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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Deuteronomy 18

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.]

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 1-8

Priests and Levites 18:1-8

The Levites lived as sojourners among the other Israelites. While they had their own cities, they did not possess land and territorial inheritances as the other Israelites did. However the privilege of serving God as they alone could was compensation much greater than their loss of physical benefits. They could eat the produce of the land. In addition to the tithes, the Levites also received the parts of the sacrifices allotted to them that included meat of various kinds, wine, oil, and wool (Deuteronomy 18:3-4).

Evidently not all the Levites served at the tabernacle. Some simply lived in their assigned cities. Participation in sanctuary services was apparently voluntary to some extent (Deuteronomy 18:6-8). God did not preserve in Scripture the plan whereby individual Levites served in carrying out various duties at this period in Israel’s history (cf. Numbers 18). This passage refutes the Wellhausian view that all Levites could be priests. [Note: See also Rodney K. Duke, "The Portion of the Levite: Another Reading of Deuteronomy 18:6-8," Journal of Biblical Literature 106:2 (1987):193-201.]

One writer argued that Deuteronomy 18:8 permitted the Levites to sell the remains of a sacrificed animal. [Note: Logan S. Wright, "MKR in 2 Kings XII 5-17 and Deuteronomy XVIII 8," Vetus Testamentum 39:4 (October 1989):445, 448.] Most translators believed this verse allowed them to sell their family possessions.

Verses 9-22

Prophets 18:9-22

The context of this section is significant, as usual. Deuteronomy 18:1-8 deal with people who ministered to Yahweh in various ways for the people, and Deuteronomy 18:15-22 concern the delivery of God’s revelations to His people. Deuteronomy 18:9-14 contrast illegitimate types of religious personnel and practices with the legitimate kinds Moses dealt with in the surrounding sections.

"Of the three major institutions of ancient Israelite social and religious life-royalty, the priesthood, and prophetism-only the last was charismatic and nonsuccessive. Prophets were men and women raised up individually by God and called and empowered by him to communicate his purposes to the theocratic community. Frequently this ministry would take the form of a word of instruction or even rebuke to the leaders of the people as well as messages addressed to the present and future promises of covenant accomplishment and fulfillment." [Note: Merrill, Deuteronomy, p. 270.]

It is helpful to think of the prophets as preachers and worship leaders, and the priests as teachers.

Child burning (Deuteronomy 18:10) may have had some connection with determining or discovering the future course of events (cf. 2 Kings 3:26-27). However it was probably a separate type of abominable practice from divination. [Note: Miller, p. 151.] The pagans used various phenomena as instruments to divine (foretell) the future. These devices included the patterns of birds as they flew, the arrangement of the organs of an animal offered as a sacrifice, and the relationship of the heavenly bodies to one another. Witchcraft involved dealing with Satan and his demons to obtain desired ends. Omens were signs of coming events or conditions. Sorcerers cast spells. Mediums and spiritists called up the dead (cf. 1 Samuel 28:8-14). The precise distinction between some of the terms in Deuteronomy 18:10-11 is not certain. [Note: Craigie, The Book . . ., p. 260; Merrill, Deuteronomy, pp. 271-72.]

"While the New Testament use of Deuteronomy is pervasive (all but chapters 3, 12, 15, 16, 20, 26, 34 being cited at least once), it is striking that four passages stand out as being the clear centers of focus: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; and Deuteronomy 30:11-14." [Note: Idem, "Deuteronomy . . .," p. 23.]

This writer observed that of the 42 New Testament citations of this passage, 24 of them appear in John’s Gospel. [Note: Ibid., p. 27.]

In Deuteronomy 18:15-19, God promised that when Moses was dead He would provide guidance for the nation through other prophets like Moses, whom He would raise up as her needs demanded. Consequently the people should not try to discover knowledge of the future on their own, as idolatrous pagans did. Commonly they did this through various practices, all of which involved contact with the spirit world (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

"Abraham is called a prophet in Genesis 20:7, and the existence of prophets is presupposed in the Pentateuch (Exodus 7:1; Numbers 11:29; Numbers 12:6; Deuteronomy 13:2-3). The present text, however, is the first to discuss the office of the prophet.

"The historical basis for the office is Israel’s request for a mediator at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19; Exodus 20:19-21). Fearing to stand in God’s presence, the people asked Moses to go before the Lord and return God’s words to them. Thus the prophet was to be ’like Moses.’ This suggests that the office of the prophet was to play an important role in the further history of God’s dealings with Israel. Indeed, a major section of the OT canon is devoted to the work of the prophets (Isaiah-Malachi). The prophet was to be God’s mouthpiece to the people." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 456. Cf. Exodus 7:1.]

Was Moses predicting one coming prophet, many prophets, or both?

