Deuteronomy 17
Pulpit Commentary
Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the LORD thy God any bullock, or sheep, wherein is blemish, or any evilfavouredness: for that is an abomination unto the LORD thy God.
Verse 1. - Not only was the setting up of idols an offence to be punished by the judge, but also all profanation of the service of Jehovah, such as the offering in sacrifice of any animal, bullock or sheep, that had any blemish or defect (cf. Leviticus 22:19-24). Evil-favoredness; literally, any evil thing, i.e. any vice or maim (cf. Leviticus 22:22, etc.).
If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
Verse 2. - In Deuteronomy 13, Moses enacts what is to be done to those who seduce into idolatry. Here he declares what is to be done to those who are so seduced. Done wickedness; literally, done the evil. The definite article is prefixed; it is not any kind of wickedness that is here denounced, but the special sin of idolatry, the wickedness κατ ἐξόχην. All idolatry was to be strictly suppressed - those convicted of it to be put to death by stoning.
And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
Verse 3. - (Cf. Deuteronomy 4:19.) Which I have not commanded; i.e. have forbidden, a meiosis, as in Jeremiah 7:31.
And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
Verse 5. - Unto thy gates; judicial proceedings were conducted at the gates of the city, and in some place outside the walls the sentence was executed on the condemned criminal (Nehemiah 8:1, 3; Job 29:7; Deuteronomy 22:24; Acts 7:58; Hebrews 13:12), just as, during the journey through the wilderness, it had been outside the camp that transgressors were punished (Leviticus 24:14; Numbers 15:36).
At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
Verses 6, 7. - Only on the testimony of more than one witness could the accused be condemned (of Numbers 35:30); and the hand of the witnesses was to be first against him to put him to death - a rule which would tend to prevent accusations being lightly adduced, as none would venture to witness against any one unless so deeply convinced of his guilt that they were willing to assume the responsibility of inflicting on him the last penalty with their own hands. Worthy of death be put to death; i.e. adjudged or appointed to death; literally, the dead man shall die. מֵת, the part. of מוּת, to die, is here equivalent to בֶּן מָוֶת, son of death (1 Samuel 20:31), or אִישׁ מָוֶת, a man of death (1 Kings 2:26), i.e. one assigned to death, already the property of death, and so as good as dead. Put the evil away; literally, consume or sweep away the evil. The verb בָּעַר means primarily to consume by burning.
The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.
If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates: then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which the LORD thy God shall choose;
Verses 8-13. - So long as Moses was with the people, they had in him one to whom, in the last resort, cases might be brought for decision which were found too difficult for the ordinary judges (Exodus 18:19-26). But, as he was not to be always with them, it was needful to provide a supreme court, to which such cases might be carried when they could no longer be decided by him; and such a court is here appointed to be held at the sanctuary. Verse 8. - A matter too hard for thee; literally, too marvelous; something extraordinary, and which could not be decided by the ordinary rules of the judicature. Between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke; i.e. in cases where blood had been shed and death had ensued, either accidentally or from murderous intent (cf. Exodus 21:13, etc.; Numbers 35:9, etc.); in cases of disputed rights and claims (cf. 2 Chronicles 19:10); and in cases where corporeal injury had been suffered, whether in strife or from assault (Exodus 21:18, etc.); and, in general, wherever matters of controversy - disputes as to what was lawful and right, might arise in their towns and villages. In all such cases recourse was to be had to the court at the sanctuary - "to the priests the Levites," i.e. the priests who were of the tribe of Levi, and to the judge presiding there - the lay judge associated with the high priest as president (see Oehler, in Herzog's 'Encyclop.,' vol. 5. p. 58). It is not intended by this that an appeal was to lie from the lower court to the higher, or that the parties in a suit might carry it at once to the supreme judge; the meaning rather is that, when the ordinary judges found a case too difficult for them to deal with, they were themselves to transmit it to the supreme court for decision.
And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment:
Verse 9. - Enquire; what, namely, is "the sentence of judgment;" and this the judge should declare. Sentence of judgment; literally, word of right, verbum juris, declaration of what was legally right.
