In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
As we continue to work through Deuteronomy, and indeed the Pentateuch, we will find (if we haven’t noticed already) that various themes are repeated numerous times (though in different contexts). One of those themes is what we are discussing today, that is, worship.
We considered worship specifically when we walked through the book of Leviticus. In Leviticus, we took a fairly broad look, using reflection more than exegesis. But one of the things we noted was that laws concerning worship (including, for example, sacrifices and priesthood) took up a significant portion of the book. One of the main distinctions between Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as far as context is concerned, has to do with the fact that in Leviticus, the people have just left Egypt – or have just become free – and are just learning what it means to be a people. In Deuteronomy, we have a generation that has, essentially, always been free. Remember, the generation that left Egypt has all died out – the people to whom Deuteronomy is addressed are their children and their children’s children. They have been wandering in the wilderness for years and now stand at the edge of Canaan, preparing to enter a hostile land and find a place of their own. In both cases, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, worship becomes a central element in learning who they are – and grounding who they are – as they face their new situation. In other words, in both cases, worship is intimately connected with formation.
Our passage today denotes the institution of Jerusalem – although this is still far off historically, and it doesn’t name Jerusalem as the place – as the central place of worship for the Israelite people. This constitutes a significant change in Israel’s history so far. In their history so far – inasmuch as we’re talking about a proto-nation and not just a single family – the worship of God took place wherever they were. For the past 40 years, Israel has been a nomadic people, wandering throughout the wilderness. When they arrived at a place to camp, they would set up the tabernacle where the worship of God would take place.
Now, however, God is instructing them to center their worship on the single place that God will designate for them. Some of this is also related to the notion of possessing land and becoming a nation. But it’s more than just that.
Another of the things that we might notice when we read this passage is that it is very concerned with avoiding idolatry. In verses 1-3, Moses instructs the Israelites to destroy all the idols in the place at which they will arrive. This should remind us of several instances already in Israel’s short history where they committed or succumbed to idolatry. And we should remember how seriously God takes the issue of idolatry. In fact, idolatry is also addressed in the chapter immediately preceding and the chapter immediately following. Simply put, God takes idolatry very seriously.
Now this should seem obvious to most of us. At least it seems obvious in our heads – perhaps for no other reason than that we’ve heard it a lot. I’m going to try not to revisit material that we’ve already discussed, but for example, we talked about this topic in our study of Numbers, at chapter 25. In that passage, we talked about the clash of cultures that the Israelites were facing and that the calling was to choose YHWH alone – that they were a people belonging to YHWH. This theme is very much in operation in our passage today. As Israel prepares to enter into the land of Canaan, and face a variety of peoples with their own gods and idols, they must be diligent in turning away from all of those gods and idols and keep their eyes and hearts solely on God, on YHWH. And again, this seems obvious in our heads – we get this.
But I’m not too sure how obvious it is to our hearts. Depending on who you talk to, Canada is becoming more and more secularized. Which is to say that religion and faith are becoming less and less a crucial part of most people’s lives. However, that is not to say that we are not worshipping other gods. The gods we worship are not Baals and most of us are not likely to overtly disown our God. However, for many of us, our hearts are divided.
We worship things like success and money and fame. We bow down before the altar of romantic love. We bow down before technology and progress. We idolize individualism, power, and happiness. We build our lives around these things. We even, sometimes, build our churches around these things. And so long as God doesn’t get in the way of any of that, we can get along just fine. At least that’s how we sometimes live.
Now what does any of this have to do with the rest of this passage? What does it have to do with a centralized place of worship? With worshiping in Jerusalem (though, again, it’s not Jerusalem yet)?
Certainly at one level, it has to do indeed with the notion that God is to be worshiped, and this over and above all other gods. And it also has to do with the temple (again, yet to be instituted) somehow standing for the people – or, perhaps better, the people being identified by the God/god they worship. But I think it’s also more than that.
