Good morning! We are cruising right along through Deuteronomy. Today’s passage (15-18) reinforces instructions about the Sabbath and festival celebrations, introduces the later categories of authority of kings and prophets, and gives guidance for the proper limits and use of this authority.
Deuteronomy 15 and 16 largely restate and adapt earlier provisions of covenantal law. The weekly Sabbath idea extends here to include forgiving debts every seventh year, at least for members of the Hebrew community. Those who enslave themselves to another in order to pay off debts are set free after six years, with ample supplies to restart their lives. We read one of Deuteronomy’s refrains: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt”, and therefore rescue others just as God rescued you. Chapter 16 gives instructions again for the celebrations of Passover, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths. What is new here is the emphasis on observing each of the festivals at the appointed central shrine, not in just any old town of Palestine.
The end of chapter 16 opens a new topic which will continue through chapter 18: the rightful uses of authority. Judges and officials are to conduct the matters of each tribe and town with justice. Proper adjudication of idol worship cases gets explicit mention at the beginning of chapter 17. If there are at least two witnesses, an idolater is to be executed at the gates of the town, so that all can see and be cautioned by this example. Most of these cases are presumably heard and decided at a local level, but the chapter also provides for a sort of “appellate review” in tough cases, having them decided by the priests and judge in highest authority at the place of the central shrine. Deuteronomy 17 finishes with a caution regarding kings—another “bread crumb” clue that shows this book is concerned with issues that come up hundreds of years after its literary setting. Royal authority is not well received in much of the Bible, and though it is allowed here the writer adds many cautions and limits to what a king should do. Rulers are not to be too concerned about acquiring horses, wives or riches, lest these selfish pursuits come at high cost to the whole people. Kings are to read and study the laws of the covenant throughout their reign, so that they are able to rule wisely in accord with God.
Deuteronomy 18 opens by describing the portion for priests and Levites (here considered one and the same, as opposed to the distinctions between them highlighted in Numbers). The Levites’ share of each offering in place of land is familiar. What’s new is the reference to “the place that the Lord will choose”, and an implicit incentive for Levites to move there (they could benefit from the sale of their family possessions, and presumably exercise greater influence when gathered together). Divination, child-sacrifice and the consultation of mediums are banned as something only non-Hebrews do—which leads to harsh judgment later in the Old Testament against kings who practice these things. Finally, the chapter “foretells” the coming of additional prophets who will convey the will of God just as Moses has done. A prophet’s reliability is measured by whether what is prophesied truly does come to pass. This standard seeks to provide clarity in all the upcoming battles between “true” and “false” prophets once Israel is established. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Deuteronomy 19-22. Thanks for reading!