exactly opposite to this, for Samuel makes clear that the kind of king they are seeking is precisely the type that Yahweh disapproved of. Had they wanted the kind of king that Yahweh described it would only have met with His approval).
The reason that the word ‘king’ was not more often applied to Yahweh was probably because the application of the word melek (king) would be fraught with danger. The name of Ammon’s god was Melek (Molech), the god of child sacrifices, and he was seemingly worshipped throughout Canaan. But 1 Samuel 8.7 unquestionably stresses that Yahweh was seen as reigning over His people. And the idea of a suzerainty treaty emphasises that He was their suzerain Lord.
This is all included in the central covenant which forms the core of the book from 4.44-29.1. In that covenant which opens with a re-declaration of the covenant in chapter 5, is emphasised the ‘instruction’ that has already been given (4.14) as in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, with the emphasis in Deuteronomy being on its direct application to the people’s lives. And once declared it will be emphasised by calling up first the lay leadership, the elders of Israel, and then the levitical priests, the representatives of Yahweh, Who will both voice their support to it (27.1-10).
As soon then as they were in the land that covenant was to be recorded on stone with the Levites declaring twelve cursings on the twelve tribes of Israel if in secret they failed to fulfil it (27.14-26), and manifold cursings (seven sixfold curses) on them if they openly failed to fulfil it (28), while if they obeyed it, it would be the pathway to blessing, as described sixfold (the number of tribes on the mount of blessing). And one way in which all this was to be achieved was by the setting up of a central sanctuary.
The Central Sanctuary (Deuteronomy 12).
Central to the idea of the covenant and the possession of the land in righteousness was to be the Central Sanctuary. The Sanctuary contained the covenant, and above the chest (Ark) containing the covenant was ‘the propitiatory’ (the mercy seat) where covenant breaches could be dealt with and removed. The idea of this is firmly conveyed in chapter 12, where the stress is on the fact that it is to be in a ‘place’ where He chooses, and see 14.23-25; 15.20; 16.2, 6-7, 11, 15-16; 17.8, 10; 18.6; 26.2; 31.11 which demonstrates that it was assumed that the choosing would not be too far in the future. The gist of it is that rather than looking to the gods and altars of the nations which they must destroy (verses 2-4), His people must continue to look to the one sanctuary, constantly set in whatever ‘place’ that God chose as His earthly dwellingplace, to which alone they could bring their offerings and sacrifices, for there alone could mercy be found. And there they could rejoice together (verses 5-7), and bring to it their gifts and tithes (verses 17-18). It was to be ‘the place’ where all sacrifices and offerings were to be made, (verses 13-14) and where He would cause His name to dwell (verse 11).
The idea of ‘the place’ (maqom) was sanctified by history. It was to ‘the place at Shechem’ that Abraham first came on entering the land (Genesis 12.6). He then went on to ‘the place’ (the place of the altar) at Bethel (Genesis 13.3-4). Later he would go to ‘the place’ at which he was to offer his son, Isaac (Genesis 22.3, 9, 14), the place which Yahweh had chosen. Jacob would meet God at the place in which God was (Genesis 28.16) which he would name Bethel (‘house of God’ - Genesis 28.19; compare 35.7, 14-15), saying ‘how dreadful is this place’ (Genesis 28.17)
This fact that Yahweh is present where He chooses is important to their understanding of Him. They cannot make Him appear anywhere that they want by erecting images and making altars. They can only meet Him where He chooses. He had chosen to do it at Sinai. Now He has chosen to do it in the Tabernacle in the midst of the camp. In the future it will be in a suitable place chosen by Him as He wills. But there must only be one sanctuary because He is one (6.5).
That such an idea could be established while travelling together in the wilderness, with the focal point of all the tribes being on the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh and the sacred tent containing it in their midst, makes good sense. There would be less of an incentive once they were spread over a wide area facing problems in their own localities, but the fact that they did maintain their Central Sanctuary at all confirms that the idea had been so firmly implanted within them well before they actually reached the land and spread over it, that it never died out.
This is another of the major issues which arises as we study the book. While not central to the message of the book (although still very important) it has become a debating point in studies about Deuteronomy because some see ‘the place that I will choose’ as only possibly signifying Jerusalem. They thus consider that they have to date the book after the establishment of Jerusalem. However, what Deuteronomy 12 speaks of is not Jerusalem. Its stress is rather on important religious concepts on which the future of Israel would depend: the concept of the Central Sanctuary, the focal point of covenant response, and the parallel concept that He can only be met where He chooses. Thus in Deuteronomy the Dwellingplace (Tabernacle) must be set up in the place wherever He chooses where He will be among them as their Overlord, although He may vary His choice as He wishes.
The fact that He could vary His choice as He wished comes out in the following history, as well as from the fact that nothing to the contrary is stated, while Exodus 20.24 states that it can occur wherever He ‘records His Name’. The first temporary place where the Dwellingplace rested was at Gilgal. But once they were more established in the land His next choice of a place was clearly Shechem (11.29-30; 27.4-26; Joshua 8.30-35; 24.1-25). This was then later unquestionably replaced by Shiloh, which Jeremiah 7.12 speaks of as, ‘Shiloh, where I set my name at the first’, because Shiloh was more long term. Jeremiah’s words would suggest that Jeremiah actually saw Shiloh as the place at which He set His name permanently right from the beginning, once the settlement in the land was completed and they were ‘at rest’.
But Deuteronomy simply says that it should be set up ‘in the place which Yahweh your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there’ (Deuteronomy 12.5), and modern interpretations of this are numerous. However, in interpreting it we should consider 23.16 where ‘in the place which he shall choose’ can be anywhere that someone chose to go, and there was certainly no thought there that the person should be restricted to one place permanently. The thought was that he had the right of choice and was unrestricted, and could therefore select where he wanted, and was no doubt permitted to move around..
It is true that the final full use of ‘the place’ would only be when God had given them rest from all their enemies, and they dwelt in safety (12.10), but such periods of rest are constantly mentioned. They are indicated in Joshua 11.23; 23.1 and Judges 3.11, 30; 5.31; 8.28. So in fact once we read on we would naturally see this place of the full operating of the cult as being at Shiloh (Joshua 23.1-2 with 18.1, 8-10; 19.51;21.2; 22.9), where the tabernacle of the congregation was apparently permanently set up, and where it was when they found rest from all their enemies (Joshua 23.1 with 22.9), and where it still remained in the time of Eli (1 Samuel 1.3).
We can compare here Psalm 78.60 which clearly saw Shiloh as having been a chosen place of Yahweh, for the Psalmist speaks of ‘the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which He placed among men’. It was the tabernacle of Shiloh which was thus seen as the tent that He placed, and that He had chosen for His abode. As we have seen Jeremiah 7.12 also speaks of, ‘Shiloh, where I set my name at the first’. So Shiloh was therefore twice confirmed as the place where Yahweh set His name. That being so Scripture clearly identifies Shiloh as the place where Yahweh chose to place the tabernacle, chose to dwell and chose to set His name.
However there are also strong grounds for previously referring such a choice to Shechem. For according to Deuteronomy itself Mount Ebal in Shechem was specifically the appointed place where the people were to gather once they were in the land, where they were to establish the covenant blessings and curses (Deuteronomy 11.29) and where they were to offer offerings and sacrifices before Yahweh (Deuteronomy 27), as Abraham had done before them (Genesis 12.6). If then the book of Deuteronomy elsewhere speaks of the place which He chose, the place where He set His name, that surely had to be, at least in the first place, at Shechem which Deuteronomy claims that He chose.
And it was certainly there that they did gather after obtaining a foothold in the land (Joshua 8.30-35), taking the Ark with them (verse 33), and where they also gathered for Joshua’s final farewell covenant ceremony (Joshua 24.1), after they had obtained rest from all their enemies (Joshua 23.1). So this was certainly one place that they saw as a ‘place that Yahweh their God had chosen’, and named. And when we are told that there was at such times a ‘Sanctuary’ (a holy place - Joshua 24.6) there, we may well gather that the tabernacle was at that time established there. That being so ‘the place where He chose to put His name’ could well be seen as being originally at Shechem, which would tie in with Deuteronomy itself (Deuteronomy 11.29; 27.4-8), for Mount Ebal was at Shechem, followed eventually by Shiloh.
We should note in this regard that ‘the place which Yahweh your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there’ (Deuteronomy 12.5) need not necessarily indicate that only one place would ever be chosen, but that only one place would be chosen at a time. The point being made is rather that they should not set up just any altar at any place as the idolatrous did, but should rather seek God only at the place where He chose to put His name, wherever it might be at the time, at the one altar and sanctuary in contrast with the many, as He had once at Sinai. The point was that whenever the tabernacle was set up with any permanence it should be set up where God chose to dwell among His people, and not at a place to be decided on by men, and that that was consequently the only place to which men should look.
With this in mind there can really be no doubt that according to Deuteronomy 27 Mount Ebal near Shechem was one of those places, a place mentioned specifically there as specified by, and therefore chosen by, Yahweh. Indeed an altar was to be set up there, and whole burnt offerings offered and peace offerings were to be sacrificed (Deuteronomy 27.6-7 compare 12.6). This would seem to indicate that either the ‘dwellingplace’ (tabernacle) was to be there (the place where He ‘caused His name to dwell’ - 12.11) or at the very least the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh (‘to put His name there’ - 12.5; compare 2 Samuel 6.2), or more probably both. This would seem to be unquestionably the intention of whoever wrote chapters 11 and 27 in Deuteronomy.
Furthermore it is hardly conceivable that, having a portable shrine, which they were used to moving about, they should consider participating in such important ceremonies as those at Shechem without either the tabernacle or the Ark present. So the very fact that Shiloh and not Shechem later became the place where Yahweh primarily put His name suggests that Deuteronomy 27 was written before the settlement in Shiloh, and that Shiloh later came into prominence probably because it was seen as more neutral, more independent and more suitably placed as a permanent site for a Central Sanctuary than Shechem, being seen as the place which Yahweh had chosen after consulting Urim and Thummim, but always recognising that Shechem was originally such a place and hallowed by the fact.
For as we have already seen, it would be difficult indeed to deny that Shiloh was seen as the place which God chose, in view of the continual connection of the tabernacle with it, and the testimony of both the Psalmist and Jeremiah to the fact that He had caused His name to dwell there (Psalm 78.60; Jeremiah 7.12). This really seals the issue.
We may certainly then see this as later followed by Jerusalem, because that was how it came to be seen in the prophets and in the Psalms, and once Shiloh had been defiled by the Philistines a new place would clearly be required.
So once Jerusalem was established as the Central Sanctuary, something which in fact took a considerable time, well into the reign of Solomon, that too was seen as the place where Yahweh had caused His name to dwell. David set His name there when he took into it ‘the Ark of God whose name is called by the name of Yahweh of Hosts who dwells between the cherubim’ (2 Samuel 6.2) and set it up in a special tent (2 Samuel 6.17; 2 Chronicles 1.4). But even so the Tabernacle itself, which had been at Nob, was next at Hebron and then at Gibeon. It was Solomon who later brought the Tabernacle (1 Kings 8.4; 1 Chronicles 5.5) which had been at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 1.13), and established it in his temple in Jerusalem. Here then were a number of places which Yahweh chose one after the other, for there is never any suggestion that they were not. The choice was probably confirmed by means of the Urim and Thummim, or by lot.
Thus Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem, together with Nob, Hebron and Gibeon, all had valid claims to be the place to which God chose to put His name, and indeed all were so in their time in their own way (as had been Sinai).
(Some have emphasised the definite article in ‘the place’, but we must beware of over emphasising it. We should rather take into account that the definite article in Hebrew does not always have the force that it has in English. It does not necessarily in this case signify one place. Rather it can mean simply ‘the one I am talking about’ at any particular time. However, if we do seek to emphasise the article, ‘the place’ contrasts with using many places in use at the same time, rather than meaning that God cannot change His Dwellingplace.).
It may be wise at this point to consider in more detail the question of the Central Sanctuary and its history according to the records we have, in order to consolidate this point, for there is much misunderstanding about it.
The Concept of the Central Sanctuary and The One Place of Sacrifice.
Important for the future of Israel at the time of Moses, and of great importance in interpreting the book of Deuteronomy, was the concept of the Central Sanctuary. This concept was at the heart of their tribal system, as it was of others in what came to be called amphictyonies (groups of tribes united by a central sanctuary), and it was intended to be a means of keeping their religion pure, and of maintaining the unity of the tribes.
To this Sanctuary as the earthly ‘Dwellingplace’ (mishkan, from shakan ‘to dwell’ - translated in EVV also as ‘tabernacle’) of Yahweh, and as the depositary of the covenant (Exodus 25.21 - thus the Ark is also called ‘the Ark of the Testimony’) and final arbiter of the tribes, all looked, and three times a year they were to gather at the Central Sanctuary at their regular religious feasts, agricultural feasts which had in the main been observed for centuries, but which had been expanded and given new meanings, in order to worship Yahweh, to renew the Sinai covenant, to hear it read and expounded, to feast together and to decide on major matters concerning tribal relationships (Exodus 23.14; Deuteronomy 16.16). Whenever matters of major import arose which affected all the tribes it was through the Central Sanctuary with its High Priest that consultation and action could take place.
While they were still moving on together in the wilderness this posed no problems. The Tabernacle was there among them, central to the camp, protected by the priests and Levites, remote yet approachable, a focal point for all. To it they brought their sacrifices, and round it they gathered for worship, to consult Yahweh and to settle issues between them. But while they were in the wilderness, although very valuable for focusing their worship, it was not quite so necessary for unity, for they were encamped together. However, once they had dispersed within the land it would be even more necessary, both in order to maintain their oneness under Yahweh and to maintain the purity of their worship, and in order to ensure the maintenance of the covenant.
This is not to say that the requirements concerning it were always rigidly observed. In times of apostasy only the faithful would gather there, and many events, as well as apathy, could tend to make attendance impossible. Such a rise and fall in interest in the covenant, and thus in the Central Sanctuary, is reflected in the Book of Judges. But that it did continue in even the worst times, and even served as a binding force, is evidenced by the fact that Israel maintained its semblance of unity, and, to some extent at least, did continually respond to the call to arms, and by the other fact that it regularly emerges as being there. And the emphasis on it as the one place of sacrifice should, if observed, have prevented the possibility of turning after other gods.
It is further of significance that until the time of David no offerings or sacrifices are ever said to be legitimately made in any other place unless there was a clear and specific indication of Yahweh’s presence there, either 1). Through the presence of the Tabernacle, His ‘dwellingplace’; 2). Through the presence of His Ark, His chariot throne; or 3). Through a specific theophany when He was clearly present in person. The only exception to this was the unique situation when the tabernacle was destroyed, the Ark was out of action, and the faith of Israel rested on a ‘holy child’ of the Tabernacle (Samuel) who established a ‘temporary’ Central Sanctuary to which all could come, because the true Tabernacle had been rendered inoperative.
Some such centralising activity must already have taken place in Egypt, at least to a certain extent, although we know little of their worship there. While Jacob was alive he would be the focal point of unity. But on his death, unless they continued to worship at the one altar which he had set up as father of the clans, it would probably more be external pressure that bound them together, seemingly with a deliberate gathering together of the ‘elders’, the leadership of the tribes. For the children of Israel were already seen as one people there, partly, if loosely, united under ‘the elders’, when Moses and Aaron called them together (Exodus 3.16), and the ease with which the elders worked together in comparative unison suggests their previous cooperation in the past. Something had held them together, which probably included a common faith in the God of their fathers and a sense of brotherhood arising from their having been one family (with their households) in Canaan, and they are portrayed there as acting together in comparative unison, while Pharaoh recognised whom Moses had in mind when he spoke of ‘the children of Israel’ and could himself speak of them as ‘Israel’ (Exodus 5.1-2). Furthermore they were bound together by the emergency.
But if they were ever to become a permanent nation some means of permanently cementing and maintaining this unity would have to be found, especially in view of the mixed multitude who joined with them (Exodus 12.38) and the way in which they would be spread out through the land. And this was found in the Central Sanctuary.
In Israel this Central Sanctuary was the Tent of Meeting, where God could be met up with, the ‘Tabernacle of the gathering together of the congregation’. Similar portable pavilions were known in Egypt long before the time of Moses, and portable shrines are also known from elsewhere. A tent shrine has been discovered at Timnah in the Negeb, the region of ancient Edom, and there are even hints of such in Scripture, for Oholibamah means ‘tent of the high place’ (used of a Hivite -Genesis 36.5, 14, 18; and of an Edomite - Genesis 36.41). Thus a tent shrine was not unique. What was unique was its significance. The main word for Tabernacle means ‘dwellingplace’, and Israel’s tent was seen as the earthly dwellingplace of Yahweh, their Creator and covenant-keeping God. It was the place where the covenant was preserved and in which He had His Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh. There, present between the cherubim, He could be met with, and there He could be consulted, and from there He spoke to Moses (Numbers 7.89) and there forgiveness for breaches of the covenant could be obtained. The difference between Israel and other nations was that Israel were to look to no other.
Indeed had it not been for the unifying force of ‘the Priest’ and the Central Sanctuary it is difficult to see how such a conglomerate people would have remained as ‘one people’ given the circumstances under which they settled in the land, divided up and separated from each other by the terrain and by the peoples that they had failed to drive out. They had no king to unify them. But they did have the High Priest, and they did have the ‘dwellingplace’ (the Tabernacle).
Every nation had its High Priest, and if Israel had not had one they would have been unique. He was known as ‘the Priest’. But what was unique in Israel was not the High priesthood, but the nature of the High Priesthood, with its high moral tone because of the commandments, and its status as representative of their invisible God-King. And the one Sanctuary itself arose from the fact that they worshipped only one God. Not for them gods who could be split up into many identities. While He could be prayed to anywhere, there was only one place where He could be met up with and where sacrifices could be offered.
The importance of the Central Sanctuary, and of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh which was its central focal point, comes out constantly in their future history, and helps to explain the first struggles as to who should control both (Number 16-17). To deny the existence of some kind of Tabernacle in the wilderness would be incredible if we accept the existence of the Ark. The Ark would necessarily have its own ornate tent. And it is made clear that all communication with Yahweh took place at ‘the door of the Tent’. The Ark was too holy to be approached direct except by the most holy, and even by them within strict limits. It was a chest which contained within it the covenant tablets, a symbol of how they were bound to Yahweh, and over which was the ‘propitiatory’, the place from which God dispensed mercy. And because it was so sacred it was remote. Anyone who touched it died.
Some central object of worship would have been essential in the case of the people who left Egypt with Moses. The differing peoples making up the group that left Egypt, for it included a mixed multitude (Exodus 12.38), would have had different objects of veneration. It would thus have been necessary for the sake of moulding them into one people that these be replaced by something even more holy, and something distinct from what they venerated. And this was accomplished in the holy Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, mainly hidden but known to all, and brought out at times of crisis, which contained the tablets of the covenant. It represented the presence of Yahweh between the cherubim, and His covenant with them, as One Who was invisible except for in cloud and fire, but was nevertheless real. Its isolation in the Great Tent, the Tent itself patterned on well known sanctuaries with its sacred chamber and ante-chamber, would increase its mystery.
Interestingly gold overlain wooden chests are known in the Ancient Near East from before the time of Moses, and the similar idea of sacred chests has been known among the Arabs, although in neither case containing within them covenant records, or having on their lids the forms of cherubim.
It was the Ark that led the people across the Jordan under the jurisdiction of the priests who alone could bear it when it was uncovered and moved into action (Joshua 3). The Ark alone is mentioned at this time because that alone reflected the living presence of Yahweh with them while on the march. But it would then be settled in the Tabernacle, in His dwellingplace in Gilgal (Joshua 4.19), where also the people were circumcised and the Passover was celebrated (Joshua 5.2-11). It is probable that the trial of Achan was carried out at the door of the Tabernacle through the Urim and Thummim (Joshua 7.16-18). That explains the step by step approach of the questioning.
As soon as was possible after entry into the land Joshua celebrated their foothold in the land with a covenant ceremony at Shechem with the Ark as its central focal point (Joshua 8.30-35). This was in fulfilment of Deuteronomy 27 (see Joshua 8.31, 33), following in the path of Abraham (Genesis 12.6). The aim of this ceremony at Shechem in Joshua 8 was probably partly with the purpose of incorporating Shechemite worshippers of Yahweh within the covenant. The Amarna letters reveal that the Shechemites were not ‘Canaanites’ in the same way as other Canaanites. They indeed probably included among them descendants of some who had been left behind to look after Jacob’s property when he moved on after the slaughter of the Shechemites (Genesis 34), and they would see themselves as ‘brothers’ of Israel. It is noteworthy that in the book of Joshua, a book of continual conflicts, no mention is ever made of conflict in the area around Shechem. Thus it is quite feasible that as worshippers of ‘the Lord of the Covenant’ (baal-berith) they proclaimed themselves worshippers of Yahweh. If so, that this was then later perverted into full blown worship of Baal as Baal-berith comes out in Judges 8.33; 9.4. But there was always a danger of mixing Yahweh up with Baal when faith grew weak, for Yahweh could be called Baali, ‘my Lord’ (Hosea 2.16), and for the sinful the practises of Baal were more palatable and less demanding. Baal would be whatever you wanted him to be.
Nothing would have been more impressive to the Shechemites in such a circumstance than the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, the erection of the magnificent Tabernacle of Yahweh and the building of an altar within the bronze altar framework (we must remember that at this stage the moving of the Tabernacle was something that they had constantly engaged in and never mentioned). On the other hand the Tabernacle is not mentioned, so that the building of the altar may have been justified simply by the presence of the Ark indicating that Yahweh was there, ‘recording His name’ (Exodus 20.24-25). But it would still require a protective tent.
An interesting point here is the bold declaration of their ‘building an altar’ and ‘making offerings and sacrifices’ without mentioning either Ark or Tabernacle (verses 30-31). The presence of the Ark is so assumed that it is only the following ceremony, where it is mentioned (verse 32) as though its presence was assumed from the beginning, that makes us aware that the Ark is there. The writer seemingly assumed that all would know that at least the Ark must be there if offerings and sacrifices were made.
So whether the Tabernacle was taken to Shechem for the building of the altar on Mount Ebal we are not told (Joshua 8.30), but the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh was clearly taken there by the ‘levitical priests’ as the focal point of the covenant (Joshua 8.33), for the Ark was the symbol of the warrior King (Numbers 10.35).
It is interesting that the building of the particular altar here is specifically justified in terms of Exodus 20.24-25 (verse 31). This might be because the bronze altar of whole burnt offering was but an outward shell, which would have been destroyed if a fire had been lit directly in it, (it was made of timber and bronze), and thus had to have stones and earth built up inside it to form an altar on which a large fire could burn safely, (thus the ‘building’ of the altar); or it might suggest that the tabernacle and the bronze altar were not there, but that they were aware that the building of this altar had therefore to be specifically justified from Yahweh’s laws. Either way they clearly considered that it was a place where He had recorded His Name.
So verse 31 may indicate the consciousness of the fact that this altar with its sacrifices was unusual, an example of building an altar where Yahweh recorded His name (Exodus 20.24-25). Indeed it was probably their understanding that where the Ark rested Yahweh recorded His name, and that therefore the presence of the Ark at that place justified a temporary altar. This comes out from 2 Samuel 6.2 where the Ark is described as, ‘the Ark of God which is called by the Name, even the name of Yahweh of hosts, Who sits on the cherubim’.
The tabernacle seems to have remained at Gilgal in the early days while they were establishing themselves in the land, but it is probably found at Shechem in chapter 24.26. It may therefore not have remained in one permanent place at this stage because of the unsettled state of things, but have moved over the years between Gilgal, Shechem and Shiloh, until it finally settled at Shiloh.
In Joshua 9 the inhabitants of Gibeon were made hewers of wood and drawers of water, ‘for the altar of Yahweh, even to this day, in the place which He should choose’ (Joshua 9.27). All this is confirmation, direct and indirect, of the idea of one Central Sanctuary, chosen by Yahweh, and of the one altar, with any others being temporary exceptions. There was one altar of Yahweh, of which other temporary ‘authorised’ altars were a reflection, only permitted in the presence of the Ark or by a theophany, simply because such altars temporarily stood in the place of the one altar because Yahweh was patently there. The tabernacle was God’s dwellingplace, the Ark (or perhaps the top of the Ark) was His chariot throne (2 Samuel 22.11), a theophany was a direct revelation of Himself, thus in each case an altar could be set up for the occasion because Yahweh was personally there, but the only permanent altar was in the precincts of the Tabernacle, for that was His earthly home. All this stressed His oneness.
The general reference to ‘the place which He should choose -- to put His name there’ (as in Deuteronomy 12.5, 11, 13) seems to suggest that that place was not necessarily only one place, any more than ‘in all places where I record My name’ (Exodus 20.24) was one place. It was the place where Yahweh chose to be at any particular time, the ‘place that He chose’, in contrast with the places that men chose in their idolatrous worship where the gods regularly had no say. Such altars could be set up anywhere in any ‘place’, because the gods were intermingled with nature. The main point is therefore that with Yahweh’s ‘place’ the choice was not to be man’s, but Yahweh’s. Worship was to be at that place and no other, and its movement was mainly limited by the movement of the Tabernacle, although seemingly it could be temporarily determined by the presence of the Ark.
So in the end it was the Tabernacle of Yahweh, together with the altar of Yahweh and the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, that demonstrated that chosen place. It could be established at any place that He chose, and for a good long time its permanent basis was at Shiloh. That was the place that He chose until, ‘He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men’ (Psalm 78.60). But in no case does it justify plural altars in continual permanent use.
Meanwhile, although in the beginning period of conquest Joshua and his men regularly returned to Gilgal (Joshua 10.6, 15, 43), which was presumably where the Central Sanctuary was originally set up, or to which it continually returned, by Joshua 19.51 it had been removed to Shiloh, and there the inheritances were divided for an inheritance by lot ‘before Yahweh at the door of the tent of meeting’. For Shiloh see also Joshua 18.1, 8-10; 19,51; 21.2; 22.9, 12 where it was still the focal point of Israel. That once finally settled in the land Shiloh became its permanent, established resting place is clearly established. What caused the transfer of thought from Shechem to Shiloh we do not know, but it may well have been through the Urim and Thummim (no important decision like that would have been made without either that or a special revelation) and to make it more central.
Furthermore when the Reubenites, Gadites and half tribe of Manasseh built a memorial altar the situation was considered sufficiently serious to call the tribes together at Shiloh in order to prevent it, looking on it as rebellion against Yahweh and a turning away from following Him (Joshua 22.12). And they called on them, if they were dissatisfied with where they were, to come across the Jordan and settle in the land ‘wherein the Tabernacle of Yahweh dwells’ (Joshua 22.19). But under no circumstances were they to build an altar (for sacrifice) ‘besides the altar of Yahweh our God’ (Joshua 22.19). Clearly loyalty to the Central Sanctuary at Shiloh and its Ark and its one altar was seen as of paramount importance. The reply came that it was a memorial altar, not one for offerings and sacrifices to be burned on (Joshua 22.23, 26, 28, 29). They recognised for that purpose only ‘the altar of Yahweh our God which is before His Tabernacle’ (Joshua 22.29).
In Joshua 24 Joshua calls all the tribes together at Shechem where they ‘presented themselves before God’ (24.1). And at that place there was a renewal of covenant, and Joshua wrote a record ‘in the book of the instruction of God’ (24.26), and took a great stone and set it up there under an oak that was ‘by the sanctuary of Yahweh’ (24.26). To ‘present oneself before God’ was to do so at the door of the Tabernacle (compare Leviticus 16.7). Thus the probability is that the Tabernacle and brazen altar were brought there, (both were portable and Shiloh was not far away and there was a direct route), although it may be that only the Ark was taken there. It is true that nothing is specifically said about the Tabernacle, or about the Ark, but then that is true of an altar and sacrifices. The non-mention of any of these need not, however, mean that they were not there, or were not offered, only that their presence and their happening was assumed. However, unless the Tabernacle was there the implication must be that there were no offerings and sacrifices, or certainly that there were no grounds for us thinking that there were.
The reason for the setting up of the stone was as a permanent reminder which suggests that no permanent altar was erected there to be seen as a permanent feature, which ties in with it having been erected in the outer case of the brazen altar, or with one not being erected at all. There are no particular grounds for suggesting that this ‘sanctuary’ (holy place) of Yahweh was any other than the Tabernacle (even though no altar and no sacrifices are mentioned), although it is true that it might simply have been a place made ‘holy’ by past associations (Genesis 33.18-20). If that be the case we may equally see it as a place where no offerings and sacrifices took place. But if it was seen as partly fulfilling Deuteronomy 27 (already fulfilled in Joshua 8.30-35) that could not be so.
Thus all through the book of Joshua loyalty to the Central Sanctuary is paramount, either through its own presence or the presence of the Ark, although it is possible, but by no means certain, that an altar was allowed to be built at Shechem earlier at the first visit (8.30), as long as it was built in the presence of the Ark and in accordance with Exodus 20.24-25, for a particular ceremony which was at Yahweh’s behest, and was in conjunction with the presence of the Ark for a specific act of worship.
In Judges 1.1, after the death of Joshua, the children of Israel came to enquire of Yahweh. This suggests that they came to ‘the Priest’ at the door of the Tabernacle, who would use the Urim and Thummim for the purpose. The result in the long run, after much heartache, was victory, but when after a number of years they finally conquered the inhabitants of the land whom they had been unable to defeat at first, they disobeyed Yahweh and did not drive them out.
So in Judges 2 the Angel of Yahweh, Whose words reveal that He is Yahweh, ‘came up from Gilgal to Bochim’. He had revealed Himself at Gilgal (Joshua 5.13-15). Now He revealed Himself at Bochim. This (which may have been visually portrayed by the movement of the pillar of cloud and fire) may suggest that the Tabernacle was now set up at Bochim. There He castigated them for not having, after their victory, driven out the inhabitants of the land, nor having destroyed their altars (2.2-3).
But ‘Bochim’ may have been either at Shiloh or at Shechem, for Bochim (‘weeping’) was not so much a place name, but a name given there and then because of the weeping that took place there because of their repentance. And there they sacrificed to Yahweh, we may presume at the door of the Tabernacle. There is never any suggestion that sacrifices were made to Yahweh anywhere else, except possibly before the Ark, and the movement of the Angel of Yahweh suggests the movement of the Tabernacle. The criticism levelled against them is that they sacrificed to other gods because they had not thrown down the altars of these other gods. The command had been that they be destroyed.
It is true that mention is made of graven images in Judges 3.19 but there is no indication of what the images represented. They were probably simply ancient landmarks from the past.
It is significant that in the story of Deborah there is no mention of sacrificing. In view of the great victory and the godliness of Deborah we might have expected such a reference if it had been permitted, but she was judge and prophetess, not priest. It would seem that the idea of such offerings and sacrifices never entered her head. We are, however, told of the calling together of the tribes from far and wide (5.14-23), and that call would normally go from the Central Sanctuary. The thanksgiving offerings would be offered when the tribes met up at the Central Sanctuary.
When Gideon made an offering it was at the direct command of Yahweh and Yahweh was Himself there, and it was He Who caused it to be burned with fire (6.19-21). Yahweh acted as His own priest. Gideon built no altar there. However, he did build one later and called it ‘Yahweh is peace’. It stood there permanently and there is no reason to doubt that it was a memorial altar, established as a blow in the face to Baalism. He is not said to have offered sacrifices there (Judges 6.24). Even so it was at a place where Yahweh had recorded His name, revealing His presence there.
The altar that Gideon did build and sacrifice on, using the wood from the Asherah image, was again at the direct command of Yahweh (Judges 6.26), in accordance with Exodus 20.24-25, and was particular for the occasion. It was because Yahweh had revealed Himself as there through a theophany. It was a riposte against the altar of Baal which dominated the neighbourhood. Whether he had a local priest connected with his family to help him we do not know, but the circumstances were exceptional, specifically commanded by God at a theophany, and in accord with His direct instructions. There may have been no loyal priests in the area, and Yahweh had the right to alter His own instructions. We cannot argue with a theophany, or draw general conclusions from it.
Later he called up the tribes and they gathered to him. This would require some authority to whom the tribes would listen which may suggest he went to the Central Sanctuary for help, which would explain why the tribes responded to him. ‘Blowing the ram’s horn’ (Judges 6.34, compare 3.27) may signify exactly that. But there is no other mention of him sacrificing, and his sin was rather to set up an ephod, probably used to enquire at as a substitute for going to the Central Sanctuary for guidance from Yahweh (Judges 8.27 compare 1 Samuel 23.9; 30.7). In Exodus 28 the ephod was a priestly garment which bore the names of the children of Israel, to which was attached the breastpouch which contained the Urim and Thummim. It regularly indicated high religious status (1 Samuel 14.3). Thus here it was seemingly some symbol through which to supposedly consult Yahweh. But it was not approved of.
The ‘offering up as a burnt offering’ by Jephthah of his daughter (if it was actually carried out in practise and not a symbolic offering made at the Tabernacle when she was dedicated to lifelong service at the Tabernacle while a lamb was offered in her place, as with Isaac) was clearly not in accord with Yahweh’s teaching and cannot thus be used as an example of anything. We would not expect such an offering to be made at the Central Sanctuary if it was a human sacrifice. It would not have been countenanced.
Manoah’s offering of a whole burnt offering was again at the direct command of Yahweh in a theophany (Yahweh was there) and it was offered on a rock (13.16, 19). This use of a rock may possibly be seen as demonstrating that there was no local altar to Yahweh. It certainly emphasises the temporary nature of ‘the altar’.
One thing that stands out in all this is the lack of mention of spontaneous sacrifices to Yahweh by the people in general. While such sacrificing to other gods is mentioned, there is silence as to sacrifices to Yahweh, apart from the examples given above which were at the specific command of Yahweh. Silence is, of course, a dangerous two-edged weapon, but it at least serves to demonstrate that such sacrifices away from the Ark and the Tabernacle are nowhere spoken of as positively sanctioned or allowed, or even stated to be engaged in. The whole of their religious tradition points to sacrifices being made only at the Tabernacle, except when the Ark was on the move or when there was a unique theophany. The otherwise total silence cannot be discounted.
We now come to the final incidents in Judges which throw more light on the matter.
In chapter 17 a foolish and unscrupulous young man named Micah, as a result of his grave misdeeds and subsequent deep penitence, made a graven image and a molten image from silver dedicated to Yahweh, the images themselves being in disobedience to the commandments. He ‘had a house of God’, made an ephod and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons as priests. It would seem that he was aping his own idea of the Tabernacle. The images were not said to be of Yahweh Himself. Possibly, as with Jeroboam later, he made a silver calf which in some way represented Yahweh, possibly being seen as His throne, for gods are known to have used bulls as their thrones. But the paraphernalia indicates a mixture with false worship.
The writer expresses his view of the situation by immediately adding the comment, ‘in those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes’ (17.6). Many see this as signifying that this was written when there was a king in the fullest sense, and therefore not before the time of Saul. But there are alternative possibilities.
So the thought of being ‘kingless’ may simply indicate a lack of general authority. However, while the question is debatable, his statement certainly demonstrates that the writer regarded Micah’s actions as lawless. This whole process cannot therefore be looked on as legitimate, or even as common in Israel.
In this regard it is interesting and significant that while archaeology has thrown up a multitude of images of Baal throughout Canaan, there are comparatively few, if any, that could be seen as representing Yahweh. In view of man’s propensity for religious artefacts this can only be seen as surprising. It demonstrates how strictly the law against such images was observed, even at the most rebellious times.
