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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Deuteronomy 17

 

 

Introduction

The Covenant Stipulations, Covenant Making at Shechem, Blessings and Cursings (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 29:1).

In this section of Deuteronomy we first have a description of specific requirements that Yahweh laid down for His people. These make up the second part of the covenant stipulations for the covenant expressed in Deuteronomy 4:45 to Deuteronomy 29:1 and also for the covenant which makes up the whole book. They are found in chapters 12-26. As we have seen Deuteronomy 1:1 to Deuteronomy 4:44 provide the preamble and historical prologue for the overall covenant, followed by the general stipulations in chapters 5-11. There now, therefore, in 12-26 follow the detailed stipulations which complete the main body of the covenant. These also continue the second speech of Moses which began in Deuteronomy 5:1.

Overall in this speech Moses is concerned to connect with the people. It is to the people that his words are spoken rather than the priests so that much of the priestly legislation is simply assumed. Indeed it is remarkably absent in Deuteronomy except where it directly touches on the people. Anyone who read Deuteronomy on its own would wonder at the lack of cultic material it contained, and at how much the people were involved. It concentrates on their interests, and not those of the priests and Levites, while acknowledging the responsibility that they had towards both priests and Levites.

And even where the cultic legislation more specifically connects with the people, necessary detail is not given, simply because he was aware that they already had it in writing elsewhere. Their knowledge of it is assumed. Deuteronomy is building on a foundation already laid. In it Moses was more concerned to get over special aspects of the legislation as it was specifically affected by entry into the land, with the interests of the people especially in mind. The suggestion that it was later written in order to bring home a new law connected with the Temple does not fit in with the facts. Without the remainder of the covenant legislation in Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers to back it up, its presentation often does not make sense from a cultic point of view.

This is especially brought home by the fact that when he refers to their approach to God he speaks of it in terms of where they themselves stood or will stand when they do approach Him. They stand not on Sinai but in Horeb. They stand not in the Sanctuary but in ‘the place’, the site of the Sanctuary. That is why he emphasises Horeb, which included the area before the Mount, and not just Sinai itself (which he does not mention). And why he speaks of ‘the place’ which Yahweh chose, which includes where the Tabernacle is sited and where they gather together around the Tabernacle, and not of the Sanctuary itself. He wants them to feel that they have their full part in the whole.

These detailed stipulations in chapters 12-26 will then be followed by the details of the covenant ceremony to take place at the place which Yahweh has chosen at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27), followed by blessings and cursings to do with the observance or breach of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28).

II. INSTRUCTION CONCERNING THE GOVERNING OF THE COMMUNITY (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 19:21).

Having established the principles of worship and religious response for the community based on the dwellingplace where Yahweh would choose to establish His name, Moses now moved on to various aspects of governing the community. He had clearly been giving a great deal of thought to what would happen when he had gone, and to that end had been meditating on God’s promises in Genesis and the content of God’s Instruction (Torah).

Moses was doing here what he described himself as having done for the previous generation (Deuteronomy 1:15-18). There he had established them with a system of justice ready for entry into the land but they had refused to enter it when Yahweh commanded. Now he was preparing their sons for entry into the land in a similar way.

Justice was to be provided for in a number of ways:

1). By the appointment of satisfactory judges (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

2). By rejecting Canaanite methods of justice (Deuteronomy 16:21-22). He reiterated the necessity for the abolition of idolatry and religious impropriety, and called for the judgment of it in the presence of witnesses (Deuteronomy 16:21 to Deuteronomy 17:7).

3). By setting up a final court of appeal. Here he dealt with what to do when major judicial problems arose (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

4). By legislating what kind of king to appoint when they wanted a king. At present they had him. Shortly he would be replaced by Joshua. Then would come a time when they needed another supreme leader and here he faced up to the issue of possible kingship, an issue that, in view of certain prophecies revealed in the patriarchal records (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 35:11; Genesis 36:31) would certainly arise in the future, and which Balaam had recently drawn attention to (Numbers 24:17) as on the horizon. Thus it needed to be legislated for so that when the time came they might not appoint the wrong kind of king, and especially they were to be guides as to the kind of king that they should consider (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

5). By providing for the sustenance of the priesthood and Levites who watch over their spiritual welfare (Deuteronomy 18:1-8).

6). By warning against looking to the occult for guidance and promising instead the coming of other prophets like himself (Deuteronomy 18:9-22).

But while we may see this as a separate unit it is not so in the Hebrew. As we would expect in a speech not prepared by a trained orator it just goes smoothly forward. ‘Thee, thou’ predominates as befits a section dealing with commandments with an occasional subtle introduction of ‘ye, your’.

