Deuteronomy 16:21
You shall not plant you a grove of any trees near to the altar of the LORD your God, which you shall make you.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(21) Thou shalt not plant thee a grove.—Heb., ashêrah, sometimes used of images, but here evidently of the grove itself. The worship of Jehovah allowed of no secret rites; and nothing that could lead to the abominations of heathen idolatry could be permitted near Jehovah’s altar.

Deuteronomy 16:21. Thou shalt not plant thee a grove — To plant groves in honour of the true God, was a part of primitive worship, as we see by the example of Abraham, Genesis 21:33. But the Gentiles having abused this custom, and made trees and groves, dedicated to their idols, the scenes of the most vile and abominable superstitions, God saw fit to prohibit the Israelites from planting any such groves near the place of divine worship, lest they should have taken occasion from hence to blend the worship of idols, and the impure rites of heathenism, with the service of the true God.16:18-22 Care is taken for the due administration of justice. All personal regards must be laid aside, so that right is done to all, and wrong to none. Care is taken to prevent following the idolatrous customs of the heathen. Nothing belies God more, or tends more to corrupt the minds of men, than representing and worshipping, by an image, that God, who is an almighty and eternal Spirit, present every where. Alas! even in gospel days, and under a better dispensation, established upon better promises, there is a tendency to set up idols, under one form or another, in the human heart.A grove ... - Render, Thou shalt not plant for thee any tree as an idol: literally as an Asherah," "i. e." an image of Astarte or Ashtaroth, the Phoenician goddess (compare Deuteronomy 7:5 note, Deuteronomy 7:13 note). The word is rendered "grove" by the King James Version also in Deuteronomy 7:5; Deuteronomy 12:3; Exodus 34:13; Judges 6:25, but cannot be maintained, for the word is connected with various verbs which are quite inapplicable to a grove. The wooden idol in question was the stem of a tree, stripped of its boughs, set upright in the ground, and rudely carved with emblems. 21. Thou shalt not plant thee a grove—A grove has in Scripture a variety of significations—a group of overshadowing trees, or a grove adorned with altars dedicated to a particular deity, or a wooden image in a grove (Jud 6:25; 2Ki 23:4-6). They might be placed near the earthen and temporary altars erected in the wilderness, but they could not exist either at the tabernacle or temples. They were places, which, with their usual accompaniments, presented strong allurements to idolatry; and therefore the Israelites were prohibited from planting them. Because this was the practice of idolaters, 1 Kings 15:13, and might be an occasion of reviving idolatry. See Judges 3:7 1 Kings 14:23 1 Kings 16:33 18:19. Thou shall not plant thee a grove of any trees,.... Of any sort of trees, as oaks or any other; not but that it was lawful to plant trees and groves of them, but not for a religious or idolatrous use: particularly

near unto the altar of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee; as the Heathens did near their altars, lest it should be thought to be done for a like superstitious and idolatrous use; which evil the Jews sometimes fell into in the times of wicked reigns, and which their good and pious kings removed and destroyed; see 2 Kings 18:4 and Hecataeus (b), an Heathen historian, relates of the city of Jerusalem, that there were there no image, nor plantation, nor grove, nor any such thing.

(b) Apud Euseb. Praepar. Evangel. l. 9. c. 4. p. 408.

Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Deuteronomy 16:21-22. Against the Use of ’Asherim and Maṣṣeboth

21. Thou shalt not plant thee an Asherah] plant, because the ’Asherah (see general note following) was either a mast or artificial tree.

of any kind of tree] The Heb. construction is not in the genitive but in apposition; translate therefore: an ’Asherah, any tree or any timber.

beside the altar of the Lord thy God] No doubt, the Heb. may mean either the (one), or any, altar (for the latter see Exodus 20:26, where my altar in the light of Exodus 20:24 must mean any of my altars). Yet the former meaning being the more natural, and there being no trace elsewhere in D of the permission of other altars after the settlement of Israel in Canaan was achieved, it is precarious to suppose (Steuernagel) that we have here the expression of a different school of deuteron. reform from that which appears in ch. 12: one viz. which permitted more than one sanctuary and sought only to secure the purity of worship at these.

22. Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar] raise for thyself a Maṣṣebah (see general note following) or standing-stone.

which the Lord thy God hateth] Similarly Deuteronomy 12:31, but with the addition there of abomination, which is wanting here but found in the next verse.

General Note on the ’Asherah and Maṣṣebah

Two symbols or inhabitations of deity erected in sanctuaries throughout the Semitic world: frequently combined in the O.T. as present in Canaanite sanctuaries, and at first erected also by Israel but afterwards forbidden to them.

1. The ’Ashçrah (plur. ’Ashçrim, see Deuteronomy 12:3 and elsewhere, but ’Ashçrôth 2 Chronicles 19:3; 2 Chronicles 33:3), artificial tree or mast set up like the maṣṣeboth by the altars of Semitic sanctuaries, a work of man’s fingers (Isaiah 17:8 : cp. 1 Kings 14:15; 1 Kings 16:13, 2 Kings 21:3), wooden (Deuteronomy 16:21, Jdg 6:26, the wood of the ’A.; cp. the verbs used of it: plant, Deuteronomy 16:21, rise, Isaiah 27:9, pluck up, Micah 5:14, cut down, Deuteronomy 7:5, Jdg 6:25 f., Jdg 6:30, 2 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 23:14, 2 Chronicles 14:2, burn, here, 2 Kings 23:6; 2 Kings 23:15, in distinction from the breaking of the stone maṣṣebôth). Unlike the maṣṣebah the ’Asherah is never described as a sanctioned or tolerated part of Jehovah’s sanctuaries. There was one by the altar of the Ba‘al belonging to his father, which Gideon cut down (Jdg 6:25 ff.); Ahab made the or an ’Asherah for the altar of the Ba‘al in Samaria (1 Kings 16:33), which appears to have been left by Jehu when he burned the maṣṣeboth there (2 Kings 10:26 ff.; see however end of this note), for it still stood under Jehoahaz (2 Kings 13:6). The deuteronomic editor of Kings says that in Judah Rehoboam raised maṣṣeboth and ’Asherim on every high hill and under every spreading tree (1 Kings 14:23): Jehoshaphat is said to have removed them (2 Chronicles 14:2; 2 Chronicles 17:6; 2 Chronicles 19:3), but they were restored by Joash (id. Deuteronomy 24:18). Their removal is stated as part of Hezekiah’s reforms (2 Kings 18:4), but Manasseh, besides building altars to the Ba‘al, made an ’Asherah (id. Deuteronomy 21:3), and by the prophets they are counted among the idolatrous sins of Israel (Micah 5:14, Jeremiah 17:2, Isaiah 27:9). That they were dedicated to Jehovah is implied in the prohibition, Deuteronomy 16:21. The command to cut them down in Exodus 34:13 is a later insertion: there is no record of a law against them before D. Like the standing-stone the mast (or tree for which it stood) was frequently identified with the deity, and was probably the female counterpart to the stone. Several passages seem to imply that there was a goddess called ’Asherah (prophets of the ’A., 1 Kings 18:19, image of the ’A., id. Deuteronomy 15:13, 2 Kings 21:7, vessels of the ’A., id. Deuteronomy 23:4, and even houses, i.e. tents or deckings, id. Deuteronomy 23:7 : cp. the veiled ‘Asherah below). Her existence has been denied by, among others, W. R. Smith (Rel. Sem. 171 f.). But his reason, that every altar, to whatever deity it belonged, had an ’Asherah is hardly sufficient to prove an exclusively generic meaning for the name. Recent Assyriology appears to put beyond doubt the name ’Asherah as that of a Canaanite goddess and to give good reasons for her identification with ’Ashtoreth (cp. Jdg 3:7, 1 Kings 18:19). The Ass. name is Ashratu or Ashirtu, and in the Tell-el-Amarna letters we find a man’s name ‘Abd-’Ashratum, ‘the worshipper of ’Asherah.’