It should be noted that Micah’s actions were so unusual that when revealed they drew the attention of the leaders of the tribe of Dan when they were moving to a new homeland. It is significant in this regard that the tribe themselves clearly did not have such images, nor a priest of their own, even though they knew that they were moving outside the range of the orthodox priesthood. It is clear too that they still did not know how they could obtain paraphernalia for worshipping Yahweh until they came across Micah. It seemed to them a gift from Heaven. To suggest therefore that this was the norm in Israel is to go against the evidence.
When a travelling Levite arrived and sought hospitality Micah seized on the opportunity to appoint him as his priest, declaring ‘Now I know that Yahweh will do me good, seeing I have a Levite as my priest’. By this he demonstrated that he was aware that his set up was contrary to the law. He was clearly aware that his present arrangement was unsatisfactory. This in itself condemned him. If he knew that he should not have a non-Levite as his priest, why had he appointed his son? In spite of his vague religious ideas he clearly knew that having his son as a priest, which would have been acceptable in patriarchal days, was now not quite sufficient. And this opportunity to have someone who was actually connected with the Central Sanctuary must have seemed like a Godsend. That he should at least have a Levite, who while not necessarily the perfect solution was at least a step up, clearly thrilled him. It confirms at this date the special status of Levites religiously speaking, but it does not indicate that Levites could act as priests. To Micah the Levite was simply one step up from the layman. Note that it is stressed in the story that this Levite was unscrupulous. (One point emphasised here is that Micah was aware of the lack in his son’s priesthood. Up to that point he had simply made do. He was transparently doing his own thing. He was clearly therefore not scrupulous about keeping the law, whatever it might be).
One of the responsibilities of Levites was to make clear the law of Yahweh, so we can understand why Micah, in his careless attitude towards religious matters, (he probably only had a very vague idea of what God’s law required), considered that this was one step up from his son. Here was an expert, a man set apart by God to serve the sanctuary, and he could have him for his own private sanctuary! But at this time the Levites, in the lack of organisation in those days, were probably not benefiting from a full allocation of tithes due to the lawlessness of the days, and the travelling Levites as opposed to those who remained in the levitical cities were probably in poverty. Thus this Levite, instead of admonishing him, accepted the position. As we discover later he too was unscrupulous. Note that he was consecrated by Micah. ‘Became his priest’ may well be sardonic.
It is clear to anyone not out to prove a point that this whole story is riddled with unscrupulousness, expediency, and religious error. The command not to make graven and molten images was basic to the covenant, had been specifically condemned in the incident of the golden calf (which no one would have invented, especially as related to Aaron, if it had not happened), and was constantly repeated. The setting up of his own house of God was seen as unusual enough to draw the attention of a large section of a major tribe, who had no images of their own, nor a priest of their own (it is clear that they had no priest among them, indicating that no reputable priest would remove so far from the Central Sanctuary), suggesting that they had had nowhere else that they could look. He is not to be looked on as one among many who did these things.
We may, however, well set his behaviour down to ignorance rather than total and flagrant rebellion, and as arising from the depth of his conviction of sin. He could not live with himself and was going to extremes to pacify his own conscience. People will do strange things in order to soothe their consciences. It was a time when the law was not being applied strictly and when men to some extent followed their own course in religious matters. Thus many turned to Baal (‘Lord’), possibly even loosely identifying him with Yahweh. (That Yahweh was in the early days referred to as ‘Baal’ (‘Lord’ - compare Hosea 2.16), which would have caused confusion, comes out in the early names which include Baal, e.g. Jerubbaal (Judges 7.1; 8.29, 35); Eshbaal, Saul’s son (1 Chronicles 9.39), altered to Ishbosheth later (2 Samuel 2.10). And Meribbaal, Saul’s grandson (1 Corinthians 8.34; 9.40), whose name was changed later to Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9.6). Bosheth means ‘shame’. Compare Hosea 2.16). Such names did not appear later, presumably because of the confusion. Furthermore if he was burdened in his own conscience because of his abominable behaviour towards his own mother we can understand why he went to such extremes. He was trying to make up for it by excessive ‘godliness’ based on ignorance, by setting up his own holy place That he was an innovator comes out in the sequel.
The tribe of Dan are depicted as not having been able to take over the lot that had been allocated to them in the land (18.1 compare 1.34-35). A large section of them therefore decided to desert their inheritance. (How large in comparison with the whole we do not know, but many Danites remained behind). And while seeking a new place to which to move outside the allocated areas their spies chanced on Micah’s house and lodged there. They actually knew the Levite (17.3). 18.30 in fact informs us that he was Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses. He thus had important connections and was seemingly well known. The narrator does not inform us of this at the beginning presumably because he considered that it was a shame on Israel, and on Moses, that this man behaved in this way. The non-naming of people in the Old Testament often seems to result from an attempt to indicate their worthlessness.
So when this large section of the tribe moved from Danite territory to Laish they passed by Micah’s house and appropriated his priest and his images, his ephod and his teraphim, first by stealth, and then by force, delighted to find something that they knew to be missing in their venture. It will be noted how many of the commandments were being broken at this stage. That regarding images, that regarding theft, that regarding threatened murder, that regarding covetousness, and even that regarding honouring father and mother, for it had been stressed that he treated the young Levite as his son (17.11). That is, at least half of the commandments had been broken, a whole tabletful. They had also deserted their allotted inheritance. There is no way in which we can depict this whole account as being other than riddled with gross disobedience to the covenant, even in the light of the times. All the sins are piled up on each other. To suggest that Dan are simply doing innocently what later generations would condemn is to ignore the facts. From the moment of deserting their inheritance they were depicted as being totally unscrupulous and in the wrong in all that they did.
Arriving at Laish, and taking it, they set up the image and established the Levite as priest. As a descendant of Moses, and as a Levite connected therefore to the family of Aaron (Moses was Aaron’s brother), they no doubt felt he was the next best thing to a Levitical priest of the family of Aaron, (Moses had had the right of priesthood) and no legitimate priest would have followed them out of the allotted territories away from the Central Sanctuary. They had probably tried to tempt one and had failed (another confirmation that priests did not think that they could set up altars just anywhere). This image was set up ‘all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh’. Thus it is deliberately contrasted with the one Central Sanctuary in a way that suggests disapproval. The house of God was at Shiloh, and they had set up this false one which was no house of God (for that was at Shiloh). This emphasises that it was contrary to the conception of the Central Sanctuary. (It also demonstrates that Micah’s house of God was equally condemned). The ‘time of the captivity of the land’ probably refers to the overrunning of it by the Philistines (compare 13.1; 1 Samuel 4.10-11) which was also the time when Shiloh ceased to be the Central Sanctuary (Jeremiah 7.12-14; 26.6, 9). Such as it is, archaeological evidence supports this situation.
The next incident in Judges is in respect of a Levite who was travelling some distance to ‘the residence of Yahweh’ (19.18). This confirms that in general Israel recognised but one ‘house’ (bayith - residence) of Yahweh, the Central Sanctuary. As he lodged in Gibeah his concubine was viciously multi-raped with public approbation (Judges 19). So he acted swiftly, cut up her body and sent parts to the twelve tribes together with a message explaining the purpose of his action. It was a call to the tribes to come before Yahweh and pass their judgment and avenge her death. It was a gruesome variation on the way that the tribes were seemingly summoned by an animal cut up so that its body parts might be a reminder of the fact that not to respond to the covenant would be to be deserving of death (see 1 Samuel 11.7).
This spurred the tribes to action and ‘all the children of Israel -- the congregation, was gathered as one man, from Dan even to Beersheba with the land of Gilead, to Yahweh at Mizpah’ (Judges 20.1). Whether this was at a time of festal gathering we do not know, but it does seem probable that they took such an opportunity, although it is also clear that they had come to hear the Levite’s charges against Gibeah of Benjamin which had been brought before them in such a vivid manner. This would explain why Benjamin were not present even though they had been notified (20.3) (they would also have received a body part). Benjamin had closed ranks behind Gibeah. Note how every part of the land is specifically included, north (Dan), south (Beersheba) and Transjordan (Gilead), and it is stressed that the chiefs of all the tribes were present together with four hundred military units. Thus it would appear that the Central Sanctuary was at this stage at Mizpah, otherwise why did they not gather at Shiloh? Unless of course this Mizpah (‘watchtower’) was adjacent to Shiloh, which is quite possible. Mizpah might well have been a gatheringplace near Shiloh. A wide area would be needed. The Levite had come to ‘the house of Yahweh’ as he had said was his intention, although in very different circumstances from his original intention
This picture of the whole of Israel acting in unison is a confirmation of the strength of the concept of the Central Sanctuary. What else but a sacred gathering point could have brought together such a gathering of disparate tribes? But they came because the covenant had been broken in such a way that it brought a curse on Israel, as witness the pieces of the dead woman. And this sin had been committed against a servant of Yahweh, on his way to serve at the Central Sanctuary. In the end they knew that they were responsible towards Yahweh and His covenant. They had no alternative but to act. Gross and shameful sin had been committed against Yahweh. But Benjamin refused to acknowledge the guilt of Gibeah and the result was seen to be so serious that it resulted in civil war. Benjamin were in breach of the sacred covenant.
In order to aid in the carrying forward of operations the Ark, and possibly the tabernacle, was removed to Bethel, for it was there that they came to consult the Urim and the Thummim, through the High Priest. They ‘asked counsel of God’ and ‘Yahweh’ replied. Then after being defeated they returned and ‘wept before Yahweh until the evening’, and again consulted Him and received His reply, again presumably through the Urim and Thummim. After a second defeat they ‘came to Bethel and wept, and sat there before Yahweh -- and they offered whole burnt offerings and peace offerings before Yahweh’ (20.26). And they again enquired of Yahweh (20.27a). And it is at this point that it is explained that ‘the Ark of the Covenant of God was there in those days’ (20.27b). This should not surprise us. The Ark was regularly brought to where there was a holy war. It explains how they could come ‘before Yahweh’.
Furthermore we are told that ‘Phinehas, the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron, stood before it in those days’ (20.28), in other words he was ‘the Priest’. Thus if an altar was built as opposed to the presence of the Tabernacle it was sanctioned by the presence of the Ark, but only while the Ark was there and if built in accordance with Exodus 20.24-25.
But while the Tabernacle is not mentioned every Israelite would know that where the Ark went the Tabernacle would normally surely go, and that ‘enquiries of Yahweh’, and weeping ‘before Yahweh’, and the offering of whole burnt offerings and peace offerings, indicated that it was before the door of the Tent of meeting, unless, and we do not know whether this was so, in times of holy war the Ark stood in for the Tabernacle on the front line. This is finally confirmed by the presence of Phinehas, ‘the Priest’, and the fact that the enquiries are again here addressed to Yahweh, this time specifically through him. The result was total defeat for Benjamin and a process of elimination (20.48) until only six military units, ‘six hundred men’ were left who had not fled the country.
This then caused the people to return to the Central Sanctuary at Bethel because they suddenly realised that a whole tribe was to be blotted out of Israel (21.2-3). They ‘built there an altar and offered whole burnt offerings and peace offerings’ (21.4). We know that at the very least the Ark was there (20.27b), and we are probably to see the Tabernacle as there also, for the ‘building of the altar’ probably refers to using the brazen altar (which was in itself only a shell) and building up in it the stones and earth required to make it usable as an altar. On the other hand Bethel may alternately have been seen as one place where Yahweh had recorded His name because of the presence of the Ark so that an earthen altar or one of unhewn stones could be used.
Everything having been settled the Central Sanctuary seemingly returned to Shiloh (21.12). Shiloh was recognised as the place of the Central Sanctuary par excellence (Psalm 78.60; Jeremiah 7.12). Jeremiah even compared the Temple and Jerusalem to it (Jeremiah 7.14). It was the place where God caused His name to dwell at the first (Jeremiah 7.12). It was the place that Yahweh their God had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel to set His name there (Deuteronomy 12.5).
But the possibility must be accepted in all this that the Tabernacle in fact remained at Shiloh over this period, with only the Ark as the central point of worship being removed to Mizpah and Bethel. However, where the Ark was would be seen as the place where Yahweh had set His name (Exodus 20.23-24; 2 Samuel 6.2). Thus it may be that temporary altars could be set up where the Ark was, given authentication by the presence of the Ark. Then they would have to be built as in Exodus 20.24-25. But it is difficult to think that the Ark was left out in the open so that the dew could fall on it. Its sacredness required that it be sheltered.
It seems that often when there was warfare the Ark was prominent and temporarily left the Tabernacle. See Numbers 10.33-36 where it is connected with Yahweh arising and scattering their enemy, and where its return to the Tabernacle is spoken of in terms of returning to the whole of Israel. This refers to their first stage on leaving Sinai to give confidence to the people as they moved forward. It probably went ahead whenever danger was sensed. Normally when all was quiet the Tabernacle would travel in the middle of the column (Numbers 10.17), covered and borne by the Levites. See also Joshua 3-6 where the Ark was evidence that Yahweh was with them in what lay ahead and where it produced the unique victory at Jericho, in which cause it had to be borne by ‘levitical priests’. But Jericho was a firstfruit, a city to be devoted to Yahweh, for Yahweh had taken it. That would not be directly true of every city.
The only time, however when we know of it actually being taken into battle (again by ‘levitical priests’) was in 1 Samuel 4.3-6, but it clearly had a reputation for the Philistines feared it (verses 7-8). The probability is that when a battle was ahead it was brought into the vicinity rather than actually being taken into battle, as in Judges 20.27. Whether the Tabernacle was sometimes brought with it we are not told.
But the Ark would be seen as the focal point of the Central Sanctuary, for it was the durable and central feature, so that where it went there symbolically was, as it were, the Central Sanctuary. And there went Yahweh’s Name (2 Samuel 6.2). With its ‘propitiatory’ (mercy seat) placed between the cherubim it symbolised the throne between the Cherubim on which Yahweh sat and on which He travelled through the heavens (2 Samuel 22.11; Psalm 18.10; Ezekiel 1, 10; see also Psalm 80.1; 99.1; Isaiah 37.16). This would have justified the building of temporary altars while the Ark was there, because there He was seen to have set His Name, and there He was considered to be. But once it had returned to the Tabernacle any such altars would cease to be valid. Their validity came from the presence of the Ark.
We may note that while the Tabernacle would itself have needed renewing and could even be replaced by the Temple, the Ark could not be replaced by anything. When it was captured they did not make a new Ark, whereas the Tabernacle would have to be renewed constantly. Even the Temple could be rebuilt. But the Ark was permanent and so sacred that it could not be replaced. It represented the essence of the Central Sanctuary and was also the Ark of the Testimony, containing within it the covenant. They did not even replace it after the Exile but symbolised its presence with a stone. It was too sacred to replace. There was only one Ark. The tradition thus grew that it had been hidden and would one day return (see 2 Maccabees 2.4-8).
The durability of the Central Sanctuary comes out in that after the long period and turmoil of the judges period it still survived and appears in 1 Samuel 1. There we read of Elkanah who went up from his city ‘at regular times’ (miyamim yamimah - literally ‘from days of days’) to worship and to sacrifice to Yahweh of hosts in Shiloh’ (1 Samuel 1.3). This suggests that he went up for the regular feasts. Thus we have here evidence that the ordinary godly Israelite expected to attend regularly at the Central Sanctuary for worship and the offering of sacrifices. It is also added that those who ministered were Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli, who were priests of Yahweh. Eli was ‘the Priest’ (verse 9). These were descended from Aaron.
Eli ‘sat by a post of the temple (heycal) of Yahweh’ (verse 9). The word ‘heycal’ means a ‘magnificent structure’. It is possible that the Israelites used it of the Tabernacle which they no doubt saw as their ‘magnificent dwellingplace for Yahweh’, and that the post was one of the posts of the Tabernacle entrance, but it is very possible that in view of the circumstances of the time the Tabernacle had been surrounded by a defensive wall with a gate and that store buildings had been erected for containing the paraphernalia of the Tabernacle and the fruit of its offerings. Archaeology has revealed such storebuildings at Shiloh (assuming it to be modern Seilun), although whether they were connected with the Tabernacle we cannot know.
Elkanah went up to offer to Yahweh the ‘regular sacrifice and his vow’ (verse 21). All this is consonant with what we know of the Central Sanctuary where offerings were alone made to Yahweh. When his wife bore her ‘miracle child’ whom she had promised would be given to Yahweh all the days of his life and that no razor would come on his head (verse 11), indicating an ‘avowed’ man, she took the child up to the Central Sanctuary, to ‘the residence (bayith) of Yahweh’ (compare Judges 18.31; 19.18), ‘that he may appear before Yahweh and there abide for ever’ (verse 22) and there offered an ox bull as an offering. A tent could be called ‘a residence’ but the usage may reflect the more permanent elements that had probably been built there. In 3.3 reference is made to ‘the magnificent residence’ (heycal) of Yahweh where the Ark (and the lamp of God) was’
So Samuel became a child of the Sanctuary and as such was probably seen as adopted by Eli, thus becoming a member of the priestly family, even though Samuel is in fact never called a priest. (That may well be because the priesthood was at the time seen as discredited). But his permanent attachment to the Tabernacle probably required that he be adopted by those who serviced the temple, and what is more he was probably the ‘faithful priest according to My will who will do according to what is in My heart and in My mind’ (1 Samuel 2.35). He certainly performed the functions of a priest in the anointing of kings (1 Samuel 10.1; 16.13) and the offering of sacrifices (1 Samuel 7.9, 10), and in blessing the sacrifice (1 Samuel 9.13), and even while a child ‘ministered before Yahweh before Eli the Priest’ (1 Samuel 2.11, 18), wore a linen ephod (1 Samuel 2.18) and entered the Holy Place (1 Samuel 3.3). The last is suggested by the reference to the lamp of God which had not gone out and would be in the Holy Place. The description ‘where the Ark of God was’ refers to the Sanctuary as a whole. It does not mean that he was in the Holy of Holies but that he was in a place where Yahweh could speak to him from the Ark behind the veil, that is in the Holy Place. He would see the staves which bore the Ark protruding through (2 Chronicles 5.9). His presence there confirms that he was seen as ‘priestly’. We must remember in this regard that Samuel was ‘sanctified’ to Yahweh from babyhood. He was a uniquely ‘holy’ child, a Sanctuary child. In 1 Chronicles 6.28 he is named in a genealogy of Levi which supports this, even if it was by adoption.
But he also became much more. He became ‘a prophet of Yahweh’ in a special sense (1 Samuel 3.20), an intercessor for Israel (1 Samuel 7.5, 8; 12.18) and a ‘judge’ of Israel (1 Samuel 7.15) and also head over the whole band of prophets (1 Samuel 19.20). He was a mighty figure in religious terms. However, he was not officially ‘the Priest’ (the High Priest) for that was first Eli, and then Ahiyah, son of Ahitub, son of Phinehas, son of Eli (1 Samuel 14.3). But Eli died when Samuel was young and Ahiyah became High Priest when Samuel was old, so Samuel may well have stood in as High Priest while he was growing up. It is possible that Ahitub, of whom nothing is known, was High Priest, but it seems more likely that he must have died fairly young for he never appears on the scene. (He must not be mixed up with Ahitub the father of Zadok).
So Samuel cannot be judged by normal standards. He was brought into the world to be Yahweh’s servant, was supremely Yahweh’s man like no one since Moses and Joshua, and accepted by Yahweh as having priestly rights. Furthermore while he was growing up, the Central Sanctuary was being watched over by priests not worthy of the name and the Sanctuary was subject to many sinful practises (1 Samuel 2.13-17, 22). It was rapidly becoming discredited. It was thus to Samuel, child and ‘holy one’ of the Central Sanctuary, prophet of Yahweh, that the pious people looked. There was their hope. Samuel and Shiloh were identified (1 Samuel 3.21). The Central Sanctuary was still central and personified in Samuel.
Note in all this that Eli was said to be ‘chosen out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer on My altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before Me’ and to receive the offerings made by fire to Yahweh which were for the priest (1 Samuel 2.28). The High Priesthood of Eli is thus confirmed as appointed by Yahweh in line with the Law found in the Pentateuch.
However, catastrophe struck. A defeat by the Philistines resulted in a call by the people that the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh which dwells between the cherubim should be brought from Shiloh, from its place in the Central Sanctuary (1 Samuel 4.3). This being complied with the presence of Eli’s sons was required, for only the priests of Yahweh could carry the Ark into battle, possibly uncovered (1 Samuel 4.4; compare Joshua 3-4). But the people were defeated, the Ark of God was taken and the two evil priests slain (1 Samuel 4.11). And as a result the aged Eli died, probably because of the shock (1 Samuel 4.14-18). It was possibly around this time that Shiloh was destroyed (Jeremiah 7.12-14; 26.6, 9), although the Tabernacle may have been whisked away for we much later find Ahimelech ministering as ‘the Priest’ and in charge of the shewbread and the ephod (1 Samuel 21). Ahi-melech (my brother is King) may be an alternative name for Ahi-yah (my brother is Yahweh).
So as a result of the defeat at the hands of the Philistines the Ark was in the hands of the Philistines, the structure at Shiloh was destroyed, and the High Priesthood was in disarray. We do not know whether the Tabernacle escaped whole or whether another one had to be put together, but a Central Sanctuary was much later to be found at Nob, containing the shewbread which was ‘before Yahweh’, the ephod and the sword of Goliath, although lacking what was central to it, the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh (1 Samuel 21.1-9). But at the time of Samuel’s maturity it was clearly marginalised. Even if it still existed its authority had been diminished, its priesthood discredited and shamed and now slain or dead, its shrine empty, and it itself having to be ignominiously removed. But even its existence in any usable form must be doubted. Yahweh had deserted it (Psalm 78.60). What then preserved the unity of Israel and the idea of the oneness of God? The answer lies in the one whom Yahweh had raised up for the purpose, Samuel, child of the Central Sanctuary. He was the symbol of Yahweh, the symbol of unity, famed throughout Israel (1 Samuel 3.20). And the fact that he, the child dedicated for life to the Sanctuary, was no longer with it, serves to confirm that it was no longer active.
The Ark did not remain long with the Philistines. They found it too hot to handle and it was returned in an unmanned cart to Bethshemesh, a priestly city (Joshua 21.16). The workers in the fields which would include priests were so delighted to see it that they lost their heads, and looked into the Ark (1 Samuel 6.19). Possibly they were checking whether the covenant tablets were still there, but whatever the reason they were smitten as a result, probably with the plague, (as with the Philistines - 5.6, 9, 12) and fifty eleph (leading men?) and seventy men died (verse 19). Although this would only manifest itself after the initial celebrations, it would then come with all the more seriousness. Those who looked into the Ark would probably be mainly the leading men.
The gift of the Philistines of five golden tumours and five golden rodents (6.4) may well indicate a connection of the plague with flea-ridden rats, of which some may have been still in the Ark. If they sought to remove them we can well understand why they were smitten.
Meanwhile the Israelites had been sensible enough, once the first moments of excitement had passed, to ensure that Levites (as it was a priestly city, presumably levitical priests) present lifted the Ark down, and they placed it on a great stone which they then also used as an impromptu altar and sacrificed the oxen as a whole burnt offering to Yahweh, utilising the wood of the cart. They then also offered more whole burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices, the latter suggesting that they then had a feast. The use of an altar was legitimised by the presence of the Ark, and in a priestly city there was no shortage of priests.
The repetition in verses 14-15 is typical of ancient literature which was often very repetitive. It was written in order to be listened to and the repetition helped the hearer to keep up with events. Such repetitions were simply ancient style.
The effect of the plague was to cause them to desire to get rid of the Ark and they sent messengers to Kiriath-yearim calling for them to come and collect the Ark. We are not told why they brought Kiriath-yearim into it, or why they expected them to accept something so dangerous, but the men of that city responded and fetched the Ark of Yahweh and brought it into the house of Abinadab ‘in the hill’.
This gives us a clue to the explanation. The presumption must be that it was precisely because Abinadab was there, and had agreed to take the Ark, that Kiriath-yearim was involved. All would have consulted together and would have asked, who can we call on to take responsibility for this dangerous Ark? And their solution had been Abinadab. He was probably the most prominent man in the area and recognised as a godly man who would know what to do, thus probably also a priest. And he had presumably consented. Then they ‘sanctified’ Eleazar, Abinadab’s son to be its custodian, ‘to keep the Ark of Yahweh’. This would suggest that all knew that Abinadab was the right man to receive the Ark, that his son was a suitable person to be its custodian, and suggests that they were of a priestly family. That is no doubt why Kiriath-yearim were prepared to accept the Ark (they were not a levitical city). ‘In the hill’ probably suggests his status, but it may indicate that the aim was to have the Ark kept in an elevated place. We may consider that had everyone not been confident that Abinadab was the most suitable of men for the task the men of Kiriath-yearim would probably have rejected the kind offer of the Ark (which had been shown to be so dangerous) on the grounds that the priestly people of Bethshemesh were the experts.
If we consider that Bethshemesh was a priestly city, and that there was much death as a result of misuse of the Ark, which could hardly have been hushed up, we can surely recognise the great care that would have been taken to ensure that the correct precautions were observed and the correct person to look after the Ark. They had learned the hard way that this was not something to be trifled with, or even dismissed. The writer would not feel it necessary to point out that Abinadab was qualified to receive the Ark. All would know that it was clearly so. It is hugely probable that he was a high status priest or Levite. Certainly he must have been a man of high position and reputation.
The fact that there seems to have been no thought of restoring the Ark to the Tabernacle counts heavily in favour of the Tabernacle having been destroyed at Shiloh when the Central Sanctuary was destroyed, an occurrence which was deliberately totally ignored until mentioned centuries later by Jeremiah 7.14; 26.6, 9). This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that Samuel who had been dedicated to serve the Tabernacle for life now seemingly ceased specifically to be so and was no longer connected with it. The only possible explanation for this is that the Tabernacle had ceased to operate, otherwise he was breaking his mother’s vow, although we need not doubt that as much as possible would have been saved and stored somewhere. (Samuel himself must have fled from it). The Ark thus had nowhere to go. It may also have been seen as having been defiled, and besides it smote all who touched it, and was such that they did not know what to do with it. The alternative explanation may, however, be that the Philistines forbade its restoration at the time, for the lords of the Philistines were taking a personal interest in the situation (1 Samuel 6.12, compare 7.7). While they could not handle it themselves, they would not want Israel to make use of it as it was before. But that would only apply before their defeat.
The Ark, however, would remain there for twenty years. For some reason not explained it was clearly considered that it could not be brought into use. One good reason for this would be that the Central Sanctuary had been destroyed and was no longer operating. Another that the death of the two sons of the High Priest, followed by the death of Eli itself, had left no adult hereditary High Priest able to fulfil his duty. A third that it was defiled until Yahweh indicated otherwise. Thus might the Central Sanctuary have been put on hold, with the nation uniting around Samuel.
‘And all the house of Israel lamented after Yahweh’ (1 Samuel 7.2). This may suggest that the ancient Sanctuary at Shiloh was destroyed, and the Ark was in quarantine, so that they had nowhere to look for Yahweh’s help. Their very heart had been torn out. Thus all eyes were turned to Samuel who par excellence represented the essence of the destroyed Central Sanctuary.
In this new situation both Samuel and Israel were feeling their way. But Samuel had no doubt as to why all this had happened. He called on the people to return to Yahweh and put away their strange gods and Asherah-images and return to the covenant. Then he called on them to gather at Mizpah which was probably a gathering place near Shiloh (compare Judges 20.1). We are not given a time scale, and it is probably significant that no sacrifices were said to be offered there. This was not the triumphant gathering to the Central Sanctuary. It was an act of national repentance. So instead they poured out water before Yahweh and fasted (1 Samuel 7.7). But the approach of the Philistine army, alarmed at this huge gathering, terrified the people. This faced Samuel up with what he must do and he opted on a bold and unorthodox course.
There was no Central Sanctuary there, and no Ark, and probably no adult hereditary High Priest. So in the absence of a Central Sanctuary he had no option but to act as the supreme representative of the Central Sanctuary and approach Yahweh ad hoc. This was no ordinary situation and they wanted Yahweh to manifest His Name.
We must remember that Samuel was, like Moses and Joshua, a unique person in the eyes of Yahweh. He was His chosen one and His prophet. He was all that was visibly left of what had been truly sanctified in the Central Sanctuary. He was also a ‘holy’ child of the Sanctuary and probably an adopted priest. And he was known as one who received Yahweh’s word directly. So he took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to Yahweh (1 Samuel 7.9). That this was pleasing to Yahweh was evidenced by the fact that He stepped in and disabled the Philistines by a huge storm so that Israel was able to defeat them (verse 10). But it was clearly exceptional and connected with his own unique position and the unique situation (as with Elijah’s altar later).
The final result, very much summarised, was that Israel were able to free themselves from the Philistine yoke. Samuel meanwhile recognised that there must be some central place for the people to come to worship and set up an altar to Yahweh in Ramah (1 Samuel 7.17). This was probably intended to act as the Central Sanctuary, until the Central Sanctuary could be restored on the coming of age of the hereditary High Priest. This was to act in its place, and seemingly did so into Samuel’s old age (1 Samuel 8.1-4). That Yahweh’s chosen ‘child of the Sanctuary’ was there would identify it to the people as such. Possibly the wait was intended to give time for the Central Sanctuary and the Ark to become ‘clean’ again after the way in which they had been defiled by the former High Priesthood. Passage of time was always the way by which cleanness was restored, ‘and shall be unclean until the evening’ is a regular description of becoming ritually clean again (Leviticus 22.6; and twenty seven more times; Number 19.21). For some cleansings a seven day wait was necessary. Here it was much longer, possibly by necessity. Such a wait being seen as necessary would explain why he did not immediately establish a new Tabernacle, bring back the Ark, and proclaim a new Central Sanctuary that way.
While Samuel judged Israel the people were satisfied but his heirs were not like him (1 Samuel 8.3), so the people then came to Samuel and ask him to give them ‘a king to judge us like all the nations’. They had been twenty years without an official Central Sanctuary apart from Ramah and were no longer thinking in those terms. They simply wanted settled government.
Their dream, of course, was of a perfect king who would rule righteously, and one who would have his own standing army and do all their fighting for them. But they were in essence rejecting the rule of Yahweh. It was Yahweh Who fought for them. And they were not looking for a king under Yahweh, who would lead them to the victory provided by Yahweh and teach them Yahweh’s Law, but a despotic king who would fight their battles for them. Faith was low. So Samuel reminded them of what the reality of such a king would be like (1 Samuel 8.10-18). But no, they insisted, they wanted a king like all the nations who would protect the country and fight their battles. They saw the old ways as discredited. Samuel’s sons were wayward (1 Samuel 8.3). They could not depend on the rising of another Samuel.
Samuel saw to the heart of the matter immediately. They had lost their trust in the covenant God and the principle of the Central Sanctuary. The truth was that they felt that they could no longer fully rely on Yahweh as their King (1 Samuel 8.7) to fight their battles.
Saul was meanwhile led by Yahweh to Ramah where Samuel lived, at a time when sacrifices were taking place at ‘the high place’ (1 Samuel 9.12), that is at the site of the central altar in Ramah (7.17) which had been Israel’s one altar for the last twenty years, in essence its Central Sanctuary. But from now on things were to change. Samuel recognised that his ‘temporary’ High Priesthood was coming to an end. He was old and the balance of power was necessarily changing. His thoughts therefore turned to where the Central Sanctuary had been first established when Joshua entered the land, to Gilgal, and he called on Saul to meet him there (1 Samuel 10.8). A new Central Sanctuary must be established. We can compare here how when Elijah instated Elisha as his successor he too repeated the course of the first entry into the land (Bethel, Jericho, parting Jordan, Jericho, Bethel - 2 Kings 2).
And a new Central Sanctuary was suitably established by the building of an altar and the offering of whole burnt offerings and sacrifices ‘before Yahweh’ (1 Samuel 11.15). We are not given any further details. This was the beginning of Samuel’s farewell and withdrawal. It should be carefully noted that at Saul’s coronation at Mizpah there had been no mention of offerings and sacrifices (1 Samuel 10.17-27), they could not just be offered anywhere. Although it would seem that Samuel did make use of the Urim and Thummim there (1 Samuel 10.20-21).
Saul now took on himself the rights of the Central Sanctuary by calling together the tribes in a time of emergency (1 Samuel 11.7) and he defeated the Ammonites. Further victories against small Philistine forces (for the Philistines were now once more exercising their power over Israel - 1 Samuel 14.52) resulted in a call for ‘all Israel’ to gather together which took place at the new Central Sanctuary at Gilgal (1 Samuel 13.7). But Saul knew that even then he must await the presence of the stand-in High Priest Samuel in order for him to offer the offerings and sacrifices. Samuel was, however, delayed, and seeing his army disintegrating Saul panicked and himself began to offer the offerings and sacrifices.
But he had only offered the initial whole burnt offering (this order of offering ties in with the requirements of Leviticus) when Samuel arrived. Samuel was appalled at what was happening. Saul had no right to offer offerings and sacrifices without his authority as acting High Priest. (Note that Saul had ‘forced himself’. He knew that what he did was wrong). And he declared to him that such was the seriousness of his crime that he had thereby forfeited the permanent favour of Yahweh. Note the seriousness of the penalty. What Saul had done had been no light matter. Without Yahweh’s permission he had taken on himself the prerogatives of the house of Aaron. Yahweh already had a replacement for him in mind (1 Samuel 13.10-14). Nevertheless as a result of Saul’s remorse Samuel led Saul and his men to Gibeah ready for incursions against the Philistines.
We should note at this point the nature of Israel’s new kingship. It was not to be like that of other nations. It is stressed that the new king was crowned as ‘nagid’ (prince) rather than as ‘melek’ (king).
From the earliest days ‘nagid’ was a regular term applied to rulers of Israel, to Saul, David and Solomon (1 Samuel 9.16; 10.1; 13.14; 25.30; 2 Samuel 5.2; 6.21; 7.8; 1 Kings 1.35) and to early rulers of Israel and Judah after Solomon (1 Kings 14.7; 16.2; 2 Kings 20.5). Saul was anointed ‘nagid’ (1 Samuel 9.16; 10.1). David was to replace him as ‘nagid’ (1 Samuel 13.14) as David acknowledged (2 Samuel 6.21). And even though he later saw himself as king, he still recognised that in becoming king Solomon would be appointed as ‘nagid’ (1 Kings 1.35). They were kings under Yahweh, his representatives.
Furthermore in all the verses above, apart from 2 Kings 20.5, the term nagid is related to the actual appointing or anointing of the person as ‘prince’. It is seen as a term especially related to one ‘chosen and anointed by God’.
It is also in Scripture used of important men in authority in Israel and Judah (e.g. ‘rulers over the house of God’, rulers of priestly courses, and grand viziers of Judah and Israel once kingship was fully established, all chosen men), but only twice ever applied outside Israel and Judah, once in 2 Chronicles 32.21 (a late use), where it is used in the plural of the king of Assyria’s war leaders and once of the prince of Tyre by Ezekiel 28.1 where its use is probably sarcastic, having his claim to be the anointed of the gods in mind. Psalm 76.12 may be another exception but is ambiguous.
So even in appointing a king it was recognised that he was a king of a special kind. He was the chosen of Yahweh and therefore responsible for maintaining the covenant and the true worship of Yahweh. He was a ‘prince’ under Yahweh.