And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee:
Verses 10-12. - This sentence, being founded on the Law, the suitors were to accept and implicitly obey. If any through pride or arrogance should refuse to accept the interpretation of the Law given by the priests, or to submit to the sentence pronounced by the judge, he was to be regarded as a rebel against God, and to be put to death, that others might be deterred from the like presumption (Deuteronomy 13:11). The sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall show thee; rather, which they shall declare to thee from that place which the Lord shall choose. According to the sentence of the law; literally, according to the mouth of the Law; i.e. according as the Law prescribes, according to the purport of the statute.
According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.
And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.
And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.
When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;
Verses 14-20. - Israel, being under a theocracy, did not need an earthly king; but neither was this thereby precluded, provided the king chosen by the people were one whom Jehovah would approve as his vicegerent. In case, then, of their coming to desire to have a king over them like the nations around them, Moses gives instructions here as to the choice of a king, and as to the duties and obligations resting upon those who might be elevated to that office. The form in which these are conveyed clearly indicates that, at the time this was uttered, the existence of a king in Israel was contemplated as only a distant possibility. Verse 14. - When thou art come unto the land, etc. This phraseology, which is common to the laws which respect the affairs of the Hebrews after they should be settled in Canaan, implies that this law was given whilst they were yet outside the Promised Land. It is plain also, from the tenor of the whole statement in this verse, that the legislator in this case is providing for what he supposes may happen, is likely to happen, but which he by no means desires should happen. Moses foresaw that the people would wish to be as the nations around them - governed by a king - and he legislates accordingly, without approving of that wish.
Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
Verse 15. - The prohibition to choose a foreigner indicates that the people had the right of election. In what way this was to be exercised, and how it was subject to the Divine choice, is not declared. Judging from what actually happened in subsequent history, it would appear that only on special occasions, such as the election of the first king or a change of dynasty, did God take the initiative, and through a prophet direct the choice of the people; ultimately the monarchy became hereditary, and it was understood that the prince who succeeded to the throne did so with the Divine approval, unless the opposite was expressly intimated by a message from God.
But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.
Verses 16, 17. - Certain rules are prescribed for the king. It is forbidden to him to multiply horses, to multiply wives, and to amass large treasures of silver and gold, and he must have a copy of the Law written out for him from that kept by the priests, that he might have it by him, and read it all the days of his life. The multiplying of horses is prohibited, because this would bring Israel into intercourse and friendly relations with Egypt, and might tend to their going back to that country from which they had been so marvelously delivered; a prohibition which could only have been given at an early stage in the history of the people, for at a later period, after they had been well established in Canaan, such a prohibition for such a reason would have been simply ridiculous. The prohibition to multiply wives and to amass large treasures has respect to the usage common from the earliest period with Oriental monarchs to have vast harems and huge accumulations of the precious metals, as much for ostentation as for either luxury or use; and as there was no small danger of the King of Israel being seduced to follow this usage, and so to have his heart turned away from the Lord, it was fitting that such a prohibition should be prospectively enacted for his guidance. Both these prohibitions were neglected by Solomon, and probably by others of the Jewish kings; but this only indicates that the law was so ancient that it had come in their time to be regarded as obsolete. The rule that the king was to write him a copy of the Law for his own constant use does not necessarily imply that he was to write this with his own hand; he might cause it to be written by some qualified scribe for him.
Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:
Verse 18. - A copy of this law; literally, a double of this Law, i.e. not, as the LXX. have it, "This reiteration of the Law" (τὸ δευτερονόμιον τοῦτο), but a duplicate or copy of the Pentateuchal Law. The Jews understand by "double" that two copies of the Law were to be made by the king (Maimon., ' De Regibus,' e. 3. § 1); but this is unnecessary: every copy of a law is a double of it. Oat of that which is before the priests. The priests were the custodians of the written Law (Deuteronomy 31:26); and from the text of their codex was the king's copy to be written.
And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:
Verse 19. - And it shall be with him, etc. It was to be carefully kept by him, but not as a mere sacred deposit or palladium; it was to be constantly with him wherever he was, was to be the object of his continual study, and was to be the directory and guide of his daily life (cf. Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2; Psalm 119:15, 16, 24, 97-99, etc.).
That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.
Verse 20. - That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren. "Not imagining himself to be above all laws, nor slighting his subjects, as unworthy of his notice, but taking a due care to promote their happiness" (Patrick). He, and his children; properly, his sons (בָנָיו). The legislator anticipated not an elective monarchy, but one hereditary in the same family (cf. Michaelis, 'Laws of Moses,' pt. 1. § 54).

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