1 “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. 7 And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.
8 “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, 9 for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. 10 But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, 11 then to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lord. 12 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you. 13 Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place that you see, 14 but at the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I am commanding you.” – Deuteronomy 12:1-14 ESV
Obedience is a form of worship. It is an act of submission and surrender to the expressed will of God. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to understand that there were more formal and ritualistic aspects to their worship of God that must be carefully followed. They were not free to worship God in any way they deemed acceptable. He was not just another god, but He was the one true God. All others were fakes and frauds, the creations of the minds and hands of men.
The first commandment had made it perfectly clear that the Israelites were to worship no other gods. They were to refrain from making idols of any kind. And when it came to worship, they were to do so according to a divinely prescribed blueprint. Like everything else in their lives, God was providing them with a clear and carefully crafted dictum concerning their worship of Him.
The first decree concerned the cleansing of the land of any and all vestiges of idol worship. Moses gave them clear instructions concerning the eradication of all shrines and sacred sites associated with the false gods of the Canaanites.
“When you drive out the nations that live there, you must destroy all the places where they worship their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12:2 NLT
The Canaanites had designated places of worship where they gathered to offer sacrifices to their gods. These were typically situated on elevated sites or in groves of trees. The high places were intended to provide closer access to their gods, who they believed existed above them. The groves were represented fertility and illustrated the Canaanites’ desire to be blessed with abundance and fruitfulness by their gods.
Once God had given the Israelites victories over their enemies and they had successfully routed the Canaanites from their homes and cities, they were required to destroy any and all shrines dedicated to the worship of false gods. These sites were to be completely destroyed, removing any memory of these pagan deities from the land.
“Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods!” – Deuteronomy 12:3 NLT
One of the things Moses was trying to prevent was the practice of syncretism. According to dictionary.com, syncretism is “the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion” (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper). It is the attempted reconciliation or harmonizing of opposing beliefs that ultimately requires one to compromise their convictions. And this is what Moses feared because he knew his fellow Israelites well.
Moses wanted the Israelites to understand that their God was one of a kind. And He was to be worshiped according to His acceptable standards, not those of men. Adopting and adapting the pagan practices of the Canaanites would not be acceptable to Yahweh. So, Moses commanded them: “Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:4 NLT). The Canaanites worshiped their man-made gods according to man-made rules. The sites at which they worshiped were not sacred. The gods to which they bowed down were not divine. The religious rituals the Canaanites practiced, regardless of their fervor and fanatical faith were vain and fruitless.
I am reminded of the clash between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal recorded in the book of 1 Kings. Ahab, the king of Israel, under the influence of his wicked wife Jezebel, had promoted idolatry in the land of Israel. So, Elijah challenged the prophets of the false god, Baal, to a contest to prove whose god was greater. And he issued a call to the people of Israel to return their allegiance to Yahweh.
“How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” – 1 Kings 18:21 NLT
The contest was a simple one. Each side was provided with a bull, which they were to cut up and place on an altar covered in wood. Then they were to call on their respective god and ask him to consume the sacrifice with fire. And Elijah stated the rules by which the contest would be decided: “The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!” (1 Kings 18:24 NLT).
The best part of the story is the description of the prophets of Baal as they begged their false god to hear their cries.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made.
About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”
So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response. – 1 Kings 18:26-29 NLT
Nothing. No response. No fire. No sacrifice consumed. All their shouting, dancing, and self-mutilating were in vain. Their god didn’t hear because their god didn’t exist.
And Moses wanted the Israelites to know that Yahweh was not to be worshiped like the false gods of the Canaanites. They were not to repurpose the pagan shrines dedicated to lifeless idols and attempt to call on the God of the universe. He had other plans.
“Rather, you must seek the Lord your God at the place of worship he himself will choose from among all the tribes—the place where his name will be honored.” – Deuteronomy 12:5 NLT
Things were going to be different for the people of Israel. They had been set apart by God and everything about their lives was going to be dramatically distinctive, including the manner in which they worshiped their God. And Moses pointed out the change that was coming.
“Your pattern of worship will change. Today all of you are doing as you please…” – Deuteronomy 12:8 NLT
In other words, God had not yet given them His divine requirements for worship. But that was about to change. Once they arrived in the land, there would be only one acceptable place where they could offer their sacrifices to Him. During their lifetimes, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had erected shrines to God in various locations, such as the Oaks of Moreh. But with their conquest of the land, God would designate a single location where He would accept their offerings and worship – “the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored” (Deuteronomy 12:11 NLT.
God was not the figment of man’s imagination. He had created man, not the other way around. And He would not tolerate a form of worship that was man-made or a poor rip-off of some pagan practice dedicated to a non-existent god.
God would be worshiped according to His own standards. The Israelites were not going to be able to do what was right in their own eyes. This was not a democracy where the will of the majority won out. They were going to worship the one true God according to His standards and at “the place the Lord your God chooses for his name to be honored” (Deuteronomy 12:11 NLT).
Whether they realized it or not, this command was going to protect the tribes of Israel from petty feuds and pride-filled attempts to set up competing shrines to God in their various land allotments. God would choose the place and the form of acceptable worship. No questions asked. No opinions accepted.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.