This is all confirmed by the fact that shortly after this Samuel handed back the practise of the High Priesthood to the descendants of Eli, for ‘Ahiyah, son of Ahitub, Ichabod’s brother, son of Phinehas, son of Eli’ was now found with Saul, wearing the ephod (1 Samuel 14.3 see 15.35). He had reached an age when the hereditary High Priesthood could be resumed. Saul could not rule without a High Priest. The reference to Ahitub as Ichabod’s brother may be seen as confirming that Ahitub was dead and had died when comparatively young. It certainly demonstrates him to have been not well known. Thus the new Central Sanctuary under the hereditary High Priest could now be set up.
In his new independence of Samuel Saul began to act rashly and naively. His first thoughts turned to the Ark which he knew had in the past had been so important to Israel. He naively turned to his new High Priest and said, ‘Bring hither the Ark of God’ (1 Samuel 14.18), which (as we have been told) was at that time in the hands of Israel. He was clearly unaware of all the problems involved, and probably thought that Ahiyah had it close to hand. Nothing further is heard of it at this point, and, as battle began immediately, he cancelled his request and the matter was dropped. The writer is probably bringing out Saul’s naivety, or possibly drawing attention to the fact that Saul, unlike David, was not permitted to restore the Ark.
But why was the Ark not restored to the new Tabernacle? Possibly because the Philistines were now again pressing and they did not want to risk losing it again. Possibly because it was looked on as defiled by its time in Philistia, and not yet ready to be restored. Possibly because after what had previously happened no word was seen as having come from Yahweh permitting its restoration, and there was still the memory of what had occurred in the past on its first arrival back. Possibly because it was in territory occupied by the Philistines. Possibly because when consulted about the issue through Urim and Thummim Yahweh said ‘no’. Or possibly because they considered that events had proved that it was no longer effective. Any combination of these may indeed be what Saul was told in response to his request.
The way that the Law was being neglected at this time comes out in that when the Philistines were defeated and their cattle captured the people of Israel began to eat them without properly disposing of the blood (1 Samuel 14.32). (Had nothing further been said some might have claimed that here was another evidence that the law was unknown. In fact it merely demonstrates that it was not observed). But Saul knew that this was contrary to the Law and he commanded that the blood be properly dealt with. A great stone was rolled into place and the oxen and sheep were then slain on the great stone in the proper manner (compare Deuteronomy 12.15-16, 20-28). We are not told that these were seen as offerings and sacrifices.
The passage then ends with, ‘And Saul built an altar to Yahweh. The same was the first altar that he built to Yahweh.’ This was possibly the writer’s disapproving view of what Saul had done, even though it is probable that Saul did not look on it as an altar but as a convenient way of killing oxen and sheep while allowing their blood to flow on the ground (Deuteronomy 12.15-16, 20-28). But the statement had another significance within it. Samuel was no longer seen as responsible for building altars, even in the Sanctuary. That now rested with Saul and his High Priest.
But it may mean that Saul did genuinely now ‘build an altar’ which was under his authority rather than Samuel’s, that is, that through his new High Priest he now took responsibility for the maintenance of Central Sanctuary worship. For we must recognise that when we speak of a king doing something it regularly means through his ministers. So the idea may be that he was re-establishing his own new Central Sanctuary in the place of Samuel’s and that it was the first time that he had on his own initiative arranged for an altar to be built within the bronze framework of the altar of whole burnt offering by his new High Priest. A king stood as representative for the people and when he called on them to do something it was often described as him doing it. Thus when Nebuchadnezzar in his inscriptions much later said ‘Forty six cities of Judah I besieged and took’ we are not intended to see him as doing it by himself. We are intended to see that he was including his generals and his great armies in his action. He may indeed not have been personally present at most of the action.
This may be seen as confirmed by the fact that when Saul then wanted to pursue the Philistines under the guidance of ‘the Priest’ he sought Yahweh’s advice (1 Samuel 14.36), probably through the Urim and Thummim (verse 37), although he received through it ‘no reply’. Then he sought through lots, probably again through Urim and Thummim, as to the reason (verses 38-42). He was clearly in constant touch with the High Priest, and thus the Central Sanctuary.
An interesting incident then takes place in the secret anointing of David by Samuel. This begins a chain of events which eventually leads to his kingship. But the point of interest from our point of view is that Samuel’s pretext for going to Bethlehem is to be in order to ‘sacrifice to Yahweh’ (1 Samuel 16.2), although we must note that again it is at the direct command of Yahweh. He is then to call Jesse to the sacrifice. This is the one place which reads as though sacrifices in different places might be a regular feature.
It may suggest that it had been Samuel’s practise to move his temporary Central Sanctuary from place to place in these troubled times, (compare 7.16), but there is no other example of this, unless we read it into 1 Samuel 7.16. But while those were all places which had been visited by the Ark or which had previously been connected with the Central Sanctuary, there is no hint elsewhere that official worship took place at these sites. On the other hand we could argue that had it been his normal practise to offer sacrifices in Bethlehem the elders would not have been afraid at his coming (1 Samuel 16.4). His appearance was clearly not habitual. Had it been normal practise for him to come they would not have been afraid.
They did settle down once he explained his purpose. Perhaps they rather thought that by this unusual act he was seeking to ensure the safety of the town in the face of the Philistine threat, made possible because he was Samuel and God had commanded it.
But whichever way it was this was once more a sacrifice specifically commanded by Yahweh to an exceptional chosen instrument (1 Samuel 16.2-3), one whose authority was such that none would gainsay him. Samuel had an authority that no other had, and this remarkable act would be remembered when David became king. It would be remembered that Yahweh had recorded His Name at Bethlehem at that time (Exodus 20.24-25). This would be seen as having indicated that this was to be the place from which would arise his chosen king, but the full significance of this awaited the birth of Christ (Micah 5.2). No one would, however, question Samuel’s doing of this for he was the recognised prime prophet of Yahweh. His status was immense. Even a half-mad Saul never dared to turn against Samuel.
The later reference by Jonathan to David’s family sacrificing in Bethlehem did not necessarily indicate that that was a regular practise. It was probably simply an excuse which Saul saw through immediately. Had sacrificing in Bethlehem been a regular event he would not have seen through it. It does not therefore prove that this altar was again used or was in constant use. It may well be that David had told Jonathan of Samuel’s visit, and that that gave Jonathan, in his own religious naivety, what sounded like a good excuse for a visit by David, which Saul with his better understanding, (no doubt gained through his contact with his new High Priest), knew perfectly well could not be true (1 Samuel 20.29).
The next stage in the story of the Central Sanctuary is found in chapter 21. This clearly reveals that the Central Sanctuary was now set up in Nob. We are not told anything about it (the detail was just assumed). It was certainly not the original Tabernacle. That would have decayed and have been replaced, probably piece by piece, a good long time earlier. (We may consider the example of the council road sweeper who said that he had had the same broom for forty years, during which time it had had twenty replacement handles and fifteen replacement heads. Was it the same broom? Idealistically speaking, yes, in practise, no. The same would inevitably be true of the Tabernacle). It may or may not have been the physical continuation of the one which had been established at Shiloh, for we are not kept in touch with its history. It may have been, or it may simply have been a replacement after the destruction at Shiloh, possibly including some of its remnants. But unlike the Ark the Tabernacle would continually need replacing anyway over time. However, if it was a new one we may reasonably assume it as probable that they had sought to pattern it on the old.
We know that it did not contain the Ark, which, having mentioned once, Saul appears to have forgotten about, (or possibly had accepted that it was not available at this time), but nor do we know whether it contained the original lampstand, or indeed the original anything, although the Philistines, after their experience with the Ark may well have left the sacred things of Yahweh well alone, or the portable effects may have been spirited away (by Samuel, or under his direction?) before the destruction. It did, however, contain a table for the shewbread, and the ephod. It was thus intended to be the continuation of the Tabernacle, and we have no reason to doubt that it was in accordance with the requirements of the Law as far as it could be. Later Solomon would take into the new Temple, ‘the Ark of Yahweh, the Tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the Tent’ (1 Kings 8.4). This may have been all that remained of the original.
The approach of David filled the High Priest with fear. He was probably aware of the tensions between Saul and David and could not understand why David had arrived alone. David consoled him by assuring him that he was on a secret mission for the king and had a few men standing by. But they needed food.
The High Priest pointed out that he only had available the shewbread which he had taken from the table, having replaced it with new shewbread. (According to the Law this was for the consumption of the priests alone). If the men were in a ‘holy’ state he would allow them to have it in this emergency. David effectively replied that as it was no longer before Yahweh it was in a sense ‘common’, or alternately that as his young men were in a specially sanctified state he could see no reason why they should not have it. He therefore took the bread, and the sword of Goliath which was being kept there.
Remembering that David was a high minister of state, was famed as a man not afraid of spilling blood, and that religious piety at the time was at a low level, this does not demonstrate that the Law was different from what is found in the Pentateuch, only how easily men can argue their way around restrictions, especially when moved by fear or desperation. The High Priest compromised because he was afraid for his life. He felt that he had done his best to ensure the purity of the bread, and that after all David was a favourite of Yahweh. But in the event his failure resulted in his death. This was probably intended to be seen as significant. He was the legal expert and he should have stood firm. But such was the state that the Central Sanctuary had come to. We can see here how the crowning of a king has already diminished the authority and integrity of the Central Sanctuary.
In revenge for helping David Saul slaughtered the whole house of Ahimelech. It is noteworthy that his own guard refused to slay ‘the priests of Yahweh’, for they were seen by the people as ‘holy’, so Saul called on Doeg the Edomite who, presumably with the help of foreign mercenaries, ‘fell on the priests and killed on that day eighty five persons who wore the linen ephod’ (1 Samuel 22.18). He then ‘put Nob, the city of the priests, to the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, oxen asses and sheep’ (verse 19). It was total destruction. Only Abiathar escaped, and he went to David in his exile, taking the ephod with him (1 Samuel 23.6). This gave David new status. Thus in 1 Samuel 23.2, 4, 9-12; 30.7-8; 2 Samuel 2.2; 5.19, 23 we have David making use of the Urim and Thummim in order to enquire of Yahweh. He was now the only one who could do so.
Nothing is said about what happened to the Tabernacle, or whether it survived the total slaughter and destruction at Nob at the hands of the Edomite executioner of the demented king Saul, but it presumably ceased to function, at least temporarily. It would soon become known that in a sense the Central Sanctuary was now with David, and the ephod was probably kept in its own, or Abiathar’s, tent. Saul’s move was madness and folly for it gave David the legitimacy of having the support of the recognised successor to the High Priesthood, and once Saul had come to his senses he must certainly have recognised the fact.
Saul would know that he could not let the situation continue as it was. Combating both David and the High Priesthood would have been too much, and he needed some way of learning Yahweh’s will. He would thus have immediately recognised that he had to reinstate a Central Sanctuary with an acceptable High Priest, both in order to appease the people, in order to prevent them from seeking to Abiathar as High Priest, and in order to have a High Priest on his side to seek guidance for him. Did he then seek to resolve this situation by appointing Zadok, descended from Eleazar, son of Aaron, as High Priest? Ahimelech had been descended from Ithamar, son of Aaron, thus Zadok would not be tainted by association (compare 1 Chronicles 25.3). A High Priest would certainly be required by the people. (It should be noted in this regard that the appointment and deaths of High Priests, the latter in spite of their religious importance (Numbers 35.25, 28; Joshua 20.6), are rarely mentioned in the histories we have). This would then explain why later there are two High Priests, Abiathar and Zadok, and why it is Zadok who is always named first as being officially appointed first, and is later addressed by David as in charge of the Ark because of his seniority (2 Samuel 15.24-29). But this primacy could surely only have arisen because he was appointed High Priest at the recognised Tabernacle containing the recognised altar of whole burnt offering, for Abiathar was the one with direct descent from the previous High Priest. This Taberenacle was still what the people would have recognised, given the option. They would not then know that the ephod had disappeared.
Once David was made king in Hebron, directed there by Yahweh through the Urim and Thummim (2 Samuel 2.1), and dwelt there as king, having with him the hereditary High Priest Abiathar and the ephod, it would be natural for him to establish his own Central Sanctuary there, set up when he was anointed king. This would keep Judah from looking to Saul’s house. He could legitimise it by pointing to the High Priest and the ephod. That this was so is confirmed in the incident with Absalom in 2 Samuel 15.7-12, for that appears to place the Central Sanctuary in Hebron at that time. Absalom goes there ostensibly to pay a vow, and there he makes sacrifices. But as Hebron was the centre of the rebellion against David we can understand why it should then be moved to Gibeon as a punishment. Hebron could no longer be trusted. (Though David was man after God’s own heart, he was clearly not a traditionalist, as witness his eating of the shewbread and the taking of the Ark to the heathen city of Jerusalem when the tabernacle was elsewhere. He did things his own way).
So after many years David had established his rule over both Israel and Judah and had captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, being anointed king over all. Then he decided that it was time to restore the Ark to a place of importance. The Ark was brought from the house of Abinadab driven on a new cart by his sons. This confirms the status of Abinadab’s family. The ‘new’ cart was in recognition of the sacredness of the Ark, the sons drove it because they were considered qualified to do so. It was not just something that anyone could do. This would confirm that they were at least Levites, and possibly priests. But when Uzzah touched the Ark he was smitten. No one could touch the Ark for it was sacred. It was borne on poles which could be slotted in without touching it. Thus David was afraid of the Ark and arranged for it to be kept in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. This was an expedient. It was not planned. The house was simply used as a storeplace. However, the fact that he was a Gittite (possibly ‘of Gath’) does not necessarily mean that he was not a worshipper of Yahweh. Many Israelites bore similar appellations describing their original national origin while having been circumcised and incorporated within the covenant. It was there for three months during which time clear blessing came to the house. This then encouraged David and he decided to remove the Ark to Jerusalem.
The Ark was brought into Jerusalem with great rejoicing and ‘placed in the tent which David had pitched for it’ (2 Samuel 6.17). This was seemingly not the Tabernacle, but a special tent supplied by David. Saul had slain the priests, but there is total silence about the religious affairs of the people at this time, and we are not told what Saul did with the Tabernacle. It may well have been almost destroyed in the mad and systematic slaughter of Nob by foreign troops, but it was no longer for a time the thriving concern that it had been and the recognised High Priest by descent from Ahimelech, Abiathar, together with the ephod, was already with David. On the other hand it was still the Central Sanctuary as far as the people of Israel were concerned, and sacred (remember the attitude of Saul’s guard - 1 Samuel 22.17), and it possibly now continued to function with Zadok as High Priest. Once David had overall rule this was probably in conjunction with David’s Central Sanctuary at Hebron. That would be the obvious solution.
Thus once David became king of both Judah and Israel the Tabernacle would be finally united and set up in Hebron under the joint High Priesthood of Zadok and Abiathar in accordance with what was described above (and later at Gibeon). But even David would not dare to transfer it to Jerusalem. Old religious customs die hard. The people would not object to it being re-established at these old sites with their sacred memories, but they would certainly have objected to it being established at Jerusalem, the pagan city of the Jebusites. And David had had enough trouble uniting the country. He would not want to cause strife by bringing the Tabernacle into Jerusalem. That would have aroused the people’s anger unnecessarily. Jerusalem had until recently been a centre of idolatry and was not seen by the people as a holy place. Rather it was ‘foreign’. Such a move would at this time risk disquieting the people. (The passing of years and the success and exaltation of David would eventually sanctify Jerusalem).
But as his own plan was to establish Jerusalem as the religious centre of Israel/Judah, (it was his own city, independent of both), he wanted to do something to prepare the way, so he cleverly selected a viable alternative. The Ark, which had lain forgotten for twenty years and was not at this time a focus of attention for the whole of Israel, was established in Jerusalem with due ceremony, while he still upheld the Central Sanctuary in Hebron, then Gibeon (2 Chronicles 1.3) just as it had always been in the eyes of the people. Thus he pitched a separate tent for the Ark. We need not doubt that it was a tent of some splendour, even though he probably did not intend it to be its permanent home, but as far as we know all it contained was the Ark.
The people would see this as another resting place for the Ark before its restoration, a place of safety in the very stronghold of David. This is suggested by the fact that the move did not cause a stir. If it was seen as for protection it would not necessarily cause a stir. It had after all just left the house of a Gittite. And they would await the High Priest’s instructions as to what should be done. In the end, however, David’s aim was that he and his son would bring everything into Jerusalem. His final aim was one united Sanctuary. But as he wanted that to be in Jerusalem and he knew that that would offend the people at this time, he trod with care. He wanted the people to get used to the idea first. Once Jerusalem was sufficiently sanctified by the presence of the Ark, the presence of which enabled sacrifices to be offered, that would be the time to move. The building of a magnificent Temple, which he intended to carry out, but was in the end carried out by his son, would provide the final reason.
The Chronicler adds to this account that David said that ‘none ought to carry the Ark of God but the Levites, for them has God chosen to carry the Ark of God and to minister to him for ever’ (1 Chronicles 15.2). This was clearly taken from a different historical record than that used by the author of Samuel (1 Chronicles 29.29). But there is no reason to doubt it. The incident of Uzzah had quite shaken David up and he would certainly want to exercise extreme care. And the importance of the Levites in religious matters is well attested throughout our literature whatever view we hold about them.
This may be seen as confirmed in Samuel by 2 Samuel 15.24 where ‘Abiathar -- and Zadok and all the Levites’ bore the Ark of the Covenant of God out of Jerusalem when David was escaping from Absalom’s rebellion, even though they were then told to return it there. The writer of Samuel thus also confirms that in his view too the Ark must be borne by Levites.
The Chronicler tells us that both Tabernacle and bronze altar were later at Gibeon in the time of Solomon (2 Chronicles 3.6 compare 1 Kings 3.4) and that that was then the central place of worship. Knowing David’s astuteness we need not doubt it. Like Hebron, Gibeon was a priestly city (Joshua 21.17) and a sacred site, and thus acceptable to all the people as a site for the Tabernacle, and once Hebron had proved unfaithful to David, Gibeon was fairly close by and could be established as the new Central Sanctuary. But he now also arranged worship in Jerusalem where he had inherited the priesthood of the Jebusite king, the priesthood which would be called ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ (Psalm 110.4). The people of Jerusalem would be right behind him, seeing themselves as distinctive from Israel and Judah. He no doubt took part in the ceremonies but would observe the niceties of the Law, not intruding on the rights of the levitical priests, and would use either Abiathar or Zadok as the offering priest. David’s heart was right with Yahweh, but he was not above a bit of religious ‘reinterpretation’ as we saw with his reply over the shewbread. But he was also politically wise.
The presence of the Ark, as indicating a place where Yahweh had recorded His Name (2 Samuel 6.2), as ever justified the erection of an altar in accordance with Exodus 20.24-25, as it always had done (see earlier). That is why David’s action is not criticised by the later writer. And David therefore arranged for the offering of whole burnt offerings and peace offerings before Yahweh. It actually reads ‘David offered ----’ (2 Samuel 6.17) but it is quite clear that even if he had wanted to he would not have been able to do it all himself, and in fact we are almost certainly to see this as stating that they were offered at his instigation as king. He may have danced before the Ark but he would not see it as his position to actually make the offerings when his priestly servants were there to do it for him with greater expertise. He was a king and used to men doing his bidding, and he would have Abiathar and Zadok with him at his side, especially in so important a religious matter. It did not need to be mentioned that they took charge of the offerings. It could be assumed. (And to see David going through a huge crowd and personally handing out a cake of bread, a piece of flesh and a flagon of wine to each and every one of them beggars the imagination - verse 19).
Note in this regard that the Chronicler says in 1 Chronicles 16.1, ‘they (the bearers of the Ark) offered whole burnt offerings and peace offerings before God’, and then adds, ‘and when David had made an end of offering.’ Thus the offerings made by the bearers of the Ark, who would no doubt include levitical priests volunteering for the occasion, and may all have been levitical priests, could also be described as having been made by David there.
We know that Abiathar, and then his son Ahimelech, were both High Priests at the same time as Zadok his brother (2 Samuel 15.29, 35; 17.15; 19.11; 20.25; 8.17). What more likely than that at this stage they operated at two sanctuaries, one official, the Central Sanctuary recognised by the people in Hebron/Gibeon, and one unofficial which was justified because it contained the Ark, and which was in Jerusalem, mainly for political reasons and with the purpose in David’s mind of Jerusalem eventually becoming the Central Sanctuary, and catering to the needs of the people of Jerusalem. Once the temple was built the two could be made one, and Zadok became sole High Priest (although Abiathar was named as High Priest along with him in the official list even after he was deposed (1 Kings 4.4). Once a High Priest, always a High Priest).
In 2 Samuel 8.18 we are told that David’s sons were ‘priests’. This probably refers to their status in Jerusalem in the old Jebusite priesthood of Melchizedek, which David as conqueror would inherit. It was an intercessory and status-giving priesthood rather than a sacrificing priesthood, and would give them important status in Jerusalem. Others have suggested that the word also meant ‘high officials’.
An exception to the usual rule of offering sacrifices at the Central Sanctuary is found in 2 Samuel 24.25 where David built an altar to Yahweh and offered whole burnt offerings and peace offerings. But that was where the Angel of Yahweh had restrained his hand and was thus the site of a theophany, the only exception allowed apart from when the Ark was present.
We may sum up the whole history of the Central Sanctuary to this time with the words God spoke to David when he spoke of building a temple. “Will you build me a house for me to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places in which I have walked with all the children of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the tribes of Israel whom I commanded to feed my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ ”. The forbidding of David to build a Temple was not a tradition likely to be invented, thus we have here confirmation that the idea that the Central Sanctuary was always based around a central Tent was firm and strong (compare Psalm 78.60).
So from the time of Moses to the time of David there is not one approved example in Scripture of the offering of offerings and sacrifices apart either from (1) at the Central Sanctuary, (2) in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh, (3) at a direct and unique theophany and command of Yahweh, or (4) by a unique and ‘holy’ prophet directly connected from birth with the Central Sanctuary at a time when the Central Sanctuary did not exist, and under God’s strict direction. General offerings and sacrifices were unknown apart from when made to idols and false gods.
However, the confusion with regard to the Central Sanctuary that arose in the struggle between Saul and David, when there were possibly two tabernacles, and then continued under David with the two tents, one in Hebron/Gibeon and one in Jerusalem, inevitably had its effect. The grip of the Central Sanctuary was being weakened and the insinuation being made that worship need not be limited to one sanctuary. It was probably as a result of this that Solomon and the confused people began to worship in a number of holy places (1 Kings 3.2-3), the former because he thought he was following David his father and it seemed a good idea, the latter because they were now convinced that worship was not limited to one sanctuary and were anyway not sure which was the Central Sanctuary (although seemingly not in the days of David). It had switched about with bewildering rapidity. Thus as far as they were concerned ‘there was no house built to the name of Yahweh’ (1 Kings 3.2). The danger then was that their belief in the uniqueness of Yahweh, the one God, would be affected. This could lead to plural worship. (We may have no difficulty in recognising that one God may be publicly worshipped anywhere in the world in many allotted places, although we do not see any of them as His dwellingplace, but it was different then).
This situation continues in the reign of Solomon. The continued importance of the High Priest was revealed in that at the time of the death of David (1 Kings 1) both aspirants to the throne ensured that they had a High Priest on their side, but Abiathar chose the wrong person to support, Adonijah. The result was that while remaining High Priest (1 Kings 4.4), for no High Priest could cease to be High Priest, it was High Priest in retirement. Zadok became the High Priest with the power.
Adonijah began his bid for power at en-Rogel just outside Jerusalem. He was supported by Abiathar the High Priest and Joab, David’s general of the people’s army. But Solomon was supported by Zadok the High Priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah, captain of David’s ‘men’, his small but powerful standing army. At en-Rogel Adonijah ‘slew sheep and oxen and fatlings’ (i.e. arranged for the slaying of) but in all three mentions of this fact (1 Kings 1.9, 19, 25) there is never any suggestion that they were offerings and sacrifices. They were slain by the stone of Zoheleth so that the blood could flow out as was required where such beasts were not offered as sacrifices (compare 1 Samuel 14.33-34 and see Deuteronomy 12.20-25). However in view of the statement in 1 Kings 3.2 it may be that en-Rogel was a sacred site and that this slaughter was intended as an offering to Yahweh and was carried out by priests, the writer not wanting to see it as such. Things had grown lax.
Adonijah’s cause collapsed when Solomon was crowned king at David’s command at Gihon and the people supported him. We read that Zadok ‘took the horn of oil out of the tent and anointed Solomon’ (1 Kings 1.39). This may have been out of the tent which David set up, but more likely it was in the Tabernacle at Gibeon and had to be fetched from there. As a result of hearing this Adonijah fled to the horns of the altar for sanctuary (1 Kings 1.51). This would almost certainly signify the altar in the Tabernacle in Gibeon, a place made holy by generations of sacred history. This was an act of desperation, as it was later with Joab who ‘fled to the Tabernacle of Yahweh and caught hold of the horns on the altar’ (2.28). Benaiah who was sent to slay him hesitated to slay him while he was in the Tabernacle courtyard clinging to the horns of the altar, but Solomon pointed out that he was a double murderer and therefore guilty under the covenant which decreed sentence of death for his crimes. Thus he was slain at the altar. The ancient right of sanctuary had not worked. (Both knew that it would be futile to flee to a City of Refuge. They would simply be handed over by the authorities there as murderers).
The advent of kingship had inevitably weakened the idea of the Central Sanctuary, and from the moment of Saul’s destruction of the priesthood at Nob the people must have been in some considerable confusion about it. We have seen that Saul probably set a Tabernacle up under Zadok, a legitimate descendant of Aaron, continued by Ishbosheth, and that David probably set one up under Abiathar, the rightful High Priest by descent as a result of the death of Ahimelech. To support either one or the other would have courted danger if the wrong person won the power struggle, and posed religious questions which the people were not in a position to answer. And as this was then followed by the two separate tents at which sacrifices were officially offered under David, one in Hebron/Gibeon and one in Jerusalem, all this had its inevitable effect. People had lost confidence in the idea of the Central Sanctuary and were not sure which to look to, and so began to ‘sacrifice in high places because there was no residence built to the name of Yahweh’. They no longer knew which was the Central Sanctuary until finally the Temple was built (1 Kings 3.2).
In other words because there was no one fixed Central Sanctuary that all could recognise, they began to worship in recognised holy places. It seemed the best compromise. This resulted in a wandering from the teaching of the Law, which in view of the situation was difficult to apply, a wandering which would sadly continue and finally result in disaster, for this probably means that they went to well known holy places and sacrificed to Yahweh. But the danger of this was that it could soon become mixed with Baal worship which had also been conducted at those holy places, especially as the idea of the oneness of God was dissipated. Presumably the priests also had been put in some disarray and complied. Worse still Solomon appears to have courted popularity by going along with it, he ‘sacrificed and burnt incense in high places’ (1 Kings 3.3). For him too the hold of the Central Sanctuary had been relaxed. He had grown up knowing of at least two sanctuaries, and saw no reason for not sacrificing at others. Thus we now hear for the first time about a multiplicity of altars. The firm and inviolable link with the Central Sanctuary was now broken.
But the fact that this is mentioned first of Solomon suggests that the writer recognised that David had never encouraged such practises (whatever the people did). For him the Central Sanctuary had always remained paramount. And he had only sacrificed there, or in the presence of the Ark.
Indeed Solomon is revealed as careless with regard to such things. He did not hesitate about having Joab slain at the altar (1 Kings 2.31), he worshipped in a number of high places (1 Kings 3.3), he would certainly have had to provide a place for his Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh to worship her gods (1 Kings 3.1; 11.1), he went on to worship the gods of his wives (1 Kings 11.4). It was the sad result of the Central Sanctuary having been ‘divided up’. All attention was no longer placed on the one Sanctuary and the one God.
However, Solomon in the beginning did offer offerings and sacrifices at the Central Sanctuary in Gibeon, ‘the great high place’, for ‘there was the Tent of meeting’ (2 Chronicles 1.3) and did it in huge numbers (‘a thousand’) (1 Kings 3.4; 2 Chronicles 1.6), earning Yahweh’s approbation. God clearly recognised the dilemma of the times and that the response was at that stage genuine. On Yahweh making promises to him in response, he then ‘came to Jerusalem (presumably from Gibeon), and stood before the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh and offered up whole burnt offerings and offered peace offerings and made a feast to his servants’. He wanted to keep everyone happy, both the people of Israel and Judah, and his servants in Jerusalem, and also Yahweh. The writer of Kings appears to have given all this his modified approval, although he did criticise the general use of high places (1 Kings 3.3). He recognised that in the circumstances of the times they had had no alternative, and that the presence of the Ark justified sacrifices in Jerusalem. Once, however, the one Central Sanctuary was restored it would be very different.
2 Chronicles 1 confirms this picture. It tells us that ‘the Ark of God had David brought up from Kiriath-yearim to the place which he had prepared for it, for he had pitched a tent for it at Jerusalem, moreover the bronze altar, that Bezaleel -- had made, he put before the Tabernacle of Yahweh, and Solomon and the congregation sought to it, and Solomon went up there (to Gibeon - 2 Chronicles 1.3-6, 13) to the bronze altar before Yahweh, which was at the tabernacle of the congregation, and offered a thousand whole burnt offerings on it’ (2 Kings 1.4-6).
Thus the Tabernacle with the original bronze altar was set up in Gibeon, and the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh was in its sacred tent in Jerusalem. But the final intention in David’s mind had undoubtedly been to re-establish the Central Sanctuary by building a Temple in Jerusalem. Theoretically this should have brought all back to the original principles established by the Law and firmly laid down by Moses. Inevitably, however, it did not completely fulfil its purpose. Once people under Solomon had obtained the idea that they could legitimately express their worship elsewhere because for many decades there was no nationwide recognition of a unique Central Sanctuary, restoration of the original ideal would be difficult. They had become attached to the high places. And the lure of then participating in pagan practises increased. It would continue to be like king, like people.
The temple took seven years to build (the period of divine perfection). And all this time there was no one recognised Central Sanctuary. The cutting and shaping of timbers and preparation of the stones was done by large numbers of Israelites, partly with the help of Sidonian experts (1 Kings 5), and the bronzework in the temple was done under the supervision of Hiram from Tyre, an expert who was half Israelite and whose Tyrian father was dead (1 Kings 7.13 onwards). The remainder of the work was presumably done by Israelite craftsmen and presumably an Israelite architect designed the whole, patterned on the Tabernacle combined with known examples of such architecture, especially in Phoenicia, and in cooperation with Hiram, whose influence was probably paramount. The Sidonians (5.6) and Hiram (7.14) are mentioned in order to stress the expertise that went into the work. They used the very best! But it is a mistake to think of the Temple as just built by foreigners. They simply sought their expertise.
And once it was built it incorporated ‘the Ark’, ‘the Tabernacle’ and the tabernacle sacred ‘vessels’, brought up by the priests and Levites with due ceremony, although all that the Ark now contained (thanks no doubt to the Philistines) were the two tablets of stone which Moses put there at Horeb (1 Kings 8.4, 9). It was important that the people now recognise that this was the Central Sanctuary containing within it what remained of the old. But the table, the lampstand, and the altar of incense were all replaced and reproduced on a grander scale, with a multitude of further vessels, and extra cherubim, and we must remember that those then in the latest Tabernacle may not anyway have been original ones. But these alterations would not be seen by the people, for they were in the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. 2 Chronicles 4.1 tells us that he also made a new bronze altar, much larger than the original.
There is no mention of the ancient bronze altar being brought to the Temple, but it probably was, along with ‘the vessels’. But so numerous were the offerings made that the altar was too small and the whole of the middle of the court was sanctified for the purpose of offering sacrifices (1 Kings 8.64). This may have resulted in the making of the new altar. Or the replacement might already have been made.
It is noteworthy that Solomon did not dare to meddle with the Ark. That would have been seen as sacrilege. But he did provide extra cherubim around it. All attention, however, was now finally focused on ‘the Ark in which is the covenant of Yahweh’ (1 Kings 8.21), whose staves were so long that they could be seen from the Holy Place before the oracle (1 Kings 8.8). And it is stressed that now Israel had rest from their enemies (compare Deuteronomy 12.10). There is even the nice touch that Israel returned to their ‘tents’ (verse 66), a reminder of wilderness days. Yahweh then declares, ‘I have hallowed this house, which you have built, to put my name there for ever (into the distant future), and my eyes and my heart will be there perpetually’ (1 Kings 9.3). The new Central Sanctuary was established.
But from now on in Judah even the good kings such as Asa and Jehoshaphat would not seek to prevent the worship of Yahweh in recognised ‘high places’, holy sites around Judah. These would include Hebron and Gibeon as well as Jerusalem, and when Bethel came under Judah, Bethel. And this dividing of worship would unfortunately encourage the tendency towards polytheism, and the worship of the Baalim and the Ashteroth, the gods and goddesses of Canaan who were also worshipped at those places. It is not until we come first to Hezekiah, and then to Josiah, that we have kings who were determined to bring Israel back to the ancient ideas, and to unite the people around the one Central Sanctuary, and thus about the one God in indivisible unity, but in both cases the emphasis is on the restoration to what had been, in accordance with commandments of Yahweh.
The emphasis in the story of Hezekiah is on his faith in Yahweh (2 Kings 18.5). And he is cited as having done ‘right in the eyes of Yahweh, in accordance with all that David his father had done’, which included the removing of the high places (2 Kings 18.4), and of the images of Baal and Asherah. He even broke in pieces the bronze serpent Nechushtan which Moses had made. This last emphasises that we are not just to see in these descriptions simply a formal reference to reformation. All that could rival Yahweh was genuinely removed. The Central Sanctuary was central once more, and the covenant was restored to its rightful place, and all that was taking men away from Yahweh was got rid of. The idea of the one unique Sanctuary was clearly firm in the traditions of Judah even though it had not been fully observed.
It is also emphasised that he ‘clave to Yahweh, and departed not from following Him, but kept His commandments, which Yahweh commanded Moses’ (1 Kings 18.6). This is emphasised throughout. Note how in the account there is a significant emphasis on the root dbq ("to cling"). It occurs nine times in chapter 18. His reforms were clearly from the heart. He was firm in his response to the covenant and to His God, and he clung to Him.
It was thus that the purity of the Law would be maintained, and the emphasis on the uniqueness of Yahweh established. But the hearts of the people were not permanently wooed away from the high places, and on his death they returned to them again. Manasseh rebuilt the high places which his father had destroyed (2 Kings 21.3), and as ever this led on to the worship of the Baalim and the Ashtaroth.
Josiah began his reign at eight years old and the impression is given that he did ‘right in the eyes of Yahweh’ from the beginning. There is no hint of his having followed his father’s ways. And behind this was the groundswell of ‘the people of the land’. For it was they who had revenged the death of king Amon and quelled the coup that had resulted in it, putting Josiah the true heir on the throne (2 Kings 22.1-2).
Yet it was not until the eighteenth year of Josiah (of his reign - 2 Chronicles 34.8) that he began the repairing of the temple which had fallen into a state of disrepair. On the other hand the reforms had clearly been in process a long time already. This delay was therefore presumably because in the poor state of the kingdom when he took over there were insufficient funds in the treasury for the major repairs required, for the point is made that ‘the keepers of the door’ had had to gather silver from the peoples in order for the repairs to commence (1 Kings 22.4). It was not until sufficient funds had been accumulated that the in depth work could begin.