Chapter 17 Honouring Yahweh And Establishing True Justice.

The emphasis on right justice and right behaviour towards Yahweh has led on to the banning of wooden Asherim and stone Pillars as an approach to God. The mention of the Asherim and the Pillars leads on to other questions concerning their approach to God and their attitude towards other gods, blemished offerings and outright idolatry. That verse 1 connects with Deuteronomy 16:21-22 is suggested by the three fold, ‘you shall not plant yourself an Asherah --- nor shall you set up to yourself a pillar --- you shall not sacrifice to Yahweh your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish’. These are three angles of one fact, that such behaviour invalidates those who judge. In order to serve Yahweh it was necessary to be true within.

(In this chapter, up to Deuteronomy 17:16 where it is ‘ye’ (in a quotation), the singular ‘thou’ is used. After Deuteronomy 17:16 neither occurs).


Verse 1

Chapter 17 Honouring Yahweh And Establishing True Justice.

The emphasis on right justice and right behaviour towards Yahweh has led on to the banning of wooden Asherim and stone Pillars as an approach to God. The mention of the Asherim and the Pillars leads on to other questions concerning their approach to God and their attitude towards other gods, blemished offerings and outright idolatry. That verse 1 connects with Deuteronomy 16:21-22 is suggested by the three fold, ‘you shall not plant yourself an Asherah --- nor shall you set up to yourself a pillar --- you shall not sacrifice to Yahweh your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish’. These are three angles of one fact, that such behaviour invalidates those who judge. In order to serve Yahweh it was necessary to be true within.

(In this chapter, up to Deuteronomy 17:16 where it is ‘ye’ (in a quotation), the singular ‘thou’ is used. After Deuteronomy 17:16 neither occurs).

Nothing Must Be Offered To Yahweh Which Was Blemished (Deuteronomy 17:1).

Deuteronomy 17:1

You shall not sacrifice to Yahweh your God an ox, or a sheep, in which is a blemish, or anything evil, for that is an abomination to Yahweh your God.’

Nothing must be brought to the altar of Yahweh which was blemished or evil. This included the bringing and sacrificing of blemished animals, whether ox bull or sheep, or animals with anything at all that could render them unsuitable. To offer a blemished animal was as bad as introducing false religious symbols. It was to treat Yahweh as though He could not see what was being offered, and with unfeigned contempt. Compare Deuteronomy 15:21; Malachi 1:6-8. It would put them in a condition where they were not fit to pass judgment, for they would have demonstrated their duplicity. It would be ‘an abomination to Yahweh your God’.

It is strange how easily even we think that we can deceive God. But we are only deceiving ourselves. When we come to Him with our offerings we must recognise that He knows precisely what is in our hearts.


Verses 2-7

Anyone Found Worshipping Other Gods Was To Be Stoned To Death, But Only After Careful Enquiry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7).

The reference to the abominations of Asherah, Pillar and blemished offerings leads on the thought of all idolatry. The worshipping of other gods was a capital offence, but it was necessary that the charge was proved to be genuinely true. Charging people with blasphemy on false grounds has been the curse of religion throughout history and is sadly often the result of a deeply religious bent. The Pharisees and Sadducees did it to Jesus. It is equally to be condemned between denominations, although it is right that genuine blasphemy be so condemned. The point here is that it must first be genuinely proved. Then it would result in the death penalty.

Analysis in the words of Moses:

a If there be found in the midst of you, within any of your gates which Yahweh your God gives you, man or woman who does that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, in transgressing his covenant and has gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded (Deuteronomy 17:2-3).

b And it be told you, and you have heard of it, then shall you enquire diligently, and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel (Deuteronomy 17:4).

b Then shall you bring forth that man or that woman, who has done this evil thing, to your gates, even the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death with stones (Deuteronomy 17:5).

a At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death. At the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be first on him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you will put away the evil from the midst of you (Deuteronomy 17:6-7).

Note that in ‘a’ the person is found within their gates transgressing the covenant and doing evil in the eyes of Yahweh their God by worshipping other gods, (thus what they have done has been witnessed), then at the mouths of at least two witnesses they must be put to death, the witnesses throwing the first stones, followed by the people. This common action will remove the evil from among them. In ‘b’ the enquiry must be detailed and fair, but if the thing is certain, then in the parallel they must be brought to their gates and stoned to death.

Deuteronomy 17:2-3

If there be found in the midst of you, within any of your gates which Yahweh your God gives you, man or woman who does that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded,’

What had been previously mentioned brought home the dangers of idolatry, and in the context of words about establishing justice he now illustrated the approach that must be taken in all legal decisions by using idolatry as an example, while at the same time again condemning it absolutely.

