The instructions given by Moses to the Israelites in the Plains of Moab concern how they are to live in the Promised Land. In broad terms, we could consider these as instructions on how to love God or alternatively as instructions on how to serve God, since these are essentially two sides of the same coin of Covenant relationship (cf. 10:12; 11:13).
The ‘service’ language of the Old Testament, however, encompasses both sacred and secular activities, including what we would (rather carelessly) call ‘worship’. What marked out the Levite from the other Israelites was not that he worshipped God and they didn’t, but that whilst they served God in other ways, he served God through his role in the priestly system. Of course, every Israelite could praise and pray to God, but this was not a specifically a ‘worship’ activity, nor was it confined to ‘cultic’ occasions. However, the natural inclination would be to think that the more widespread the cultus could become, the better God would be served. After all, the patriarchs seemed to regard altar-building as a natural response to their awareness of God.
This makes the instructions at the beginning of Deut 12 all the more surprising. When the Israelites enter the Promised Land they are to destroy the altars and idols of the nations they dispossess (vv 1-3) – and that is understandable. However, they are told in v 4, “You shall not do so to the LORD your God.” Far from multiplying the cultus by building altars to Yahweh all over the land, they are told there will be only one place, chosen by God himself, to which they shall bring all their sacrifices (vv 5-7). Indeed, in v 8 the point is made that this is a change from the pattern they have followed up until now, “every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes”. But this change reflects the forthcoming development in salvation history when they enter into “the rest and the inheritance” which God is giving them (vv 9-10).
In practical terms, however, the command remains astonishing. It is equivalent to having one church in a country the size of Wales and then telling everyone they can only go there for their services. The conclusion it forces on us is therefore presumably the conclusion it was designed to force on the Israelites – that whilst the Temple is at the centre of Israel’s spiritual life it is not the focus of the service of God. To put it another way, whilst the priestly system is necessary to Israel’s loving service of God, it is not sufficient to that service – a point reinforced by the fact that most Israelites were kept away from the cultus most of the time. And this is because, in line with what has been taught up to this point, Israel’s religion is not to be focused on religious activities, but on righteous actions.
However, this goes against the grain of human nature. As 12:30 indicates, the temptation is always there for Israel to learn from the surrounding nations and to seek to serve the true God in the same way they served their false gods. So, as we see in the later prophets, idols and altars once again multiplied in the land, bringing the judgement of God. But we must not look at them and then fall into the same danger. The temptation is always to express our religious devotion by the multiplicity of our religious activities, whether they be Catholic or Protestant in format. But we must remember that whilst these activities may be enjoyable, and even helpful to us, they are not the basis on which our faithfulness to God’s word will be judged. Indeed, if our lives do not display righteous living, they may simply highlight the extent of our hypocrisy.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London