First of all, I want to affirm the notion that the two ideas are connected. In verse 4, we read: “4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.” Their here refers to the nations that are to be dispossessed by the Israelites. Israel is not to worship YHWH like the Canaanite nations do. Then again in verse 31, we read again: “31 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way…” Structurally, I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a chiasm, but the phrase bounds the discussion together. In other words, the worship of YHWH, the worship of the people of YHWH, is to be different. It is to be different because the people are called to be different, called to be set apart, to be holy.
Now it should be noted that there are also verses in the chapter (vv. 15-28) in which God indicates that there is a lot of freedom in worship. We’re not going to go into that, but I point it out because it’s not as if worship is a strict, regimented, flavourless thing.
So, as we said earlier, in this passage, the Israelites are commanded to worship at the place where God chooses, in distinction from the practice they’ve known so far. Instead of a Tabernacle that travelled with them on their journey through the wilderness, there will now be a central place, that God chooses, where all Israel will be called to worship.
The study of Canaanite religion deserves more discussion than I can provide. However, there seems to be a pretty sharp distinction that is implied (to us – to the Israelites, this would probably be much more obvious). Unlike many other gods and religions, YHWH is not merely waiting to be summoned, to fulfill whatever need a person might have.
In some religions, there is a god for everything – for crops, for weather, for health and sickness, for war, for dying. When you wanted or needed something, you would offer up the appropriate sacrifice and hope that the god heard you and would do something. The Canaanites, it seems, put up altars everywhere. Whenever you needed or wanted something, you could simply go to the nearest altar, or asherah pole, and call upon your baal.
12 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. 2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.Deuteronomy 12:1-3
But God is not to be summoned. Rather, it seems, we are the ones who are called (to worship). The nearest example I can think of regarding this has to do with the way we use language, sometimes, in our worship. Whether it’s during a prayer or a call to worship or whatever, how often do we use language such as, “God, we invite you into this place”? There’s nothing really wrong with this, inasmuch as we usually mean something good by it. However, does it reveal something about the way we think about the relationship between human beings and God? What would it mean, or how would it change, if instead of thinking about it as inviting God to attend our presentation, we thought about it as sinners entering into the presence of a holy God?
We’re simplifying somewhat here, but I think the main idea is the notion of who is serving whom, or who answers to whom. The thing about idols is that, in their literal or concrete sense, an idol is a physical manifestation of putting or keeping God in a box. An idol has specific dimensions, it’s made of a particular material, has an exact weight. When we have an idol, we know what we’re dealing with – because we made it. When we create an idol, we create one (and thus worship one) that suits us.
But the journey that Israel is on is very much a journey of learning that God, YHWH, is not like all other gods.
So What Now…?
We could go on about this, but once again, this is a topic we’ve discussed quite thoroughly (which isn’t to say that I’d encourage any of us to take a, “heard that before,” attitude). I want to close by connecting this with another thing that we’ve talked about before – the notion that worship is also about formation.
We’ve talked before about the centrality of worship to formation – becoming a people. In worship, we focus on the God who is, not the God we want. And in worship, we try to develop a right relationship between the God who is creator and sustainer and redeemer of all that is, and we who are His creation.
And as we’ve said today, a central place of worship probably has something to do with the creation of a people, that is, a nation. But I also think that, perhaps, it might have something to do with being called to worship. Unlike “all the other nations,” we don’t worship because (or only when) we feel like it, or because we need something, or because we feel bad if we don’t. We’re not trying to curry God’s favour and we’re not trying to earn His forgiveness. We worship because YHWH is God. And we worship because, in worship, we are being formed into the people that He has created us to be.
This thing we do here on Sundays matters. I know that some times, we want to do it differently. I know that some times we think it would be better if we did it this way or that way. I know that many times we wonder if it’s worth it. And those are all conversations worth having. But it matters. Worship matters because God matters. And remarkably, inexplicably, wonderfully, we matter to God.