So the assumption must be that the actual reforms commenced much earlier, and in fact the very desire to repair the Temple indicates such reform. It is a mistake to assume that the reforms followed the discovery of ‘the book of the Law’ in the Temple. The reason that the Temple was being repaired was because of the reforms that had taken place and because the Temple was being restored as the Central Sanctuary. The discovery simply gave them new impetus, and produced repentance in king and people and a desire to truly fulfil the covenant. The result of finding the lawbook was not stated to be centralisation but to be a determination to ‘walk after Yahweh, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all their heart and with all their soul, to perform the words of the covenant which were written in this book’ (2 Kings 23.3). This resulted in a keeping of the Passover which surpassed all others (2 Kings 23.21-23) so mightily were the people moved. Centralisation having already taken place this led on to a deeper application of the Law in their daily lives. Indeed there is good reason for considering that the whole description of the discovery of the Law book (22.3-23.3, 21-23), ‘the book of the covenant’ (22.2), comes from a totally different source than the descriptions of reform (23.4-20).
All this is confirmed in 2 Chronicles 34. ‘In the eighth year of his (Josiah’s) reign, while he was yet young (when he was sixteen), he began to seek after the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year be began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and from the Asherim, and the graven images and the molten images’ (2 Chronicles 34.3). This would take some considerable time. Already then he was again establishing Jerusalem as the Central Sanctuary. It was only when this was done that he turned his attention to major repairs to the Temple as a result of gifts received from the peoples of both Israel and Judah. And it was only when these gifts which had been stored up were being accessed that ‘the book of the Law of Yahweh given by Moses’ was discovered (34.14). Thus the Chronicles makes quite clear what Kings presupposes, that the reformation and centralisation took place before the discovery of the book of the Law.
This being so there is no good reason for simply seeing ‘the book of the Law’ as Deuteronomy, although it no doubt at least included most of Deuteronomy (it is called ‘the book of the covenant’). Deuteronomy in fact says little about the Passover, certainly not enough to explain how it was to be observed (2 Kings 23.21). Nor does the fact that the book was read to the king necessarily indicate that the whole book that had been discovered was read to the king. Shaphan no doubt selected out the portions, as he himself was reading it, that he felt that the king should hear, which may well have included Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 27. We are not told how long it took Shaphan to read it, nor whether he went to the king on the same day. He clearly wanted to read it through before he took it to the king. He would then read out the parts that had affected him the most.
The gathering together of the people to hear the reading of the Law (2 Kings 23.2) was probably in fulfilment of the requirement of Deuteronomy 31.10-13 even though it was not at the feast of tabernacles. This was no doubt done in view of the fact that such reading of the full Law had not previously been carried out within recent times. The purpose had been that the whole of the Law in full would be read out. As this had not happened within recent memory it was done at that time.
That Deuteronomy was powerfully influential is not to be doubted. Its racy style would enhance its popularity. Hosea in 8th century BC is permeated with its style all through, demonstrating that its teaching was firmly founded in Israel in his day, but its basic tenets, the promises to the patriarchs, the covenant, the kingship of Yahweh, holy war and the possession of the land were not new and could all be traced as early as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 in the time of the Exodus. It was thus not teaching new ideas. Furthermore its archaic Hebrew (masculine and feminine is not clearly differentiated) and its prose form, more in line with Samuel and Elijah than the later prophets, who tended to a poetic presentation, confirm its early date. As does its covenant format which is most like the formats for tables of laws and suzerainty treaties of 2nd Millennium BC. But in Deuteronomy the Central Sanctuary was not limited to one unique particular site (Jerusalem) but to ‘the place which God should choose’, wherever that may be at any time. And Deuteronomy itself sees that as including Shechem (chapter 27).
After the death of Josiah the reforms collapsed with the result finally of the Exile, when the Central Sanctuary was again destroyed. But this time the people were also, in one way or another, removed from the land, and the land was left to ‘enjoy its sabbaths’. Even here, however, they looked back to the Central Sanctuary (Psalm 137; Daniel 6.10).
Meanwhile in the Northern kingdom of Israel events had taken a different turn. The rejection of Rehoboam and crowning of Jeroboam presented a dilemma to Jeroboam. The pious among the people would still look to the Central Sanctuary in Jerusalem, the High Priest and the levitical priesthood. Thus, in spite of the fact that he had had Yahweh’s approval (1 Kings 11.37-38) he deliberately set about establishing rival sanctuaries. (Had worship at these high places been legitimately well established he would not have had the same difficulty). It may well be that the sanctuary at Dan, which had been established in the days of the Judges (Judges 18.30), had become active again, at least spasmodically on and off, as a high place. Certainly it would seem that its memory still enjoyed a reputation and a host of willing adherents. And there was the sacred site of Bethel, possibly on the site of Abraham’s altar there. Solomon’s policy, and the Priest’s, of allowing worship at the high places and of being careless in religious matters was reaping its reward. Jeroboam built/rebuilt ‘houses’ at both sanctuaries and established permanent altars there (1 Kings 12.31).
Jeroboam now also set up two golden calves, one at Bethel and the other at Dan, but the fact that he had to set up a new priesthood from among the people (1 Kings 12.31) demonstrates that the levitical priesthood remained faithful to the Central Sanctuary. Thus up to this point either worship in the high places had been restricted to visits by the priesthood, or the priesthood now deserted the high places, revealing that the principle of the Central Sanctuary still held firm with them, and that as a whole they remained faithful to the High Priesthood.
The two golden calves must have been intended in some way to represent Yahweh, for Jeroboam would know that he could not so easily and so quickly ignore or alter the faith of the people, and he acknowledged Yahweh’s part in his appointment (1 Kings 14.2). It is possible that the invisible Yahweh was intended to be seen as riding/standing on their backs as Hadad bestrode the back of a bull (thus suggesting that the calves did not officially represent a graven image but could be compared to the cherubim), or it may be that they were intended to represent Yahweh’s power and fruitfulness in symbolic form, in which case they specifically broke the covenant. But either way they represented a divided Yahweh, and acted as a spur to polytheism, both by the nature of having two Central Sanctuaries in the northern kingdom with the equivalent of an Ark in each, and because the calves were a reminder of Baal who was also represented by a bull. The dangers are easily apparent. The incident of the molten calf in the wilderness demonstrates how easily and quickly they could turn to such a representation which they somehow clearly connected with Yahwism (the original image at Dan may have been similar).
However, it should be noted that the original protest of the man of God sent by Yahweh was against the altar and the sanctuary and the new priesthood at Bethel, and not against the image, although Yahweh’s aversion to them is made clear later (see 1 Kings 14.9; 2 Kings 10.29). The principle of the one Central Sanctuary of Yahweh had thereby been destroyed. 1 Kings 13.32 may then refer to even more sanctuaries set up, or may simply be a reference to Bethel and Dan. Either way Jeroboam’s actions had resulted in his rejection by Yahweh (1 Kings 13.33; 14.15-16). He had destroyed the idea of the oneness and uniqueness of Yahweh in a way that the high places by themselves had not.
The division of the kingdom being permanent it was politically inevitable that these sanctuaries would continue, although Amos poured out his scorn on the sanctuary at Bethel (Amos 4.4; 5.5-6 compare 7.10, 13; Jeremiah 48.13). This sanctuary was never accepted by the prophets, and in the end Josiah destroyed it and defiled it (2Kings 23.15). This sin of Jeroboam became a byword. Although it had probably not been his intention he was seen as the main cause of the defection of Israel from Yahweh (2 Kings 17.21; see also 1 Kings 13.34; 16.3, 26,31; 21.22; 22.52; 2 Kings 3.3; 9.9; and often).
His actions put the pious in Israel into a dilemma. They could not always seek to Jerusalem because at times, when relations were strained, that would be seen as treason. They could thus only worship privately or make use of what was available. Thus with one exception the only references to sacrifice are indirect and made in such a way as to express disapproval. It is described as following the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. The failure to sacrifice at the one Central Sanctuary, now in Jerusalem, was certainly frowned on by the writer.
The one exception is Elijah’s offering on Mount Carmel in his challenge to the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). The ‘altar of Yahweh that was broken down’ repaired by Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.30) may well have been an altar in a recognised sacred high place set up for the worship of Yahweh, either officially or unofficially, whose disuse demonstrated just how far from Yahweh the northern kingdom had gone, but it is clear that God was willing to receive sacrifices there when offered at His own command.
This does not tell us anything about the doctrine of the Central Sanctuary, only that circumstances were such that for Israel there was now often no access to it. It would suggest that in the northern kingdom there were now a number of such altars, but it does not necessarily indicate God’s approval of them, except when specifically authorised by Him. And in this particular case, while Elijah arranged the wood and the offering himself, the actual consumption of it was the action of Yahweh. The sacrifice was undoubtedly carried through at Yahweh’s express command. The very mention of it, and of what followed, demonstrates approval of it.
Apart from this we do not read of acceptable priestly activity in the northern kingdom, although we know that such activity continued unacceptably (2 Kings 10.29), and was disapproved of. This is stressed in that every king is said to have continued in the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. But we do hear of the activities of bands of true prophets (1 Kings 18.4; 20.13, 35; 22.8; 2 Kings 2.3; 6.1; 9.1), although we do not know whether they were connected with a sanctuary.
However, until the time of Jehu it was Baalism that flourished in the northern kingdom, certainly in the court and in official circles. But Jehu’s activity demonstrates an underlying support of Yahwism among the people, although he had to destroy the cream of the aristocracy. He purged the house of Ahab and all Baal worship, restoring the centrality of the worship of Yahweh, although still at the sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan with their golden calves (2 Kings 10.29), a worship which continued right through to their exile.
Thus it is clear from a survey of all material connected with it that from the beginning of the covenant, once the Central Sanctuary was set up, that one Central Sanctuary and no other was seen as the direct intention of Yahweh, and that any wandering from that principal except at His own direct command, was seen as unacceptable. And that this continued until the time of Solomon. And further that no sacrifices and offerings were to be made except at that one Central Sanctuary, except temporarily in the presence of the Ark, which stood in for the Central Sanctuary, or when there was a theophany or prophetic revelation. This was necessary in order to stress that there was only one God, Yahweh, indivisible and unique. Thus the fulfilment of Deuteronomy 12 began as soon as rest was obtained in the land.
The Use of Singular and Plural Verbs In Deuteronomy.
By this we mainly refer to the fact that the record continually varies between the use of ‘thou’ (2nd person singular) and ‘ye’ (second person plural).
Their Use in 1.1-4.40.
There is in this section first of all an unusual use of ‘I’ in 2.27-29 where it was used of Moses but referred to Israel as a whole, and ‘thou’ where it is used of Sihon but refers to the Amorites as a whole. This was basically a use by ‘king’ to king, where reference to the ‘king’ includes his people. ‘Thou’ throughout the book usually refers to Israel except where the context reveals otherwise.
Elsewhere in 1.1-4.40, the plural ‘ye, you’ is regularly used. There are, however, exceptions. 1.31 should especially be noted, for there both ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ are used in the same verse in a case where there can be no real question of two sources. Both sections are required for the sense. (Compare also 3.21-22). This confirms that the usage is, at least in that case, stylistic.
In 1.21 we find the first use of the singular ‘thou’ throughout the verse. ‘Behold Yahweh thy God has set the land before thee. Take possession as Yahweh, the God of thy fathers has spoken to thee. Fear not nor be dismayed’. The purpose of ‘thy, thee’ here would seem to be because of the reference to the relationship with the fathers in the form of a declaration (but compare 1.8, 11 where ‘your’ is used). The idea is to bring out the oneness of Israel as a whole, trueborn and adopted person alike, within the covenant. It is because those who have been adopted have become one with Israel that they can look back to their ‘fathers’.
In 1.31 the use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ is primarily because of the illustration. Israel is likened to a son borne by his father (compare Exodus 4.23). The singular is therefore appropriate. But the application is then immediately to ‘ye’.
In 2.7 the purpose is to bring out the covenant position between Yahweh and Israel as a whole. It is somewhat similar to the distinction between ‘Israel’ (thee) seen as one and ‘the children of Israel’ (ye) seen as a united group. They are distinctly and genuinely one people whatever their origin. There is also a connection with 1.31 as Yahweh has clearly ‘walked’ with them as they walked, supporting them and caring for them like a father bears his son.
2.9, 16-19, 37 are interesting in that ‘thou, thee’ is used of their relationship with Moab and Ammon whereas ‘ye, you’ was used of their relationship with Edom (2.4-6). But the historical facts demand the mention of both Edom and Moab, even if not of Ammon, for both were prominent on the journey. The distinction would therefore appear again to be stylistic, and to reflect not two sources but the distinctions made in 23.3-8, with Ammon and Moab being more remote than Edom in their relationship, (nation to nation rather than brother to brother), reflecting a very early period before the relationship with Edom soured and became one of antagonism.
In 3.2 Yahweh speaks to Moses as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as ‘ruler’ over his people (compare 2.27-28), and the people are included with him in intent.
In 3.21-22 Joshua is naturally spoken of as ‘thou’, but this immediately moves to ‘ye’ as his people are brought to mind.
In 4.9-10, 19 ‘thou, thy’ is used so that it is addressing the whole people, but also so that each person would apply the words personally to themselves.
In 4.21, 23-24 the use of ‘thy, thee’, switched from ‘you’, is because the relationship between the whole people and the one covenant God is being spoken of. It is as it were one to one, with the whole nation represented by their High Priest. In 4.25 the ‘thou’ carries on from verse 24, seeing the one nation as begetting children, but immediately moving on to plural responsibility.
In 4.29 the movement to ‘thou’ is again in order to stress the choice that each must make, and from 4.30-40 the stress is on Israel as one covenant people in their relationship to Yahweh.
Thus throughout the whole passage the change from plural to singular is not haphazard, but bears within it particular emphases varying with the context. Israel as a whole is being addressed, but with an indication that each individual one should take the message to heart. This establishes a principle and suggests that we should see the same as applying all the way through the book.
The Use in 4.41-26.19.
The use in this section of ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ intermingled passages and verses occurs regularly, with ‘thou’ often predominating. ‘Thou’ is used to indicate Israel as a whole, or to bring out individual responsibility. ‘Ye’ sees Israel as a plurality. We might sometimes translate ‘ye all’. Distinctively ‘thou’ passages often tend to be those where direct demands are made, while the ‘ye’ passages tend to be more general, although necessarily the distinction sometimes blurs. There is a greater use of ‘thou’ because of the nature of the material. Thus in 5.6-21, the ‘thou’ usage arises out of the declaration of the covenant by Yahweh to His people from Mount Sinai, where they are being addressed as one nation and individual response is called for; in 6.4-9 the same idea of command applies. See also 7.1-4a; 8.2-18; 9.1-7a; 10.12-13, 20-22; 11.1; 12.20-31; 13.6-18; 14.2-3, 22-29; 15.1-19.14; 20.10-21.14; 22.1-12; 23.15-25; 24.8-22; 25.4, 11-26.19; and so on. Often when ‘thou’ appears there is a heightening of demand and an emphasis on individual responsibility although that is not to deny that some ye passages are also demanding, but on the whole they are more explicatory and general. It cannot be denied that ‘thou shalt not -’ comes over with more force than ‘ye shall not’.
The Use in 27-28.
In verses 1-10 ‘thou’ is used in order to emphasis the commands, ‘ye’ is used simply in description in verse 12. This is followed by cursings and blessings. The singular ‘he’ is used in the cursings in 27.15-26, which is similar to ‘thou’. In chapter 28 1-14 ‘thou’ is used indicating the nation being spoken to as a whole, but note ‘you’ in verse 14 where the phrase is an integral part of the sentence. In 28.15-68 ‘thou’ is again used to personalise the cursing, but note again reference to ‘you’ in verses 54, 62-63 where it is explicatory relieving the almost incessant ‘thou, thee’.
The Use in 29-30.
In chapter 29 there is an overall reversion to ‘ye, you’ but in verses 12-13 this becomes ‘thou’ as the nation is spoken of as entering into the covenant as sworn to the fathers (compare 1.21-2.7). Note also how in verse 11 there is the change from ‘your’ to ‘thy’ in the case of the foreigner who is a servant in ‘thy camps’ where there is a change from the personal to ‘thy’ having in mind the nation as a whole in its relationship to foreigners.
In chapter 30 there is a reversion to ‘thou’ because the blessings and cursings are central (see verses 1, 19), as in 27-28.
So the alternation of ‘thou’ and ‘you’ should be seen as having particular significance and nuances and not as evidence of two sources.
The Use of The Pentateuch in Deuteronomy.
There are clear indications in Deuteronomy of at least the traditions underlying Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. The land is due to Israel because of the promises made to their forefathers in Genesis; provisions in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20.1-23.17) are paralleled in many places (see commentary); the chapter on cleanness and uncleanness in the natural world in Leviticus 11 is paralleled and almost certainly known in Deuteronomy 14; the sending out of the spies and the victories over Sihon and Og, kings of the Amorites, are based on the same traditions as are found in Numbers and there are widespread indications of a knowledge of all these traditions which are drawn attention to in the commentary.
A). The Preamble and Historical Prologue to the Covenant (chapters 1-4).
As we come to the commentary itself we should perhaps summarise what lies before us. Having declared in Whose Name Moses is acting, the first four chapters act as a historical prologue to the covenant and very much deal with Israel’s history and its current consequences, and lead up to his announcing the stipulations of the covenant as a command from Yahweh.
Having introduced Yahweh as their God and Overlord (1.3, 6), Moses goes on to point out how He had offered the land to their fathers who died in the wilderness and how they had failed Him, even though He had given them every opportunity to succeed (1.6-46), so that they were a grim warning for the future. Yahweh had commanded that they enter the land and possess it (1.6-8), He had made them a numerous people (1.9-12), He had established them as a just and well governed nation (1.13-17), and given them clear instructions on what they should do and how they should behave (1.18). They had first entered the land through their scouts, through whom they had received its firstfruits. But on seeing the spectre of the enemy in the land they had forgotten what He could do and had turned back to unbelief (1.19-40). In that unbelief they had then in desperation again entered to take possession of the land (1.43). But this had resulted in them being driven from the land (1.44) to wander in the wilderness (1.46-2.1), for they had lost their right to the land. For the land was Yahweh’s, and only those could possess it who did so through belief in Yahweh, and who were ready to respond to His covenant.
We can thus see in this first chapter a summary of the whole message of the book. That God was offering them the land, that He was making them a numerous and just people, that if they would enter they must enter in faith and obedience, and that if they turned away in unbelief they would be driven from the land, just as their fathers had been.
This description of what their fathers had done was therefore both an invitation and a warning. An invitation to re-enter the land, again with Yahweh’s approval, and a clear warning to the new generation, a warning which will be repeated in the heart of the book, to remember that this land was Yahweh’s. It was a pure land, a holy land, a land for those who believed, a land for those who were in covenant with Yahweh. It was a land which spued out its inhabitants if they disobeyed Yahweh (Leviticus 18.27-28; 20.22), as it had spued out their fathers.
That was why those who now possessed it, the Canaanites/Amorites, were also to be driven out of it (4.38; 7.1; 11.23) because of their idolatry and gross sin (compare Genesis 15.16). The land was such that it could only be dwelt in by those who walked in faith and obedience. And these his listeners must also recognise that when they themselves have entered the land, if they too are found to be in unbelief, and are disobedient to the covenant, they too will be driven out and wander among the nations (4.26-28; 28.64-68). Instead of being like the stars for multitude they will be few in number (4.27; 28.62). For this is Yahweh’s land, a land which can only be permanently occupied by those who are in a loving covenant with Yahweh.
The idea of ‘the land’ is important in Deuteronomy. But it was not just because it was land, valuable as that might be, it was because it was Yahweh’s land. We could have said here, ‘Moses came to them preaching the land of God, for that was why he was sent’. For this was the land where Yahweh would reign. It would be where the kingly rule of God was to be established, and where righteous rulers were to establish justice, and where everyone was to prosper. That was the dream, even if the fulfilment was a little different simply because of their refusal to obey.
So even as they go forward to receive the promises the warning from their fathers hangs over their head that they must have faith in Yahweh, and that when they enter the land that faith must continue, and that if they turn to unbelief, they too will be cast out of the land.
The consequence of the failure of their fathers was that He had allowed that generation to pass away, wandering around aimlessly, cast out of the land and dying in the wilderness, before another attempt was made (1.34, 35, 37; 1.46-2.1, 14-16). It was as though the future history of Israel, which would witness a similar failure and expulsion, had been performed in microcosm. It is a foolish thing to say ‘no’ to God.
We should note in all this how closely these thoughts pattern the purpose of the Book of Numbers which also seeks to prepare for entry into the land, stresses the judgment on the first generation, and encourages the new generation to go forward (see Commentary on Numbers).
But now the time had come for the second attempt (2.3). This involved going by Edom, Moab and Ammon, who were brother tribes to the east of Jordan, skirting their borders (2.4-23). These had had to be left alone (2.5, 9, 19), for Israel must also recognise what land was not theirs. God did not want them to attack their related brother tribes, but to pay their way as they went by and remain at peace with them. For their land was not to be seen as available to Israel, but as belonging to these peoples because Yahweh had given it to them (2.5, 9, 19). The land that was to belong to Israel still lay ahead. It is that land only that they have a right to take by conquest. That land alone is their inheritance, although extended by permission to parts of Transjordan when their kings proved belligerent and attacked Israel.
By this means it was made very clear that it is Yahweh Who apportions out the lands and Who gives what He will to whom He will, and that their own land, the chosen land, was specific and clearly delineated (compare 32.8).
But let them now recognise that He had given them the land of Sihon, the Amorite (2.24) and of Og, king of Bashan (3.2-6), and had commenced the process by which all who heard of Israel would tremble, as He had promised so long before (2.25, compare Exodus 15.14-16). Thus they had totally defeated Sihon and possessed his land (2.24-36). And the same was also true of Og, king of Bashan, with his mighty cities. They had also overcome him and destroyed all his cities (3.1-7). And thus had the whole of that side of Jordan, from the borders of Moab in the south, northward to Gilead and Bashan, been delivered into their hands, being possessed by Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh (3.8-17), a firstfruit of what was to come.
It is difficult for us in reading this to gain the atmosphere of the moment. As they stood to hear his words in the plain of Moab no one was more aware than them of the truth of what he was saying. For they were present there, having themselves just been involved in it. They had just returned from fighting a powerful enemy. Great dangers had just been faced, successful battles had been fought with seemingly powerful armies, they had approached great cities with trepidation, but through Yahweh’s help they had brought them crashing down. The dead had been counted and were being mourned as heroes, for it was through their sacrifice in the Holy War they had been victorious. The land of Gilead and Bashan was theirs, and they had returned back to camp weary and triumphant. They had tasted the good taste of victory.
And now here they were gathered to hear Moses, to learn that Yahweh was now about to give them the land of the promises for them to possess, the land of Canaan itself. So he rallied the soldiery of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, calling on them to play their full part in the invasion of Canaan (3.18-20), and encouraged and strengthened Joshua on whom the main responsibility for the invasion would fall (3.21-22, 28). As one man they were to be ready, poised for the entry into Canaan over the River Jordan, although sadly he, Moses, would not be a part of it, having been forbidden by Yahweh (3.23-27).
Thus was it now necessary for them to listen to Yahweh’s covenant requirements and do them, so that they might ‘live’ and possess the land (4.1 compare 30.15; 32.47). This was basic to all that lay ahead. They must remember that they had survived because of their obedience, while others had died in the wilderness (4.3-4), and that he had given them Yahweh’s statutes and commandments (4.2, 5-9) (as contained in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers). It was on the basis of their obedience to this covenant that their success was guaranteed (4.9), and to this end he reminds them again of the awesome experience at Sinai, and the way in which Yahweh had revealed Himself to them (4.10-14), and had declared His covenant requirements (4.14). And he warns in the light of this against foolish behaviour, and especially idolatry, once they are in the land (4.15-20). They must be faithful to their sovereign Lord and yield themselves to no other. Let them not forget that it was He Who had delivered them out of the fiery furnace of Egypt (4.20).
And they must remember how even he, Moses, was forbidden to enter the land because of his disobedience (4.21-22). Thus they must take to heart the lesson that the One Who is giving them the land can just as easily take it away from them again. It is ever theirs on probation. He has taken it from their fathers. He has taken it from Moses. He will take it from the Canaanites, driving them out because of their vile behaviour and idolatry (4.38). And He will give it to Israel. But let them be ever aware that He can just as easily take it from them too if they fail to respond in full obedience, and make images for themselves (4.23-25), driving them too out into exile among foreigners until they repent of their failure 4.26-28.
But Moses could not leave it there, for he knew that in the end it was God’s purpose through Abraham’s descendants to establish blessing for the world. So he knew that such rejection could not be the end. Though men may fail God would not. So he declares that then if they repent He will restore them (4.29-31), for they are the people through whom His purposes must be worked out as promised to their forefathers.
These are the initial warnings of the covenant, preparing for the blessings and possible cursings ahead (27.15-28.68), typical of the overlordship covenants (suzerainty treaties). The point is being continually emphasised that the land was Yahweh’s and could only belong to those who were true to the covenant
Let them then now consider. Was ever people like them? Had any ever had experiences like theirs? Was ever any god like their God in His greatness, Who had so wonderfully delivered them and was now about to give them possession of His land? (4.33-39). That is why they were to obey His commandments and laws (4.40). He was seeking to keep them steadfast to the end.
Chapters 1-4 thus contain all that is necessary for the establishment of a covenant. Preamble, declaration of what they owe to their Overlord, offer, requirement to obey His statutes and ordinances, and warning of what will follow if they do not, followed by an emphasis on the witness of heaven and earth to the covenant and on their own witness to the power and faithfulness of Yahweh. Yet it is also a preliminary introduction to a more detailed exposition of the covenant, for the requirements are not spelled out in detail.
For this will lead on into chapter 5, which is the commencement of ‘the renewal of the covenant’ speech (4.44-29.1) in what is almost a re-enactment of what had taken place at Mount Sinai. In it Moses will bring the Sinai experience right into the present in all its vividness (5.2, 22-29). As he declares, ‘Yahweh did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even all of us who are alive here this day’ (5.3). And then he brings what happened at Sinai before them as though it were something that had happened to them and as something in which they had taken part (as the eldest among them had as children), including the very declaration of the covenant words, slightly but deliberately altered to suit their situation (5.5-29). And he does it in such a way that it stresses that they are as much involved in the covenant of Sinai as their fathers had been (5.3, 23-30). They must see what had happened there as having happened to them. And now therefore they must bind themselves in that covenant to do all that was commanded in it. For Yahweh has sent him with details of the requirements of that covenant which he is now about to pass on to them (5.31-33). And it is at this point that he begins to outline the requirements of the covenant, the covenant stipulations (chapter 6 onwards), which he will follow up with cursings and blessings (27.11-28.68) and the sealing of the covenant.
We must now review these first chapters in more detail.
Chapter 1. Preamble, History and Failure.
The Preamble (1.1-5).
Verses 1-5 of the chapter set the scene for the whole book. They are carefully constructed so as to form a literary unit. Note the chiastic literary pattern which opens and closes the two sections. ‘These are the words - which Moses spoke to all Israel - in Beyond Jordan --- in Beyond Jordan - in the land of Moab began Moses to declare - this instruction.’ (1.1a, 1.5). In between we are given the whereabouts of the place in which they were given, the dating of the event, what the event was (the declaration to the children of Israel of all Yahweh’s commands), and the particular historical event that brought it about, the defeat of Og and Bashan and the seizing of their lands. It was this last which was to be their incentive for going forward. They had seen it happen, and partaken in it, and they were to recognise that what Yahweh had done once He could do again.
From this we may learn certain lessons. Firstly that God has everything dated. In His own time will come about His own will. Secondly that while we may sometimes find ourselves ‘in the wilderness’, often a wilderness of our own deserving, as long as we keep going forward in faith we can be sure that the victories that He gives us there will lead us on into greater victories, so that we will be able to possess all that He has for us in the spiritual realm (see Ephesians 6.10-18). And thirdly that in order to obtain those blessings we must walk in the way of obedience to His will as revealed in His word, in His New Testament (Covenant).
We may analyse these verse as follows:
We note that in ‘a’ we have a description which in the parallel is similar but in reverse order stressing that we have here the words of Moses given in Beyond Jordan. In ‘b’ we have a geographical description of where they were safely encamped and in the parallel how they came to be safely encamped there, with geographical descriptions. In ‘c’ the number ‘eleven’ is mentioned and the same occurs in the parallel. They look back on their ‘eleven day’ journey, and in the ‘eleventh’ month they look forward to the future.
1.1-2 ‘These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel in Beyond Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah over against Suph, between Paran, and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.’
Note the connection back to Numbers 36.13. This is a continuation of what he has written before. But these words are looking forward. The purpose of the book is said to be in order to present ‘the words of Moses’ spoken to ‘all Israel’ (compare Exodus 18.25; Numbers 16.34). The phrase ‘All Israel’ is used fairly regularly in this book, and is used throughout the historical books. It simply indicates the nation as one whole including all who have been incorporated within the covenant. ‘All Israel’ are at this stage one people. Its use here may reflect among other things the requirement that Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh maintain their loyalty to the one Israel. They must all be one together.
In the first twenty eight chapters (including 29.1) ‘All Israel’ occurs four times on the lips of Moses and three times in narrative, and is used where a stress is required on the fact that Israel as a whole is involved, and ‘children of Israel’ occurs twice on the lips of Moses and six times in narrative when no such stress is required and the reference is to Israel in general, although it usually also indicates all Israel. In chapters 29.2-34.12 ‘All Israel’ occurs once on the lips of Yahweh and five times in narrative, again where there is a stress on the whole of Israel, while ‘children of Israel’ occurs once on the lips of Moses, three times on the lips of Yahweh, three times in the poem in chapter 32 and five times in narrative. Again it is more general in significance. Sometimes ‘all Israel’ would have been unsuitable, but in other cases either expression could have been used. Both expressions are therefore clearly equally satisfactory to the writer, one stressing Israel (‘thou’) as one whole, the other regularly referring to the whole of Israel (‘ye’) but without quite the same stress on oneness. It was important to recognise that ‘all Israel’ were involved in the covenant. There were to be no exceptions.
The place where this first speech was given is here carefully described in language reminiscent of someone who knew exactly where it was and was at pains to pinpoint it fairly accurately, and yet wishes to stress that all that they have gone through is behind them. It is intended to bring out the excitement of the situation. Here they were after all that has passed, on the very verge of the promised land. They were in ‘Beyond Jordan’, eleven days journey from Sinai, with Paran, Kadesh-barnea and Hazeroth behind them, and the promised land before them. Now, whatever the past, they could begin again.
‘Beyond Jordan’. This was a technical description of the land in the Arabah valley through which the Jordan flowed, together with its wider surrounds, (much as we might use Transjordan today, although it is not the same area as Transjordan, being on both sides of the Jordan). It merely signified being ‘in the region around the Jordan’. It could refer to land either side of the Jordan. It does not necessarily signify that the writer was west of Jordan looking east. He could have said to anyone who was with him, ‘we are in Beyond Jordan’ (compare Joshua 9.1). See Numbers 32.19 which refers to ‘Beyond Jordan eastward’, and compare ‘Beyond Jordan westward’ in Joshua 5.1; 12.7. See also Joshua 9.1 where ‘this side of Jordan’ is strictly ‘Beyond Jordan’ so that the writer is there speaking of them as being in ‘Beyond Jordan’).
The Arabah was the name for the Jordan rift valley in that area, coming down from the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee), through the Dead Sea valley, and into Seir (Edom). As the area in which the speech took place was not settled, and would not have a specific name recognisable to all, he designates it in terms of places more identifiable and with significance to Israel. Indeed the difficulty in describing precisely where it was comes out in the description. This is in itself an evidence of authenticity. They had entered the Wilderness of Paran from Hazeroth, and if Hazeroth here is to be identified with the Hazeroth in Numbers 11.35; 12.16 with 13.26; 33.17 it was the last staging post before the wilderness of Paran and Kadesh. So it is saying that all that was behind them. The same may be true of Laban (lbn)if it is the same as Libnah (lbnh) (Numbers 33.19). Suph was the closest place to where they were, the nearest local identifiable site. It may have been near the River Arnon but any current identification is speculative. Tophel and Di-zahab are unknown, but were probably to the north. Thus they were between the past and the future. Others have sought to identify all the names with local sites, which is very tentative, but equally possible. Many duplications of names occurred as local peoples gave similar names to places in their localities.
The sites of the different places named cannot be definitely identified by us, as we would in fact expect in view of the nature of the area, although noble attempts have been made, often based on places with similar sounding names. Such identifications are notoriously difficult and always tentative until some more definite evidence is found. There are indeed even now few sites that we can identify with absolute certainty. It is a rare thing to find the name of a city written down on something at the site as at Gibeon. They would, however, have been identifiable to those who had recently traversed the area. They were thus identifiable at the time. The mention of such unknown places confirms that Deuteronomy is very ancient.
‘It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.’ Horeb is the area around Sinai which included where Israel encamped. (There is no mention of a Mount Horeb in Deuteronomy - it is only in fact found in the Pentateuch in Exodus 33.6 where it could be any local mountain). The ‘way of Mount Seir’ was clearly an identifiable ‘highway’ which led through the wilderness, a rough wilderness track used by caravans and travellers. Kadesh-barnea was a large oasis (or group of oases) in the Negeb south of Canaan, which they visited twice in their wandering and stayed at for some time. ‘Eleven days’ is a specific description which indicates exactness (unlike, say, ‘seven days’ or ‘forty days’ which could simply indicate a general period of time), and it is actually accurate. Whoever wrote this knew how long it took. He had travelled that way. It is an unusual enough number to demonstrate that it was not an invention. An inventor would have used a round number.
The indication of the length of journey from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea of eleven days, contrasts strongly with the fact that it was now the fortieth year and they were still not yet in the land. What then had caused the delay? The reason for it will shortly be brought out.
1.3-4 ‘And it came about in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel, in accordance with all that Yahweh had given him in commandment to them, after he had smitten Sihon the king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who dwelt in Ashtaroth, at Edrei.’
The time of this first speech, going up to 4.40, is precisely dated. Such dating was common in ancient records long before the time of Moses, and its form bears comparison with other ancient records, Egyptian and otherwise. It was seemingly thirty nine years and ten months after the original Passover (on the fourteenth day of the first month). The necessary ‘forty years’ had passed (Numbers 14.33-34). His final purpose was to summarise all the historical events which had revealed Yahweh’s overlordship, to call them to response, and then to outline all the commandments that Yahweh had given them, but this would necessarily involve abbreviation, and not covering all the detail. Thus is the One Who is making this covenant with them introduced. It is Yahweh Who speaks.
This took place after the defeat of Sihon and Og, kings of the Amorites (Numbers 21.21-35). The defeat of those kings, which would eventually lead to the possessing of their land, brought home to Israel that the dream was now becoming a reality. They had achieved their first victories in the process of possessing the land, and their hearts were lifted high. Unlike their fathers they were going forth in belief and obedience.
Heshbon was the royal city of the Amorites in the area (Numbers 21.25-26). It has not yet been clearly identified. It became a levitical city (Joshua 21.39). It was restored by Reuben (Numbers 32.37), came into the possession of Gad, and then was later in the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah taken by Moab, before again being captured by Israel. Ashtaroth was a city probably connected with the worship of the goddess Asherah and dating back to the third millennium BC, and was the royal city of Og in Bashan. It was mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions, the Amarna letters and in Assyrian inscriptions. The city was again taken by Joshua (Joshua 12.4) but not retained (Joshua 13.12) although it later became a levitical city (Joshua 21.27), for the conquest was not a straightforward process. The original inhabitants did not just give up. They fled and came back, and had to be driven out again. For Edrei (probably modern Der‘ah) see 3.1; Numbers 21.33; Joshua 12.4; 13.12, 21.