Suppose there was found among them, within the cities that ‘Yahweh had given them’, (cities therefore holy to Him as the camp had been), a man or woman who did evil in the sight of Yahweh and who was transgressing His covenant by ‘going and serving other gods, and worshipping them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded’.

The thought is of someone engaged in false worship, but this time they had gone the whole way. They had deserted Yahweh and were serving other gods and worshipping them. This included the worship of images and idols, and the worship of sun or moon or stars.

The worship of the sun was unquestionably practised in Canaan, for at least one city was named ‘the house of Shemesh’ (Bethshemesh), while in Egypt Ra or Aten were sun gods who were seen as profoundly affecting things day by day (and in unseen battles at night). It is probable that Abraham’s father was a moon-worshipper, for Haran was a centre of moon-worship, and in Egypt Thoth was at one time a moon god. In Canaan Yerah was the moon god, possibly worshipped at ‘Yeri-cho’ (Jericho). The term ‘host of heaven’ was well known in Israel (see 1 Kings 22:19; compare Deuteronomy 33:2) and the concept as old as, and older than, Genesis 32:2. It originally referred to heavenly beings. But every night men around the world would look up and see the stars, and various aspects of them would be worshipped, which was why in some places learned men tracked their movements. So recognition of them as Yahweh’s hosts, an easy step to make, could easily turn to worship of them as the host of heaven. Genesis 1:16 with its ‘and made the stars also’ would appear to have been a deliberate attempt to play the stars down. Worship of sun, moon and stars goes back into the mists of time. They had a fascination for men and were mysteries that drew men’s veneration.

By so worshipping they would have broken the covenant and done what Yahweh had not commanded. Indeed He had commanded that they should not do it. They must therefore face the judgment of His justices and officials.

Deuteronomy 17:4-5

And it be told you, and you have heard of it, then shall you enquire diligently, and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel, then shall you bring forth that man or that woman, who has done this evil thing, to your gates, even the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death with stones.’

But when they heard of such a thing happening they must make diligent enquiry. We can compare this with Deuteronomy 13:14. We need hardly doubt that Moses intended them to see this as a pattern which should be followed in all cases to be brought before the justices. And it was only if the matter was true and the thing certain that they were to proceed.

“Such abomination was wrought in Israel.” Although it was only given as an example, that did not lessen the crime. He had chosen the worst possible case to use as his illustration of justice. False worship struck at the very root of the covenant. It replaced Yahweh as Supreme. It was totally unacceptable. It was something that Yahweh was against with all His being. It was ‘abominable’. And yet even that must be subject to fair trial.

On the case being proved, the man or woman who had done this evil was to be brought forth to the gates, to the place of justice, and once the case was satisfactorily proved, the man or woman was to be stoned to death with stones, the first stones being thrown by the witnesses. Stoning was always the penalty for this crime in Israel, for it prevented anyone having to touch those who had been defiled.

In the wilderness the stoning had to take place ‘outside the camp’, but this would not now be possible. The equivalent of the camp was the whole of the land of Israel, and to take them to the borders of the land would have been impractical. But the gate of the city was the equivalent. The person had been brought out from where the people dwelt and was executed at the place of sentence, away from the sphere of their living accommodation.

Deuteronomy 17:6-7

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death. At the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be first on him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you will put away the evil from the midst of you.’

But this must not be done at the hand of only one witness (compare Numbers 35:30). There must be at least two or three witnesses. Then the hand of the witnesses were to throw the first stones, something which if they had spoken truly they would not hesitate to do, after which all the people were to take part. As all would have been affected by it so must all be involved in the punishment. So care was taken against false accusations, and against mob rule. But the finally important thing was that the evil would be put away from among them.


Verses 8-13

The Place Of Final Appeal (Deuteronomy 17:8-15).

But if a case was brought which was too hard for the local justices to decide, there was to be a final place of appeal made up of the levitical priests and the chief judge of the day (Deuteronomy 17:9). Their decision would be final. We can compare this with how Moses was the final court of appeal while he was still over the people (Deuteronomy 1:17 b).

Analysis in the words of Moses:

a If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within your gates (Deuteronomy 17:8 a).

b Then shall you arise, and get yourself up to the place which Yahweh your God shall choose (Deuteronomy 17:8 b).

c And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and you shall enquire, and they will show you the sentence of judgment, and you shall do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall show you from that place which Yahweh shall choose (Deuteronomy 17:9-10 a).

c And you shall observe to do according to all that they shall teach you, according to the tenor of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand, nor to the left (Deuteronomy 17:10-11).

b And the man who does presumptuously, in not listening to the priest who stands to minister there before Yahweh your God, or to the judge (Deuteronomy 17:12 a).

a Even that man shall die, and you shall put away the evil from Israel, and all the people shall hear, and fear, and no more act presumptuously (Deuteronomy 17:12-13).

