How the Jerusalem Temple Was "Chosen" as the Only Place of Worship
Deuteronomy’s Requirement to Centralize Worship
Deuteronomy begins with many chapters in which Moses is portrayed as delivering a historical retrospective and extended exhortations to the people about to cross over the Jordan River into the land of Israel. Only afterward, in ch. 12, does it turn to the specific laws (the Deuteronomic Law Collection) that the people were meant to observe in the land. This is the core of Deuteronomy, encompassing chapters 12 through 26.
The collection begins with the demand that all cultic activity, whether sacrificial or votive, take place exclusively at God’s one chosen site – a notion referred to in scholarship as “cult centralization.” The Israelites are commanded to worship YHWH not in the way the Canaanites did (v. 4), i.e. in multiple places (which the Israelites are commanded to destroy), but only at His one chosen place (vv. 5-7).
דברים יב:ה כִּי אִם אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכָּל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ וּבָאתָ שָׁמָּה. יב:ווַהֲבֵאתֶם שָׁמָּה עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם…
Deut 12:5 Instead you shall seek out the place that YHWH your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name there to make it dwell, and go there. 12:6 Bring there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices…
Only After Israel Is at Rest
Although these verses sound as if the centralization requirement was to begin immediately upon entering the land, vv. 10–11 state that centralization is to take effect only following the vanquishing of the Israelites’ enemies, at which point the nation will be dwelling securely:
דברים יב:י וַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מַנְחִיל אֶתְכֶם וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכָּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם מִסָּבִיב וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח. יב:יא וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם…
Deut 12:10 When you cross the Jordan and live in the land that YHWH your God is causing you to inherit and he gives you rest from your surrounding enemies and you live in safety, 12:11then the place that YHWH your God will choose to make His name dwell, to there you shall bring everything that I command you…
When read together with vv. 10-12, v. 9’s statement that the Israelites have not yet come “into the rest and the hereditary possession” (אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה) that God is giving them, suggests that centralization does not only require physical presence in a territory (i.e. the promised land), but a tranquil state of being in that territory. This leaves open the question of when precisely the Israelites will have arrived at that ideal state of being.
A. The Culmination of Joshua’s Conquests
It is natural to imagine that this period would begin with the completion of the conquest described in Joshua.
Following an extended description of the tribal portions that were allotted by Joshua to the various tribes, Joshua 21:41–43 sums up:
יהושע כא:מא וַיִּתֵּן יְהוָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לָתֵת לַאֲבוֹתָם וַיִּרָשׁוּהָ וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בָהּ. כא:מב וַיָּנַח יְהוָה לָהֶם מִסָּבִיב כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבוֹתָם וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיהֶם מִכָּל אֹיְבֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל אֹיְבֵיהֶם נָתַן יְהוָה בְּיָדָם. כא:מגלֹא נָפַל דָּבָר מִכֹּל הַדָּבָר הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הַכֹּל בָּא.
Josh 21:41 YHWH gave to Israel the whole country which He had sworn to their fathers that He would assign to them; they took possession of it and settled in it. YHWH gave them rest on all sides, just as He had promised to their fathers on oath. Not one man of all their enemies withstood them; YHWH delivered all their enemies into their hands. Not one of the good things which YHWH had promised to the House of Israel was lacking; everything was fulfilled.
The following parallels suggest a connection to the beginning of Parashat Re’eh, perhaps implying that the time for centralization had come:
|Deut 11-12||Josh 21|
וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֹתָהּ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ
וַיִּרָשׁוּהָ וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בָהּ
|When you have taken possession of it and are settled in it (11:31)||they took possession of it and settled in it (v. 41)|
וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכָּל אֹיְבֵיכֶם מִסָּבִיב
וַיָּנַח יְ-הוָה לָהֶם מִסָּבִיב
|and he gives you rest from your enemies on all sides (12:10)||YHWH gave them rest on all sides (v. 42)|
Shiloh and the Altar in the Transjordan
The very next story in Joshua (chapter 22) seems to presuppose that this new, ideal period has arrived. It tells of a near civil war that was caused because the Transjordanian tribes built an altar on their land, east of the Jordan (vv. 10-12). This civil war was averted only after the Transjordanian tribes explained that the altar was really meant only as a monument to their connection with YHWH and not to be used sacrificially (vv. 26-28).