1.5 ‘In Beyond Jordan, in the land of Moab, began Moses to declare (expound, make clear) this instruction (torah - law), saying,’
This verse basically recapitulates 1.1 in reverse and stresses that his speeches took place in the region of Beyond Jordan, on the very verge of the promised land, ‘in the land of Moab’, a general designation of the area. The ‘land of Moab’ was not just the area occupied by Moab. Sihon had seized part of the land of Moab, and Moab still saw it as theirs centuries later (see Judges 11.13-26).
Moses’ Recapitulation Of Their History (1.6-4.43).
Moses’ instruction will now commence, recapitulating their history, and describing what Yahweh had commanded. He will first demonstrate how their fathers had been satisfactorily established by Him as a populous nation enjoying righteous government, but had failed through unbelief and disobedience to capture the land He had wanted to give them, and because of that unbelief and their refusal to respond to covenant instructions had been driven from it. Thus they had been sentenced to wander for ‘forty years’ in the wilderness (1.6-2.1).
But now He commands them to go forward, avoiding their brother nations (2.2-23), (for there was no point in fighting for what could not be theirs). He had already delivered kings into their hands along with their great and mighty cities, so that parts of the land had already become theirs, and they had thus been able to recognise in their own experience what Yahweh could do for them (2.24-34.17). He wants them to recognise how much they owe to their great Overlord. But this is not just a series of battle speeches prior to the great conflict ahead. The whole book is part of a solid covenant which guarantees Yahweh’s activity on their behalf and in return makes firm demands on them, and warns of the consequences of future failure, sealing it with a written document in the presence of witnesses (27.1-31.27). It can also be seen as composed of mini-covenants incorporated within the larger covenant.
We could also liken it to a leasehold of the land. Yahweh is taking His land from others who have broken the terms of their lease, and is ‘giving’ it to them for their use. But if they too fail to obey the terms of their lease, they too will be expelled.
Note in all this how he speaks to them as being one with their fathers. What their fathers had done, they had in some sense done. There was a huge sense of community oneness. Yet they were also their own men. Like their fathers they were faced with a choice. What they must ensure was that they broke the mould, and did not behave as their fathers had done. So in one sense they were one with their fathers, and shared in the same covenant promises, and participated in their experiences, but in another sense they were free to make their own choice. They would not thus be able to blame their fathers for what they decided. This brings out the important point that community responsibility did not necessarily blight all in the community. One generation, once they came of age, could throw off what the previous generation had done.
The Command From Yahweh To Go Forward (1.6-8).
This is a simple, balanced, initial command in three parts:
Here we have both progression and chiasmus. We have the command to leave the Mount where they have been encamped for so long, to enter the whole of the land, and to go in and possess it, because He had sworn to give it to their forefathers. The chiasmus lies in ‘a’ in the parallel between ‘You have dwelt long enough in this mountain’ and ‘Go in and possess the land’, with the description of the whole land central. In ‘b’ “Turn you, and take your journey” parallels “Look, I have set the land before you.” And ‘c’ describes the perimeters of the land which they are going to possess.
1.6-7 ‘Yahweh our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, “You have dwelt long enough in this mountain, turn you, and take your journey, and go to the hill-country of the Amorites, and to all the places near to it, in the Arabah, in the hill-country, and in the lowland, and in the South, and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” ’
Moses opens his speech with the covenant name which is the essence of the book, ‘Yahweh our God’. This is what the book is all about, Yahweh their covenant God (here and 5.2), Yahweh their only God (6.4), Yahweh to Whom they owe all (see below), Yahweh Who spoke to them in Horeb.
He looks back to Yahweh’s instruction at Mount Sinai in Horeb (see for this period Exodus 19-Numbers 10). The One in Whose name he speaks is ‘Yahweh, our God Who spoke to us in Horeb’, that is, the One Who spoke at Sinai. He is the One Who had chosen them as His own set apart (holy) people, revealing it especially in that devastating encounter. Horeb includes Sinai and the surrounding area. ‘This mountain’ referred to Sinai, where they had first received the covenant.
At this point Yahweh had told their fathers that they had been in Horeb (at Sinai) long enough. They must leave this place where they had experienced the wonder of their powerful God and were to journey on into the land that He had prepared for them, ‘the hill-country of the Amorites’ (the long range of mountains west of Jordan), and all connected with it; the Jordan Valley (the Arabah), the lowlands (the Shephelah), ‘the South’ (the Negeb; compare Genesis 12.9; 20.1; Numbers 13.17), the seashore (the coastal plain), where the Canaanites dwelt, Lebanon, north of Canaan, even to the great river, the River Euphrates. (For Lebanon see Joshua 1.4; 13.5-6. Although in ancient days ‘Lebanon’ was also sometimes used to include a part of Canaan where there was a valley of Lebanon - Joshua 11.17; 12.7). The vista was large, from the Euphrates in the north to the Negeb. This is regularly given as the land which Yahweh had set aside for them if only they had been willing to take it (Genesis 15.18; Exodus 23.31; Joshua 1.4). In a sense it was the range of David’s empire if we include treaty nations, but because of disobedience it never became a reality, and at other times the land promised is depicted in less full terms.
The mention first of ‘the hill-country of the Amorites’, here and also in verse 20, must be seen in the light of verses 43-44 where it was in that very place that the Amorites would defeat their fathers. Thus his hearers must now face up to their victorious enemy in the very place of their previous humiliation and defeat them in turn. Such a victory would then give them confidence for the future. God very often has to bring us back to a place where we have suffered defeat in order that we might triumph and thus restore the balance, and our confidence in God.
‘Yahweh our God.’ This is emphatic in the sentence. He is the One Whose covenant this is. It designates Yahweh in His uniqueness and distinctiveness, the God Who has a special relationship with Israel, the One to Whom they look, the God to Whom they have a special responsibility. Compare its use in Exodus (3.18; 5.3; 8.10 etc.) where it is used only in solemn declarations to Pharaoh.
As the covenant title it occurs eleven times in Moses’ first speech, where after its emphatic use as the opening words of Moses, having reference to His speaking to them in Horeb (1.6, compare 5.2), it connects with Yahweh’s personal commands to them (1.19, 41; 2.37), Yahweh’s giving of the land to them (1.20, 25, 2.29), and Yahweh’s power to deliver their enemies into their hands (2.33, 36; 3.3), being finally used to emphasise His special nearness to them (4.7). It occurs nine times in chapter 5-6 at the commencement of his second great speech, again to emphasise His making of a covenant with them (5.2, compare 1.6), His oneness as their God (6.4), the hearing of His voice at Horeb (5.24, 25, 27 (twice)), His direct commands given to them (6.20) and with the need to fear Him and keep His commandments (6.24, 25) and then not until 29.15, 18, 29 in Moses’ third covenant speech where reference is to their standing before Him in making the covenant, a warning against turning away from Him, and to His being the One to Whom secret things are known. It stresses His mightiness and uniqueness and sovereignty as their covenant God.
Compare its use in Joshua (only in 18.8; 22.19, 29; 24.17, 24) in solemn declarations when the covenant is being emphasised, and its only use in Judges in 11.24; and in 1 Samuel in 7.8 where the same applies. Compare also 1 Kings 8.57, 59, 61. These are all the uses in the former prophets (the historical writings up to Kings), save that it is exceptionally used outside of speech in 1 Kings 8.65, but that simply stresses its significance, for there the covenant emphasis is central and it is actually in the nature of a declaration. It is thus used for a distinct purpose and is not simply ‘a mark of style’. It stresses the close personal covenant relationship between Him and His people. It also occurs nine times in the Psalms, and it occurs fifteen times in Jeremiah, where it could be described as a mark of style, or possibly as indicating the influence that Deuteronomy has had on him. On the other hand ‘Yahweh your God’ (addressed either to singular Israel (196 times in Deuteronomy out of 257 times in the whole Old Testament) or the plural children of Israel (46 out of 138) occurs in Deuteronomy 242 times out of 395 in the Old Testament as a whole, and is especially a common address from Exodus to Joshua.
As Israel had settled down at Horeb, we too can tend to settle down in a place where God has blessed us or revealed Himself to us. But the warning is that we must not do so any longer than God knows is good for us. Rather we must lift up our eyes and ask ourselves, ‘what is it about the future that God is preparing me for?’ Then we must go forward into the ‘unknown’, knowing that our hand is in the hand of God, and that ahead lies great blessing for us as long as we trust Him and obey.
1.8 ‘Look, I have set the land before you. Go in and possess the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their seed after them.’
And to trust and obey had been what God desired of Israel. They had been told to look at the land that was before them, recognising the great privilege and opportunity that was theirs, and to go forward. This was His land, the very land that Yahweh had sworn to give to their fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to themselves (who were ‘their seed after them’). It was the land where He would dwell among them as their king. Thus the gift of the land is confirmed, and is closely linked with the patriarchal covenants given in Genesis. They were to behold it, and then to go in and possess it, for it was theirs, a gracious gift from their great covenant Overlord.
Yahweh was offering them the thing that men then coveted most and would die for, land! What men dreamed about was available to them, a gift from Him. And not only land but His land, watched over and protected by Him. And this was not because of their own merit but because He had chosen out Abraham and through him would bless his ‘descendants’, so that through them He might bless the world (Genesis 12.1-3, 7). It was the symbol of a glorious future. And they had reason to know what He could do, for He had done it against the Egyptians.
As we consider this in relation to ourselves we must, however, beware of putting emphasis on the land. The emphasis should be on what the land symbolised, a fruitful and blessed future with God under His Kingly Rule. Today the land of Canaan/Israel no longer matters. It is no longer the promised land. Those who see it as such hope in vain. The promised land is the heavenly rule to which it pointed, and that should be men’s aim. We may safely leave the land to those who want it to fight over it. There is no Holy War in Israel today. God has moved on to something more important, the war against evil and death and Satan.
For what God really guaranteed to Abraham was a glorious and fulfilled future expressed in terms of a fertile country. The writer to the Hebrews saw this for he explained that Abraham was looking for a city with foundations whose builder and maker was God (Hebrews 11.10). A fertile land, a well founded city, both were pictures of a blessed and sure future, in our terms a heavenly hope, and it was this that was promised to Abraham. It was only expressed as it was because Abraham could have had no conception of such a heavenly hope.
And we may be sure of this. If Israel today are to be blessed it will not be by being in the land, but by their responding to Jesus Christ, their true Messiah, and finding salvation and a heavenly inheritance in Him (Romans 11.26; Hebrews 11.14-16; 13.14). To draw up a great plan for the future of Israel in the physical land of Palestine is to go backwards. That is not to deny that God may have brought some parts of Israel back to Palestine in order that there they may eventually recognise in Jesus Christ their Messiah in some possible great outpouring of the Spirit. It is only to deny that there is to be a future, earthly, Jewish kingdom acknowledged as such by God. Any blessing to Israel must now come through the Gospel, through the Kingly Rule of God as described by Jesus, and through the heavenly kingdom where He reigns over all.
He Points Out That There Should In Fact Have Been No Problem With Their Possessing Canaan Because Yahweh Had Made Them A Great Nation, Justly and Wisely Watched Over By Their Rulers, And Had Led Them Safely Through The Wilderness. Their Failure Was Not Yahweh’s Fault (1.9-18).
He now draws attention to the fact that there was no excuse for the failure of their fathers to possess the land, because Yahweh had made them a great nation with an established and satisfactory system of justice. And they are still so, he confirms. They have become a great and well regulated nation through Yahweh’s goodness.
This section follows a chiastic pattern:
The parallels here are not as distinct as in the next section, but they are nevertheless there. In ‘a’ and parallel reference is made to ‘at that time’ and in ‘a’ his concern was at his inability to bear the burden of them while in the parallel he commands them to do what was necessary in order to relieve that burden. In ‘b’ he emphasises their great numbers and in the parallel tells how such great numbers are to be judged. In ‘c’ he is concerned that he cannot carry the weight of judging them and in the parallel he appoints judges to assist him. In ‘d’ he instructs the appointing of suitable persons and in the parallel sets as heads the suitable persons whom they have appointed. And central to all in ‘e’ is that it is with their full agreement.
1.9-10 ‘And I spoke to you at that time, saying, I am not able to bear you myself alone. Yahweh your God has multiplied you, and, behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.’
God had blessed Israel, and they had grown apace. Indeed because of the growing largeness of their numbers Moses had had to acknowledge that he had been made to recognise that he could not act as their judge on his own. They had become metaphorically too heavy for him to carry. For Yahweh had multiplied them to such an extent that they were as numerous as the stars in the night sky.
Note the hint of the Abrahamic covenants in mention of ‘the stars of heaven for multitude’ (Genesis 15.5; 22.17; 26.4; Exodus 32.13; compare Deuteronomy 10.22; 28.62). Compare also the reference to ‘the River Euphrates’ mentioned earlier (verse 7) and note Genesis 15.18. Genesis is in mind here. This description was not, of course, intended to be taken literally. He looked up and saw the multitude of stars, and then he looked round and saw a similar multitude of people and tents, and was greatly impressed at their numbers in both cases. He tried to count neither.
Later, if they were disobedient, instead of being like the stars for multitude, it is stressed that they would become few in number (28.62). But it was hoped that that would never be.
Note how he is personalising the whole story by speaking to them as though it was they who had been there originally, something most natural to someone who constantly spoke to them as ‘his people’ despite their changing make up. These were still the people whom he had delivered from Egypt and who had gone through all the subsequent experiences.
1.11 ‘Yahweh, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you!’
And he prayed now that Yahweh, ‘the God of their fathers’ would make them a thousand times as numerous as they then were, and bless them as He had promised, in accordance with His promises to the patriarchs (Genesis 12.2-3; 15.5; 17.5-6; 22.16-18; 26.24; 27.14). That in itself showed that they were without excuse. It was not through any failure of Yahweh to fulfil His promise about the number of descendants that the problems had arisen. Their numbers were continually increasing. They were part of an inevitable process resulting from Yahweh’s sovereign activity which would be irresistible. Their failure lay in themselves.
This tender touch revealed that his unwillingness to bear the weight of their needs was not due to any lack of love, but simply to the requirements of the situation. He had still prayed and longed for the very best for them.
1.12 ‘How can I myself alone bear your heavy load, and your burden, and your disputes?’
Indeed his very vision of their success and their rapid growth in numbers had made him recognise that he alone could not bear the weight of having to be judge over them, or of having to deal with their problems and their difficulties. He had recognised that he was insufficient to bear so great a weight. The threefold description - your heavy load, your burden, your disputes -is intended to indicate a complete picture of the problems involved. It had become all too much for him. We too must never be afraid to acknowledge when a task has become too great for us. There is no shame or faithlessness in seeking assistance under God, as long as we stick to our task. Thereby it may be done the better.
Compare for this description Numbers 11.14 which was immediately followed by the appointment of the seventy elders. Moses was ever aware of his dependence on the assistance of others raised up by God.
1.13-14 ‘Take for yourselves wise men, and understanding, and well known, according to your tribes, and I will make them heads over you. And you answered me, and said, “The thing which you have spoken is good for us to do.”’
So they will remember that he had arranged for them to appoint their own wise men over them, suitable men, men of understanding and high reputation, tribe by tribe, to be heads over them, something which they had recognised was a good idea and which they had agreed to do. For they too had recognised how numerous they were. Note again the threefold description indicating completeness of provision.
1.15 ‘So I took the heads of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads (rosh) over you, captains (sar) of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens, and officers (shoter), according to your tribes.’
Thus he had set up a system of leaders and men of authority, to act as judges and magistrates, leaders in military activities, and general advisers and mediators, covering all levels of their society from highest to lowest. Note the use of different words for the leaders, ‘heads’ (rosh - those of high position), ‘captains’ (sar - usually with military leadership in mind. Discipline was necessary in the running of their camp and they must ever be ready to resort to arms), and ‘officials’ (shoter - probably more those with administrative authority, and clerks of the court. Its root meaning is ‘to write’). He was covering every aspect of leadership. The actual carrying out of this initially is partly outlined in Exodus 18, see especially verse 25, but it would be a continuing process as further illustrated in Numbers 11.14-30. He does not here mention the part that his father-in-law had played in it. He wants them to recognise their own full part in it. (Such subtle distinction emphasises that these really are the words of Moses). But he does want them to recognise that they had seen themselves as mature enough and numerous enough to do it. It presumably also combines the appointment of the seventy elders (Numbers 11.14-30, see verse 14). Note the differing size of units, ‘thousands’, ‘hundreds’, ‘fifties’, ‘tens’, not literal numbers but descriptive of different sized tribal units. They had been catered for even down to the smallest group.
Moses was possibly conscious as he said this of the fact that these who were before him also needed to have confidence in their leaders if they were to succeed in what lay ahead. They needed to see them as wise and understanding and qualified for their responsibility. Then they would follow them the more readily.
(This use of number words is a reminder that very often in ancient days what seem to be ‘numerical expressions’ are often in fact descriptive of something else. A ‘thousand’ was a large group, a’ hundred’ and ‘a fifty’, medium sized groups, and a ‘ten’ a small group, regardless of actual quantity. And these leaders would not only act as judges and mediators, but also as military leaders. Thus a ‘thousand’, or ‘a hundred’, or ‘a fifty’, or ‘a ten’ could be a military unit, or the leader of it).
1.16-17 ‘And I charged your judges at that time, saying, “Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the resident alien who is with him. You shall not respect persons in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s. And the cause that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.” ’
He explains that he had then exhorted all the appointed ‘judges’ (people placed in authority) to judge rightly and fairly, treating equally both native-born and foreigner. They were to have no respect of persons in their judgments, but to judge small and great alike, and to judge righteously. And if they found that they had a case which was too hard for them, or they did not know what decision to come to, they could come to Moses for him to hear the case. For he had not been deserting them. They always had him to turn to, as the representative of the King. And the king was always the last court of appeal.
‘Judges.’ In those days there was no separation between the ruling authorities and the system of justice. The rulers were the judges. The military leaders in the Book of Judges were mainly called judges because having gained their victories they then began to rule their section of Israel. Deborah ‘judged’ Israel even though she was not a military leader (Judges 4.4).
The constant reference that we find to ‘resident aliens, sojourners’, that is foreigners who lived among them without actually joining the covenant, although expected to keep the ordinances and statutes and not to openly worship other gods, is a reminder of the conglomerate make-up of the camp. Most present at Sinai appear to have responded to the covenant and become ‘true’ children of Israel, but there would always be the odd one or two who did not, and others may well later have joined them later in the journey through the wilderness once they had left Sinai and have partly held aloof. There would probably be a small but constant stream of people who liked the idea of joining with them as they journeyed through the wilderness, and who seemingly were welcomed. Israel were ever to remember that they had been in bondage in Egypt and were on the whole to refrain from doing the same to others, and were to show hospitality to strangers. They were to treat all fairly, as they would have liked to be treated in Egypt.
So as a people they had been established in justice and righteousness, and the law of Yahweh had been firmly but fairly applied. They had experienced a level of justice which was the lot of very few outside Israel. And they had become an established people. The point that he is making is that all that could be done for them had been done.
1.18 ‘And I commanded you at that time all the things which you should do.’
And having appointed the judges he had told them all the things that they should do. He had outlined to them God’s commandments, and His statutes, and His ordinances, and had made clear what was required of all. And the same for the people. Moses here therefore claims to have brought to them previous revelation, as found in Exodus to Numbers.
So they had gone forward confident in themselves as a people, and satisfied with their position as a nation. All had appeared ripe for a successful invasion of the land. But as so often happens it is when we become complacent that danger lurks.
Israel Journey to Kadesh With A View To Entering The Land And Withdraw Because of Unbelief (1.19-2.1).
This next section of the speech follows a chiastic pattern bringing out contrasts in order to emphasise the unbelief of the people and the judgment that came on them. It does raise the question as to whether such a lengthy and detailed chiasmus could have been composed without it being written down. In my view it is very unlikely.
Note how in ‘a’ they journeyed through the terrible wilderness and in the parallel they had to return to the wilderness. In ‘b’ and parallel they were at Kadesh (thus what went between represented failure because they lingered and did not move on). In ‘c’ they were to be given the hill country of the Amorites, in the parallel they were driven out of it. In ‘d’ they were commanded to go up (and in unbelief did not - verse 32), in the parallel they were not to go up and did so presumptuously. In ‘e’ they sent out scouts (preparation for war) and in the parallel girded on their armour. In ‘f’ Moses was pleased and took twelve men, one per tribe representing all the tribes, and in the parallel they say that they have sinned and will go and fight In ‘g’ they ‘turn’ and go into the fruitful hill country and in the parallel they ‘turn’ and go into the wilderness. In ‘h’ they would not go up to possess it, and in the parallel it is their children who will enter and possess it.
In ‘i’ they murmur that Yahweh had brought them out to deliver them into the hands of the Amorites because He hates them and in the parallel He is angry and says that because of their attitude they will not go in. Only Joshua will cause the next generation of Israel to inherit it. In ‘j’ their hearts melted and they were afraid to go in and they complained about the size of the opposition, while in the parallel Yahweh was angry at their words and said that they would not go in, but Caleb will see it because he wholly followed Yahweh (his heart did not melt). In ‘k’ Yahweh bears them as a man does his son in all they way that they go and in the parallel he seeks out campsites for them and shows them the way. And central to all is the message that lies behind the whole chiasmus, in this thing they did not believe Yahweh their God.
So They Had Journeyed Safely To The Edge Of The Land With God’s Help And Had Sent Out Spies To Assess The Land Who Had Reported That It Was A Good Land (1.19-25).
1.19 ‘And we journeyed from Horeb, and went through all that great and terrible wilderness which you saw, by the way to the hill-country of the Amorites, as Yahweh our God commanded us; and we came to Kadesh-barnea.’
The result was that they had been able safely and successfully to negotiate that great and terrible wilderness that lay before them, with its scorching heat and shortage of water, and its many hazards and the hardness of the way, following the ‘highway to the hill country of the Amorites’ that led to the hill-country of the Amorites in Canaan, just as ‘Yahweh their God’ had commanded them. And thus they had come to Kadesh-barnea, an oasis (or group of oases) in the Negeb immediately to the south of Canaan, a place where water was comparatively plentiful.
So everything had appeared successful. They were numerous and plentiful, they were wisely governed, and they had experienced God’s mercies on the way. They should have been ready for anything. The worst was surely behind them, and they had survived.
‘The Amorites.’ This is a description which can have different meanings which must be decided in context. Sometimes it is used to describe all the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g. Genesis 15.16). Sometimes, as here, it is used to describe the dwellers in the hill country in contrast with ‘the Canaanites’ who dwelt in the plain. At others it describes particular groups such as the Amorites over whom Sihon was king (compare Judges 1.34-35). Descriptions in those days were often general rather than specific, and could be applied loosely. The ‘Amorites’ were in fact mentioned in what are called the Egyptian Execration Texts, small pottery and figurines on which were written the names of Egypt’s enemies so that they could be smashed to release a curse (c 1900 BC).
1.20-21 ‘And I said to you, You are come unto the hill-country of the Amorites, which Yahweh our God gives to us. “Behold, Yahweh your God has set the land before you, go up, take possession, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has spoken to you, do not be afraid, nor be dismayed.” ’
Then Moses had turned to them and informed them of their whereabouts. He had told them that they were just south of the hill-country of the Amorites, the mountain ranges that formed the backbone of Canaan. And that it was that land that Yahweh had given them. He had set it before them and all they had now had to do was go forward trusting in Him, and He would give them possession. He would be with them, but He would not do it all Himself. It was their responsibility therefore to have confidence in Him and take possession of it. For as it was at the command of Yahweh, the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would not need to be afraid. He Who had proved Himself faithful would be so again. It was Yahweh’s gift. (But they had refused it. Let the present generation therefore not make the same mistake).
Note the three alternative ways of describing Yahweh; ‘Yahweh our God’, ‘Yahweh your God’, ‘Yahweh the God of your fathers’. The titles all draw attention to the fact that He is their unique and distinct covenant God, and the threeness stresses His divine completeness. ‘Yahweh our God’ is the God of the covenant (see verse 6 above). ‘Yahweh your God’ is the God in Whom they can trust. ‘Yahweh the God of your fathers’ is the God Who is bringing them into His continuing covenant and purposes, Who had promised this land to their forefathers. The change from ‘our’ to ‘your’ is made with the intention of boosting their sense of dependence on Him. Thus they were not to be afraid or dismayed (compare Joshua 1.9), even though they were again facing the hill-country of the Amorites (compare verses 43-44), because Yahweh was their God.
In our own case God has many things which He wishes to give us, but sadly we often also refuse them because we will not respond. If we refuse He will not force them on us but will pass them to others.
Note that in verse 21 we find the first use of the singular ‘thou’ throughout. ‘Behold Yahweh thy God has set the land before thee. Take possession as Yahweh, the God of thy fathers has spoken to thee. Fear not nor be dismayed’. The purpose of ‘thy, thee’ here would seem to be because of the reference to the relationship with the fathers and it is in the form of a declaration to Israel as a nation as a whole. The idea is to bring out the oneness of Israel as a whole, trueborn and adopted person alike, within the covenant. It is because those who have been adopted have become one with Israel that they can look back to their ‘fathers’.
1.22 ‘And you came near to me every one of you, and said, “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up, and the cities to which we shall come.” ’
The response of their fathers had been good. They had suggested sending scouts in order to spy out the land so that they would know which way to take and what point to attack from. In Numbers 13.1-3 it is emphasised that it was Yahweh Who commanded the scouts to go forth, but this is simply a reminder that God’s side of things and ours must go hand in hand. It may be that the Israelites in fact first approached Moses with the idea, which he then put to God in order to obtain His commands on the subject. Or it may have been the other way round. But Moses is here summarising the situation and looking at it from their point of view, seeking to give as good a picture of the failure as possible. He does not want to shame their fathers unnecessarily. Indeed, possibly the plan had first come from Yahweh, and when it had been put to them they had concurred, and even come to him pressing him to carry it out. But considering what had happened in Numbers, and the behaviour of the people, we must see this account as being deliberately very tactful. Moses was wooing his listeners. He was trying to win them over to becoming believing and successful.
Very often we find that when God speaks to someone about doing something that person discovers when he goes forward that others have already been coming to the conclusion that it is what they too must do, for God often prompts different men’s minds in this way when He has a purpose to carry out. Thus it is no surprise that they had suggested what God had intended, even possibly in their eagerness interrupting Moses before he had finished. After all, the sending out of scouts was normal military strategy, and they would know it had to be done. They would have had some experience of it in the wilderness. Scouts would have moved in all directions, and especially ahead, so that they were aware of what was happening around them, and what lay before them. Thus they would have expected it in this situation.
‘Let us send men before us.’ Perhaps this is intended to be a little ironic. It was Yahweh Who should have gone before them. Had Yahweh gone ahead success would have been guaranteed. But they sent only men.
1.23-25 ‘And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe, and they turned and went up into the hill-country, and came to the valley of Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took of the fruit of the land in their hands, and brought it down to us, and brought us word again, and said, It is a good land which Yahweh our God gives to us.’
Moses describes how he had been pleased that the inclinations of their fathers had tied in with God’s demands, and explains how he had taken twelve men, one from each tribe, to act as scouts, and that they went up into the hill-country and came to the valley of Eshcol (possibly in the region of Hebron). Quite incidentally we have confirmation that all twelve tribes were present. Numbers tells us that their expedition was in fact somewhat more involved than this (Numbers 13.21-25), but Moses is not trying pedantically to cover the whole story. Rather he is concentrating on the essentials. (Nothing is worse than a speaker who feels that he must leave no detail out when telling a story. A speaker regularly has to decide when to abbreviate in order to stress his point). He reminds them of the wonderful fruit that had been brought back, which had been collected from Eshcol, and had demonstrated what a good land it was. Indeed all had admitted that it was indeed a good land which Yahweh was giving them. Here was the fruit of the land before them.
All had seemed bright. They were at the border of the land. The land had been scouted and had proved good. All that was now required was to advance with faith in God and begin to take possession of it.
1.26-28 ‘Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the commandment of Yahweh your God, and you murmured in your tents, and said, “Because Yahweh hated us, he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our heart melt, saying, The people are greater and taller than we, the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.” ’
But in spite of their appreciation of the land, and their recognition that it was a good land, their fathers had refused to go forward. They had rebelled against Yahweh’s command, and had come together in their tents (note the stress on their clandestine muttering) muttering and murmuring in an attitude of total antagonism. ‘Returning to tents’ was a description of cessation from mobilisation (Joshua 22.8) and of withdrawal from authority (1 Kings 12.16). They were declaring themselves not ready for service.
This had resulted in their looking back and declaring that the deliverance from Egypt which had so delighted their hearts two years earlier, and over which they had been so jubilant, had only really occurred because Yahweh ‘hated’ them. The word for ‘hate’ can simply indicate lack of special consideration or an attitude of ‘not-loving’ (see Genesis 29.31), rather than positive hatred, but here they were being childish and imputed to God unworthy sentiments as though He had acted petulantly like the gods of other nations as revealed in mythology. There is a deliberate contrast here on Moses’ part of their faithless attitude as compared with Yahweh’s constant love for them (4.37; 7.7-9) and the love for Yahweh that the covenant demands (6.5). They were seeing Him as the exact opposite of what He actually was to them.
The words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are covenant words. When a suzerain had made his treaty with a conquered people he called on them to show their ‘love’ for him, and ‘hate’ towards his enemies (compare Psalm 139.21-22), and described those who rejected the covenant as those who ‘hated’ him. They were thus here charging Yahweh with failure to keep His covenant. They were suggesting treachery. We too always see God as ‘hard’ when He does not let us have our own way.
So their fathers had begun to claim that He had simply delivered them from Egypt in order to put them in an even worse situation, indeed, in order to destroy them, because of His malice against them. Better to be in bondage in Egypt than to be dead at the hands of the Amorites!
We are all familiar with how such ideas can spread. For their minds had been gripped by the pictures outlined to them by the scouts, and they had continued to magnify them until they imagined large armies of larger than average people (Numbers 13.32), vast cities with great, insurmountable walls (Numbers 13.28), and even worse, the sons of the Anakim, of fearsome reputation and renowned for their huge build, and even more fearful when seen in the imagination (Numbers 13.33 where the fearful described them as ‘the Nephilim’, and saw them as semi-divine - compare Genesis 6.4). They had panicked. In their disappointment their imaginations had run riot, and they had asked themselves, ‘what on earth are we being expected to face?’. It was the opposite of faith.
And unless we exercise faith we too are all very good at magnifying difficulties. Let us learn from this never to so build up difficulties in our minds that they become seemingly insurmountable.
‘The sons of the Anakim.’ These were famed for their great size (compare 2.10; 2.21) and were connected with Hebron (Numbers 13.22; Joshua 15.13) from where they spread, and some went to Gaza (Joshua 11.21). Because of their size they would be valuable as mercenaries. Joshua in fact destroyed them and drove the remnants from their territory (Joshua 11.21). This destruction was probably connected with the description in Joshua 14.12-15; 15.13-14; Judges 1.10. It may be these who are mentioned in the Egyptian execration texts under the reference to “the ruler of Iy-‘anaq”.
How easy it is for us as well to declare ourselves ready to obey God, and then to change our minds as soon as difficulties begin to arise. Better a cosy useless life, we decide, rather than to have to face up to problems and overcome them. But we must beware. It is then we risk losing ‘the land’. For it is as we do face up to these problems that the difficulties begin to melt away before us, even though it might take time.
1.29-31 ‘Then I said to you, “Do not be in such dread, nor be afraid of them. Yahweh your God who goes before you, he will fight for you, in the same way as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you (thou) have seen how Yahweh your God bore you (thee) , as a man bears his son, in all the way in which you (ye) went, until you came to this place.’
Moses assures them that he had immediately stepped in to give them confidence. Let them lose their fears, he had said. Let them remember that Yahweh would go before them. Let them recognise that it was the same Yahweh Who had delivered them from the Egyptians ‘before their very eyes’, Who would go with them. The same Yahweh Who had protected them in the wilderness, and had borne them as a man carries his young son in the face of difficult circumstances, feeding them with manna and quails and providing them with water, and giving them a father figure in Moses, and He had done it in all the ways in which they went. If they thought back they would recognise that He was dependable in every way. He had performed the miraculous for them against the Egyptians in such a way that they had been able to watch it, and He had continually strengthened and comforted and fed them in their journey through the wilderness. This was indeed the same Yahweh as they had described as a ‘Man of War’ in Exodus 15.3. As long as they fought on His behalf, He would fight for them.
Note in verse 31 the use of the singular ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ which is primarily because of the illustration. Israel is likened to a son borne by his father. The singular is therefore appropriate. But the application is then immediately to ‘ye’.
1.32-33 ‘Yet in this thing you did not believe Yahweh your God, who went before you in the way, to seek you out a place to pitch your tents in, in fire by night, to show you by what way you should go, and in the cloud by day.’
But they (in their fathers) had not believed Yahweh their covenant God. God had constantly gone before them in the cloud by day and the fire by night, showing them the way in which they should go and selecting the best camps sites at night, and guiding them to the essential water that was so needed, and feeding them with manna. But they still would not accept that He was capable of defeating these fearsome enemies, by now as large as giants in their imagination. They had refused to believe.
1.34-36 ‘And Yahweh heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying, “Surely not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land, which I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh, he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he has trodden on, and to his children, because he has wholly followed Yahweh.” ’
The result was, that after waiting and giving them opportunity to make up their minds fully, which they did in terms of a refusal to go forward, Yahweh was ‘angry’. That is, in His moral righteousness He held their attitude in aversion and determined to punish them.
Thus He swore that not one of the mature men would see or enter the land, with the exception of Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, who had urged them to go forward, (literally ‘he was completely full after Yahweh’). He alone of all who had received the command to go forward would see it, (apart also from the leadership itself who had given the command), and what was more, he would receive at God’s hand the very land that he had trodden on, because he, and he alone, had fully followed Yahweh in the infighting among the eleven scouts. Joshua is not mentioned because, having taken his place at Moses’ side, and having had discussions with him as his deputy, he would not be in the argument. It is clear from the narrative in Numbers 13.30 that Caleb had stood firm and alone in the case of the ‘people versus Moses and Joshua’, for Joshua was not seen as ‘of the people’ but as ‘on the other side’. He was known to be Moses’ right hand man. Thus he had wisely kept quiet, and was not standing among them, although later adding his witness. This description tells us that Moses clearly remembers the sight of Caleb standing there on one side with the others baying on the other, a sign of authenticity. he is remembering what he saw.
But it may be asked, ‘What about Joshua?’ The answer is simple. Neither Moses nor Joshua were under examination. Moses was God’s chosen one, and Joshua was his right hand man, ‘standing before him’. They were the ones who had conveyed Yahweh’s commands. At this stage it was fully acknowledged that both of them would enter the land. So the fate of Joshua had not been in question.
1.37-38 ‘Also Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, saying, “You also shall not go in there, Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there. Encourage you him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it.” ’
But Moses own right to enter the land had also later been lost. He reminds them of what to him was a harsh fact. That he too now could not enter the land. And the reason that he could not enter the land was because he himself had sinned, partly as a result of Israel’s disobedience. This disobedience is the connecting point with the previous verse. For in the end he too was forbidden entry into the land because of his later sin at Meribah (Numbers 20.12) when they were coming to Kadesh for the second time. That was due to the people’s unbelief as well. And it was the possible unbelief of the people that he was speaking to now! Let them remember what their unbelief has done to him, and learn from it.
