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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 16

4. Laws arising from the fourth commandment 14:22-16:17

The fourth commandment is, "Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Deuteronomy 5:12). The reason for observing the Sabbath day was Yahweh’s redemption of Israel from bondage in Egypt and His consequent adoption of the Israelites as His chosen people (Deuteronomy 5:15). In the ancient Near East, nations expressed their gratitude, loyalty, and worship to their sovereign by bringing him offerings periodically. What follows in this section is the laws concerning how Israel was to do this.

B. An exposition of selected covenant laws Chs. 12-25

Moses’ continuing homiletical exposition of the Law of Israel that follows explains reasons for the covenant laws that arose from the Ten Commandments. This address concludes with directions for celebrating and confirming the covenant (Deuteronomy 26:1-15). The section contains a mixture of laws previously revealed to the Israelites and other laws not previously revealed in the code given at Sinai (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:19). This is instruction preached rather than codified as comprehensive legislation.

"The specific laws in this section were given to help the people subordinate every area of their lives to the LORD, and to help them eradicate whatever might threaten that pure devotion." [Note: Deere, p. 283.]

"Placement of the instruction about worship at the sanctuary in first position indicates clearly its priority for Deuteronomy, which assumes that the starting point for the proper, full, and exclusive love of the Lord (the primary demand of the first and second commandments and the Shema) is found in the way Israel carries out the activities of worship." [Note: Miller, p. 129.]

There is an obvious general movement from laws dealing with Israel’s religious life (Deuteronomy 12:1 to Deuteronomy 16:17) to those affecting her civil life (Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 22:8) and finally to those touching personal life (Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 26:15).

Two insightful writers suggested the following outlines for these chapters. [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 218-331; and Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Structure of the Deuteronomic Law," MAARAV 1 (1978-79):105-58.]

CommandmentMerrillKaufmanDescription
1Deuteronomy 12:1-31ch. 12Fidelity
2Deuteronomy 12:32 to Deuteronomy 13:18ch. 12Worship
3Deuteronomy 14:1-21Deuteronomy 13:1 to Deuteronomy 14:27Name of God
4Deuteronomy 14:22 to Deuteronomy 16:17Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 16:17Sabbath
5Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Deuteronomy 16:18 to Deuteronomy 18:22Authority
6Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Deuteronomy 19:1 to Deuteronomy 22:8Murder
7Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:18Deuteronomy 22:9 to Deuteronomy 23:19Adultery
8Deuteronomy 23:19 to Deuteronomy 24:7Deuteronomy 23:20 to Deuteronomy 24:7Theft
9Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4Deuteronomy 24:8 to Deuteronomy 25:4False witness
10Deuteronomy 25:5-19Deuteronomy 25:5-16Coveting

". . . the entire second discourse of Moses (Deuteronomy 5-26) is a single literary unit that convincingly demonstrates that the moral law informs the statutes, judgments . . . and commands of God." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 129.]

In contrast with the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), the Deuteronomic Code, as some scholars prefer to call this section (chs. 12-26), is a popular exposition rather than a formal legal code. Its purpose was to explain to the generation entering the land all the laws that needed clarification, emphasis, and application, in view of Israel’s imminent entrance into Canaan. These laws reflect a centralized, monarchical society.

The value of this section of Scripture to the Christian today lies primarily in its revelation of the heart, mind, and will of God. The modern student of these chapters should look for this kind of insight here. This is the revelatory value of the Law.

Verses 1-17

The celebration of Passover, Firstfruits, and Tabernacles 16:1-17

The point of connection of this section with what precedes is the sacrificial meals. Moses repeated here the instructions regarding those important feasts that included sacrificial meals that the people would eat at the tabernacle (cf. Exodus 12; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28-29).

1. Passover and Unleavened Bread Deuteronomy 16:1-8

2. Pentecost (also called Harvest, Weeks, and Firstfruits) Deuteronomy 16:9-12

3. Tabernacles (also called Ingathering and Booths) Deuteronomy 16:13-17

God commanded all the male Israelites to assemble at the sanctuary for all these feasts each year (Deuteronomy 16:16). These feasts amounted to a pledge of allegiance to Yahweh each time the Israelites celebrated them. They came to His presence to do so, as their Near Eastern neighbors returned to their kings similarly to honor them periodically.

"The ancient requirement that the men of Israel should report to the central sanctuary three times a year has an interesting parallel in the Near Eastern treaty requirements. It was common practice for suzerains to require their vassals to report to them periodically, in some cases three times a year, in order to renew their allegiance and to bring tribute." [Note: Thompson, p. 198.]

