The WCG's Pentecost Study Paper refers to Deuteronomy 12 five times, each time only to reference certain words on how to count to Pentecost. Not even one time does it refer to what Deuteronomy 12 is actually saying in regard to a significant subject pertinent to Joshua 5:10-11.
Moses wrote Deuteronomy in the last months before Israel entered the Promised Land. The book is a prelude to renewing the covenant between God and Israel and what would immediately follow. As such, when Israel entered the Land, some of the worship patterns followed in the wilderness were to undergo a radical change.
Moses divided Deuteronomy into at least four sections. The first section serves to remind Israel of the many things God had done for Israel to bring them to where they were just about ready to inherit the land. The second section, beginning in chapter 12, contains instructions on the response God expected from the Israelites once they entered the land. It calls for a number of changes in their worship of Him.
In verses 1-4, He makes it abundantly clear that He would not tolerate even a shadow of syncretic mixing with the gods and religions of the people of the land. Regardless of location, every place where the Canaanites worshipped was to be utterly destroyed, and every idol of stone or wood smashed and/or burned to ashes. They were even to eradicate the names of those places!
The imagery is of God storming into the land as a conquering General who will brook no interference from the conquered people. He shows His disdain for everything they hold dear and important in their worship of the gods they admire and are devoted to. By doing so, He also shows the Israelites the weaknesses of Canaanite gods. They cannot protect the Canaanites.
Verse 5 begins to relate instructions for one of the more radical changes involved in Israel's worship of God. Once in the land, they would no longer be permitted to worship by erecting an altar and offering sacrifices at any place, except as God Himself appointed. No Israelite was free to choose for himself where worship could take place. God would be worshipped at His Tabernacle, His dwelling place in Israel, and it would be located and erected where He and He alone would choose. There and there only, on the Tabernacle's brazen altar—just outside His front door, as it were—would they be able to offer their sacrifices.
God had already given Israel a prelude to this. Once the Tabernacle was constructed in the wilderness, all religious and civil affairs revolved around the location where it was set up. Every time Israel camped in one place long enough to erect the Tabernacle, it became the center of their encampment, and each tribe was assigned its never-varying place in relation to the Tabernacle. All religious and civil affairs were thus conducted in His presence.
The context of Deuteronomy 12 makes it clear that, to God, there are two overriding issues behind these commands. The first is loyalty to Him only as God. The first commandment reads, "You shall have no other gods before Me," meaning "no other gods in place of Me." God will not brook sharing the relationship with Him with another "god" on any level of devotion. The second issue is the Israelites' unity with each other as a nation. Unlike other nations, Israel's national unity was not driven by political or military forces but by religion, the one God gave to them through Moses. This is why the central sanctuary is of supreme importance to them as a nation.
In the wilderness, the Israelites had already shown themselves to be easily attracted to heathen practices. They had also exhibited a strong, independent spirit that drove them to go their own way, to do their own thing, whether or not religion was directly involved. Once settled in the land, they would be scattered over an area far larger than any wilderness encampment. Their free moral agency was thus about to be severely tested. They needed a central sanctuary to retain their relationship with God and their unity as a nation.
The charges given to them in Deuteronomy 12 are strongly reinforced by the demand of verse 32: "Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it." If they were to remain the holy people of God, no deviations were allowed!
Beginning in verse 8, God strictly forbids them to do as they had done in the past, erecting altars virtually wherever they wished. They are to understand that they were no longer a wandering people but a nation anchored in the land, and their worship of God and actions as a nation must reflect that. Their days of transition in the wilderness from a slave to a free people, from a loosely scattered, blood-related people to a united nation, were over! Their real birth as a nation under God had begun.
Central to this idea is that all sacrificing, except for the Passover, had to be done on one national altar. The festivals, especially the three major ones, had to be kept in one central location, and all tithes were to be sent to that same central place of worship. This did not mean that they could not hold Sabbath services in their home locations, but any local services would have to be conducted without the sacrificing of animals or any of the rituals assigned to festivals, daily acts of worship like evening and morning sacrifices, and voluntary offerings that an Israelite felt compelled to give. This general prohibition against local sacrifices included the waving of the sheaf, which was always done at the Tabernacle/Temple within the "Passover season," which continued from Passover until Pentecost.