This is more progressive than chiasmus. But in ‘a’ the method of judgment for difficult cases is laid out, and in the parallel the warning given that not to accept the verdict of that court (the court being seen to be fair) will mean being put to death so that all may fear and give due respect to the court which meets before Yahweh. For to dispute the sacred court is doing evil in Israel by encouraging anarchy. In ‘b’ they arise and go to the place which Yahweh their God chooses and in the parallel they are to heed the ones who minister there before Yahweh their God. In ‘c’ they enquire and receive the verdict and are to do according to the tenor of the sentence, and in the parallel they must receive the sentence which has been according to the tenor of Yahweh’s Instruction and not divert from it.

Deuteronomy 17:8-11

If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within your gates, then shall you arise, and get yourself up to the place which Yahweh your God shall choose, and you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and you shall enquire, and they will show you the sentence of judgment, and you shall do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall show you from that place which Yahweh shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they shall teach you, according to the tenor of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand, nor to the left.’

If any case proved too hard for the local elders to judge, whether it be a question of differentiation between murder and other forms of manslaughter, or between the approach to be taken on one type of plea as against another, or between grievous bodily harm and lesser violence, with the case producing differing views among the elders as they judged the matter within the gate. Then they must rise up and take the details of the case to the Central Sanctuary, to the place where Yahweh was pleased to dwell. They must come to the levitical priests and the judge of that day, and enquire there as to what to do.

This is the first mention in Deuteronomy of the levitical priests (‘the priests the Levites’) under that title. The phrase is found regularly in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 17:9; Deuteronomy 17:18; Deuteronomy 18:1; Deuteronomy 24:8; Deuteronomy 27:9) in contrast with ‘the Levite(s)’ (Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18-19; Deuteronomy 14:27; Deuteronomy 14:29; Deuteronomy 16:11; Deuteronomy 16:14; Deuteronomy 18:7; Deuteronomy 26:11-13; Deuteronomy 27:14; Deuteronomy 31:25) and is used regularly by others who certainly separate between priests and Levites (2 Chronicles 23:18; 2 Chronicles 30:27; Ezekiel 43:19; Ezekiel 44:15; Ezekiel 48:13). It is also found in Jeremiah 33:18; Joshua 3:3; Joshua 8:33. For further consideration see discussion at Deuteronomy 18:1-6.

“The judge that shall be in those days.” This would suggest that Israel might have someone who could act as supreme judge, a recognised individual of unique status, to have a say in such cases, or possibly a small group of such recognised judges acting in turn. He/they possibly also had general jurisdiction over the people. Moses may have been thinking of the one who would replace him, and the ones who would follow after, for as the recognised head of Israel he had been responsible for judging (Exodus 18:13) as well as exercising authority over the people. We can compare here the term ‘judge’, as used in the book of Judges, of people who ruled over ‘Israel’.

“And you shall do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall show you from that place which Yahweh shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they shall teach you, according to the tenor of the law which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show you, to the right hand, nor to the left.” Whatever decision or sentence was passed by this body at the place where Yahweh had chosen to dwell they must observe to do. This would be the place of final appeal. This would apply whether the matter was one of interpreting teaching or of passing judgment. Once decided there was to be no avoiding it, and no seeking to give it different meanings. It was in fact important that once a final decision had been reached the matter was seen as closed.

This was, of course, on the basis that they were revealing themselves to be reliable judges by following Moses’ requirements for them. They were required to demonstrate how their decision was in accordance with God’s Instruction (Torah). Once they became patently dishonest the prophets attacked them openly. But the people were still required to carry out their decisions (compare Jesus verdict on the Pharisees - Matthew 23:3).

Comparing this and Deuteronomy 16:18-20 with the reign of Jehoshaphat (‘Yahweh has judged’) it seems that Jehoshaphat followed the pattern laid down here (2 Chronicles 19). Jehoshaphat appointed judges up and down the land, and established a supreme court in Jerusalem headed by ‘Levites, priests and the heads of the families of Israel for the judgment of Yahweh and for controversies’ (2 Chronicles 19:8).

Deuteronomy 17:12

And the man who does presumptuously, in not listening to the priest who stands to minister there before Yahweh your God, or to the judge, even that man shall die, and you shall put away the evil from Israel.’