The Passover and Unleavened Bread feasts were a more solemn occasion (Deuteronomy 16:8), but the other two were joyous celebrations (Deuteronomy 16:11; Deuteronomy 16:15). Evidently the Israelites roasted the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:9), but they boiled the additional offerings for that day (Deuteronomy 16:7; cf. 2 Chronicles 35:13). [Note: Sailhamer, p. 452.]

God’s people should celebrate God’s redemption, remember our previous enslaved condition, and rejoice in God’s provisions corporately and regularly (cf. Ephesians 5:4; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 2:7; Colossians 4:2; 1 Timothy 4:3-4). These are the things God encourages Christians to remember at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-28).

Judges and similar officials 16:18-17:13

As in the other sections of Deuteronomy, here too Moses’ emphasized underlying principles more than procedures. Here he stressed the principle of justice.

Verses 18-20

Probably the people chose the judges, and the leaders of the nation appointed them (cf. Deuteronomy 1:13). "Judges" were individuals responsible for administering justice, and "officers" were administrators charged with the enforcement of law, perhaps similar to modern police officers. [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 247.] The number of these in each town probably varied according to the needs of the community.

". . . in order to give the people and the judges appointed by them a brief practical admonition, as to the things they were more especially to observe in their administration of justice, Moses notices by way of example a few crimes that were deserving of punishment (Deuteronomy 16:21-22, and chap. xvii. 1), and then proceeds in chap. xvii. 2-7 to describe more fully the judicial proceedings in the case of idolaters." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:379-80.]

"For most of us today, the notion that it is always and everywhere wrong for a judge to take a gift from a litigant probably seems so obvious as to be virtually self-evident. Nevertheless, the fact remains that that idea has historically been far from apparent to a large part of humankind. In the ancient Near East, for instance, almost every society regarded the practice of judges taking gifts from litigants as being perfectly moral and absolutely legitimate . . .

". . . a gift-giver placed upon a recipient a binding moral obligation to respond in kind . . .

"Importantly, such reciprocity is not considered morally reprehensible. Indeed the failure of either judge or litigant to reciprocate is what is deemed immoral and unjust . . ." [Note: Goldberg, pp. 15-17.]

In this respect then Israel was to be different from other nations.

". . . in Israel, as in much of the ancient world, the human judge was considered proxy for the divine judge. For instance, . . . in 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 . . ." [Note: Ibid., p. 22.]

"Deuteronomy is passionately concerned about justice (Hebrew tsedeq, mishpat): ’Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20, which makes this a condition of living and prospering in the land). This follows from the doctrine of Israel as a community of ’brothers’ equal before God." [Note: Whybray, p. 101.]

Verses 18-22

5. Laws arising from the fifth commandment 16:18-18:22

The fifth commandment is, "Honor your father and your mother" (Deuteronomy 5:16). What follows is legislation that advocates respecting authority figures in the nation, which was an extended family.

"With the regency of Yahweh and the proper protocol by which He had to be approached having been established, the covenant text then addresses the human leaders who serve Him and exercise authority over the nation at large." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 80.]

"Just as in its religious worship the Israelitish nation was to show itself to be the holy nation of Jehovah, so was it in its political relations also. This thought forms the link between the laws already given and those which follow." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:378.]

Verses 21-22

An asherah (Deuteronomy 16:21) was perhaps a sacred tree or group of trees or wooden pole that the Canaanites used in the worship of their female fertility goddess, Asherah. Asherah was evidently both the name of a Canaanite goddess as well as a cult object used in her worship. The pagans usually made their sacred pillars (Deuteronomy 16:22) of stone or wood and used them in the worship of Baal, the male Canaanite god of fertility, and Asherah.

"In Canaan the ’asherah (’trees,’ ’pillars,’ or ’groves’) were associated with oracular verdicts by their gods and goddesses." [Note: Schultz, p. 61. See Andre Lemaire, "Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah?" Biblical Archaeology Review 10:6 (November-December 1984):42-51; and especially John Day, "Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature," Journal of Biblical Literature 105:3 (September 1986):385-408.]

The judges were not to tolerate the planting (Deuteronomy 16:21) of these trees or poles that were so common in Canaan that the people regarded them as a prominent part of the native culture. Judges customarily dispensed justice in the open space near the main gate of the towns. This area was the main congregating place of the community (cf. Ruth 4:1-12).

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-16.html. 2012.