The Tabernacle was not erected until the land had rest from the warfare of conquering the Canaanites. This occurred as God appointed in Deuteronomy 12:9-11. The period of peace that satisfied God's requirements was not reached until seven years after the Israelites crossed over the Jordan. At that time, His choice of location for the Tabernacle and its altar was Shiloh: "Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shiloh, and set up the tabernacle of meeting there. And the land was subdued before them" (Joshua 18:1).
Does this mean that no sacrificing as part of the normal worship of God was done for seven years? Yes, but consider that, regarding the Joshua 5 circumcisions, Scripture says that no Israelite male born in the wilderness had been circumcised (Joshua 5:2-7). In fact, only two people alive at the time, Joshua and Caleb, had lawfully been able to partake of perhaps the most important of all rituals—Passover—for the entire forty years!
It also means that none of those uncircumcised males—probably a million or more men!—had been able to make the Old Covenant with God (Exodus 12:43-49). Seven years spent doing God's work of conquering the land was a drop in the bucket compared to other long-term works He had them do by His command. Even so, He would have that work done by a circumcised people. This is another case of God saying through His example, "First things first."
The concept of one central sanctuary and altar was so deeply and emotionally ingrained that Joshua 22 relates the history of a war that nearly erupted between the tribes on the east side of the Jordan River and those on the west. The western Israelites charged those in the east with building an altar, breaking God's commandment. Such an altar would compete with the sanctuary altar in Shiloh for the loyalty of the people. Building another altar would be a direct, rebellious act of idolatry against God, and it would destroy the unity of Israel as a nation under the God of Creation.
The west-side tribes were poised to launch a war against their eastern brethren until they heard the easterners' explanation. The "altar" was actually a monument, a memorial in the shape of an altar, raised to serve as a constant reminder of the east side's unity with their western relatives in common cause under the God of Israel. The memorial's shape was to remind them that their unity was in and through the God they worshipped.
Another altar, appearing briefly in Joshua 8:30, is also easily explained. It in no way conflicts with God's commands in Deuteronomy 12. Why? God Himself had commanded this particular altar to be erected as part of an important ceremony—a renewal of a covenant. The event in Joshua 8 has its beginning in Deuteronomy 11:26-32 where the ceremony is commanded. Immediately after, God begins His charge in Deuteronomy 12 concerning His expectations of the Israelites after they crossed into the land.
In Deuteronomy 29—30, which occurs while the Israelites were still outside the Promised Land but just about to enter into it, a special covenant is made between God and Israel. This covenant, with Moses presiding, served as a specific and immediate preparation for entering the Promised Land. Part of its purpose was surely motivational, highlighting the powerful, steadfast faithfulness of God.
In Joshua 8, with the conquest of the land just beginning, the tribes—in another solemn ceremony, this time presided over by Joshua—carry out God's command to repeat the renewal of the covenant within the land on Mounts Ebal and Gerizim. This one-time erection of an altar in no way conflicted with God's commands in Deuteronomy 12. It was not part of the normal worship of God. It was nonetheless an important reminder of their weighty responsibility to carry out God's work of conquering the land of their inheritance, and of His ever-present faithfulness in assisting them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Pentecost Revisited (Part Two): Joshua 5
Is there such a zealous fervency like this in the church today? Is it burning in us individually? Is there such a hatred of evil and a love for God and His Family within us that we will not permit even one iota of idolatry within ourselves? Or, are we tolerant of its existence within ourselves and within the church, convincing ourselves that it really does not matter? These verses show that it matters very much to God!
Beginning in Deuteronomy 7, He is systematically defining their relationship to Him and the terms of faithfulness. God is to be our God—exclusively. Please understand that we cannot literally conform to some of these details today because we have no civil authority. Nevertheless, His stern commands illustrate how serious God is about idolatry—faithlessness to Him and the covenant. He charged them with this because He loved them, because faithfulness would be good for them and would bless them within the relationship, whereas faithlessness would bring curses on them, just as it does in human marriages.
John W. Ritenbaugh
A Priceless Gift