Harmonizing on Sanctuary

Source: Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford, 1988) 251-252.

Exodus 20:24 states: “You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you” (NRSV).

Deuteronomy 12:5-6, however, has: “But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks.”

For Fishbane, these two passages are contradictory. The first one permits Israelites to set up altars in all sorts of locations, whereas the second restricts worship to a central sanctuary.

Fishbane contends that someone inserted vv 8-9 into Deuteronomy 12 to harmonize the two passages:

“You shall not act as we are acting here today, all of us according to our own desires, for you have not yet come into the rest and the possession that the LORD your God is giving you.”

According to Fishbane, vv 8-9 solves the dilemma by asserting that the laissez-faire, Exodus 20:24 approach only applied to the time before Israel entered Canaan. Afterwards, the central sanctuary rule took effect.

Maybe. We see an altar in Joshua 8, after all. Something else to note is that Exodus 20:24 talks about an altar of earth, whereas the official altar of the central sanctuary was one of bronze.

But the bronze altar existed before Israel entered the land, so shouldn’t the conflict between the central sanctuary and the earthen altar precede the Conquest? Wouldn’t one be more accurate to assert that the earthen altar rule was for the time before the creation of the Tabernacle, which occurred in the wilderness (in the biblical narrative)? Perhaps. At the same time, even if Deuteronomy 12:8-9 is a bad harmonization, that doesn’t mean it’s not an attempt at harmonization. I’ve seen fundamentalists and conservative Christians make all sorts of funny moves to reconcile biblical contradictions (or apparent contradictions).

One problem I have: Was Israel acting according to what was right in her own eyes by following Exodus 20:24? Weren’t they doing what was right in God’s eyes, since he gave the command? Maybe Deuteronomy 12:8-9 means that God allowed Israel to set up altars anywhere she saw fit prior to the Conquest. Still, Exodus 20:24 says God will come to where he (God) causes his name to be remembered. So who’s taking the initiative?

Fishbane then contradicts himself, saying, “Since ‘in any site’ may be understood distributively (i.e., ‘in whatever particular site’), the exegete of Deut. 12:8-9 may have felt that he was not so much rejecting the rule in Exodus 20:2[4] as specifying its underlying intent.”

So is Fishbane saying that the author of Deuteronomy 12:8-9 was upholding Exodus 20:24, in the sense that the latter emphasized a place where God put his name, as Deuteronomy does? What’s that do to the idea that Deuteronomy 12:8-9 considers the Exodus 20:24 law temporary–as the Israelites doing what was right in their own eyes?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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