The reaction of the Israelites in the Cisjordan could be understood as connected to the violation of centralization. Joshua had, at this point, already established the Tent of Meeting in Shiloh:
יהושע יח:א וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׁלֹה וַיַּשְׁכִּינוּ שָׁם אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהָאָרֶץ נִכְבְּשָׁה לִפְנֵיהֶם.
Josh 18:1 The whole community of the Israelite people assembled at Shiloh, and set up the Tent of Meeting there. The land was now under their control.
And yet, this does not seem to be the point of the story. Rather, the offense of the Transjordanian tribes is the fact that it looked as if they were planning to build an altar and worship YHWH in the Transjordan which is not part of the Promised Land proper (the Cisjordan).
Elsewhere, the Deuteronomistic history does not assume that Joshua’s conquest marks the time of centralization, and this theme is absent in the following chapters in Joshua, Judges, and Samuel until we reach the descriptions of David’s reign.
B. David’s Reign
The next clear echo of Deut. 12:10 appears in the verse introducing David’s request of the prophet Nathan to construct a permanent temple for God (2 Sam. 7:1–2):
שמואל ב ז:א וַיְהִי כִּי יָשַׁב הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּבֵיתוֹ וַיהוָה הֵנִיחַ לוֹ מִסָּבִיב מִכָּל אֹיְבָיו. ז:ב וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל נָתָן הַנָּבִיא רְאֵה נָא אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּבֵית אֲרָזִים וַאֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים יֹשֵׁב בְּתוֹךְ הַיְרִיעָה.
2 Sam 7:1 When the king was settled in his palace and YHWH had granted him rest from all the enemies around him, 7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan: “Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God abides in a tent!”
The continuation of the text, however, makes clear that v. 1’s description of rest from the enemies roundabout is David’s misperception—true rest from enemies has not yet arrived. Although Nathan, responding to David in the name of God acknowledges that God “has cut down all your enemies before you” (ואכריתה את כל איביך מפניך – v. 9), the true period of “rest” is only to be realized with David’s successor, who will be the one to build the temple, signifying God’s choice of a permanent place with which His name will be associated (2 Sam 7:10-13):
שמואל ב ז:י וְשַׂמְתִּי מָקוֹם לְעַמִּי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וּנְטַעְתִּיו וְשָׁכַן תַּחְתָּיו וְלֹא יִרְגַּז עוֹד… ז:יב כִּי יִמְלְאוּ יָמֶיךָ וְשָׁכַבְתָּ אֶת אֲבֹתֶיךָ וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ וַהֲכִינֹתִי אֶת מַמְלַכְתּוֹ.ז:יג הוּא יִבְנֶה בַּיִת לִשְׁמִי…
2 Sam 7:10 I will establish a place for My people Israel and will plant them firm, so that they shall dwell securely and shall tremble no more… 7:12 When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship. 7:13 He shall build a house for My name…
C. Solomon’s Reign
The Deuteronomistic History presents centralization proper as beginning with Solomon and the building of the Temple. At the beginning of his reign, no centralized Temple has been built, so (1 Kings 3:2–3):
מלכים א ג:ב רַק הָעָם מְזַבְּחִים בַּבָּמוֹת כִּי לֹא נִבְנָה בַיִת לְשֵׁם יְהוָה עַד הַיָּמִים הָהֵם. ג:ג וַיֶּאֱהַב שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת יְהוָה לָלֶכֶת בְּחֻקּוֹת דָּוִד אָבִיו רַק בַּבָּמוֹת הוּא מְזַבֵּחַ וּמַקְטִיר.
1 Kings 3:2 The people, however, continued to offer sacrifices at the open shrines, because up to that time no house had been built for the name of YHWH. 3:3 And Solomon, although he loved YHWH and followed the practices of his father David, also sacrificed and offered at the shrines.