Anyone who openly rejected the final verdict of the court pronounced by the Judge and ‘the Priest’, the court having consisted of ‘the judge’ and the priests, whether it be the accused or the justices, was to be put to death, for it would be to attack the very authority on which justice was based. It would be to act evilly against the highest religious and civil authorities acting together. For the point was that ‘the Priest’ ministered before Yahweh, and was therefore appointed to act in His name, while the Judge was appointed over the people. But there would be no distinction between cases. All would be seen as covenant law.

Deuteronomy 17:13

And all the people shall hear, and fear, and no more act presumptuously.’

The result of the death sentence on anyone who openly attacked the decision of the final court of appeal, whether the accused or the justices, would be that all Israel would hear about it, and fear, and not act presumptuously in the same way.

The purpose of the death sentence was, of course, to dissuade anyone from taking up such a position, thus establishing the final authority of the court. The hope was that it would never need to be carried out.

We learn from all this the importance of the establishment of true justice, and that in the end that must be found in conformity to His word and to His Law.


Verses 14-20

Requirements For Any Future King (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

Having been speaking of ‘the Judge’ who would have authority over Israel took, and being very much aware of the people’s weaknesses and willingness to follow anyone who offered them what they wanted (to look after them and fight their battles for them) Moses’ thoughts turned back to the promises of Genesis. There God had said that one day kings would be established who would be descended from Abraham (Genesis 17:6; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 36:31; Genesis 35:11; compare also Exodus 19:6 where a kingdom of priests is mentioned which requires a king), so that he recognised that one day it was inevitable.

He also knew of Jacob’s prophecy concerning such a royal personage who would arise from Judah (Genesis 49:10), the coming of ‘Shiloh’, and he would have recently been further informed of the words of Balaam in Numbers 24:17 about ‘the sceptre that shall arise out of Israel’. None of this would have escaped his notice as he sought to prepare for the huge event that was about to come. He would have been negligent if it had. And we can understand why he was fearful that such a king, when he arose, would in seeking to promote himself, look to Egypt, the one great earthly power of whom he was most aware. And would not be reliable as a Judge. The one thing therefore that he would want them to avoid was ‘a king like the nations’.

At the time Moses was Israel’s ‘Judge’ (Deuteronomy 1:17 b) with full powers of ‘kingship’ under Yahweh, and he knew that he would shortly be appointing Joshua to have similar supreme authority. He had lived in the light of the revelations of Yahweh and the records of the fathers of old, and he expected Joshua to do the same. And he knew that always over Israel was Yahweh as Great King and Overlord Who had proved His supremity even over the Pharaoh.

But once established in the land he must have recognised that it was very likely that, once Joshua had died and time had passed, the people would want to appoint a king. At present Yahweh was their King with Moses as His deputy. The same would apply with Joshua. But what about those who followed? Moses knew men’s weaknesses. They would want to fall into line, and they would want to be looked after. And as Scripture confirmed that kingship was to happen, that made it obvious. But that made it necessary that getting the wrong kind of king was guarded against. When they did seek a king he was concerned that that king should recognise his true position under Yahweh, and be the kind of king that Yahweh approved of. And he knew that the only difference between Joshua and a king would be that Joshua had more authority because Yahweh was supreme king and he was His voice, but had less pretensions. The king, if a bad one, might act on his own authority and in his own name.

So Moses’ concern about kingship was fully understandable. He had especially seen what it was like in Egypt. He had seen the frantic efforts to build up the numbers of horses for military purposes, especially for the drawing of the chariots which were so vital a weapon in warfare, so that pre-eminence might be gained. He had himself been involved in the harems of Pharaoh, and experienced the intrigues that were constantly going on. He had noted the great efforts that kings and nobles put into gaining great wealth. And as he considered his people he was afraid lest they find themselves under someone like that. And he was concerned lest such a king might make treaties with Egypt, becoming their vassal in order to obtain horses.

He had also no doubt experienced petty ‘kings’ while son-in-law to the priest of Midian, and had noted that although their ambitions were on a smaller scale, they were still there. He had recently had dealings with the kings of Edom, Moab and Ammon who would all have treated him as a king, to say nothing of the kings of the Amorites. He would have noted the harem and wealth of Sihon, king of the Amorites, laid bare in Heshbon. He knew especially of Og, foreign king in Bashan, descended from a ‘super-race’ whose very bedstead (or sarcophagus) was the talk of all the nations around. Furthermore Israel were about to invade a country of nations who all had kings. Kingship was very much a current issue. And once they were settled in the land they would constantly be surrounded by kings. But he wanted to save his people from kings like that. It would be better for them to stick with Judges who had no such expectations. But if they would not do that, and he suspected that they would not, for they would soon begin to see them as the equivalent of kings, then let them consider what a king under Yahweh must be like if they were not to regret the move.