Such an abbreviated reference fits well with these being Moses’ actual words to the actual people who had been the cause of his behaviour. He did not need to remind them of the circumstances. They remembered them all too well. No one who had been present in the camp would forget that dreadful day when the news spread around of God’s judgment on Moses because he had got annoyed at their intransigence. With all their mutterings he was the one figure on whom they knew that they could always rely. And Moses knew that they would still feel guilty about it. But he wants them to recognise that his loss is Joshua’s gain, so that they must faithfully support Joshua in order to demonstrate their sorrow at what they had done to him.
Up to that point at Meribah then (humanly speaking) it had been in God’s mind that he should enter the land to possess it for Yahweh. But then he had lost that privilege. Now that privilege was to go to Joshua, the one who ‘stood before him’, that is, was his second in command. That being so there had been no need to mention Joshua previously because all knew that he was destined to lead them into the land, and he, with Moses, would also have been responsible for giving the command to go forward in the previous situation. Thus he did not have to debate the question like Caleb did. He was firmly with Moses in his actions, and was the one who was to cause Israel to inherit (receive as a gift) the land. He does not want Joshua to be seen as having been just another scout. His appointment was from Yahweh.
Forgetting that this is a speech in which he is seeking to get over basic facts without worrying about the chronology causes some commentators difficulties. But Moses is simply bringing out salient facts. Their father’s could not enter because of unbelief, he cannot enter because he had sinned when he was provoked. Both were excluded because of sin. Thus it is Joshua who will lead them forward. Joshua’s official appointment was not until Numbers 27.18, although Moses was no doubt aware that he was grooming him for leadership right from his appointment of him as his ‘servant’, and from his success against the Amalekites in Exodus 17. However this is a speech and he would not hesitate to put everything together without regard to time. It was the facts which mattered not when they happened. That is why he ignores Aaron. He is irrelevant to the point he is making.
(It is, of course, psychologically possible as some have suggested that Moses had a guilt feeling about his failure to persuade the unbelievers to go forward at that time, and dated his rejection back to that fact, but there is no other indication of it and it is not required as an explanation in a context like this).
1.39 “Moreover your little ones, whom you said would be a prey, and your children, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, they will go in there, and to them will I give it, and they will possess it.”
Here Yahweh is seen as speaking to their fathers. They had said that if they entered the land and fought the Amorites their little ones would become a prey to the enemy (Numbers 14.3). Well, had said Yahweh, as for their young children and their babes, of whom they had said that they would become a prey, paradoxically they would be allowed to enter the land. It would be given to them and they would possess it. Where the fathers had refused to obey, the children would obey. Thereby would Yahweh’s faithfulness be revealed. Rather than becoming a prey they would enter as the victors.
‘Have no knowledge of good or evil.’ That is, at the time had no real knowledge at all and were therefore not in a position to make a decision either way. Thus they could not with Caleb choose the good, nor with the others choose the evil.
1.40 “But as for you, turn you, and take your journey into the wilderness by the way to the Reed Sea.”
So God had then given their fathers a new command, to ‘about turn’, and go back into the wilderness from which they had come. They were to turn round and return to the wilderness by ‘the way to the Reed Sea’.
(We are incidentally learning something of the geography of the area. They had already used ‘the way of Mount Seir’ (1.2), followed by ‘the way to the hill-country of the Amorites’ (1.19), now they were to use ‘the way to the Reed Sea’. They were travelling the highways and byways).
1.41 ‘Then you answered and said to me, “We have sinned against Yahweh, we will go up and fight, in accordance with all that Yahweh our God commanded us.” And you girded on every man his weapons of war, and were in eager readiness to go up into the hill-country.”
The command to ‘about turn’ had brought them up sharp. The thought of the horror of going back into that wilderness had been too much. They had decided that between that and the choice of going forward, going forward and fighting was the best. But it had been too late. They had laid bare their hearts, and revealed their true condition. They could no longer claim that they were going forward in obedience to Yahweh, in faith and loving response to His covenant, they were rather going forward as the slightly better of two desperate alternatives. It would no longer be a march of faith, triumphantly led by Yahweh, but a desperate attempt to do their best in the face of the difficulties and get themselves out of a hole. They were not now thinking in terms of victory in Yahweh’s name, but of simply doing what they could. But Yahweh’s powerful activity was not available for them in that way, for it revealed that they were just not spiritually and psychologically geared up for all the battles that would lie ahead. It would thus not have been a kindness to let them go forward, for they would not be going forward as Yahweh’s people but as their own people, taking with them all their fears and weaknesses.
So this turning back was really a kindness to them. Had they gone forward they would never have survived all the battles that lay ahead. They would have been slowly massacred man by man. For they lacked the faith to achieve. And it was this very requirement of faith, that alone could have ensured success, that humanly speaking Moses was now in Deuteronomy seeking to build up in their successors.
‘All that Yahweh our God commanded us.’ Note their use of the covenant title ‘Yahweh our God’. They had been seeking to suggest that they were responding to the covenant after all, but it had not been so.
1.42 ‘And Yahweh said to me, “Say to them, Do not go not up, nor fight, for I am not among you, lest you be smitten before your enemies.”
So Yahweh, Who knew the truth of what would lay ahead, had now commanded them not to go forward. The command was clear. They were not to go forward, they were not to fight, because Yahweh would not be fighting for them. Thus the danger was that they would be smitten by their enemies.
1.43 ‘So I spoke to you, and you did not listen, but you rebelled against the commandment of Yahweh, and were presumptuous, and went up into the hill-country.’
And Moses had given their fathers Yahweh’s command, but as ever they had been disobedient. Having rebelled when He said ‘Go forward’, they had now rebelled when He said, ‘About turn’. Whatever God said ‘do’ they would not listen to. They ‘were presumptuous and went up into the hill country’. They were presumptuous because they went up without God’s permission, indeed in spite of His refusal to allow it. They would certainly be without their general Joshua. They would be without Moses whose faith and confidence had previously sustained them in battle. They would be without the staff of God which symbolised His powerful activity on their behalf. Thus they would be ill prepared for what lay ahead. They had really only gone because they could not bear the thought of facing the wilderness again. They just assumed that somehow God would help them as He always had. But they forgot that they were no longer the people that God had brought up to this point. Their hearts had become set in unbelief.
1.44 ‘And the Amorites, who dwelt in that hill-country, came out against you, and chased you, as bees do, and beat you down in Seir, even to Hormah.’
The net result could only be disaster. They had met the Amorites on their own territory, men who had had plenty of experience at defending it and knew every inch of the ground, while their own leaders were inexperienced. Thus the Amorites had come out like a swarm of bees and had driven them back so that they were beaten down in Edom (Seir), and then fled to Hormah. ‘As bees do’ probably refers to a descending swarm. All had known of cases of people who, being attacked by a swarm of bees, could not get away from them. And that was how it had felt before these fierce Amorites who did not stop until they were well clear of the hill country. ‘Seir’ would be the part below the Dead Sea. Hormah was probably a town north east of Kadesh. It means ‘devoted to destruction’ and may therefore refer to a ruin, although, if it was the same town as is mentioned in Judges 1.17, the name was given to it when the Israelites captured it and dedicated it to destruction. if that is the case ‘even to Hormah’ may be a note added by a later scribe. But it is probable that there were a number of Hormahs, for the word simply means ‘a ruin’, and may have applied to a number of desolate sites. It is probably not accidental that that was named as the terminus for the people, for they were ‘devoted to destruction’ in the wilderness.
Thus on entering the land in unbelief they had immediately again been driven out of it. There had been no place in Yahweh’s land for unbelief, a lesson that was also important for the future. For God was not bringing them to the land just for their own good, but because He had a purpose to perform through them, and if they were not fitted for that purpose they would be excluded. This doctrine of those who were unfit being turned out of the land is ancient. Once the land had been promised to Abraham and his descendants it was indeed inevitable. For the very basis of the covenant with Abraham was that all those who failed to respond to the covenant would eventually be excluded from the land (Genesis 15.16).
1.45 ‘And you returned and wept before Yahweh, but Yahweh did not listen to your voice, nor did he give ear to you.’
The result had been deep sorrow, so much so that they came and wept before the Tabernacle, ‘before Yahweh’. But they had wept in disappointment, not because they were repentant of how they had let Yahweh down. So Yahweh did not hear, for their hearts and intentions were not right, and they had disobeyed Him. His ears were thus now closed to them. His head was turned away. We may think that we can continue praying when we have been disobedient to God, but the truth is that until we truly repent He will not listen to us. The word He wants to hear is a genuine ‘sorry’, and for these it was not possible. Their hearts had become set in the wrong direction. They might express remorse, but they would not be ‘sorry’.
1.46 ‘So you abode in Kadesh many days, according to the days that you abode there.’
Thus for many days they had remained at the oasis at Kadesh. Moses could not remember how long it was, and so he adds ‘for the number of days that you abode there’. But eventually they had had to move on. Possibly their large numbers had affected the waters of the oases round about so that they were for a time no longer usable or sufficient. Or perhaps there were too many of them for permanent residence there. Compare Numbers 20.2.
2.1a ‘Then we turned, and took our journey into the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea, as Yahweh spoke to me.’
Then finally they had had to submit to what God had said, and they had begun their wanderings. Whether it was because Moses had insisted at God’s command, or because conditions had made it inevitable, they had left Kadesh and taken the route by ‘the way to the Reed Sea’, just as Yahweh had said. And for a considerable time they had wandered around Mount Seir, the range of mountains south of the Dead Sea. They had not, however, been very happy about it and it had resulted in the attempted coup by Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16).
So the parameters have now been laid down. Although his hearers did not realise it the whole history of Israel has been laid out in microcosm. Moses has laid down the foundations for the future. The land and the future is Yahweh’s. It is available for all who will respond to Him in belief and will obey Him. He has done His part. He has multiplied them. He has established them as a righteous nation. Now it is up to them. If they respond to His covenant they may enter into it and enjoy its blessing and Yahweh’s protection. If they do so respond He will lead them and fight for them. He will be to them like a father bearing his son. But if they fail to go on believing, if they fail to go on obeying Him, then He will also drive them out of the land, as He drove out their fathers, so that they too will be for ever wandering around, getting nowhere. The choice lies with them.
The principles that lie behind this first chapter will be continually repeated throughout the book. He is giving His people the land, but if they fail to respond truly to Him they will lose it.
It should be stressed that nothing of all this determined the eternal destiny of these people. As with us that was determined by their own personal individual response to the way of forgiveness that God had laid open to them. He had not forsaken them completely. But we may see in this chapter a parable of the Christian life. For the newly converted Christian, life often seems like a wilderness journey, but as he learns to trust Christ more he can enter into rest, the rest of trust and obedience. Sadly, however, many fear what obedience to God will result in and so do not go forward, thus sentencing themselves to a life in the wilderness. The writer to the Hebrews used it as an illustration of life as an unbeliever in contrast with life as a believer (Hebrews 3-4).
Chapter 2 There Are Others To Whom Yahweh Has Given Land And They Are To Be Left Alone; The Defeat of Sihon, King of the Amorites.
So their fathers had failed to receive the land. But now the people are stirred up to go forward and take the land which God is giving them. He stresses, however, that there are also others to whom He has given land, and that that land is not theirs for the taking. That land belongs to the nations to whom Yahweh has given it. Israel cannot have it because it has been given to those nations by Yahweh. These are Edom, Moab and Ammon, all descended from Terah, Abraham’s father, and connected with Abraham.
The first are related to the children of Esau, and ‘Mount Seir was given to Esau for a possession’ (2.5) while the other two are ‘descended’ from Lot and receive their land as from him. Theirs is the land which He has given to the children of Lot for a possession (2.9, 19). To all three He has given their land for the sake of their fathers, for the sake of Abraham. For it is He Who disposes of land in accordance with His will (32.8). Although Israel (Jacob) are special, for they are His portion.
By this means it is emphasised to Israel that when Yahweh gives land to a nation it is under His protection. He is the Lord of all land and can give it to whom He will. Here is a shining example to them of what it means to dwell in land given by Yahweh. Let them then go forward to claim their own. The land that Yahweh gives them will be as secure to them as the land of Edom, Moab and Ammon are secure to those nations if only they are obedient. But they must not touch what Yahweh has given to others.
However, the same was not true of the Amorites. The land that they were in possession of did not belong to them. They were among those whose iniquity was now full (Genesis 15.16). They had forfeited the land. Thus the land of Sihon was Israel’s for the taking.
Note how interspersed with the information about Edom, Moab and Ammon are two statements concerning Israel. The first confirms the way that Yahweh has blessed the second generation in the wilderness (verse 7) and the second that He has destroyed all the first generation who were disobedient in Israel (verses 14-15). If His people are, in His will, to enjoy blessing in their land like Edom, Moab and Ammon have, they must remember both, that God blesses those who obey Him and curses those who do not.
Approach to Edom (2.1b-8).
The first people who would be approached by Israel were Edom, described here as ‘sons of Esau’ (compare ). Esau was Jacob’s elder brother and had made his home in Mount Seir gathering around him a band of men and combining with others to form the nation of Edom (Genesis 33.16; 36.6-9). They were thus seen as a ‘brother’ tribe.
This passage can be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ they wandered around Mount Seir, but that in the parallel they avoided the places where Esau dwelt. In ‘b’ they have been travelling around Seir long enough, and in the parallel while they have done so for almost forty years Yahweh has blessed them and ensured that they lacked nothing. In ‘c’ they were to recognise that Esau were frightened of them and were to pass by their borders, and in the parallel they were to ensure that they paid for any food or drink that they required, thus quieting their fears. And in ‘d’ they were reminded that they must not fight with them because their land was not for Israel. Indeed, in the parallel, they learn that it is Yahweh Himself Who has given it to Esau for a possession.
The Command To Go Forward (2.1b-3).
2.1b ‘And we went around in mount Seir many days.’
This section begins with their weary wandering around the region of Mount Seir while the period of judgment of thirty eight years passed (2.14).
2.2-3 ‘And Yahweh spoke to me, saying, “You have wandered round this mountain long enough, turn you northward.”
Again it is stressed that we have the words of Moses as received by revelation from Yahweh. The period of waiting was over. Now they were to cease their wandering around the mountainous wilderness and move northward. It was time for them to possess the land in order to fulfil His promise to their forefathers. This northward movement is in direct contrast to their previous ‘movement’ southward as they fled from the Amorites and then returned to the wilderness (1.44-46).
‘Long enough.’ Compare 1.6. There their fathers had remained at Mount Sinai in Horeb long enough. That had been the sign to their fathers to move on. Here they had been travelling around Mount Seir long enough. This is a sign for them to move on. But we should note that Moses does not make this distinction between them and us. He speaks of ‘us’ and ‘you’. Although two generations they are one people, and many of the children who were now men had also been there with their fathers.
‘Turn you northward.’ Once again they can do an ‘about turn’, but this time in obedience to Yahweh and in order to enter the land (contrast 1.40).
The Children of Esau in Seir (Edom) Their Brother Tribe Was To Be Left Alone (2.4-8).
The first to be approached were the children of Esau who dwelt in Seir. It is interesting that Edom is not mentioned by name, although they would later be known as Edomites. The emphasis is on their relationship to Abraham and Isaac. Their land was given to them by Yahweh and was their possession. It must not be trespassed on.
2.4-5 ‘And command you the people, saying, “You are to pass through the border of your brothers the children of Esau, who dwell in Seir, and they will be afraid of you. Take good heed to yourselves therefore, do not contend with them, for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given mount Seir to Esau for a possession.”
In order to reach the land they must pass through or along the borders of Edom. But Edom would be afraid of them. However, they were not to seek a quarrel with them for Edom lived in the land given to their forefather Esau by Yahweh as a possession. Indeed Israel did not have permission to set even one foot on Edom’s soil. Not an inch of it is given to them.
‘I have given mount Seir to Esau for a possession.’ The fact that Esau’s descendants were in possession of the land which Yahweh had given them because they were descendants of Abraham augured well for the future. What Yahweh had done for Edom He would do for Israel, who were also descendants of Abraham. This should have instilled them with confidence.
That the gods were seen as giving land to their favourites, especially land blessed with abundant water, comes out in the pre-Moses Canaanite legend of King Keret. It is about a place called ‘Udum the Great, ‘Udum abundant in water’ which seeks to buy off the forces of the invading King Keret, and in his plea Udum’s king cries, “Do not harm Udum the Great, even Udum abundant in water, Udum is the gift of El, the present of the Father of men” (lines 60-64). King Keret, however, rather claims not ransom but the king’s beautiful firstborn daughter. But note the many contrasts, especially in that the claim is made by the king of Udum himself, not by the king who sought to conquer it. Every nation thought that their land was given to them by their god (compare Judges 11.24), but that did not impress other nations. In this particular case it was seen as El’s special gift because of its abundance of water (some have tried to relate Udum to Edom but this was hardly a picture of Edom where water was short and needed to be bought and sold - verse 6). Men ever saw water as a divine gift. But Moses sees the lands of Edom, Moab and Ammon as gifts not of their gods, but of Yahweh, because of their relationship with Abraham, and therefore inviolable. That being so other nations had received their lands as gifts from Yahweh, even though they did not acknowledge Him. For Yahweh worked His sovereign will. How much more then could Israel be confident that Yahweh would give them their land if they did acknowledge Him. It was different with the Canaanites. They had forfeited their land by their behaviour. Their tenancy from Yahweh was at an end.
From Numbers 20.14-21 we gain a little more insight into what happened. Moses had wanted to take his people through Edom along the King’s Highway, the main trade route. But Edom were so afraid of them (‘they will be afraid of you’, verse 4 compare Exodus 15.15) that the king of Edom gathered his army to resist them. Thus Moses led them round the borders of Edom, but still showed friendship towards them. Moses was totally non-belligerent except where necessary.
We must recognise in seeking to trace the actual route taken that we are hampered by lack of knowledge. In spite of huge efforts made to identify sites most are still very tentative. We need to be humble enough to recognise that our knowledge is so scanty that we will probably never know whether, for example, Israel used the eastern border of Edom or the western border. The problems include the identification of sites which produces innumerable insoluble difficulties and the meaning of Hebrew directions which are vague and open to various interpretation.
2.6 “You shall purchase food of them for silver, so that you may eat, and you shall also buy water of them for silver, that you may drink.”
Rather than fight with Edom they were to demonstrate their friendly intentions by offering silver in exchange for food and water. While they still had the manna (compare 8.15-16; Numbers 11.9; Joshua 5.12) they would be delighted to have what they no doubt saw as ‘proper food’ as well (compare Numbers 11.6). Water would be short in Edom, and wells and springs carefully guarded. There must be no raiding, all was to be done circumspectly. Both food and water were to be bought. This behaviour prevented a build up of hostility and no doubt contributed to the fact that Edom did not later seek to take advantage of the time when the warriors of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh were mainly away from home.
It is to be noted from this that in their activities, Israel sought to avoid bloodshed, apart from when they were dealing with the condemned people of Canaan whom they were commanded to destroy (compare 20.10-18) or with those who positively sought to lead Israel astray after false gods.
2.7 “For Yahweh your (thy) God has blessed you (thee) in all the work of your (thy) hand. He has known your (they) walking through this great wilderness. These forty years Yahweh your (thy) God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.”
That this purchase of food and water was possible was because Yahweh had prospered them. ‘The work of their hand’ may well have included pottery, jewellery and ornaments, weaving, metalwork and so on, which had been sold on to passing traders, and even to friendly desert tribes. This, along with treasures brought from Egypt and not used, had ensured that they were wealthy enough to purchase food for all. Although He had refused them entry into the land God had not utterly forsaken them. He had watched over their walking in the wilderness, and had been with them. We gather elsewhere that it was for Abraham’s sake. This is one of the rare places where we are given an insight into their thirty eight year wandering.
So as they consider Edom, safely settled in the land given to them by Yahweh, the second generation of Israel are to recognise themselves as a people whom Yahweh has blessed even in the wilderness, so that they can be sure that He also has blessings in store for them.
The use of the singular ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ here is because the purpose is to bring out the covenant position between Yahweh and Israel as a whole. It is somewhat similar to the distinction between ‘Israel’ (thee) seen as one and ‘the children of Israel’ (you) seen as many. They are distinctly and genuinely one people whatever their origin. There is also a connection with 1.31 as Yahweh has clearly ‘walked’ with them as ‘they went’, supporting them and caring for them like a father bears his son.
2.8a ‘So we passed by from our brothers the children of Esau, who dwell in Seir, from the way of the Arabah from Elath and from Ezion-geber.’
This friendly description of Edom fits well with first impressions on approaching the land, and having avoided conflict with them. It fits ill with later centuries. ‘Our brothers.’ They were related because Esau was Jacob/Israel’s brother (compare 23.7). The land of Seir was where he had lived with his tribe (Genesis 32.3; 33.16; 36.8-9).
Because of the opposition, instead of taking the King’s Highway (Numbers 20.17), they took ‘the way of the Arabah’ (the rift valley through which higher up the Jordan ran), passing Edom either on its eastern or western border, having previously been near Elath and Ezion-geber on the Reed Sea, although the mention of these may only indicate general direction when looking from the plains of Moab. These latter were possibly districts of the same place, town and island, (compare Numbers 33.35-36; 1 Kings 9.22; 22.48; 2 Kings 14.22). The small island Jazirat Faraun, with an inner harbour and a strait providing sheltered mooring, is located opposite the mainland from which ancient quays are running out from the shore. These may well have been Ezion-geber and Elath.
But the vague descriptions (to us) make all uncertain. We do not know their exact route, only that it skirted Edom. They then followed ‘the way of the wilderness of Moab’ which possibly went along the eastern border of Moab skirting the desert.
Numbers tells us of an attack at this stage by the Canaanite king of Arad, from the Negeb, and his partial victory, and ultimate defeat after Israel prayed to Yahweh (Numbers 21.2). He and his ‘cities’ were devoted to destruction. They were Canaanites. But Moses concentration in Deuteronomy is on the advance into, and possession, of the land, and on others whose land has been given to them by Yahweh, not on minor victories.
Their Dealings With Moab (2.8b-13a).
Moab too had been given possession of their land by Yahweh, because of His love for Abraham. Thus they too were not to be molested. And they were to note that in giving them the land He had dealt with the Emim, a people the equal of the Anakim.
This passage can be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ they took ‘the way of the wilderness of Moab’ and in the parallel they were to rise and cross the Wadi Zered. In ‘b’ Yahweh would not give them Moab as their land and they were therefore not to attack them, but in the parallel He would give them their own land, the land of the Canaanites and Amorites, for a possession, (and had already partly done so). In ‘c’ It was Yahweh who had given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession, and in the parallel He had give Seir to Esau for them to dwell in. And in ‘d’and parallel it is emphasised that they had driven out the Emim who were as fierce as the Anakim, and were equally seen as ‘Rephaim’ (possibly demi-gods).
2.8b ‘And we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab.’
Leaving Mount Seir they took ‘the way of the wilderness of Moab’. This would bring them into the vicinity of Moab. Although not as closely related as Esau these two were a ‘brother-tribe’.
2.9 ‘And Yahweh said to me, “Do not annoy Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you (thee) of his land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the children of Lot for a possession.” ’
The same principle applied to Moab as to Edom. Their land too had been given to them by Yahweh. In their case it was because they were the children of Lot, Abraham’s nephew (Genesis 13.5-11). Through Abraham blessing had come on many. Seeing these people also would be an encouragement of the fact that land which Yahweh gives to the peoples whom He chooses because they are sons of Abraham becomes theirs and remains theirs.
Thus they were not to fight with them or show belligerence towards them. Their land was not for Israel. Ar, their chief city, (compare the ancient poems in Numbers 21.15, 28) must remain unmolested.
2.9, 16-19, 37 are interesting in that ‘thou, thee’ is used of their relationship with Moab and Ammon whereas ‘ye, you’ was used of their relationship with Edom (2.4-6). But the historical facts demand the mention of both Edom and Moab, even if not of Ammon, for both were prominent on the journey. Thus the distinction would appear again to be stylistic, and to reflect the distinctions made in 23.3-8, with Ammon and Moab being more remote than Edom in their relationship, (nation to nation rather than brother to brother), reflecting a very early period before the relationship with Edom soured and became one of antagonism.
2.10-12 ‘The Emim dwelt in it previously, a people great, and many, and tall, as the Anakim, these also are accounted Rephaim, like the Anakim, but the Moabites call them Emim. The Horites also dwelt in Seir previously, but the children of Esau succeeded them, and they destroyed them from before them, and dwelt in their stead, as Israel did to the land of his possession, which Yahweh gave to them.’
It is often disputed whether these are the words of Moses or a later note put in by a copier, but their significance suggests that they are an important part of the speech, and this is confirmed by the chiasmus. Such asides are commonplace with many speakers. We must remember that Israel had been in terror of the Anakim (1.28; Numbers 13.28). Thus Moses assured them that a similar people to the Anakim once dwelt in the land now possessed by Moab, but Moab had defeated them. There they were called the Emim, but they were seen as Rephaim just as the Anakim were, and they were as great, and as many, and as tall. Rephaim were later seen as ghostly figures (Psalm 88.10; Isaiah 14.9; 26.14, 19). This may have arisen from the seeing of these tall figures flitting through the dark shadows of the trees prior to attacking the enemy and thus gaining a reputation for ghostliness, for Canaan was heavily forested. At Ugarit a parallel word rpu’m refers possibly to a class of minor gods or a sacred guild, and in Phoenician tomb inscriptions rp’m appears as signifying ghosts.
Furthermore, as well as being able to defeat them, Moab had been able to defeat the powerful Horites. We know little about the Horites, but see Genesis 36.20, 29-30. They were probably not Hurrians for they have Semitic names. They were defeated by Chederlaomer and his fellow-kings, as were the Rephaim and the Emim (Genesis 14.5-6), which may have contributed to their downfall. Thus Moses wanted his people to know that none of these peoples were invincible, and that God could do the same for Israel.
‘As Israel did to the land of his possession, which Yahweh gave to them.’ At first sight this would seem to suggest that this was a later note inserted in the text, for it appears to look back to Israel taking the land of their possession as having happened in the past. But we must remember that at this stage Israel had already taken over a considerable part of the land of their possession in Gilead and Bashan. This may therefore simply be Moses’ (or Joshua’s) way of reminding them that not only had Moab overcome the equivalent of the Anakim but they too had already been victorious in the name of Yahweh and had successfully destroyed their enemies the Amorites and had received land as their possession. This is especially so as Israel did not in fact later destroy their enemies as they should have done.
2.13a “Now rise up, and get yourselves over the wadi Zered.”
Having passed by Esau, and having been given their instructions concerning Moab, they were to rise and cross the Wadi Zered which was the southern border of Moab.
Having passed by Edom they crossed the Wadi Zered between Edom and Moab.
The Crossing of the Zered (2.13b-17).
This was clearly seen as a crisis point and is dated. Between the first visit to Kadesh and their arrival at the Zered thirty eight years had passed because of Yahweh’s ban on the men of war who had failed to respond to His command to enter Canaan. Note the emphasis on their obedience. They crossed the Zered as He had commanded. This new generation obeyed Yahweh explicitly. It may be that they also used the Zered valley as a passageway, moving along between Edom and Moab.
This can be briefly analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ they crossed the River Zered at Yahweh’s command, and in the parallel the command comes to move on. In ‘b’ the length of their time in the wilderness is given which was to last until all the men at arms were dead, and in the parallel that had occurred.
2.13b ‘And we went over the wadi ( intermittent river) Zered.’
The crossing of the Zered is seen as a significant event. They were now approaching their first conquests in that part of the land that was east of Jordan. Their new beginning had commenced. So they immediately obeyed Yahweh and crossed the Zered.
2.14-15 ‘And the days in which we came from Kadesh-barnea, until we were come over the river Zered, were thirty eight years, until all that generation of the men of war were consumed from the midst of the camp, as Yahweh swore to them. Moreover the hand of Yahweh was against them, to destroy them from the midst of the camp, until they were consumed.’
Thus since leaving Kadesh the first time thirty eight years had passed. In those thirty eight years the hand of Yahweh had ensured the deaths of all who had refused to enter Canaan who were of military age. None were left in the camp. Note that this only required the death of the males.
This solemn statement placed here in the midst of the descriptions of nations who had possessed their lands as a result of Yahweh’s goodness towards them, and because of their relationship to Abraham, again brings home the lesson that Israel’s similar possession will be dependent on obedience.
2.16-17 ‘So it came about that when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people, Yahweh spoke to me.’
Until the unbelieving men of war were dead Yahweh would do nothing positive about the invasion of Canaan, but as soon as this had occurred, and the last man had died, Yahweh gave His command to move forward.
Passing By Ammon (2.18-23).
Ammon, Moab’s brother tribe, had also been given possession of their land by Yahweh, because of His love for Abraham. Thus they too were not to be molested. And they were to note that in giving them the land He had dealt with the Zamzummim, a people of the Rephaim, the equal of the Anakim. Yahweh had had no problem with dealing with the Anakim.
The passage may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ they were to cross over the border of Moab. This was the commencement of their military campaign (see verses 13-17). Thus in the parallel Yahweh was about to spread the terror of their reputation. In ‘b’ they must not contend with Ammon, but in the parallel they are to do battle with Sihon. In ‘c’ that land of Ammon is for Ammon’s possession, but in the parallel the land of Sihon is to be possessed by Israel. In ‘d’ the land of Ammon had been accounted as the land of the Rephaim who had dwelt there previously, (although the Ammonites had called them Zamzummim). In the parallel the Avvim (a parallel tribe) had been destroyed by the incoming Cretans (the Caphtorim and Philistines, compare Genesis 10.14). In ‘e’ the Zamzummim were a people great, and numerous and tall like the Anakim but Yahweh had destroyed them, and Ammon had succeeded them and dwelt there instead of them, while in the parallel he had done a similar thing for the children of Esau who dwelt in Seir when He destroyed the Horites from before them, and they also had succeeded them and dwelt there instead of them (22).
We note here not only the chiasmus but also the repetition in the second part of ‘had succeeded them and dwelt there instead of them’. This is a pattern (chiasmus containing repetition in the second part) that can also be observed in Exodus 18.21b-22a with 18.25b-26a; Numbers 18.4 with 7, and 18.23 with 24.
2.16-17 ‘So it came about that when all the men of war were consumed and dead from among the people, Yahweh spoke to me, saying,’
We have repeated these verses in order to retain the connection, although strictly this passage begins with the last word, ‘Saying’.
Once the last of unbelieving Israel died (with the exception of Caleb, Joshua and Moses), their bodies buried one by one in the wilderness, the order came to advance across the Zered and along the border between Moab and Ammon.
2.18-19 “You (thou) are this day to pass over Ar, the border of Moab, and when you (thou) come nigh over against the children of Ammon, do not annoy them, or contend with them, for I will not give you (thee) of the land of the children of Ammon for a possession, because I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession.”
It would appear that Ar was on the southern border of Moab, and they passed it by on their journey round Moab and along the border until they reached the border with Ammon. Others see Ar as synonymous with Moab.
Ammon too were to be safe from molestation, for their land too had been given to them by Yahweh, and permanently belonged to them as their possession. They too were a reminder of Yahweh’s faithfulness to Abraham and his family, and the certainty of His fulfilment of His will. For the use of the singular pronoun see on 2.9.
2.20-23 ‘That also is accounted a land of Rephaim. Rephaim dwelt in it previously, but the Ammonites call them Zamzummim, a people great, and many, and tall, like the Anakim, but Yahweh destroyed them before them, and they succeeded them, and dwelt in their place, as he did for the children of Esau, who dwell in Seir, when he destroyed the Horites from before them, and they succeeded them, and dwelt in their place even to this day, and the Avvim, who dwelt in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their place.’
Once again it is stressed that peoples like the Anakim have been defeated, this time by Ammon. They were not invincible. Here they were called Zamzummim. These too were the dreaded Rephaim. But Yahweh had destroyed them from before them, and as with Edom, had enabled them to dwell safely in their land in their place (as He would with Israel).
‘And the Avvim, who dwelt in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their place.’ This possibly refers to similar tall people who had settled in the Coastal Plain, the Avvim. In their case their defeat was at the hands of the Sea People who came from Caphtor (possibly Crete or the Greek coastlands). These latter were possibly the first wave of the equivalent of the Philistines. Joshua came across them in his later life. Compare Joshua 13.2-3. If the full invasion of the Philistines was in mind then this last part may be a note made by Joshua at a later date. But note how it fits in with the analysis.
Thus while passing by these nations Israel were to learn from them a number of lessons. Firstly that God is able to give land to whom He will, and ensure their safe possession of it. And secondly that God is well able to deal with even the most fearsome of opponents, whether they be Horim (2.12,22), Emim (2.10-11), Zamzummim (2.20), or Avvim (2.23) even though they be as tall as the Anakim (2.10-11, 21). And at the same time they are to remember that Yahweh has shown them great blessing in the wilderness, while at the same time dealing severely with their disobedient fathers. The point behind all this is, let the lessons be learned!
2.24 “Rise yourselves up, take your journey, and pass over the valley of the Arnon. See, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession of it, and contend with him in battle.”
They were now therefore to rise and cross the River Arnon and its valley and approach the Amorites, under Sihon king of Heshbon, north of Moab. In spite of the fact that Israel would offer friendship the result would be fierce battle during which they would commence taking possession of the land which was to be theirs. This was Yahweh’s decision and His purpose. This land had been snatched from Moab by Sihon. It was not his, and he and his people were Amorites, due for destruction.
Heshbon was the royal city of the Amorites in the area (Numbers 21.25-26). It has not yet been clearly identified. It became a levitical city (Joshua 21.39). It was restored by Reuben (Numbers 32.37), came into the possession of Gad, and then was later in the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah taken by Moab, before again being captured by Israel
2.25 “This day will I begin to put the dread of you and the fear of you on the peoples who are under the whole heaven, who will hear the report about you, and will tremble, and be in anguish because of you.”
This day is the day when they ‘passed over Ar the border of Moab’. Serious battles were now beginning. Not only would they defeat the Amorites, but that defeat would echo and re-echo throughout the vicinity, including Canaan. People would begin to fear them and their approach, and tremble. That would mean that their enemies would be defeated almost before they started. Now the new generation were to benefit by what was previously promised to the previous generation if they were faithful (11.25; 28.10; Exodus 15.14-16; Joshua 2.9, 11). Yahweh was again working for them.
Yahweh’s Dealings With Sihon, King of the Amorites (2.26-31).
There is no suggestion that Yahweh had given the land of Sihon, king of the Amorites to him. Sihon had rather taken it by force of arms from Moab and had no divine right to it, especially as he was an Amorite, and the Amorites were under sentence. It was Yahweh’s intention that Sihon and the Amorites should be destroyed and their land give to Israel as a possession. However, in spite of that, they were at first given the opportunity to prove their worthiness. They could have shown compassion to Israel. But in their response they simply indicated that they were ‘Canaanites’ to the core. The importance of this time comes out in that Israel were now to take their first possession of the land, and establish their reputation for the future.
Behind the treatment of the Amorites lies the concept of holiness. Israel were a holy nation (Exodus 19.6), and the land promised to Abraham was a holy land (Exodus 15.17; Zechariah 2.12), the land of Yahweh’s inheritance (Exodus 15.17), belonging to Yahweh. Thus nothing unholy could be allowed to remain in it. That was why the unbelieving Israel had been refused residence in the land (1.28). That was why the Canaanites must be utterly destroyed from it. They had defiled the land. That is why once the land has been taken in holy war by God’s holy nation, all the inhabitants, men, women and children, must be ‘devoted’ to Yahweh in death in order to purge the land. The stain of the sinfulness of the Canaanites must be removed by the shedding of blood. That is Yahweh’s sentence. And that is why if His people depart from holiness they too must be driven from the land. It is a holy land for a holy people.
