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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Deuteronomy 17

Verse 1

There is a brief reminder in Deuteronomy 17:1 that only perfect sacrifices without spot or blemish are acceptable in the worship of God. There follows a paragraph (Deuteronomy 17:2-7) on what to do with idolaters. Back in Deuteronomy 13, Moses had told what to do with persons who seduced others into idolatry; this tells what to do with the ones who were seduced! Deuteronomy 17:8-13 announce the provisions for a high court at the place of the central Sanctuary. Rules for the election of a king are set forth in Deuteronomy 17:14-17, and instructions regarding the religious life of the king are laid down in Deuteronomy 17:18-20.

"Thou shalt not sacrifice unto Jehovah thy God an ox, or a sheep, wherein is a blemish, or anything evil; for that is an abomination unto Jehovah thy God."

This rule is repeated dozens of times throughout the previous books of Leviticus and Numbers, but Israel needed it to be stressed frequently. Malachi has the sordid record of how the priests were offering the blind and the lame and the crippled sacrifices to God, and this among other sins, resulted in Jehovah's cursing the Jewish priesthood (Malachi 2:2).

The lesson for all people today in such a passage as this is simply that God is entitled to receive our very best, and that nothing short of that can be pleasing to him. "There is always the temptation to offer the second best to Jehovah, which is the common abiding temptation to cheapen religion."[1]

"Or anything evil ..." "This is a reference to the maims or faults enumerated in Leviticus 22:22-24."[2]

Verse 2

"If there be found in the midst of thee, within any of thy gates which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that doeth that which is evil in the sight of Jehovah thy God, in transgressing his covenant, and hath 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, and it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it; then shalt thou inquire diligently; and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel, then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, who hath done this evil thing, unto thy gates, even the man or the woman; and thou shalt stone them to death with stones. At the mouth of two witness, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee."

In all ages, disloyalty to the central government has been counted as treason, incurring the most severe penalty. Here, the worship of some other God, other than Jehovah, was high treason, therefore meriting the punishment prescribed.

Note that the precautions taken here against false accusations have been honored, in some instances, throughout history. The requirement that the witnesses themselves should "cast the first stone," taking an active part in the execution of the condemned must have been a very effective deterrent against false charges, because as John Calvin put it:

"There are so many whose tongues are so slippery, not to say good for nothing, that they would boldly strangle a man with their words, when they would not dare to touch him with one of their fingers. It was an excellent remedy against false testimony, therefore, to refuse to admit the testimony of any man who was not ready to execute judgment with his own hand."[3]

"Unto thy gates ..." (Deuteronomy 17:5). "`Gates' here means the open spaces near the gates where the judicial proceedings took place (Nehemiah 8:1,3; Job 29:7)."[4] Thus, criminals were executed "outside the camp" in the period of the wanderings, and outside the city in later times. This was considered to be very significant among the Hebrews. Stephen was stoned outside the city (Acts 7:58), and even our Lord Jesus Christ "suffered without (outside) the camp" (Hebrews 13:12).

The stern commandments here to put idolaters to death is frowned upon by some whose misguided notions about "a God of love" cause them to criticize a passage such as this. It is true, of course, that Ezekiel wrote, "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God" (Ezekiel 18:32).

"Capital punishment of idolaters was not a desirable thing per se, but it was enjoined out of regard to the welfare of the whole nation and the security of the central government. God was the King of Israel, and the worship of another God was simply high treason, thus deserving the most severe penalty."[5]

Verse 8

"If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which Jehovah thy God shall choose; and thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days: and thou shalt inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment. And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall show thee from that place which Jehovah shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do all that they shall teach thee: according to the tenor of the law which they shall teach thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. And the man that doeth presumptuously, in not hearkening to the priest that standeth to minister there before Jehovah thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously."

The instructions here amounted to the appointment of a Supreme Court in Israel. It was not exclusively a priestly court, for there is no evidence that "the judge" mentioned here was in any sense a priest. Yet the mention of the Levites indicates that all decisions were to be made in the light of God's revealed law through Moses. Note also, that persons refusing to abide by the decisions of this court were also to be executed. Dummelow defined this court as consisting of the chief magistrate and the priests, whose decisions were final.[6] "The decisions they gave, of course, were considered to be the decisions of Jehovah."[7]

The principal function of these verses was to authorize and prescribe the setting up of such a supreme court after Israel was settled in Canaan. It should be especially noticed that the instructions here contain no details whatever, and, in a sense, are even vague and indefinite, and Keil pointed out that:

"The simple fact, that this judicial court at the place of the national sanctuary is described in such general terms furnishes a convincing proof that we have here the words of Moses himself, and not those of some later writer who copied the superior court in Jerusalem in the times of the monarchy."[8]

Verse 14

"When thou art come unto the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, and thou shalt possess it, and dwell therein, and shall say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me; thou shalt surely set him a king over thee, whom Jehovah thy God shall choose: one from among the brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother. 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 Jehovah hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold."