‘The double meaning which ’Asherah has as “sacred pole” and as the name of the goddess (= ‘Ashtoreth) is now placed beyond doubt by the witness of the Tell-el-Amarna tablets (Ashirtu = Ishtar) and finds its explanation in a representation of the veiled Ishtar-Ashera, as a bust running into a pillar in the fashion of the Hermes, discovered by von Oppenheim at Ras el-‘Ain, the source of the Khabur’ (Winckler and Jensen, 3rd ed. of Schrader’s KAT 276, see also deut 245, 248, 258, 421, 432 f.).

That the ’Asherah represented a female deity (in distinction from the male character of the maṣṣeboth) is perhaps the reason of the less tolerance which it received in Israel.

2. The Maṣṣebah (thing set upright) standing-stone (plural maṣṣeboth, Deuteronomy 12:3), such as that raised by Jacob as the witness of his bargain with Laban (Genesis 31:49; Genesis 31:51) and at Rachel’s grave (id. Genesis 35:20), or by Absalom in his own memory (2 Samuel 18:18); but usually of the large monoliths (R.V. marg. obelisks) beside the altars of Semitic shrines. They were regarded as the habitation of a deity (see Genesis 28:22 below), but in the sense of being his embodiment; and so in ritual ‘spoken of and treated as the God himself’ (W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem. 85); ‘in them one saw the deity present at the altar, and to them the worshippers directed their hands and their prayers’ (Nowack, Hebr. Arch. ii. 18). That they stood in Canaanite sanctuaries is frequently stated in the O.T. (here, Deuteronomy 7:5, Exodus 23:24; and for the house of the Ba‘al in Samaria, 2 Kings 10:26 f.).

Specimens were recently discovered at Gezer by Mr R. A. S. Macalister—in one high place a row of 10, divided into 7 and 3, of which only the stumps of two remain, and the rest vary in height from 5 ft 5 ins. to 10 ft 6 ins., the largest being 4 ft 7 ins. broad by 2 ft 6 ins. thick, and in another high place a row of 4 with the stump of a fifth; at Ta‘anak by Prof. Sellin two rows of 5 each, with a pair at a little distance; and at Megiddo (Tell-el-Mutesellim) by Dr Schumacher one pair. In the high-place at Petra there are 2 great Maṣṣeboth 6 metres high, hewn out of the living rock. Those at Gezer are roughly hewn from (with one exception) the local rock, the upper end of one worked to a sharp point, and the slopes ‘polished by having been kissed, anointed, rubbed or otherwise handled,’ and another ‘carefully shaped to a rounded form’: both probably phallic (PEF. Quart. Statement, 1903, 25 ff.; Bible Side-lights from Gezer, 57 ff.).

In the earliest times maṣṣeboth were erected by the Hebrews: by Jacob (Genesis 28:18; Genesis 28:22 E, Genesis 35:14 f. J) in memory of God’s appearance to him, and to be God’s-house = Beth-el (cp. Gk βαιτύλιον and βαίτυλος, ‘animated stone,’ through the Phoenician). Because of the verb we should also read maṣṣebah, for the mizbeaḥ, altar, which Jacob set up at Shechem and called God, the God of Israel (Genesis 33:20, E). According to E (to whom most of the O.T. notices of maṣṣeboth are due) Moses put up 12 with the altar which he built on Ḥoreb1[138]. Hosea (Hosea 3:4, Hosea 10:1) implies that maṣṣebôth were as regular parts of Jehovah’s sanctuaries in N. Israel as altars and sacrifices2[139]. With such a recognition of the maṣṣeboth in the worship of Jehovah the command in Hosea 12:3 to destroy the maṣṣeboth of the Canaanite sanctuaries is of course compatible. But the same cannot be said of the injunction in Deuteronomy 16:22 not to set up a maṣṣebah beside the altar of Jehovah, which Jehovah thy God hateth (cp. Micah 5:13). This is another of the many marks that the deuteron. legislation is later than Hosea. It is possible, however, that there had never been a maṣṣebah in the Temple of Jerusalem. In 2 Kings 10:26 f. Jehu is said to have burned the maṣṣeboth in the house of the Ba‘al in Samaria, but because of the verb some read instead the ’Asherah. On the whole subject see especially W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem., 1st ed., 186 ff., 437 f.; G. F. Moore, ‘Massebah’ in EB.