"This order [the prophetic order] is first spoken of in the singular-’a prophet like me’ and ’listen to him’-but the continuing context makes it clear that the term is being used in a collective sense to refer to prophetism as an institution (cf. ’a prophet’ and ’that prophet’ in Deuteronomy 18:20; Deuteronomy 18:22). There is nonetheless a lingering importance to the singular ’prophet,’ for in late Jewish and New Testament exegesis there was the expectation of an incomparable eschatological prophet who would be either a messianic figure or the announcer of the Messiah (cf. John 1:21; John 1:25; Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37). The ambiguity of the individual and collective being expressed in the grammatical singular is a common Old Testament device employed to afford multiple meanings or applications to prophetic texts. [Footnote 30:] This is seen most clearly in the singularity and plurality of the Servant in the ’Servant Songs’ of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-9; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12)." [Note: Merrill, "Deuteronomy . . .," p. 28. See H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), pp. 15-17; Kline, "Deuteronomy," p. 181; R. P. Carroll, "The Elijah-Elisha Sagas: Some Remarks on Prophetic Succession in Ancient Israel," Vetus Testamentum 19:4 (October 1969):408-14; and Johnson, pp. 186-87.]

Another example is the word "seed," which can have a singular or plural referent.

Jesus Christ was one of the prophets that God raised up as promised here (Deuteronomy 18:15; Matthew 17:5; John 4:25; John 5:45-47; John 12:48-50; Acts 3:22-23; Acts 7:37).

"When finally Christ appeared upon earth, the promise was fulfilled in its highest and fullest sense. It is, therefore, a Messianic promise." [Note: Young, p. 35.]

"Jesus was like Moses in numerous ways. He was spared in infancy (Exodus 2; Matthew 2:13-23); He renounced a royal court (Hebrews 11:24-27; Philippians 2:5-8); had compassion for the people (Numbers 27:17; Matthew 9:36); made intercession (Deuteronomy 9:18; Hebrews 7:25); spoke with God face to face (Exodus 34:29-30; 2 Corinthians 3:7); and was the mediator of a covenant (Deuteronomy 29:1; Hebrews 8:6-7). The greatest revelation in the Old Testament era came through Moses. This revelation was only surpassed in the coming of Christ, who not only revealed God’s message but provided salvation through His death." [Note: Schultz, p. 64. See also David Moessner, "Luke 9:1-50: Luke’s Preview of the Journey of the Prophet Like Moses of Deuteronomy," Journal of Biblical Literature 102:4 (December 1983):575-605.]

Another important comparison is that both Moses and Jesus laid the foundation for the kingdom of God on earth and called on the Jewish people to prepare for it (cf. Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15; Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37).

Jesus was superior to Moses in at least seven ways. He provided salvation through His death. He arose from the dead. He ascended into heaven. He continued to give revelation from God after His death (through the New Testament prophets). He presently intercedes for His own. He will return for us. And He will literally bring us into God’s presence.

God told His people how to distinguish true prophets from impostors because people could step forward in Israel with claims to be prophets with messages from God (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). The people could identify false prophets when their prophecies failed to materialize (Deuteronomy 18:22). If someone claimed to be a prophet but sought to lead the people away from the law, the people should recognize that God had not sent him (Deuteronomy 18:22; cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-5). During a prophet’s ministry it would become clear whether he was a false or true representative of Yahweh (cf. Matthew 7:15-16). [Note: See Young, pp. 20-37, for an exposition of this entire section (18:9-22).]

People who claimed to be prophets but distorted or misrepresented the Word of God were subject to execution in Israel. This shows the importance of presenting the Word of God accurately. Let preachers and Bible teachers take note!

PRIESTS AND PROPHETS IN ISRAEL

PriestsProphets
Their threefold task:Offer sacrifices for the peopleTeach God’s Word to the peopleLead the people in cultic worshipTheir threefold task:Receive messages from GodDeliver messages to the peopleLead them in heartfelt worship
Teachers of the peopleAppealed to the mindGoal: understanding by the peoplePreachers to the peopleAppealed to the emotions and willGoal: obedience by the people
Inherited their ministryWere called by God to their ministry
Didn’t foretell the futureForetold the future occasionally
Lived in assigned towns ideallyLived anywhere
Were very numerousWere not as numerous
Came from one tribe and familyCame from any tribe or family
Were males onlyWere males and females
Later were divided by "courses"Later lived in "schools"
Were gifts from God to the peopleWere gifts from God to the people

How does this chapter fit into the civil legislation of Israel? Priests, Levites, and prophets were important civil as well as religious leaders in the theocracy. They represented the people before Israel’s heavenly King and served as mediators between the King and the people.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 18". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/deuteronomy-18.html. 2012.