I’ve mentioned King Josiah a few times already (for example), but to summarize, Deuteronomy is characterised by a need to bring the people back into the fold, to “remind them” of Moses’ laws after they’ve been conquered, intermarried, and generally done what normal populations do and shifted in their beliefs from the “pure” religion of the priesthood. A big concern for the authors of Deuteronomy is to centralize worship in Jerusalem, and therefore keep cultic power under focused control. King Josiah is relevant as having “found” this supposedly authentic text that reveals Moses’ will (which just so happens to align perfectly with Josiah’s interests). The story of his having found a lost book can be read in 2 Kings 22.

I bring this up again because it’s a fairly prominent feature of Deuteronomy 12. In this chapter, Moses continues with the rules the people are to follow once they settle in the Promised Land.

Tear down their altars

The first rule of Deuteronomy 12 tells the people that they “shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods” (v.2).

While I get that these other symbols of worship present a challenge to the power of the Jerusalem Temple, this sort of stuff just makes me feel sad. Imagine how different the work of archeologists would be if they weren’t always being hindered by the intolerances and penchant for destruction of our ancestors…

The place God will choose

The second rule involves the centralization of worship. The people are only to give their offerings in “the place which the Lord your God will choose” (v.11).

King Josiah, by Anna Edelman

King Josiah, by Anna Edelman

Of course, while this would certainly benefit the Temple priests, it would have some pretty dire side effects. The first issue is dietary. In Leviticus 17:3-5, we read that all butchering had to be done cultically. If you wanted some steak for dinner, you had to take your cow to the local altar and have the priests slaughter it. That’s all well and good when there’s a priest/butcher in every village, but it would be absolutely awful for a non-vegetarian nation to have to go all the way to Jerusalem for every lamb stew.

In concession, Deuteronomy gives permission to slaughter animals for food outside of the cultic context. And, since God is out of the equation, ritual cleanliness is no longer mandatory for eating the meat (v.15).

The rules relating to blood still stand, however. Rather than eat the blood, the people must “pour it out upon the earth like water” (v.16).

With such an enmeshed aspect of cultic life removed, the deuteronomical revision would significantly change the expression of religion. Or, as Collins puts it: “Some sacral activities were now treated as profane, and cultic rituals would henceforth play a much smaller role in the lives of most of the people” (A Short Introduction, p.88).

Centralization would also essentially starve all non-Temple Levites. As we found in our reading of Numbers 35, Levites cannot inherit land. In a mostly-agrarian society, this poses a problem – a problem Numbers solved by paying the Levites a cut of all offerings. If offerings are now only to be made at the Temple, all the rural Levites will starve.

I’m not entirely certain what the deuteronomical arrangement is supposed to be (can anyone enlighten me in the comments?), but the people are told to “rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you” (v.12). Then, later, Moses adds: “Take heed that you do not forsake the Levite as long as you live in your land” (v.19).

So is the hint here that the people are to support the Levites as they would support their dependants (servants and children)?

No praying around

Moses, ever fearful with all those coquette deities around, reminds the people not to go be “ensnared” by the gods of the nations that they are about to dispossess (v.30).

As part of the warning, he tells the people that “ever abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (v.31).

It’s worth noting that God isn’t against child sacrifice, per se. In fact, he requires that all first born be consecrated to him (Exodus 13:2). The difference is that he allows a substitution for his own ritualistic sacrifices, whereas the other gods – supposedly – are still literal-minded.