[138]
We read also of great stones set up by Joshua in Jehovah’s sanctuary at Shechem as a witness against the people (Joshua 24:26 E) and at Gilgal as memorials of the passage of Jordan (id. Joshua 4:5), at Mizpeh and Gibeon (1 Samuel 7:12; 2 Samuel 20:8).

[139] According to Isaiah 19:19, a maṣṣebah shall be erected in Egypt as a symbol of her people’s acknowledgement of Jehovah; but the date of this prediction is uncertain; and the writer may be speaking metaphorically. The two bronze columns Yakin and Bo‘az (1 Kings 7:21) were probably from their names ‘He foundeth’ and ‘In him is strength’ symbols of the Deity, but they did not stand in the inner sanctuary. W. R. Smith, Rel. Sem. 191 n. and 468, takes them as altar-pillars with hearths on their tops.

Deuteronomy 16:21 to Verses 21, 22. - In all states, the highest crime of which the judge has to take note is that of treason against the supreme Rower; and, under the theocracy, the act most distinctly treasonable was idolatry. In proceeding, therefore, to give some practical admonitions as to the things to be observed in the administration of justice, Moses begins by denouncing and forbidding this most flagrant form of iniquity. Verse 21. - Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees; thou shalt not plant, i.e. place or set up, an asherah of any wood. The asherah was an idol of wood in the form of a pillar, usually placed by the side of the altars of Baal. It was the symbol of Astarte, the great Canaanitish goddess, the companion and revealer of Baal. The two are usually associated in the Old Testament (cf. Judges 2:13; Judges 6:28; 1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 23:4). The rendering "grove" has been taken from the LXX. and the Vulgate; but that it is an error is evident from 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; and Jeremiah 17:2; where the asherah is said to be under a green tree; and from the use of such words as make, set up, cause to stand, build, to denote the action of producing an asherah (cf. 1 Kings 14:15; 1 Kings 16:33; 2 Kings 17:16; 2 Kings 17:10; 2 Chronicles 33:19; 1 Kings 14:23), none of which are appropriate to the planting of a grove. Here, indeed, the word "plant" is used, but this is only because, as the asherah was sunk in the earth that it might stand firm, it might be figuratively said to be planted, just as nails driven in are said to be planted (Ecclesiastes 12:11, where the same verb is used; comp. also Isaiah 51:16; Amos 9:15; Daniel 11:25). In connection with the Feast of Tabernacles also, he simply enforces the observance of it at the central sanctuary, and exhorts the people to rejoice at this festival, and not only to allow their sons and daughters to participate in this joy, but also the man-servant and maid-servant, and the portionless Levites, strangers, widows, and orphans. After what had already been stated, Moses did not consider it necessary to mention expressly that this festal rejoicing was also to be manifested in joyous sacrificial meals; it was enough for him to point to the blessing which God had bestowed upon their cultivation of the corn, the olive, and the vine, and upon all the works of their hands, i.e., upon their labour generally (Deuteronomy 16:13-15), as there was nothing further to remark after the instructions which had already been given with reference to this feast also (Leviticus 23:34-36, Leviticus 23:39-43; Numbers 29:12-38).
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