This passage may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ Moses offers Sihon peace, but in the parallel Yahweh makes known His purpose that Sihon will be delivered into the hands of Israel. In ‘b’ Moses requests that they might pass through the land and in the parallel Sihon refuses to let them pass through. In ‘c’ he requests that the Amorites might behave in the same way as in the parallel Edom and Moab had done.
2.26-28 ‘And I sent messengers out of the wilderness of Kedemoth to Sihon king of Heshbon with words of peace, saying, “Let me pass through your land. I will go along by the highway. I will turn neither to the right hand nor to the left. You shall sell me food for money, that I may eat, and give me water for money, that I may drink. Only let me pass through on my feet, as the children of Esau who dwell in Seir, and the Moabites who dwell in Ar, did to me, until I shall pass over the Jordan into the land which Yahweh our God gives us.”
Emissaries were sent to Sihon with the reasonable request that they be allowed to pass along the highway, paying their way, and the promise was given that they would not stray from the highway. They would pay for all provisions required. The children of Esau and the Moabites had to a certain extent allowed their passage, for they had not attacked them, and they had suffered no harm. Would they not do the same? Their aim, Moses explained, was simply to reach the Jordan where they could pass over it and enter the land which Yahweh had promised to give them.
Note the kingly use of ‘I’ to include his nation. As far as the nations were concerned Moses was Israel’s king.
2.30 ‘But Sihon, king of Heshbon, would not let us pass by him, for Yahweh your God hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate, that he might deliver him into your hand, as at this day.”
But Moses makes it clear that it was never Yahweh’s intention for Sihon to agree. Yahweh all along knew Sihon’s innermost thoughts. And He had assessed him correctly. By this approach Yahweh hardened Sihon’s spirit, and made his heart obstinate. But this was not an independent act. It was because of what Sihon was. He could not blame God. Had he been amenable it would not have hardened his heart. (Compare Numbers 21.23 where the blame is laid squarely on him). He may well have been angry at the thought that this people were intending to invade Canaan where many of his brother Amorites were. He was also no doubt suspicious of what would happen when such a large contingent suddenly arrived in the middle of his land. They could then fan out and attack, taking the Amorites by surprise. And he knew that neither Edom nor Moab had been quite as accommodating as Moses had made it sound. Thus he refused, demonstrating His refusal to respond to Yahweh’s request.
The ‘hardening of the spirit and the making obstinate of the heart’ paralleled the behaviour of Pharaoh in Egypt. It brought down total judgment.
2.31 ‘And Yahweh said to me, See, I have begun to deliver up Sihon and his land before you. Begin possessing to possess, that you may inherit his land.’
Then God told Moses that if he would look he would see that the beginning of Sihon’s delivering up was taking place. He would see the army of Sihon coming to make war and prevent their access. They could now go forward and begin to possess the land.
The War With Sihon and the Amorites (2.32-37).
As a result of Sihon’s refusal and show of force Israel retaliate and capture their cities and their land, and thus take possession of the land and a multitude of flocks and herds.
We can analyse the passage as follows:
Note how in ‘a’ Sihon comes out against Israel to battle, but in the parallel Ammon remains untouched. Both were in accordance with Yahweh’s stated purpose. In ‘b’ and its parallel Yahweh delivers up the Amorites to them. In ‘c’ all their cities are destroyed and in the parallel no city could resist them. And central to it all they accumulated much spoil and cattle.
2.32-35 ‘Then Sihon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. And Yahweh our God delivered him up before us, and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed (‘devoted’) every inhabited city, with the women and the little ones. We left none remaining. Only the cattle did we take for a prey to ourselves, with the spoil of the cities which we had taken.’
Moses points out that Sihon came as described, with all his warriors, and there was a great battle at Jahaz at which Sihon and his forces were routed. And as far as Israel were concerned it was all Yahweh’s doing. This was then followed by a campaign in which each of the cities was subdued. All the cities were destroyed (‘devoted’) and every man, woman and child put to death, as Yahweh had commanded must be done with the Canaanites. Their corruption had gone so far that there was no other remedy. Only the cattle were spared, along with all the spoils taken. (Jahaz is mentioned in the Moabite Stone).
It should be noted that Sihon and his people had had two other options. The first was to accept the treaty offered, which would have done them no harm, indeed would have done them good, the other was to remain within their walled cities safe out of harms way. The treaty could be offered to them because strictly they were not in the promised land and so would not be a snare to Israel. But it is made clear that it was Yahweh’s purpose that His judgment should come on them.
We know now that the country was surrounded by fortified border posts. (It was one thing to capture the cities of a defeated army, another to capture those filled with armed men who have not suffered defeat). Thus Sihon brought his judgment on himself and his people by leaving his defenced cities and attacking Israel. It was also the law of warfare that if a city surrendered it would be spared. If it resisted its menfolk would be put to the sword (20.10-15). This went one step further because the Canaanites were under God’s sentence of judgment, and by choosing to take sides with them Sihon had put himself under the curse.
We understandably see this as very harsh. But before we presume to condemn God we must consider the situation.
It should be noted that the corollary of this is that Yahweh was seen as having the right to do what He would with all nations. He was not limited to Israel. The whole world was seen as subject to His judgment, as Abraham had made clear long before (Genesis 18.25).
2.36 ‘From Aroer, which is on the edge of the valley of the Arnon, and from the city that is in the valley, even to Gilead, there was not a city too high for us. Yahweh our God delivered up all before us.’
So of every city from south (on the banks of the Arnon) to north (the region of Gilead) not one city was too strong to prevent Israel from taking it. God delivered all of them up to Israel. The ruins of Aroer, a Moabite border city, do literally look down the huge ravine through which flows the Arnon.
‘There was not a city too high for us.’ Contrast 1.28, where the complaint had been that ‘the cities are great and fenced up to heaven’. They now discovered that Yahweh did keep His promises and was able to deal with the worst possible situations, with cities great and ‘fenced up to heaven’, that is having high walls.
2.37 ‘Only to the land of the children of Ammon you (thou) did not come near. All the side of the river Jabbok, and the cities of the hill-country, and wherever Yahweh our God forbade us.’
But those whom Yahweh had declared untouchable were not in any way molested, just as Sihon and his people would not have been molested had they not acted belligerently. The children of Ammon were not touched in any way. Everything their side of the River Jabbok was left alone, including all the cities of their hill-country. Israel touched nothing in the region that Yahweh their covenant God had forbidden. The emphasis is on the fact that they were totally obedient. How different they now were from their fathers, and from what they would be like in a few decades time. The River Jabbok left the Jordan going eastward. Then it turned south and marked the boundaries of Sihon’s kingdom and Ammon.
It may reasonably be asked how far this justifies religious wars. The answer is that it does not. This was a unique occasion. Nowhere did Jesus ever suggest that men should fight for Christianity. What they were called on to do was humbly die for it (or should we say, for Him). Violence was forbidden. Christians were to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them. No exceptions were stated, whereas at this period there was one exception, the evil and degraded Canaanites. This does not prevent a nation from defending itself from attack, that is another matter. What it forbids is deliberately and belligerently going to war. God has not given us a land or a city to fight for. The land and city He has given to us is where no one can touch it.
For the use of the singular verb see on verse 9.
Chapter 3 The Defeat of Og and the Division of Transjordan.
The first three verses of this chapter are an almost exact reproduction of Numbers 21.33-35) with slight changes to fit it into speech (altering ‘they’ to ‘we’). They describe the defeat of Og, king of Bashan. This is then followed by a more full description of the defeat, and the dividing up of the land between Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh. After this the call goes out to these tribes to fulfil their covenant to provide troops for he conquest. It ends with a plea from Moses that he be allowed to enter the land, which is refused.
Intrinsic to all that is mentioned is the certainty that Yahweh is about to give them their land to possess. The Amorites have been initially defeated, a foretaste of what is to come, the two and a half tribes have been settled on their land, their fighting men have been prepared for the invasion across the Jordan, Joshua has been commissioned, and Moses has been permitted to see the land that is to be theirs from Pisgah. The land now awaits.
The Defeat of Og, King of Bashan (3.1-7).
This passage may be analysed as follows:
Note how in ‘a’ the commencement of the battle finally results in the parallel in great booty (compare how previously the booty had been the central point in the previous analysis (2.35). This was important to Israel as it was preparing them for possession of a good land. In ‘b’ Yahweh says he will deliver from Og as He had from Sihon and in the parallel it is stated that He had done this. In ‘c’ they captured all the walled cities and in the parallel the unwalled towns. And central in ‘d’ to all this was the size and strength of the cities they captured. It was a great boost to Israel.
3.1 ‘Then we turned, and went up the way to Bashan, and Og, the king of Bashan, came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei.’
The next road that they took was ‘the way to Bashan’. This immediately brought the Amorite king Bashan out to fight them with his armies. It will be noted that both in this case and in the case of Sihon the belligerency was on the part of the enemy. Until they crossed the Jordan this current Israel never initiated an attack unless they were first attacked.
3.2 ‘And Yahweh said to me, ‘Do not be afraid of him, for I have delivered him, and all his people, and his land, into your hand, and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who dwelt at Heshbon.’
When this great king with his armies appeared there were no doubt some fearful hearts in the ranks of Israel. But Yahweh immediately assured Moses that he was with them, and that He would deliver Og, his armies, his cities and his land into the hands of Israel.
Here again Moses is being seen as ‘king’ over his people (compare 2.27-28), and the people are included with him in intent, thus the second person singular is used.
3.3 ‘So Yahweh our God delivered into our hand Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people, and we smote him until none were left to him remaining.’
The result was a resounding victory. God was acting on their behalf. The whole of Og’s armies were slaughtered. As far as was possible not one was left alive. They were carrying out God’s requirements to the letter.
3.4-5 ‘And we took all his cities at that time. There was not a city which we did not take from them, threescore cities, all the region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides a great many unwalled towns.’
Every city was taken. Not one was strong enough to stand up against them. There were threescore cities with high walls, gates and bars, and a great number of unwalled towns. ‘Threescore’ (3 x 2 x 10 is three heavily intensified) probably indicates the completeness of the success. Bashan was a very fertile area and there were many small cities and towns in it.
3.6-7 ‘And we utterly destroyed them, as we did to Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying every inhabited city, with the women and the little ones. But all the cattle, and the spoil of the cities, we took for a prey to ourselves.’
And the principle of the devotion of all humans to Yahweh was carried out. Every man, woman and child was put to the sword. Only the cattle and spoils of the city were spared. God’s judgment on gross sin and idolatry of the worst kind was fulfilled. These were executions, not slaughter. Each of these worshipped false gods in Yahweh’s own land, and the penalty for that was death. It is a reminder to us that in the end God will call all men into judgment even though it be delayed, as it had been for the Amorites for hundreds of years.
A Description of the Whole Land That Is Captured (3.8-17).
3.8 ‘And we took the land at that time out of the hand of the two kings of the Amorites who were in Beyond Jordan, from the valley of the Arnon to mount Hermon,’
Thus the whole of the land of the two kings of the Amorites was taken and possessed, from the River Arnon in the South (the border river of Moab) to Mount Hermon in the north. All of them being in Beyond Jordan.
3.9 ‘(which Hermon the Sidonians call Sirion, and the Amorites call it Senir),’
A note is added here to make clear which mountain was indicated. It was called Sirion by the Sidonians, (mentioned in the Ugaritic texts), and Senir by the Amorites (mentioned in Assyrian texts). This note could have been added at any time. Or it could be an aside by Moses showing off his knowledge, possibly learned from scouts or travellers or Amorite prisoners prior to execution, with a view to indicating that there God’s land came in contact with the greater world.
3.10 ‘All the cities of the plain, and all Gilead, and all Bashan, to Salecah and Edrei, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan.’
The whole extent of the land is then described. It took in all the cities of the Moabite plain, ‘all Gilead’, a wide ranging region above the Moabite plain extending to Bashan, and ‘all Bashan’, and included the great cities of Salecah and Edrei. (Gilead can sometimes refer to a region in the north adjacent to Bashan, but ‘all Gilead’ was a wider expression and covered much of Transjordan. It is also possible that the geographical term ‘Gilead’ could sometimes be used as an overall term to refer to the whole of the land north of Moab including some parts or all of Bashan (2.36; 34.1; Judges 10-12; 20.1; 2 Kings 15.29). This is confirmed in external archaeological records.
Salecah was a city in the extreme east of Bashan possibly modern Salhad, on a southern spur of Mount Hauran. Edrei is probably modern Der‘a, occupying a key point for communications in the Bashan area.
3.11 ‘(For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his sarcophagus (literally ‘resting place, place of lying down’) was a sarcophagus of basalt. Is it not in Rabbah of the children of Ammon? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, after the cubit of a man).’
Here we learn that in Bashan Og was the only surviving remnant of the Rephaim. His great size was probably one reason why he had been made king. He would be a fearsome war-leader. He was buried in a sarcophagus of basalt (the colour of iron), the great size of which was well known, nine cubits by four cubits (roughly four metres/thirteen and a half feet, by two metres/six feet). This did not mean that he was that size. In death as in life kings liked to exaggerate what they were. Similar sarcophagi have been discovered in Phoenicia. It was possibly carried to Ammon to prevent anticipated degrading treatment.
This was possibly a footnote (but see analysis where it is balanced by verse 13) added later by a discerning writer, although if he had had his sarcophagus ready, and it was swiftly carried to Ammon once he was dead, in order to escape desecration, news easily could have reached Moses of where it was. Men loved to carry such information to rulers, hoping for a reward.
Some translate ‘bedstead of iron.’ This is equally possible. The words mean ‘a resting place of iron’ (therefore possibly the colour of iron), a ‘place of lying down’, which makes possible both translations. If it was a bedstead its being made of iron would emphasise Og’s greatness and possibly his overall size. At this time iron was comparatively rare.
3.12-13 ‘And this land we took in possession at that time, from Aroer, which is by the valley of the Arnon, and half the hill-country of Gilead, and its cities, I gave to the Reubenites and to the Gadites, and the rest of Gilead, and all Bashan, the kingdom of Og, I gave to the half-tribe of Manasseh; all the region of Argob, even all Bashan.
He emphasises that they took overall possession of a large area of land, and then he caused the land to be divided up between the Reubenites and Gadites, who appear to have worked very closely together, and the half-tribe of Manasseh which included the sub-tribes Machir and Jair. From Aroer on the River Arnon, probably to the River Jabbok (half the hill-country of Gilead), together with its cities was given to the Reubenites and Gadites, the rest of Gilead from the Jabbok to the Yarmuk, and the whole of Bashan was given to the half tribe of Manasseh.
3.14 ‘(The same is called the land of Rephaim. Jair the son of Manasseh took all the region of Argob, up to the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called them, even Bashan, after his own name, Havvoth-jair, to this day).’
This land was called ‘The land of Rephaim.’ This was possibly because it was ruled over by Og, the giant of a king, who was seen as descended from the Rephaim, who like the Anakim were a genetically huge people. They were seen as very sinister. Or it may signify that it was a ghostly land. The term is later applied to ghosts.
Argob, probably from regeb ‘a clod’, probably refers to a fertile area of arable land and appears to be the name of Og’s territory, which included all Bashan. This appears to have been allocated to Jair of Manasseh, the general who captured it, right up to the Golan Heights (the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites). He renamed it Havvoth-jair (‘the camps (tent-villages) of Jair’). In the time of Solomon these tent-villages were said to be in Gilead (1 Kings 4.13). This may have been due to migration, they bred cattle and sheep and may well therefore have moved territory, but it is more likely due to a different use of the designation Gilead, which has in fact various definitions geographically (see above and compare Numbers 32.41). Gilead was a name very fluid in its use as we know from external sources.
This description of the activities of Jair is intended to be a stimulus and a reminder that everyone in Israel must play their part in the possession of the land. It was God’s gift, but all must participate in claiming it, just as Jair did.
3.15-18 ‘And I gave Gilead to Machir. And to the Reubenites and to the Gadites I gave from Gilead even down to the valley of the Arnon, the middle of the valley, and its border, even to the river Jabbok, which is the border of the children of Ammon, the Arabah also, and the Jordan and its border, from Chinnereth even to the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, under the slopes of Pisgah eastward.’
Gilead (or Upper Gilead) was given to the sub-tribe of Machir, (another section of the half-tribe of Manasseh); from the River Arnon up to Upper Gilead, including Lower Gilead was given to the Reubenites and the Gadites. This latter included the Arabah (the Jordan valley) between the sea of Chinnereth (Galilee) and the Dead Sea (the Salt Sea). The eastern border was the River Jabbok. It is clear that the whole area had been scouted, probably after the victory over Og, in order to root out opposition and to deal with fleeing refugees. It was necessary to make the whole area safe before crossing the Jordan.
That the Gadites were still a recognised group in the area in the 9th century BC is testified to by the Moabite stone of Mesha, king of Moab. All this detail helps to confirm that this was spoken at the time when all this information was directly relevant and needed to be communciated to the people so as to keep them informed.
The Charge To The Two and a Half Tribes Settling In Transjordan (3.18-22).
The great victories over Sihon and Og having been described, along with the giving of their land to the two and a half tribes of Israel, the charge is now given for the advancement on the land proper. It is given, first to the two and a half tribes in response to their reception of their land, and then to Joshua on behalf of all the people.
When Moses had agreed that the land west of the Jordan which had been taken from the Amorites should be given to Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh , it was on condition that their warriors of over twenty years of age would pass over Jordan with their fellow-Israelites to assist in settling the land (Numbers 32). He now charged them to be faithful to that promise.
This passage may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ it was Yahweh Who gave their land to the two and a half tribes so that they could possess it, and in the parallel it is confirmed that He will do the same beyond the Jordan. In ‘b’ their families will settle in to their new cities, and in the parallel when the conquest is completed their menfolk can return to the land of their possessions. In ‘c’ the remainder of the tribes are also to be ‘given rest’ and in the parallel they are to possess their land.
3.18 ‘And I commanded you at that time, saying, “Yahweh your God has given you this land to possess it. You shall pass over armed before your brethren the children of Israel, all the men of valour.’
In return for Yahweh giving them the land west of Jordan, the ‘men of valour’ of the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh were to pass over Jordan ahead of their brothers the children if Israel. That is, they were to go forward ready for battle, along with the fighting men, ‘the men of valour’ of the remaining tribes.
3.19-20 ‘But your wives, and your little ones, and your cattle, (I know that you have much cattle), shall abide in your cities which I have given you, until Yahweh give rest to your brethren, as to you, and they also possess the land which Yahweh your God gives them beyond the Jordan. Then shall you return every man to his possession, which I have given you.’
Meanwhile their womenfolk and youngsters, together with their cattle, would settle the land and take possession of it. Protection would be afforded by Yahweh watching over them, by those under twenty able to fight, and by the older men who would be considered too old for battle, but would still be able to fight and defend cities if called on. Once all the tribes had found rest in the land they would then be able to return to the land of their possession (compare Joshua 22.9). The dangers would not be too great. Their neighbours Edom. Moab and Ammon had had plenty of opportunity to see the victorious nature of the Israelite army and would hesitate to bring their wrath down on themselves.
By this Moses emphasised to them the need for them all to work together if they were to achieve their object of peace and security in the land. It was also a statement of confidence that their aim would be achieved. It was not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. He was seeking to build up confidence and loyalty.
‘I know that you have much cattle.’ They had brought cattle through the wilderness, but these had been hugely added to by the conquests of Sihon and Og (2.35; 3.7). This was already a sign of how Yahweh was providing for His people in readiness for their entry into the land, further evidence that He was intending to carry His purposes through. To have much cattle was to the ancients’ the sign of being wealthy.
We learn from all this that if we are faithful to God all our enemies will finally be thwarted, and as a result we will enjoy great spiritual wealth. However great our enemies may seem none will finally be able to stand against God.
The Charge To Joshua (3.21-22)
Note the combination of singular and plural verbs. The charge to Joshua is a charge to all the people.
3.21-22 ‘And I commanded Joshua at that time, saying, “Your (thy) eyes have seen all that Yahweh your (of ye) God has done to these two kings. So shall Yahweh do to all the kingdoms to which you (thou) go over. You shall not fear them, for Yahweh your (of ye) God, he it is who fights for you.”
He then applied the lesson of the two kings of the Amorites, which he had previously applied to Joshua, to his hearers. They are to remember what God did with respect to those two kings and their armies. He had brought about their total defeat and extinction. So would Yahweh their God do to all against whom they had to fight in the land as they conducted their holy war. They need not fear them, because Yahweh would be fighting for them. For through them He was bringing his judgment on those nations.
Joshua is naturally spoken of as ‘thou’, but this immediately moves to ‘your (of ye)’ as his people are brought to mind.
Moses’ Plea To Be Able To Enter The Land (3.23-29).
But one of the things that grieved Moses most was the fact that through his own sin of impatience, carelessness, petulance and uncontrolled anger in smiting the rock at Meribah when he had been told only to speak the powerful word of Yahweh, and as a result cloaking Yahweh’s act of compassion and mercy in providing water in a garb of petulance and anger (Numbers 20.1-13), he was to be prevented from entering the land by death.
He and Aaron had come from the presence of Yahweh having successfully been promised His mercy. But instead of approaching the people with joy over God’s provision, and rejoicing over His mercy, he and Aaron had been possessed by a spirit of animosity, anger, petulance and superiority, and even of arrogance, at a time when Yahweh was seeking to reveal love and compassion. They had given the people the impression that he and Aaron were the ones who were in control, and who were dispensing the gift, and not Yahweh, and that Yahweh was reluctant to offer His mercy. They had besmirched the holiness of God (see 32.51). It was a sign that they had grown too big for their own positions. They had become too important in their own eyes. No longer was Moses meeker than any other man on earth (Numbers 12.3). No longer did he fully represent Yahweh before the people. And God had clearly recognised that this was a permanent defect which now rendered them unsuitable for the next stage in His great deliverance. They would need to be replaced by those who were more submissive, and more obedient. It proved that no one is indispensable.
Those who are appointed to the highest positions in His service should ever be aware that they have the greatest responsibility. They must never treat God’s work as though it were their own. And that is what Moses had done. Great privilege requires great responsibility. And Moses was now reaping the consequences of irresponsibility. He explains how he had sought to reverse God’s sentence, only to be told that it could not be.
We may analyse this passage as follows:
3.23 ‘And I sought the mercy of Yahweh at that time, saying,’
He explains how he had come to Yahweh to plead for mercy and a reversal of the sentence. ‘At that time’ may indicate the same time as he had given his charge to the two and a half tribes about their necessary cooperation in possessing the land, compare ‘at that time’ in verse 18. The one having brought the other to mind. But it probably rather means simply at the time when he did it, whenever that was.
3.24-25 “O Lord Yahweh, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your strong hand, for what god is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your mighty acts? Let me go over, I pray you, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon.”
Indeed, he had humbly approached Yahweh exulting in what God was doing, in the greatness that He was revealing, and the strong hand that He was laying bare, demonstrating His superiority and that there was none like Him. There was none on heaven or earth, no spiritual being of any kind, who could do what He could do, and reveal the power that He would reveal (compare Exodus 15.11). And he had declared his desire to be a part of it.
He had pleaded that he might be allowed to cross the Jordan and see the ‘good land’ for himself, the goodly hill country and that which was beyond.
‘O Lord Yahweh.’ He had come in submissiveness recognising God’s sovereignty and great power. See 9.26; Genesis 15.2, 8.
‘That goodly mountain.’ The central part of Canaan consisted of the great mountain range that stretched from Galilee down to the Negeb.
‘Lebanon.’ This indicates the remainder of Canaan stretching northwards. Lebanon, like Gilead, can, depending on usage, indicate a particular part of northern Canaan which includes the valley of Lebanon, or a larger area going northwards, or the land to the north of Canaan. We must not assume that all geographical terms were too precise in those days.
3.26-27 “But Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, and did not listen to me. And Yahweh said to me, “Let it be sufficient for you. Do not speak to me about this matter any more. Get yourself up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with your eyes, for you shall not go over this Jordan.”
But Yahweh had firmly refused. He had been ‘angry’ with Moses, that is an anthropomorphism indicating that He looked on His sin and had a righteous aversion to it. We are probably to see in this that by his action at Meribah Moses was seen as having identified himself with the people in rebellion against Yahweh to such an extent that he had therefore to suffer the same fate if Yahweh was to be just. Yahweh could not judge them and yet let Moses be spared. That would indicate favouritism. Thus Yahweh could not listen to his plea. As far as He was concerned the matter was settled. However He showed His compassion by being prepared to let him see for himself the land for which he had sacrificed so much. He was to go to the top of Pisgah from where he would see it stretching before him. Thus having had a foretaste of the deliverance in the defeat of Sihon and Og, and the taking over of their land, He was to be allowed to see the full land that was to be Israel’s.
Various views are taken of what ‘the Pisgah’ (always with the article) represents, varying from ‘the Pisgah’ as the height above the precipitous slope going down into the Jordan valley, or the ridge at the top of a mountain, to ‘the Pisgah’ as a range of mountains which included Mount Nebo.
Paradoxically Moses probably intended this refusal to allow him to enter the land, while allowing him to see it from afar, to be seen as a further guarantee that the land would be given to Israel as a possession. His alone being forbidden indicating that those who were not forbidden would enter it.
3.28 “But charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him, for he will go over before this people, and he will cause them to inherit the land which you will see.”
However, although he was not to be allowed to enter the land himself, he had still been given a great responsibility. He had been told to charge Joshua with his responsibility, encouraging and strengthening him for the task ahead. For he was the one who would now go over before the people in Moses’ place, and it was he who would cause them to inherit the land which Moses would see from the Pisgah.
3.29 ‘So we abode in the valley over against Beth-peor.’
At this point then they remained for a time in the valley over against Beth-peor.
Thus Israel were in many ways given the firm assurance that the land of Canaan would soon be their possession. This had been confirmed by reference to:
Chapter 4. Moses Urges Them To Respond Fully To Yahweh’s Covenant And Remember With What Glory and Power It Came.
Having established the certainty of their successful entry into the land Moses now follows this up with a charge to fulfil all God’s requirements . And he does it in the light of what God has revealed Himself to be. This chapter up to verse 40 in fact makes the first four chapters into a mini-covenant for it follows the historical prologue of chapters 1-3 by summarising the stipulations of their Overlord (verses 1-2), stresses how favoured they are because of His superiority and the superiority of the teaching that He has given them (verses 7-8) and that He had appeared personally in order to urge these stipulations on them (verses 10-15), and ends with warnings in line with the covenant pattern (verses 25-28), and an appeal to witnesses (verse 26). It thus forms a mini-covenant within the larger covenant.
This summarisation, which will later be expounded in more detail, confirms that we have here an actual address. It is similar to the modern preacher who, having dealt with an initial passage, summarises the principles that will follow which he will later deal with in more detail in the following sermons.
And it demonstrates how Moses constantly thought in covenant treaty terms. He saw things in terms of Who Yahweh is, what Yahweh had done for them, what He required of them in response and what the consequences of disobedience would be. His vision was filled with Yahweh Who was his all. He himself could not see how anyone could fail to respond to Him fully, although he knew from practical experience that they could.
The chapter expresses the plea that they will remember the glory and holiness of the One Who gave the laws, and Who will therefore call them to account. They are to remember that He is no pushover, but rather that He is a consuming fire. They must thus avoid all idolatry and all that provokes God to anger, otherwise they too will have to be turned from the land. And they must take heed to all that He has done for them, and respond from an obedient heart.
He finally reminds them of the sacredness of human life and God’s hatred of the unnecessary (and forbidden) shedding of blood by appointing three cities of refuge. The establishment of these cities was a demonstration of their permanent occupation of the land. They demonstrated that Israel were there for good. Perhaps by mentioning these cities of refuge at this time he also intended to remind them of the fact that they themselves had a continuing refuge, and that God was the One Who was their refuge also. For these cities were a like a lighthouse whose beams declared openly Yahweh’s protective care for the unfortunate.
We need to learn to apply the same covenant principles to our lives, by remembering Who Christ is, the Lord of all; what He has done for us, dying for us on the cross; what He requires of us, a response of full obedience; and what the consequences will be if we fail in our joyous duty toward Him, in coming under His disapproval, and losing the glory of what He would give us.
Having Described All that Yahweh Has Done For Them Moses Now Urges A Full Response To All Yahweh’s Instruction (4.1-5).
One further preparation was now necessary before advancing into the land. While the nation were all together as one it was necessary for the covenant requirements to be affirmed and established lest having gained the land they lose it by disobedience and transgression. Thus in this chapter he urges the importance of obedience to Yahweh’s statutes and ordinances, and reminds them of the uniqueness of their Overlord and how they had seen Him and had received the covenant requirements directly from His mouth, and how He was the One Who had delivered them from the iron furnace of Egypt, and he warns what will happen to them if the requirements of the covenant are neglected, first from his own example as one excluded from the land because of sin, and then in terms of their too being driven out of the land as their fathers had been before them, and as the Canaanites would be as a result of their efforts. This will then be followed in a later speech (5 onwards) by a reminder of the wording of the covenant and an abbreviated but detailed outline of the covenant stipulations.
This passage may be analysed as follows:
Note how in ‘a’ he has given the statutes and judgments that they might live and possess the land, and in the parallel he has taught them the statutes and judgments so that they might do them when they possess the land. In ‘b’ they must keep the commandments whole and not diminish them, and in the parallel because they have remained faithful to Yahweh they have been kept as a whole (and not diminished). In ‘c’ they have seen what happened at Baal-peor and in the parallel they know that Yahweh has destroyed from their midst those who sinned with Baal-peor.
4.1 ‘And now, O Israel, listen well to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, is gives you.’
‘And now.’ This links back with all that has been said. Yahweh has done for them all that he has described, and has given them all the assurance that they could possibly want that He will give them the land. Now it is their responsibility to respond fully to Him and go in and possess the land which He is giving them because of His love for their fathers.
But Moses was aware that if they were live their lives to the full they would have to do more than possess the land. They would need to listen and respond to Yahweh’s statutes and ordinances, which Moses had taught them and would teach them, and to do them.
‘Which I teach you.’ His longer speech which will follow contains such statutes and ordinances. But we must also see here a reference back to teaching already given to which they can refer to in their minds, otherwise, with their not knowing what was coming, much of the impact of his words would be lost. He was continually giving them teaching and they were to heed it all.
And by following Yahweh’s statutes and ordinance they would ‘live’, in contrast with those who had not listened and had died in the wilderness and at Baal-peor, and they would not only live, but would live lives of fullness. The emphasis is on quality of life. Compare 5.33; 8.1, 3; 12.1; 16.20; 30.6, 16, 19. See Leviticus 18.5. Notice how often other blessings are added to the term ‘live’, such as it being well with them (5.33; 30.16), longevity of life (5.33), possession of the land (5.33; 8.1; 12.1; 16.20), God’s working in the heart (circumcision of the heart - 30.6), and multiplicity of offspring (8.1; 30.16). Here the special added blessing is to possess the land under the care and watch of Yahweh, being under His heavenly rule. It was such a life of joy and satisfaction in God to which the writer of Ecclesiastes pointed (Ecclesiastes 2.24-26; 3.22; 5.18-20; 9.7-10).
Note how this emphasis on life contrasts with his own future. He was to die and not live. Thus he knew even more than most the value of life.
4.2 ‘You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you.’
Obedience would involve right discernment. They must neither add to God’s instruction, nor reduce it. What He had revealed they must do without altering it for only in that way would they fully keep the commandments of ‘Yahweh your God’.
This principle of not meddling with sacred texts was a common one among the ancients. Similar guidance was given to scribes in ancient Egypt. It was also included in treaty covenants. An overlord’s subjects were not permitted to alter his requirements.
4.3 ‘Your eyes have seen what Yahweh did because of Baal-peor, for all the men who followed Baal-peor, Yahweh your God has destroyed them from the midst of you.’
He makes them think back to what had been the result of Baal-peor when some of their number had been led astray by the Moabite women into idol worship with its accompanying sexual misbehaviour (see Numbers 25.1-3), eating food ‘provided’ by the god and bowing down to it, and indulging in its excesses. Baal-peor may have been Baal as associated with Peor, or a god known as ‘the Lord (baal) of Peor’. But it certainly shared the propensities of the Canaanite gods. They will remember that such people had been destroyed from the midst of them. Their Overlord had dealt with them severely for their breach of covenant.
4.4 ‘But you who clung to Yahweh your God are alive every one of you this day.’
But those who had been loyal to the covenant and had chosen to cling to Yahweh rather than to Moabite women were still alive. For clinging to Yahweh brings life. And they were witnesses of this by the very fact that they were alive. The lesson should therefore come home to them. Idolatry leads to death, trusting in Yahweh leads to life.
4.5 ‘Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as Yahweh my God commanded me, that you should do so in the midst of the land to which you go in to possess it.’
So let them take heed to what he has taught them at Yahweh’s bidding, for they had been given so that when they possessed the land they might ‘do them’. The possessing of the land and the doing of Yahweh’s was to go together. Indeed that was why their fathers had not possessed the land. That was why the Canaanites were being driven out of the land. It was because neither had been willing to do the will of God. By these words he incorporates into the covenant the statutes and ordinances that he has already taught them, as well as those that he will teach them. This confirms that some of these statutes are already well known and probably recorded, otherwise such a reference would be meaningless from a covenant point of view.
They Are Fortunate Among The Nations because of What They Have Received (4.6-9).
This may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ they are to keep (shamar) His statutes and judgments and do them, and in the parallel are to keep (shamar) themselves with greatest care in case they forget them, and forget what they have seen, and so as to ensure that they make them known to their children and their children’s children. In ‘b’ no nation has a God like theirs Who is so near to them when they call on Him and in the parallel no nation has such righteous statutes and judgments as Yahweh has given them.
4.6 ‘Keep therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
So they are to keep (shamar) Yahweh’s words and do them. Then will the peoples admire their wisdom and understanding. They will hear the statutes that they live by and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. They will be full of admiration for their way of life, and their wondrous laws, and the benefits that would result as they revealed that they were a rejoicing people and greatly blessed.
This claim is quite remarkable. Every nation thought that its wisdom and its laws were superior to those of all others, as Hammurabi makes clear in his law code. But here it is pointed out that when it comes to the Instruction of Yahweh all else will be seen as secondary and will be conceded to be so by the nations.
This superiority was in fact actually recognised by many Greeks (and others) who would later become God-fearers because of the superiority of the Instruction (Torah). The same was true of the Christian world when it responded to Christ. Both were a declaration of the superiority of the teaching of Yahweh.
4.7 ‘For what great nation is there, which has a god so near to them, as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him?’
He now brings to their attention two of the ways in which Yahweh is superior to the so-called gods of the nations. Firstly because He is near to them and acts on their behalf. And secondly because He gives them such superior teaching.
He asks firstly, ‘What other nation has a responsive God like Yahweh, and One Who when called upon is so near?’ They only had to look at their past history in order to see that this was so. The nations would therefore recognise that Israel had in Yahweh their God what none other had, a God Who was near, a God Who truly heard when they called on Him, a God Who acted, a God Who was there, a God Who bound them to Himself. ‘Yahweh our God’. ‘Yahweh’ means, ‘the One Who will be whatever He wants to be’, ‘the One who is there’. And He would be seen to be their God. This would especially be so in the light of His great deliverance from Egypt in response to the cry of His people (Exodus 2.23; 3.7, 9), and many of their enemies would experience a similar thing personally as they fought against Israel.
