I am reading the new commentary on Deuteronomy by Stephen Cook, Reading Deuteronomy. I have reached the crucial 12th chapter.
Deuteronomy 12 centralized worship in the temple at Jerusalem. This was a revolution. Before this there were many shrines around the country where worship was acceptable. Cook thinks that in light of the historical prelude in the first 11 chapters, what chapter 12 does is to establish a new Horeb.
Just as the people had to go on a long pilgrimage from Egypt to the mountain of God. So now the people must travel to Jerusalem for festivals to assemble for worship and instruction. The centralization reestablishes the nature of Jewish faith as a pilgrimage or journey.
This is how Cook phrases his take on the centralization:
“The people of Israel reunite at the central shrine to recapitulate God’s binding them together as an integral, integrated ‘Thou.’ Forming this ‘Thou’ afresh, they invoke the ‘I-Thou” encounter between themselves and God that stands at the heart of Deuteronomy’s covenant. The single shrine of Deuteronomy furnishes Israel with a staging ground for an event, for the performance of a word-act of divine encounter. In this place, on this stage, Israel acts in freedom and power, recreating itself as a ‘Thou’ who invokes the Lord. It acts to re-member itself, inclusive of all members of its entire populace, so as to summon God forth.”
The emphasis is on encounter. God does not dwell in Jerusalem rather than heaven. Jerusalem becomes the stage upon which Israel encounters God. This is the meaning of the statement that God’s name dwells in Jerusalem. It is the place where God’s voice may be heard and his presence experienced. But God is in no way confined to Jerusalem.
So Cook does not see the centralization of worship as much as a power play by the priestly establishment and the royal court as some scholars do. The God who had revealed his name at the burning bush at Horeb now reveals his name in Jerusalem. But his voice is heard in the Temple precincts through voices like the prophetess Huldah and the prophet Jeremiah, who challenge the Jerusalem power structure. Rural Levites can come and exercise their traditional role in the capital.
In fact, one of the anti-elitist features of the centralization of worship is the welcome accorded to all Israelites regardless of gender or status.
“You shall rejoice in the presence of the Lord your God, along with your sons, daughters, male and female servants, and the Levites in your villages (since they have no allotment or inheritance with you)” (Deuteronomy 12:12 NET Bible).
One of the problems for modern scholars that stems from the centralization of worship in Jerusalem is that after Deuteronomy the annals suppressed the reality that before this there were several shrines, not just the apostate ones like Bethel, but shrines that were acceptable places of worship. For instance Moab claimed to have destroyed an Israelite shrine near Mt. Nebo, the very site where Moses delivers the discourses of Deuteronomy. But the Bible never mentions this shrine. Archeology and biblical criticism show that there were a number of such shrines. But after Deuteronomy Israel pretended that centralization had always been in effect and that other shrines were all apostate.
Cook gives a strong defense of centralization as theologically meaningful and full of values like hospitality and rest (vs. 9-10). He claims that it was not a political power play. I am not fully convinced. This is probably because I cannot help but resent the rewriting of history. I know this is a modern, liberal, Western prejudice. But there it is.
I summarized Adam Welch’s critical analysis of Deuteronomy 12 in this post a few years back. Welch dealt with old traditions now embodied in Deuteronomy. But I still find Welch’s approach illuminating.