So we may take it for granted that an astute leader like Moses would recognise the very good likelihood, indeed certainty, that one day the people would seek to make their Judge a king following a similar pattern to the nations round about. How else could the prophecies be fulfilled? And it was after all only one step on from the overall ‘Judge’. The only difference that there would be between Joshua and a king would be that Joshua would not seek to behave with the bad habits of a king. He thus now gave strict instructions of what any king they considered appointing must be like.

Moses’ stress, then, was on the fact that he must not be like the kings round about. Rather he was to be and ‘ideal’, one of themselves, chosen by Yahweh, a native of Israel, and a student of Yahweh’s Instruction. He was to be a disclaimer of foreign military power and foreign marriage treaties, and spurn the accumulation of treasure for himself. He was to that end to write for himself a book based on the records which were under the oversight of the levitical priests and kept in the Tabernacle, the book which Moses himself had brought together from ancient covenant and other records (Genesis) and from the details of the Instruction (Torah) as directly revealed to him by God (the main basis of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers). And he was to live by them.

Indeed this picture of an ‘ideal’ king was so unlike any king that Israel ever knew or would know that it could only have been a theoretical one posited before the reality ruined the whole picture. Once kingship was established no one would ever have dreamed of suggesting a king like this. For it was actually the very opposite of what kings were. Instead they would have turned back to arguing for judges or chieftains or councils of elders. Moses’ words would also act as a warning to future judges. But until the coming of Jesus no such king ever lived.

We can consider in this respect how at least one such Judge, Gideon, was pressed to become Israel’s king and his refusal may well have been a polite acceptance (Judges 8:22-23). He certainly behaved like a king of the wrong kind (Judges 8:30), and one of his sons was expected to follow after him (Judges 9:2). Indeed he lost the position for his family precisely because he ignored Moses’ words here. He incidentally proved the wisdom of Moses’ instructions in his ignoring of them, for his family suffered the consequences.

One remarkable thing about this idea of kingship here was that there was no thought within it of the king making the laws. This king was rather to be like his fellow countrymen, he was to be subject to Yahweh’s Instruction. He was to be totally unlike other kings. He was to act as a judge under Yahweh. Indeed as he will shortly reveal, there would be priests chosen by Yahweh and prophets raised up by Yahweh to keep him in the right way.

We may note in passing that he expected that the king would write himself a copy of the Law. It is hardly therefore likely that he himself would have failed to ensure that such a book was available for Joshua.

Analysis using the words of Moses:

a When you are come to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell in it, and shall say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me (Deuteronomy 17:14).

b You shall surely set him king over you, whom Yahweh your God shall choose, one from among your brethren shall you set king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother (Deuteronomy 17:15).

c Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he may multiply horses, forasmuch as Yahweh has said to you, “You shall henceforth return no more that way” (Deuteronomy 17:16).

c Nor shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away, nor shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold (Deuteronomy 17:17).

b And it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites, and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them (Deuteronomy 17:18-19).

a That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left, to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:20).

Note in ‘a’ his expectation and foreboding that when they are established in the land they will want a king over them, thus in the parallel he warns against appointing someone whose heart will be lifted up above his fellow-citizens, who may then not walk within Yahweh’s covenant requirements (‘the commandment’) and may then not prolong his days in the kingdom. In ‘b’ he commands them to set over them only one whom Yahweh will choose, a true worshipper of Yahweh circumcised within the covenant, and in the parallel he declares that once such a one takes up his position he must be totally guided by God’s word and covenant (law), and rule by the law provided for him in the ‘book’ which was in the hands of the priests and Levites, the scrolls or tablets of the Testimony. In ‘c’ he declares that they must not appoint someone who multiplies horses to himself, lest this beguile him to seek to Egypt, and in the parallel that he is not to be someone who multiplies wives to himself or silver and gold. In other words it must be someone whose only concern is to please Yahweh and wants no grandeur out of his appointment.

The only king who was remotely like this was Saul at the very beginning. But at that stage he was simply a war leader under Samuel, and even he soon began to get delusions of grandeur. It was inevitable. The truth is that all kings that men knew of multiplied wives for themselves and sought to use their position to make themselves wealthy. It was rooted in their very nature. And with all his good points David was no exception. He was far from Moses’ ideal king. Yet in later centuries he was looked back on as the ideal king which demonstrates that the ideas stated here are remote from any ideas of kingship that existed later. So in these words we have Moses’ desperate attempts to do what he could to avoid what was inevitable.

