Deuteronomy 12:1-7 – One Central Shrine
SummaryIsrael may only worship God in "the place that the LORD your God will choose," that is, in Jerusalem.
Deuteronomy 12-26 forms the heart of the book and probably was the "book" (scroll) found in the temple that inaugurated Josiah's religious reforms (2 Kings 22-23). The law code begins with the cardinal Deuteronomic principle of the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Six times in this chapter it is affirmed that Israel may only sacrifice in "the place that the LORD your God will choose" (vv. 5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26). Exodus 20:24 had set forth the principle: "You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you." In other words, those places where God had been revealed became places of sacrifice; there was no one, centralized place for worship. Down through the generations, worship places were situated on hills or other high places, often in forests, sometimes in groves of trees. Many of these sites were former Canaanite places of worship. This, of course, became the problem. The priests responsible for Deuteronomy were wary of Israelite use of Canaanite high places for worship. The risk that elements of Baalism would corrupt their understanding of the faith was too great. This would especially be true if Deuteronomy began as a northern tradition, since the northern kingdom was plagued with numerous places of worship; every city had its own shrine, and, as we learn from the condemnations of the prophets (for example, Hosea 8:11-14), they were as likely to be sacrificing to Baal as to the Lord. Such activity ultimately led to the destruction of the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:7-18).
Deuteronomy 12 seeks to defend the purity of Israelite religion by reducing or eliminating the contamination of Baalism. This is accomplished by forbidding them to take over former Canaanite shrines, indeed, to "demolish [them] completely," and by allowing sacrifice only "in the place that the LORD your God will choose." This phrase is an oblique way of referring to "Jerusalem," which could not explicitly be named before the time of David. To name it now would confuse the literary setting of Deuteronomy as a farewell address of Moses to the people prior to their entry into the promised land. This limitation of worship and sacrifice to Jerusalem affected every aspect of Israel's individual and corporate life. It is the most important legislation in Deuteronomy.