First, it should be noted here that no commandment was given for Israel to elect a king. God's permission for Israel to have a king is indicated here, and Moses words amount to a prophecy that, in time, Israel would indeed request a king in order "to be like the nations around them." This prophecy was most circumstantially fulfilled in the days of Samuel. "The monarchy must be viewed as permitted only, not ordained, by God."[9] We reject as absolutely irresponsible, the assertion, "That these verses were written in criticism of a known monarch. He would multiply horses, wives, or money (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). This is a reference to Solomon's activity."[10] The very text itself in this passage contradicts and nullifies such comments. "He shall not cause the people to return to Egypt" (Deuteronomy 17:16). Could anyone acquainted with Solomon and criticizing him have said a thing like that? Certainly not, As Keil expressed it:

"The notion of modern critics, that there is an allusion in these verses to the constitution and kingdom of Solomon, is so far from having any foundation, that the reason assigned - namely, the fear lest the king should lead back the people to Egypt from his love of horses, "to the end that he should multiply horses," - precludes the times of Solomon. In the days of Solomon, the time had long gone by when any thought could have been entertained of leading the people back to the land of Egypt."[11]

Harrison also pointed out that there is no necessity whatever to suppose that this passage was written retrospectively with reference to the kingdom of Solomon. The kind of debaucheries that marked Solomon's reign "were familiar to any intelligent observer in the 2millennium B.C."[12] What is plainly obvious here is that Moses in this passage prophesied what any king would be likely to do in that era of the world's history. It is this prophecy that runs the critics in all directions trying to find some way to deny it. Jamieson perfectly understood the prophetic nature of this passage:

"In this passage, Moses prophetically announced a revolution which should occur at a later period in Israel's history. No sanction or recommendation is indicated. On the contrary, when the popular clamor had effected such a constitutional change in the theocracy by the appointment of a king, the Divine disapproval was expressed in the most unequivocal terms (1 Samuel 8:7)."[13]

The rationalistic critics object to this on the basis that, "Although the monarchy was contemplated and provided for in the Law, God afterward expressed strong disapproval of it."[14] The answer to such an objection is clear enough. There is neither a commandment to appoint a king, nor an approval of one when he was appointed anywhere to be found here. As Dummelow said, "The people were not commanded to appoint a king, but their desire for one was anticipated by Moses."[15] All of the rules, therefore, that Moses laid down here, were for the purpose of trying to PROTECT the people (in a degree) from the colossal error that Moses knew they would make in demanding a king. The rules Moses prescribed as somewhat of an easement of the blunder into which Israel would fall were given as follows by Unger:

(1) He was to be God's choice.

(2) He was to be an Israelite, a covenant person, not a foreigner.

(3) He was to be God's servant and representative.

(4) He was not to multiply horses, which in that era was equivalent to relying upon military power.

(5) He was not to multiply wives unto himself (this was customary for Oriental monarchs throughout the world at that time).

(6) He was not to amass silver and gold.

(7) He was to take a copy of God's law for himself and always walk in the light of it.[16]

If we may paraphrase Moses' instructions here, we might read: "All right, I know that in ages to come you Israelites will want a king like the nations around you, but when you thus decide, here are the rules you must follow."

Verse 18

"And it shall be, when he sitteth upon 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 and Levites: and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he learn to fear Jehovah his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes to do them; 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."

We are able to find no agreement whatever with the learned opinions to the effect that "That book" which the king was to study throughout his life was nothing more that two or three verses from this chapter in Deuteronomy! "The law of the kingdom is the law of God (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).[17] Davies listed the Book of Deuteronomy only as the book the king was to receive.[18] Even the usually dependable McGarvey gave as his opinion that "It was not a very long document!'"[19] The statement that the king himself was to "write him a copy of this law in a book," "is a Hebraism with the meaning that `there shall be written for him' a copy of this law, etc."[20]

In our opinion, neither a few verses nor a short document qualifies as "a book." Perhaps this is the reason that the Septuagint (LXX) translated this place in such a manner as to make the meaning "a copy of all the law of God." Of course, the critics have been screaming about that Septuagint (LXX) rendition, for the Septuagint (LXX) rendition is obviously incorrect. Recent knowledge of the suzerainty treaties and the resemblance to them found in Deuteronomy has shed some light on this, and, as Kline expressed it: "A duplicate copy of the suzerainty treaty was provided for each vassal king."[21] Moreover, that "copy" was not a few excerpts, but the whole document, the entire treaty. That is clearly what is indicated here. Canon Cook discerned this a long time ago, writing that, "What was given to the king was the whole Pentateuch, or at any rate the legal portion of it."[22] "Only the whole law of the covenant could preserve the king from the dangers of his position."[23] Note also, in this connection, what was to be copied: It was that which was laid up "before the priests and the Levites," (Deuteronomy 17:18) and that is a clear reference to ALL of the sacred law. Alexander also concurred in this view: "The priests were the custodians of the written Law (Deuteronomy 31:26), and from the text of their codex was the king's copy to be written.[24] Alexander also explained the error in Septuagint (LXX) thus: "Deuteronomy 17:18 has `a double of this law,' not, as in Septuagint (LXX) `the reiteration of the law,' but a duplicate or copy of the Pentateuchal law."[25] This mistaken rendition in the LXX, where reiteration occurs is actually "deuteronomy" from which the name of this Book is derived.

Dummelow further commented on the giving of God's law to the King, writing, "To this day, when a Christian monarch is crowned, the Bible is delivered to him with the words: `We present you with this book, the most valuable thing that the world affords; here is wisdom; this is the royal law: these are the living oracles of God!'"[26]

"He and his children, in the midst of Israel ..." (Deuteronomy 17:20). Many have noted that this seems to sanction a hereditary monarchy. Adam Clarke's comment on this was:

"From this it has been inferred that the crown of Israel was designed to be hereditary; and this is probably true. Long experience has proved in almost all of the nations of the world, that hereditary succession in the regal government is, on the whole, the safest, and best calculated to secure the public tranquility.[27]

Edward Gibbon has written the following on the advantages of the hereditary system in the succession of monarchs: Our most serious thoughts must respect the principle of heredity in the succession of kings, because it establishes a principle of succession that is independent of the passions of mankind ... Experience teaches us that in a large society the election of a monarch can never be entrusted to "the wisest" or "to the most numerous" of the people. The military is the only order of men that is sufficiently united and powerful enough to impose their choice upon the people, but the army, habituated to violence and slavery, renders them very unsafe guardians of a constitution?

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 17". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.