Deuteronomy 17:14

When you are come to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell in it, and shall say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me,”

Aware thus of human nature, and especially of the failings of the people whom he had led for so long, and possibly aware of rumblings already occurring in some quarters (there was probably already a minority who longed for a king to give them status. Compare also the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram who no doubt coveted kingship), Moses knew that one day they would opt for someone to be king over them. And the prophecies confirmed it. They too spoke of the rise of kings. He therefore directed their minds to what a king under Yahweh must be like. There was irony in his words.

He first stressed that they must recognise that this option would only be open to them because of Yahweh’s activity. It was He Who was giving them the land. It was He Who would ensure their possession. It was He Who would settle them in it to dwell there. So they must not forget Him. But, as he knew from the past, once all that had happened and they had settled down, they would still be dissatisfied. They would find the burden of running the country very heavy. They would look around and see the glories of kings and their pageantry and how they took on all the responsibilities. And they would be envious. They would crave someone to take on all their responsibilities too.

Deuteronomy 17:15

You shall surely set him king over you, whom Yahweh your God shall choose, one from among your brethren shall you set king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.’

When they did reach this position they must ensure that the king they appointed was the chosen of Yahweh and one of themselves. There must be no Og’s over Israel, foreigners selected for their great fighting ability, no submissions to Pharaoh. No foreign overlord must be allowed. (Note how this stress on the king being one chosen of Yahweh demonstrates that when the phrase ‘whom Yahweh your God shall choose’ is used the emphasis is on Yahweh’s choosing. Thus for ‘in the place that He will choose’ the same applies.)

Deuteronomy 17:16

Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he may multiply horses, forasmuch as Yahweh has said to you, “You shall henceforth return no more that way.” ’

He must not be one who will depend on horses and chariotry (compare Isaiah 2:7; Micah 5:10), for that would only lead to further contact with Egypt as the obvious provider (compare 1 Kings 10:28). In those days the horse was the symbol of military power, and the army was built around them, so the multiplying of horses indicated the building up of military power. They must not gaze with envy at Egypt’s power, and its many horses with its chariotry, nor appoint a king who would submit to Pharaoh and return them under Egypt’s rule in return for some of those horses to be at his disposal. Egypt depended on their chariots and horses and they had been very much involved in the attempt to prevent Israel’s getaway (Exodus 14:7; Exodus 14:9; Exodus 14:17; Exodus 14:23), so Israel were very conscious of them. Israel still sang about it in Moses’ day (Exodus 15:4; Exodus 15:21). To them they were a symbol of Egypt’s greatness, and Egypt’s oppression. But Israel must depend on Yahweh for security, not on Pharaoh and Egypt and horses (compare Isaiah 31:1; Isaiah 31:3). To look to Egypt could only lead to subjection to Egypt.

Some connect this with trading with Egypt, possibly trading slaves or mercenaries for horses. But the emphasis is surely more on the danger of becoming embroiled with Egypt once again, and trusting in them with all its downside rather than in Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 17:17

Nor shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away, nor shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.’

Nor must he seek to build up his position by marriage treaties which would involve marrying foreign wives who would turn his heart away from Yahweh (compare Deuteronomy 7:3-5). The use of marriage to maintain a dynasty had been practised by Abraham. It was even more common among kings. He had watched it happening in Egypt, with Pharaoh erecting temples for his foreign wives. For marriage secured treaty relationships, and treaty relationships with the right people gave strength, and the wives had to be kept sweet. Again there is the implied command to avoid foreign treaties. They were not needed. Yahweh alone was sufficient.

But he also knew how much plotting and intrigue there could be among king’s wives, even homeborn ones, as each plotted and schemed for their own born sons to be given power. He wanted also to save Israel from that. And from the sway of women behind the throne, each seeking their own benefit, regardless of what was for the good of the people.

Nor must he seek to amass great wealth in silver and gold so as to exercise his influence in that way (compare Isaiah 2:7). Multiplying silver and gold could involve raids into other people’s territory and heavy taxes on the people. It could cause great hardship to those from whom the wealth was extracted, and it would signify greed and being unsatisfied with what Yahweh had given. And it would lead to the desire for more and more. His eyes would more be on gold than on God.

We must remember that Moses knew only too well, from experience, what swayed men. He had seen it all too often. Power, women and wealth, that was what ruined men, and he would have seen through his experiences in the Egyptian court, and in Midian in his association with the priest of Midian and other Midianite tribes with their kings, how different royal connections sought to build up their own influence so as to gain great wealth. But while horses with their chariots, and foreign alliances, and wealth were the way to victory and success for other nations, they were not to be so for Israel. They were to look only to Yahweh. This description of kingship gone to the bad was widely illustrated in every king around, some to a greater extent than others, and his recent experiences with regards to Sihon and Og would simply have confirmed it to him. Moses was not a fool.