The verse is not saying that Israel believed in the existence of other gods. It is rather making clear that the gods other nations believed in were far off and unreal. We equally today speak of the gods of other religions without believing in them. But the history of Moses demonstrates that he certainly believed and knew that there was only one God Who was totally irresistible and unique. And this will be demonstrated further when he declares that the true God has no form or shape. (verse 12, 15). The corollary is that those with form or shape are no gods, but are of the earth.
4.8 ‘And what great nation is there, which has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law (torah), which I set before you this day?’
Furthermore what great nation had statutes and ordinances that were as righteous as those given to Israel? In spite of the great law codes of the ancients, none compared with the compassion and mercy, combined with the purity and righteousness, of those of Israel as revealed in God’s instruction (torah) through Moses. This was a direct challenge to the nations, and a claim for ‘the instruction of Yahweh’ that expressed its superlative content. It claimed that it was unique and unearthly, beyond the wisdom of even the greatest of men.
4.9a ‘Only take heed to yourself, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.’
‘Take heed to yourself (shamar), and keep (shamar) your soul diligently.’ Paul put this, ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (with greatest care)’ (Philippians 2.12) because of Who was at work within them (verse 13). Thus Israel too must take careful heed to themselves and keep themselves diligently (compare verse 6) and their attitudes and behaviour, and ensure that deep within them they remembered all that they had seen when God had revealed Himself at the Mount, lest His words at some stage in their lives slip away from them (compare Hebrews 2.1-4). They are by this to remember how serious a matter it is to do God’s will.
4.9b ‘But make them known to your children and your children’s children.’
And they are not only to remember, but to ensure that their children also remember, and their children’s children also. It was as a result of such instructions that the Jews were famed as those who taught their children from their youngest days so that Gods truth was burned within them (compare 6.7; 11.19; 32.46; Exodus 12.26-27; 13.8, 14).
‘Lest you forget.’ Such forgetfulness could be avoided by constantly stirring each other to remembrance, especially at their great feasts. By reading and remembering His word, and considering it constantly, they would prevent themselves from falling into forgetfulness. How important it is for us to constantly read His word and thus ensure that we too do not forget.
They Are Ever To Remember The Great and Wondrous Experience of Horeb (Sinai) And Take Note Of His Statutes and Judgments (4.10-14).
Moses now stressed the importance of the Sinai/Horeb experience which they must ever stir to remembrance and keep before their eyes, so that they would remember Who and What God is. In the context of the covenant this was a reminder of the appearance of their Overlord to declare His rights over them, and of His greatness, which therefore made obedience to the covenant all the more important.
Note that in ‘a’ he reminds them of ‘the day’ in which they stood before Yahweh in Horeb and in the parallel Yahweh commanded him ‘on that day’ to teach them His statutes and judgments. In ‘b’ He called them together to hear His words so that they might fear Him, and in the parallel He declares to them His words and commands them to carry them out. In ‘c’ they come to the mountain burning with fire but in darkness and cloud, and in the parallel they hear Him speak from the midst of the fire but they see no form, only hear a voice.
4.10 ‘The day that you stood before Yahweh your God in Horeb, when Yahweh said to me, “Assemble me the people, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.” ’
For they must ever remember that unforgettable day when they stood before the Mount in Horeb and saw the dreadful flames that seemed to burn up the top of the mountain, and heard His voice like thunder speaking to them (Exodus 19.18; 20.18; 24.17). For Yahweh had called on him to assemble the people so that they might hear His words expressed in such a way that they would never forget them, and might learn to have a godly fear of Him all through their lives. That had been His purpose, but men’s hearts were so hard that with many it did not succeed.
To ‘stand before Yahweh’ was a great privilege. But their joy was that they could also stand before Yahweh by choice in the courtyard of the tabernacle when they brought their offerings for it was His earthly Dwellingplace (12.7; 31.11-13), and when they gathered round the Tabernacle for worship, and although He would be hidden they would know that He was there in His Holy of Holies, even while He was riding the heavens and enthroned in the Heaven of Heavens (1 Kings 8.27). Compare 19.17.
‘That they may teach their children.’ This connects back to verse 9. While in sections the speech is a unit.
4.11 ‘And you came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness.’
He reminds those who had been present that day of the awesomeness of it. They had fearfully approached the mountain, and had stood under it in awe, and they had been before Yahweh, and the mountain had burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, and cloud, and the intense blackness of night pervading it even during the day. See Exodus 19.18; 20.21; 2 Samuel 22.10; 1 Kings 8.12; Psalm 18.9, 11; 97.2. This heavenly fire that revealed Yahweh is a theme of this whole section of the speech. See verse 15, 24, 33, 36. As is not seeing His form (verses 12, 15).
We must try and picture the unforgettable scene. The multitude gathered below the mountain looking up in awe, the whole top of the mountain ablaze with fire, and yet the smoke and the cloud and the thick darkness, and the mighty voice that spoke from it with its terrible words. ‘Fire to the heart of heaven’ is a reminder that this was no earthly fire, it was fire from the centre of heaven itself, heavenly fire, glorious, dazzling, intense and unearthly. It spoke of His glory, His purity, his righteous judgment. And then the cloud and the darkness which spoke of His mystery, His unapproachableness (1 Timothy 6.16), declaring a glory so intense that it must be hidden in order to be revealed. If we remember what God is like, we too will be more careful how we approach Him. Through Christ we are welcomed, but we should ever remember Who He is.
4.12 ‘And Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the voice of words, but you saw no form, only heard a voice.’
He reminds them of how Yahweh spoke to them from the midst of the fire, but that while they heard His voice and His words they saw no form. They saw only the flaming fire, and the cloud and the darkness. There was no visible form. This should bring home the fact that Yahweh has no visible form. He is pure Spirit (John 4.24). Thus any attempt to represent Him by any image is to demean and degrade Him and make Him like ourselves and our world (see verses 15-16). It is both misrepresentation and blasphemy.
God speaking from the midst of the fire is a theme prominent in Deuteronomy. Compare 4.15, 33, 36; 5.22, 24, 26; 9.10; 10.4 where the same thought is emphasised. Moses clearly saw the voice at Mount Sinai as connected with the God of the burning bush where God ‘in a flame of fire’ (Exodus 3.2) spoke to him ‘out of the (burning) bush’ (Exodus 3.4) at the same Mountain of God (Exodus 3.1).
4.13 ‘And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even the ten words, and he wrote them on two tables of stone.’
And there Yahweh had declared to them His covenant, that He was Yahweh their God, that He had mightily delivered them, and that He had given to them His ten words, all of which He had then written on two tables of stone. This was the covenant by which they were bound, and to which they must respond, and the principles declared were principles required to be observed by all men and women of all ages. That which was written on stone was seen as having special authority and special significance. It was permanent and for ever.
The two tables of stone may have been duplicates with the idea that one was a reminder to Yahweh, and the other a reminder to the people. Duplicate copies of treaties would regularly be made, one kept by the overlord and lodged in a sanctuary, and one passed over to the subject nation to be lodged in their main sanctuary. The tabernacle was both Yahweh’s dwellingplace and Israel’s sanctuary. Or they may have contained five words each, one containing those relating to honouring Yahweh and His authority, and the other containing those relating to man’s behaviour towards man.
4.14 ‘And Yahweh commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land to which you go over to possess it.’
And Yahweh had not only given them the ten words, but He had commanded Moses to teach them His many statutes and ordinances which He would reveal to Moses for him to pass on. These can be found in Exodus 20 onwards, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy 5 onwards. In the words of Hosea, ‘I write for him my law in ten thousand precepts’ (Hosea 8.12).
It is inconceivable that a man with Moses background would not ensure that the revelations he received were written down. All important covenant matters were committed to writing in order to indicate their solemnity, and we are elsewhere given examples of where this happened (31.9; Exodus 17.14; 24.4; 34.27; Numbers 33.1-2). God’s words in 17.14 would hardly be seen as applying only to that incident. They rather drew attention to the need to record in writing all such experiences of God’s provision and protection. It was giving Moses the basis on which he should conduct his future activity. All the references simply draw attention to Moses’ habit of ensuring the writing down of the revelation Yahweh revealed and the wondrous things that he did for Israel. They do not limit it to those occurrences. And he passed this responsibility also onto Joshua, whom we have good reason to believe did much of the actual writing.
They Are To Remember That Yahweh Is Without Form, And Is A Consuming Fire, And Must Therefore Avoid Making Any Graven Image for Worship Purposes For That Would Be to Adulterate and Misrepresent Yahweh (4.15-24).
Note that in ‘a’ Yahweh spoke without form out of the midst of the fire, and in the parallel Yahweh is a devouring fire. In ‘b’ They are not to corrupt themselves by making a grave image of any earthly creature, and in the parallel they are not to forget the covenant by making a graven image in the form of anything forbidden. In ‘c’ they are not to lift their eyes to the heavens to worship anything in the heavens, for those things have been allotted to all the peoples under heaven, they are common, while in the parallel the true heavenly One is angry with Moses so that he is excluded from the holy land that Yahweh is giving as an inheritance, the one place on earth that is holy and is exclusive to His people. Central in ‘d’ is that Yahweh has delivered His people from the iron furnace, from Egypt (a lesser fire even though painful) to be the people of His inheritance, in order that they might inherit that holy land from which Moses is excluded. For such people to seek to heavenly bodies which are common to man would be to degrade themselves utterly.
4.15-18 ‘Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day that Yahweh spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire. Lest you corrupt yourselves, and make yourselves a graven image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the heavens, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth,’
They were especially then to remember that when they had seen Him they had seen no manner of form. All they had seen was glorious, unearthly fire; ethereal, mysterious, indescribable, untouchable, here, there, and everywhere on the mountain. To try to represent Him in any earthly form or art would be to misrepresent Him and to degrade Him. Thus they were to beware that they made no attempt to make any image of Him, of whatever likeness, however symbolic, not of anything in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, or in the sea. To do so would be to commit a crime so heinous that it was deserving of instant death (27.15; compare 13.6-11; 5.8-9; 12.2-4; Leviticus 26.30). Let them then remember that when they saw Yahweh they saw no manner of form.
These verses reflect a knowledge of the traditions behind Genesis 1, and are a reminder thereby that all these things of which men make images are but God’s creations, and thus not worthy of worship. To represent God in an image is thus to debase Him and limit Him to what is earthly, reducing His transcendence.
Many gods and goddesses and semi-deities throughout the Ancient Near East were represented as beasts and birds of various kinds, and many as serpents and later we learn of creeping things connected with some forms of religion (e.g. Ezekiel 8.10). For men and women were seeking to affect the world and what was in it by their attention to such deities. They saw them as very much a part, even if a mysterious part, of the world scene.
4.19 ‘And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.’
Nor when they lifted up their eyes to heaven and saw the majestic lights in the heavens were they to be drawn to worship them. They must remember that those lights are not holy but are for the common use of all men. They were but the sun, moon and stars that He had created, the stars almost as an afterthought (Genesis 1.16). They were not to serve them or to worship them. They were rather to see that they have been created by Yahweh and allotted by Him for every man’s benefit throughout the whole world. Religiously speaking there was nothing special about the heavenly bodies. But in contrast Yahweh’s people are a holy people to Yahweh their God Who has chosen them to be a special people to himself, above all people who are on the face of the earth (7.6). They must therefore only seek to Yahweh. The sun god and the moon god (Job 31.26-27) were worshipped in different parts of the ancient world from time immemorial, and the stars provided a multiplicity of gods. But His people were to worship only the true God.
‘The host of heaven.’ This is a phrase simply indicating the multitude of lights in the heavens which were like a great army (compare 17.3; Genesis 2.1; Psalm 33.6; Isaiah 34.4) or the multiplicity of angels. One look at the heavens on a dark night would give this impression. Later Assyria would more specifically worship ‘the host of heaven’ (2 Kings 17.16; 21.3, 5) but the phrase is one naturally arising from glancing at the night skies and cannot be limited to that (compare 17.3; 1 Kings 22.19). Contrast in 17.3 ‘any of the host of heaven’ where individual star deities are in mind. The heavenly bodies were worshipped by men as far back as written records go and even before, for they are found pictured in stone. In the early Biblical period interest in the heavens outside Israel was religious and astrological, not astronomical. Thus this simple and accurate description cannot be used as a dating technique, simply through a coincidence of expression. The thought behind it goes back into the mists of time.
‘Which Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.’ This may refer to the fact that the sun, moon and stars have been made available freely to all men, and are but common and universal instruments of Yahweh, or it may be pointing out how different Israel are from all other nations. To man in his rebellion and darkness (as illustrated at Babel - Genesis 11.1-9) Yahweh has ‘allotted’ these trivialities for them to play at worship with. They receive what they are deserving of. But to Israel He has given Himself to be worshipped within His Tabernacle in true worship in His holy land. The nations have gods which are no gods, Israel have the living God.
The sun was worshipped in Egypt as Ra or Atum and in Canaan as Shemesh (compare Beth-shemesh - the house of ‘Shemesh’). In Mesopotamia the Sumerian moon god/goddess Nanna, called Sin by the Akkadians, was especially worshipped at Ur, and at Haran in Syria and is often represented by an image of the crescent moon. Terah, Abraham’s father, was probably a moon worshipper (compare Joshua 24.2). It is mentioned as yrh at Ugarit. The ‘stars’ were widely worshipped in a variety of ways, especially Venus. Astral deities were invoked as witnesses in Hittite treaty documents. All in 2nd millennium BC.
The mention of the heavenly bodies is a reminder that treating something natural as an image was as bad as actually making an image. God is not revealed through things of this creation. He is above and beyond creation.
4.20 ‘But Yahweh has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be to him a people of inheritance, as at this day.’
They were especially to remember also that Yahweh had brought them out of an iron furnace, out of Egypt (compare 1 Kings 8.51; Jeremiah 11.4). There they had been subjected to the heat of man’s cruelty. Just as men put their silver and gold into an iron furnace in order to produce a graven image, so has Yahweh put them into a furnace in order that He might produce a purified and holy people. And they had survived and had been refined and delivered. And His purpose in this was in order to make them His inheritance, to make them a treasure, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19.5-6). That is why they were now here at this particular point in time, and why nothing that came out of earthly fires could be acceptable to them.
‘Furnace.’ A pot or crucible for melting metals. It was often used as a picture of trial and testing and refining (compare Proverbs 17.3; Isaiah 48.10; Ezekiel 22.18, 20, 22). ‘Iron’ stresses its intensity. It may have referred to what it was made of, or the fact that it was used for shaping iron. While iron coming from meteorites had been known almost from the beginning (Genesis 4.22), the discovery of how it could be obtained from iron ore and utilised, made by the Hittites in the 2nd millennium BC, began a revolution in warfare and tool making. They exported iron among other places to Egypt. It may also be that iron reflects the military strength of Egypt, and the furnace the terrible heat under which day by day they had been subjected to intolerable burdens (compare Exodus 9.8).
4.21-22 ‘Furthermore Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes, and swore that I should not go over the Jordan, and that I should not go in to that good land, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, but I must die in this land, I must not go over the Jordan. But you shall go over, and possess that good land.’
Let them learn a lesson from him. Because he had sinned grievously at Meribah he was excluded from the land. He could not enter the ‘good land’. He must die the other side of Jordan. Why? Because the land was holy, it was Yahweh’s exclusive land, and nothing unworthy could enter it. If anything symbolised what the land of Canaan was to mean it was this. It was a land for the righteous, a land under Yahweh’s rule. Even a disobedient Moses was thus excluded. Their own right there comes through atonement on the one hand and obedient submission on the other. Thus if they do not righteously observe His covenant they too will be expelled. The righteousness and purity of this holy and exclusive land (Exodus 15.13; Isaiah 57.13; Ezekiel 20.40; Joel 2.1; Zechariah 2.12) in which the God-produced exclusive people are to dwell (7.6; 14.2; 26.19; 28.9; Exodus 19.5-6; Leviticus 20.26) and where they are to worship only Yahweh in the land in which He has His unique earthly Dwellingplace is in direct contrast with the heavenly bodies, which appear to men to be glorious but are in fact common instruments of man and freely available.
‘Yahweh was angry with me for your sakes.’ It was they who had incited Moses and Aaron to the exasperation that drove them to do what they did. But Yahweh is never depicted as angry with Moses because of the failure of the people. He knew them too well. Nor did He punish Moses for their sins. Indeed many of them had already died in the wilderness. Yahweh’s anger was solely because he had failed. He had been given great privilege and great responsibility and he had let Yahweh down. Thus another had had to be raised up in his place. Moses had become too vulnerable in his old age to cope with the problems that would have to be faced. He had for a moment behaved in the same way as all people under heaven do.
But in the context of the whole of sacred history the exclusion of Moses brings out the final unimportance of the land. Had that been of final importance Moses would hardly have been excluded. If anything demands the doctrine of the resurrection it is this exclusion. Otherwise it is inexplicable. If anyone had been loyal to Yahweh’s covenant it was Moses. The only explanation had to be that God had a greater land waiting for Moses, one not of this world. Like Abraham he looked for a continuing city that was to come (Hebrews 11.10, 16), although it may not have been apparent then. In the end that is our inheritance too.
‘I must die in this land.’ However good and fertile ‘this land’ Transjordan might be it was not the good land. Canaan alone was that, for it was chosen by Yahweh as His inheritance. It was chosen for His people. Unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt it was not watered by irrigation and great rivers, but by God Himself, by the rain from heaven (12.11; Leviticus 25.4-5; Ezekiel 34.26-27). And it was a land over which Yahweh exercised care (11.12; compare Leviticus 26.34, 43 concerning when it was not treated properly) and that could be emptied of its inhabitants and become totally devoted to Yahweh, a Heaven on earth. It was a holy land (7.6). That was the inheritance that He was giving them.
4.23 ‘Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of Yahweh your God, which he made with you, and make yourselves a graven image in the form of anything which Yahweh your God has forbidden you.’
Thus they must beware of forgetting the covenant of Yahweh their God, made by Him on His own initiative as the Sovereign Lord out of His pure goodness and grace. They must not turn their eyes from Him as the One revealed through fire and cloud with no shape or form, and make graven images in any earthly form or shape, something strictly forbidden by Him. They must ever bare in mind the example of Moses, and learn from it.
4.24 ‘For Yahweh your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.’
For deep into their memory from what they saw on the Mount (verse 15) should go the fact that Yahweh is a devouring fire and One Who is ‘jealous’, that is, will permit no rivals or alternatives. Nor would He countenance anyone who usurped His authority, as Moses and Aaron had done at Meribah. He demands total loyalty. And it is this idea of the devouring fire that now turns Moses’ thoughts to warnings of what will follow failure.
What Their Fate Will Be If They Turn Away From Him To Graven Images (4.25-29).
This fate had already been portrayed by what had happened to their fathers who were driven from the land (1.44-45). It was being portrayed by what would happen to Moses who was to be excluded from the land. It will be brought home by what should happen to the Canaanites as they are driven out and scattered. For the land can only receive and hold the good. Thus if they fail and become corrupt they too can only expect to be cast out. Obedience is an essential part of the covenant. We should note that in the end the idea was not the keeping of a list of regulations, it was a response of personal obedience to Yahweh Who had revealed His grace towards them, of which the other was only a consequence. If they failed in that they too would have to be cast out.
For the land was not being given to them as their prerogative. It was being lent to them by Yahweh. It was only for the righteous. Thus if they failed in righteousness there would be no place for them in it. On the other hand if they return and seek Him with all their hearts they will find Him.
We may analyse this passage in the word of Moses as follows:
In ‘a’ we have the picture of a people who corrupt themselves because they have been ‘long in the land’, and in the parallel the promise that if they genuinely return and seek Yahweh they will find Him. In ‘b’ they do evil in the sight of Yahweh and provoke Him to anger by making as graven image in any form, and in the parallel we have the consequence, they will indeed worship such useless gods, but it will be outside the land (‘there’). In ‘c’ Yahweh calls heaven and earth to witness what He will do with such people, He will destroy them, and in the parallel the consequence of that destruction will be their scattering and being left few in number (compare 28.62 and contrast 1.10-11; 10.22) and short of days (contrast 4.40; 5.16; 6.2).
4.25 ‘When you beget children, and children’s children, and you have been long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image in the form of anything, and shall do that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, to provoke him to anger,’
No one was more aware than Yahweh of the propensities of the people. He had seen it all before. So He seeks to prevent failure by the intensest of warnings. What He described was not a prophecy before the event, it was just the necessary and inevitable consequence of covenant failure, something which Moses was himself experiencing in his own way. (Knowing their history and the tendencies of man most of us could have prophesied that in time Israel would fail. It was hardly therefore a secret to God).
So He warns them of the danger of turning to false gods in the future, especially as manifested in the making of graven images. It may not happen immediately, but He is warning future generations, ‘your children, and your children’s children’. Note the sense of the continuity of Israel. The activity of their children’s children will be their action too. If any of them make a graven image or do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh then they must recognise what the consequences will be. They will provoke Him to anger and face the consequences.
4.26 ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from off the land to which you go over the Jordan to possess it. You will not prolong your days on it, but will be utterly destroyed.’
And judgment would be certain. No more solemn witness could have been called for, for heaven and earth includes all that is in them. Moses was calling on the whole of creation to bear witness, just as in parallel treaties the gods were invoked as witnesses. And what were they to witness? They were to witness God’s declaration of the consequences for those who so sinned. That such would soon utterly perish from the land. Rather than prolonging their days on the land they would be utterly destroyed. This was already intended to be the Canaanite’s fate. It had been the fate of their own fathers. In one sense it was Moses’ fate (he had a harsh lesson in front of his very eyes). If they were unfaithful to the covenant it would also be theirs. The land would not hold those who were unfaithful.
That this was delayed when the inevitable happened and they deserted Yahweh was not because of any failure on God’s part, but because He displayed with them the longsuffering that He had displayed with the Canaanites.
It is noteworthy that certain political decrees discovered among the Canaanite literature at Ugarit also called on heaven and earth as witnesses. Heaven and earth were regularly seen as important witnesses.
4.27 ‘And Yahweh will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, to which Yahweh shall lead you away.’
The result of rebellion would be that they would be scattered among the nations (compare 28.64; Leviticus 26.33), as those who rebelled against God at Babel were so scattered (Genesis 11.8), and as the Canaanites before Israel in the land were to be driven out and thus scattered (Exodus 23.28-31). And they would be decimated so that they were few in number. Few in number is the opposite state to being as the stars of heaven for multitude (1.10; 10.22). Compare here 28.62. This would be their punishment. It was the inevitable consequence for peoples driven from their own countries in all directions. Disease, the sword and starvation would follow inevitably for many as they became refugees wherever they were, seeking a place to rest. There is no thought here of the Exile. The thought is rather of the practical effect of being driven out of the land, seeking refuge in many countries.
4.28 ‘And there you will serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.’
And in those countries they would be reduced to serving gods which were the work of men’s hands, gods who could, he points out sardonically, neither see, hear, eat nor smell. In the beginning this would have been their own choice, for they would have turned to graven images, which was why they would face this suffering in the first place, but now it would also be thrust on them, for they would have no Central Sanctuary and they were outside Yahweh’s land, and it may even be forced on them by the country of their exile. The point is that they would have lost all the blessings of the covenant.
It should be noted that rather than being an indication that this was written ‘after the event’ this is simply a typical treaty clause concerning the consequences of disobedience to a treaty covenant. What they had done to others would be done to them.
4.29 ‘But from there you will seek Yahweh your God, and you will find him, when you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.’
Once they were scattered they would undoubtedly at some stage turn to seek Yahweh their God, and then they would find Him (for He would be graciously waiting), but only when they sought Him with all their heart and with all their soul. Note that there is here no promise of return to the land, only a promise of return to Yahweh, for that is the most important thing.
Their Return Is Certain Because Of The Graciousness and Uniqueness of Yahweh (4.30-40).
When they find themselves in tribulation and these things come on them in the latter days, they will return to Yahweh their God and listen to His voice. Here Yahweh’s sovereign purpose for Israel comes out. They were to be God’s means of blessing to the world, therefore until they had been so He would not allow them finally to cease, but would ensure that they returned to Him.
And this is evidenced by the fact of the greatness and mercifulness of God as evidenced by what He has already done to them and for them. The result will be that they will keep His statutes and commandments in the land and will enjoy wellbeing and live long in His everlasting kingdom.
This passage may be analysed as follows:
We may note here that in ‘a’ their certain final return to God is promised, and in the parallel it is to lead on to them keeping His statutes and His commandments and having wellbeing and long life for ever in the land. In ‘b’ they are told that He is a merciful God and will not fail or destroy them or forget the covenant He has made with their fathers, and in the parallel they are therefore to know Yahweh is God in both heaven and earth, there is no other. In ‘c’, ‘d’ and ‘e’ we find what is really one continuous idea. They are to ask earth and heaven whether such a thing has been heard, that God spoke to men from the midst of fire and they lived, or that God delivered any other nation by signs and wonders and great power. And the parallel says that it was so that they might know that Yahweh is God and there is none beside Him, and that He did speak to them from the midst of fire and that He did remarkably deliver them from Egypt.
For such a threefold continuous series in the midst of a chiasmus compare Numbers 22-23 where such a situation occurs twice (see our commentary on Numbers).
4.30 ‘When you are in tribulation, and all these things are come on you, in the latter days you will return to Yahweh your God, and listen to his voice,’
For what would bring them to seek Yahweh would be the unbearable tribulation that they would face. ‘All these things’ refers to their perishing from the land and being scattered and resorting to the worship of gods who could not respond (verses 27-28). Thus in ‘the latter days’, that is the final days of this period of chastisement, they would return to Yahweh their God and listen to His voice, as previously they had closed their ears to Him.
This return was necessary for the fulfilment of God’s purposes. For from the returned people He would raise up His chosen One and through Him and them bring blessing to the world.
4.31 ‘For Yahweh your God is a merciful God. He will not fail you, nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which he swore to them.’
And all this would happen because ‘Yahweh your God is a merciful God’. It was because of His mercy that He would not fail in His activities towards them, nor would He destroy them utterly, nor would He forget the covenant He had sworn to with their fathers. Thus in His mercy He would carry through His purposes.
The promises to their forefathers had burned themselves deeply into Moses’ soul. It had made him aware that whatever they did Yahweh would not allow it to thwart His purposes. He would chastise Israel until at last His purposes succeeded. But He would never forget His mercy in the end.
4.32 ‘For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and from the one end of heaven to the other, whether there has been any such thing as this great thing is, or has been heard like it?’
By a series of questions He now brings home to them why their Overlord has a right to expect their obedience. The first question is concerning the ‘days that are past’ from creation onwards, and concerning events happening from one end of heaven to the other. Can anyone, he asks, name any time or place where such a great thing has happened elsewhere as has happened to Israel? Can anyone say where such a thing has even been heard of?
4.33 ‘Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?’
For example, Have any people ever heard God speaking from the midst of fire and lived? For that is what Israel have heard, and they have still lived.
4.34 ‘Or has God made the attempt to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, in accordance with all that Yahweh your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?’
The next question is, For what other nation since the beginning of creation or anywhere else in the world has God made the attempt to go and take them from the midst of another nation by trials, signs, wonders, war, a mighty hand, an outstretched arm and by great terrors, in the way that Yahweh has by what He had done for Israel in Egypt?
Note the expanded sevenfold explanation. God had used trials in order to spur His people on, signs with which to convince them, and even more to convince Pharaoh; wonders in order to bring home His supreme power; war because Pharaoh understood nothing else and had finally to be convinced by the destruction of his troops; by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm, because Yahweh had personally extended His own powerful action on their behalf; and by great terrors because Pharaoh and his people had proved so obstinate that in the end they needed the terrors of continual darkness and then of the night of the firstborn in order to be convinced. He had acted in a divinely perfect way.
4.35 ‘To you it was shown, that you might know that Yahweh, he is God, there is none else besides him.’
But it had been shown to them so that they might know that Yahweh truly was the only God, and there is none other. If nothing else could convince them, this should have done. The so-called gods of Egypt, even Pharaoh himself, had proved powerless. They were as nothings before Yahweh.
4.36 ‘Out of heaven he made you to hear his voice, that he might instruct you, and on earth he made you to see his great fire. And you heard his words out of the midst of the fire.’
And he goes on to answer his own questions. Yahweh had made them hear His great voice from heaven, so that they might be instructed, and He had made them see His great unearthly fire on earth. And it was out of the midst of that great fire that they had heard His words. Thus they must recognise that their experience in Horeb as they gathered round Mount Sinai was unique, and a powerful revelation of Yahweh their God which they must ever carry with them.
4.37 ‘And because he loved your fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought you out with his presence, with his great power, out of Egypt,’
And he also had brought His people out of Egypt with His presence (manifested) and His great power. And why did He do it for them? The answer is because he loved their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That was why He had chosen them as the seed of their fathers, and brought them out of Egypt by His presence and with His great power.
And why had He done this? It was because their forefathers were loved. Although previously revealed in many ways (it was inherent, for example, in God’s description of Israel as His firstborn - Exodus 4.22), this is the first reference in Scripture to God’s love for His own. The patriarchs, we are told, were beloved by God. The principles of elective love by God (see 7.7, 8, 13; 10.15; 23.5; 33.3, 12) and responsive love by His people (see 5.10; 6.5-6; 7.9; 10.12; 11.1, 13, 22; 19.9; 30.6, 16,20) are central to the message of Deuteronomy. And it is also made clear that because of that He loves His people (7.7-8, 13; 10.15 (by implication); 23.5; 33.3, 12). The whole of their deliverance, and of the mercies shown to them, since were manifestations of that love.
4.38 ‘To drive out nations from before you greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as at this day.’
And that was why He would drive out from before them nations greater and mightier than themselves, in order to bring them into the land and give it to them for an inheritance as He was about to do at this time.
So all was as a result of His covenant love for Abraham and his sons, and his descendants. That was why even their sins would not finally change His purposes. Rather if necessary He would use tribulation and suffering in order to fulfil His purposes. But His love would not fail. And it was through that love that He would finally save a multitude of Jews through the ministry of His Son, so that they became the foundation of His work throughout the world in bringing many sons to glory (Hebrews 2.10).
4.39 ‘Know therefore this day, and lay it to your heart, that Yahweh, he is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath. There is none besides.’
Thus considering all this they should now on this very day know and lay to heart Whom and What it reveals Yahweh to be. It reveals Him as the God of heaven and earth, beside Whom there is no other. It reveals that He is the great Overlord of heaven and earth with Whom none can compare. We have here a clear statement of monotheism.
4.40 ‘And you shall keep his statutes, and his commandments, which I command you this day, that it may go well with you, and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land, which Yahweh your God gives you, for ever.’
Knowing this then they must keep His statutes and His commandments which they have received from Moses, and which he, Moses, now commands them, in order that it might go well with them and with their children after them, and so that they may prolong their days in the land which Yahweh their God has given them into the distant future.
And here he finishes his words at this time, leaving them to ponder on what he has said. But the situation has been made clear. The great God, Yahweh, has amazingly revealed Himself and has delivered them and has determined to give them this land because of His promises to their forefathers, and because they have responded to His covenant, and while they continue to respond to that covenant and obey His commandments and statutes all will go well. But if they turn to sin and idolatry, then this land will no longer hold them, for it is God’s holy land and is not available in the long term for the use of such sinners. They will be turned out from it until they can return to it again purified and restored. But that that restoration would happen was also sure. Because it would be the result of His faithful promises made to their forefathers.
If what had happened to Israel was wonderful, how much more wonderful is what has happened to those who are His. What other peoples have had the Son of God die for them, so that for His sake they are blessed? And we can therefore have the confidence that He will do good to us far beyond our deserving, as we respond in love and obedience to Him. And in view of this, if we do not trust Him and obey Him how can we possibly speak of knowing Him?
The Establishment of the First Cities of Refuge (4.41-43).
The establishing of these cities of refuge was a deliberate act which was a declaration of Moses’ certainty that they were now here in this land to stay. Their purpose was permanent and an official seal that they were in the land permanently. It was a reminder also that there was now law in the land (compare 1.15-17), for it was a reminder of the penalty for taking blood, and of God’s mercy to be shown to those who only did so accidentally. So it puts the seal on his words and caps them with a physical seal that can be seen by all. In those cities of refuge the kingly rule of God has already begun. If in the future they were ever in doubt they would be able to look at these cities of refuge and be reminded of Moses’ words at the time that they were selected and appointed, and recognise with gratitude that God has given them refuge too, refuge in the promised land.
These verses may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ the three cities are to be set apart and in the parallel they are carefully named. And in ‘b’ they are for the innocent manslayer to flee to, and in the parallel those who are innocent and flee to them will live.
4.41-42 ‘Then Moses set apart three cities in Beyond Jordan toward the sunrising, that the manslayer might flee to them, who kills his neighbour unawares, and hated him not in time past, and that fleeing to one of these cities he might live,’
These three cities were established in ‘Beyond Jordan toward the sunrising’, that part of Beyond Jordan which was east of Jordan, that is in Transjordan in the territory of the two and a half settled tribes.
Their need arose because of the law of blood vengeance. That law stated that when a man was killed his family must avenge his death on the one who had done it. Thus if they slew the killer right was seen as on their side. The cities of refuge provided a place to which men could go who had killed accidentally, or who were innocent but could not prove it in time. Once they were there they were safe from the avengers of blood. But their cases had then to be examined thoroughly, and if it was decided that they had actually killed the dead person deliberately they would be turned out of the city of refuge so that the avengers of blood could exact their punishment.
4.43 ‘Namely, Bezer in the wilderness, in the plain country, for the Reubenites; and Ramoth in Gilead, for the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, for the Manassites.’
The names of the cities were given. They were evidence that Israel was now safely settled in at least a part of the land.
Bezer was mentioned on the Moabite stone of King Mesha, but is not specifically identifiable. Ramoth may well be Tell Ramith between the Rivers Yarmuk and Jabbok. Golan is not identifiable with any certainty.
4.44 ‘And this is the instruction (torah) which Moses set before the children of Israel.’
With these words the first section is completed. This is clearly a colophon (document identifier) as is partly evidenced by it standing alone, although we could parallel it with 1.1.
Conclusion To Part 1.
The first mini-covenant within the overall total covenant is now completed by the end of Moses’ first speech. The basis has been laid down for what is to come. The preamble and historical background to the covenant has been laid out.
We may summarise the historical background briefly as follows:
Thus the two bugbears which had resulted in the original defeat, the Anakim and the Amorites were already demonstrated to be defeatable, and there was here both warning and guarantee of success. This then resulted in the command to the soldiers of the two and a half tribes which had settled on the eastern side of the Jordan to go forward with their brothers to claim the whole land (3.18-20), and the command to Joshua to go forward without fear, along with the confirmation of Moses’ exclusion from the land for disobedience (3.21-29).
At this point they were reminded of the great revelation that they had received at Mount Sinai in Horeb and exhorted, with warnings, to obedience to His commandments (4.1-40), for it was on their response to His covenant that all would depend. Yahweh could not bless a disobedient people.
Then He gave them an earnest of what was to be by the setting up of three cities of refuge, the visible seal of their establishment in that part of the land, and the guarantee of what was to be in the future when the second set of cities of refuge would be set up (4.41-43).
Thus was all now prepared for the presentation of the great covenant in 4.45-29.1.
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