In this post, I’ll talk a little about Jeffrey Tigay’s excellent Excursus 14 in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy, “The Restriction of Sacrifice to a Single Sanctuary (Deuteronomy 12)”. A while back (probably ten years ago), I did a daily quiet time through the Book of Deuteronomy, and I wondered why God in that book is so insistent that the Israelites worship (or, more accurately, offer sacrifices) only at the central sanctuary. What was the big deal? Isn’t God everywhere? So what would be so wrong about sacrificing to God outside of the central sanctuary?
Some of the answers that I conjured up are similar to the explanations that Tigay presents—which are not his own but are from the history of biblical interpretation, both pre-Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment. Here are the proposals that Tigay highlights:
1. God limited sacrifice to the central sanctuary in order to curtail sacrifice, and to show that prayer (which can be offered in any place) is more important. If the Israelites have to travel all the way to the central sanctuary to make a sacrifice, then they won’t make too many sacrifices! This was the view of Maimonides.
2. The medieval Jewish Sefer ha-Chinnuk said that “the sanctuary can inspire people only if it is unique—not if there are temples everywhere” (Tigay’s summary on page 460). Familiarity breeds contempt!
3. Hezekiah limited sacrifice to the central sanctuary in order to make the Israelites religiously dependent on Jerusalem so that they wouldn’t side with the Assyrians if the Assyrians invaded; also, Hezekiah wanted to solidify national identity by unifying the nation around Jerusalem, whereas “competing sanctuaries and the foreign cults…were sapping nationalistic fervor” (page 460). After all, did not Jeroboam build sanctuaries in Dan and Bethel to keep the Northern Israelites from going South to Jerusalem to worship? The sanctuary where one sacrificed had political ramifications!
4. Centralization brought tithes and offerings to Jerusalem—so they could be employed “for royal uses such as defenses” (page 461). According to Tigay, the problem with this proposal is that Deuteronomy has the worshipers consume their own tithe, and so the king was not a beneficiary.
5. Josephus and Abravanel say that having only one sanctuary is consistent with the belief that there is only one God—one God, one sanctuary.
6. Having only one sanctuary prevents Israelites from worshiping other gods (such as goat-demons, see Leviticus 17:1-10) and from practicing syncretism, which was at the multiple sanctuaries. But Tigay notes that, in contrast with Leviticus 17:1-10, Deuteronomy permits the slaughter of meat outside of the sanctuary—in any location. Moreover, Tigay quotes Yehezkel Kaufmann, who said that syncretism “radiated from the royal centers—Samaria and Jerusalem” (Tigay’s summary on page 462).
7. If there are multiple sanctuaries, then people will conclude that there are multiple YHVHs—one for each location. But Tigay sees no evidence for this view. He notes that Mary, for example, is associated with more than one location, and yet Catholics believe in only one Mary!
8. The solution that Tigay embraces is that Deuteronomy views multiple sanctuaries as a Canaanite practice, and so it prohibits Israelites from having them. Tigay sees evidence for this in Deuteronomy 12:4-6, which tells the Israelites not to imitate the Canaanites by having multiple sanctuaries, but to have only one sanctuary, the place that the LORD will choose.