So to suggest that these words could only have been written after the time of Solomon is naive in the extreme. His words were a photograph of all kings. They were a photograph of the Pharaohs and of known petty kings. They were even a photograph of Gideon (Judges 8:30).

Deuteronomy 17:18-19

And it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites, and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear Yahweh his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them,’

So their king must rather be one who submits himself to Yahweh’s instruction. When he sits on his throne his consideration should not to be on how to build up his power base and his wealth, and how to please his wives, but on how to please Yahweh, the One Who had given them everything that they had, and how to build up the wealth of the nation. Thus he should ensure that he had his own copy of the record of Yahweh’s doings and of His Law as contained in the books which were in the levitical priests’ care. (As Deuteronomy was not, at this stage in his speech, in written form, this must refer to an earlier written Law). And he must keep it ever by him and read it every day of his life, so that he might learn to fear Yahweh his God, and keep His Instruction and what He had laid down, in accordance with what was now being spoken of by Moses. Such a king might be conceived of as possible in the beginning, but not once Saul had been king for a few years. And certainly not once kingship had been established. Even Hezekiah and Josiah, presented from the best possible view, were not remotely like this. No one later could have been foolish enough to suggest such an ideal as possible. Those who did not want such kings would turn away from kingship. But it was certainly a theoretical possibility while they were still without a home.

Deuteronomy 17:20

That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left, to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel.’

And the reason why he should do this with Yahweh’s Law was so that he might not become proud, nor see himself as mighty, but so that he might rather obey Yahweh’s instructions as given in His commandment (His statutes and His ordinances), not turning from them either one way or the other, but walking humbly before God. Then he would ensure his own long success, and that of his successors and the continuance of their rule over Israel.

This is the way too that we can ensure God’s blessing on us and on our families and on His people, by continually having by us His word, and reading it, and applying it to our lives.

Excursus On The Kingship Described Here.

Note how here all the thought is on avoiding Egypt. Once established in the land other neighbours to the north would have come to mind, but at this time Egypt, the Egypt that they had left behind and which still had a fatal attraction for the people, was the one great reality he knew of to be avoided. This fits with Moses’ environment and fears and awareness exactly. None knew better than he the promises that Egypt would make in order to gain dominion over nations. And he had not brought Israel to this place to see them again submit themselves to Egypt. They must remain a free people, whose whole trust and dependence was on Yahweh, the fighter of their battles.

(It is difficult to believe that anyone who lived in the times of the later great empires could have written in this manner, restricting his thoughts to Egypt. In those days such a historic sense would not have been possible).

We must repeat that no king appointed in Israel (and then Judah) was ever like the ideal that Moses describes here. It was purely theoretical and ideal, demonstrating that it was certainly written before kingship arose, for once that happened it shattered into smithereens the ideal once and for all. This comes out especially in the fact that even from the beginning of the concept of kingship the people rejected this type of king altogether and never even considered it. It was not at all what they wanted. They wanted one who was like other kings, and they shrugged off the consequences (1 Samuel 8:10-21). They did not want a man who was involved in God’s Law and would thus disapprove of how they continually disobeyed it, they wanted a shoulder to cry on.

It is probable indeed that Moses’ sketch of a suitable king made them shudder. It described the last kind of king that they would want. By the time that the possibility of kingship arose they had long since laid much of that Law aside in their behaviour with the Canaanites, and they would not want one therefore who would pull them up short over the way that they lived. What they wanted was a king like other peoples had who would fight their battles, and they were ready to meet the consequences.

How they had described what they wanted to Samuel comes out in the way that Samuel gave his warning to them (1 Samuel 8:11-21). Had they opted for a king like Moses described Yahweh would not have been displeased, and Samuel would not have said what he did. But they had made plain what they wanted, and it was inevitably not in accordance with the Mosaic ideal. For by the time of Saul they had long since gone past any such dedication the Law. It would have been cynical in the extreme, no we must say utterly foolish, for a later writer to even have suggested such a kingship as a possibility once kingship was established in the way it was. By then the ways and ideas of kingship was firmly established.

So the thought that anyone would later write like this when there was not even the slightest chance that such a kingship could possibly arise is ludicrous. Such a concept would not even have been considered, even by a religious fanatic. Any later writer would rather have allowed the king more in the way of prestige so as hopefully to win his argument and make his idea attractive. And an extremist would have wanted rid of kingship altogether. The description here is the ideal of the wilderness when no Israelite king had yet been known. Then only could it have been put forward. And then only it might have had a chance. This picture did not even have a remote chance once kingship had been established and enjoyed. Thus it must have been written by someone who was looking forward to a theoretical situation.

(End of Excursus).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/deuteronomy-17.html. 2013.

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