This chapter begins with a prohibition against sacrificing either an ox or a sheep with a blemish.

Seeing other gods

Still very concerned about the possibility that his people might diddle around with other gods, God – via Moses – orders that if anyone is suspected of worshipping other gods, the matter is to be thoroughly investigated.

If the claims are found to be true, the person (and it’s specified that it could be either a man or a woman) should be brought to the town gates and stoned to death.

While the demand that the claim be thoroughly investigated first, even this had some – I imagine – unintended consequences. Not to mention the morality of killing people for beliefs.

For evidence, two or three witnesses are necessary. A single witness is not enough. Furthermore, the witnesses have to be the ones to throw the first stones. I imagine that the purpose of this was to test their conviction.

Once the witnesses throw their stones, the whole community must join in. Making the killing separates prohibited murder from judicial killing, in a similar way to how exceptions are made for killing in battle. It also, in a way, turns the victim into a sort of sacrifice in order to “purge the evil from the midst of you” (v.7).

On difficult cases

In the next part of the chapter, Moses demonstrates that he is putting the use he received from his father-in-law, Jethro/Reuel/Hobab (even though he didn’t give the poor guy any credit in Deuteronomy 1), and he covers much of the same advice he received in Exodus 18:21-22.

If a case arises that is too difficult for judgement, “you” must go to the Temple for a verdict. It’s unclear whether Moses means that the entire community is to go, or just the local judge, or perhaps just the affected parties. In either case, “you” must go and subject yourself to the verdict of whomever happens to be “in office in those days” (v.9). The special mention of this is, I am sure, to safeguard against picking a judge that you might think sympathetic to your case.

Whatever verdict is given must be followed. Failure to do so gets the death penalty, “And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again” (v.13).

Given the emphasis on this last part, I wonder how much of an issue it was that people would go all the way to Jerusalem for a verdict and then decide not to take it. It makes me wonder if, perhaps, people were having very negative experiences with the judges in Jerusalem, perhaps feeling that the cases weren’t being properly heard, or that the sentences were too harsh or not adequate. Or, perhaps, the judges were breaking the rule about not taking bribes mentioned in the last chapter.

On kings

Once they arrive in the Promised Land, the people will eventually declare: “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me” (v.14). That has got to be the most singularly poor reason to have a king that I have ever heard. Though, according to me Study Bible, may not be historically inaccurate: “In the view of the Israelite tribal confederacy, presumably formed at Shechem (Jos. ch. 24), kingship was alien to the theocracy (Jg. 8:22-23). Israel’s monarchy represented an attempt to be like all the nations, whose kings claimed absolute power (1 Sam. 8:4-22).

Elvis PresleyOnce they decide that Bobby next door has one and therefore we should be allowed to have one too, however, God has a few restrictions for the kind of king that the Israelites may have. First, of course, he must be chosen by God. Of course, there’s no instructions for how the people could tell who was chosen by God and who was not.

The king can’t be a foreigner. Given Judah’s recent history (assuming that Deuteronomy was composed in the time of King Josiah), this is a pretty obvious request. Israel – the Northern part of the Promised Land once it split into two kingdoms – was at that time ruled by the Assyrians. The threat of being deposed and replaced by foreign rulers would have been all too real.

The king may not have many wives, “lest his heart turn away” (v.17). In other words, there seems a concern that the more wives the king has, the more likely it might be that at least one of them worships other gods and might convince the king to leave the exclusive worship of God.

Next, the king may not have many horses, nor may he “greatly multiply for himself silver and gold” (v.17). Of this, Collins writes:

The most remarkable assertion of control, however, concerns the king, in 17:14-20. The king may not be a foreigner. He must not “acquire many horses,” which would be necessary for building up an army, nor acquire many wives (as Solomon would do), nor acquire much gold and silver. Instead, he should have a copy of this book of the law and read it all the days of his life. The king must be subject to the law. Even though Josiah was very young when he began to reign and was presumably subject to his advisers for a time, it is difficult to believe that he would have promulgated such a restrictive law of the kingship. Most probably, this passage was added later to the book, after the kingship had definitively failed in the Babylonian crisis. (A Short Introduction, p.89)

To this, Brant Clemens of Both Saint and Cynic adds:

Deuteronomy 17:14-20 says that when Israel selects a king, that king must be God’s chosen. He must not not have too many horses or too many wives. Foreign wives will lead the king into idolatry. Since these rules seem to address so specifically the cases of King Saul, who was not God’s chosen, and King Solomon who had many horses and many foreign wives, I have to suspect that Deuteronomy was written only after Israel’s united monarchy had fallen apart.

The king also must not cause the people to return to Egypt. I imagine that this prohibition would have been written either to address kings selling people to foreigners as slaves, or would have been a response to the Assyrian exile – as the Assyrians were scattering many of the people in the Northern kingdom to foreign lands.

The last rule regarding kings specifies that he must write for himself in a book “this law” (v.18), and read it every day. At first, I thought that it was referring specifically the the laws regarding kings that we read in this chapter, but my internet readings seem to unanimously believe that it refers to the whole of Deuteronomy.

I can’t say that I am much opposed to the idea that a king should focus on wisdom (let’s, for a minute, accept theocratic law as a form of wisdom – at least insomuch as they are both being represented by a book) rather than the accumulation of wealth or armies.