Although in the Book of Kings, worship at the bamotgenerally signifies lack of adherence to the centralization requirement (see below), here this practice is not explicitly criticized by the narrator. Shortly thereafter though, Solomon begins construction of the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5:16–19):
מלכים א ה:טז וַיִּשְׁלַח שְׁלֹמֹה אֶל חִירָם לֵאמֹר. ה:יז אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת דָּוִד אָבִי כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו מִפְּנֵי הַמִּלְחָמָה אֲשֶׁר סְבָבֻהוּ עַד תֵּת יְהוָה אֹתָם תַּחַת כַּפּוֹת (רגלו) [רַגְלָי]. ה:יח וְעַתָּה הֵנִיחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהַי לִי מִסָּבִיב אֵין שָׂטָן וְאֵין פֶּגַע רָע. ה:יטוְהִנְנִי אֹמֵר לִבְנוֹת בַּיִת לְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל דָּוִד אָבִי לֵאמֹר בִּנְךָ אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן תַּחְתֶּיךָ עַל כִּסְאֶךָ הוּא יִבְנֶה הַבַּיִת לִשְׁמִי.
1 Kings 5:16 Solomon sent this message to Hiram: 5:17 You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of YHWH his God because of the enemies that encompassed him, until YHWH had placed them under the soles of his feet. 5:18 But now YHWH my God has given me rest all around, there is no adversary and no mischance. 5:19 And so I propose to build a house for the name of YHWH my God, as YHWH promised my father David saying, “Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for My name.”
Verse 18, bolded above, is a fulfillment of the period of rest, which allows this Temple-building to commence.
Ideal versus Reality – Solomon through Hezekiah
The Book of Kings, however, suggests that Solomon did not successfully centralize worship in Jerusalem. Not only did Solomon himself slip into idolatry in his old age (1 Kings 11:1–6), but even his most worthy successors, such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoash, Amaziah, and Azariah (Uzziah), are said to have tolerated sacrificial locales outside of Jerusalem (1 Kings 15:14; 22:44; 2 Kings 12:4; 14:4; 15:4).
According to Kings, this situation pertained until the time of Hezekiah (late eighth century B.C.E.), who holds the distinction of being the first king to have removed the במות and the מצבות (sacred pillars), as we read in 2 Kings 18:4:
מלכים ב יח:ד הוּא הֵסִיר אֶת הַבָּמוֹת וְשִׁבַּר אֶת הַמַּצֵּבֹת וְכָרַת אֶת הָאֲשֵׁרָה
2 Kings 18:4 He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post.
Hezekiah’s Innovations in Historical Perspective
What changed in the late eighth century that can account for the unprecedented actions of Hezekiah? In simplest terms, centralization turned out to be a child of necessity. Hezekiah’s reign witnessed a massive assault on the Judean countryside by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, resulting in the loss of all of the kingdom’s fortified cities, with the exception of Jerusalem itself. As reported in 2 Kings 18:13:
מלכים ב יח:יג וּבְאַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ חִזְקִיָּה עָלָה סַנְחֵרִיב מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר עַל כָּל עָרֵי יְהוּדָה הַבְּצֻרוֹת וַיִּתְפְּשֵׂם.
2 Kings 18:13 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria marched against all the fortified towns of Judah and seized them.
Indeed, Hezekiah’s contemporary, the prophet Isaiah, appears to relate to this devastation in the opening prophecy of his book (Isaiah 1:7–8):
ישעיה א:ז אַרְצְכֶם שְׁמָמָה עָרֵיכֶם שְׂרֻפוֹת אֵשׁ אַדְמַתְכֶם לְנֶגְדְּכֶם זָרִים אֹכְלִים אֹתָהּ… א:חוְנוֹתְרָה בַת צִיּוֹן כְּסֻכָּה בְכָרֶם כִּמְלוּנָה בְמִקְשָׁה כְּעִיר נְצוּרָה.
Isa 1:7 Your land is a waste, your cities burnt down; before your eyes, the yield of your soil is consumed by strangers…1:8 Daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city beleaguered.
The Assyrian attack brought in its wake either the destruction or the forced abandonment of various cultic sites. Ironically, then, the process of centralization that Deuteronomy describes as a byproduct of newly-found national security, actually commenced, in practical terms, as a byproduct of complete loss of security.
The Theological Rationale for Centralization
Hezekiah was left with a country in ruins, but his capital city survived. Once Sennacherib’s army withdrew and Jerusalem was spared from destruction, the notion of God’s specially choosing Jerusalem, an identifying feature of the Davidic monarchic ideology, became further entrenched and enhanced. Thus, the special status of the Jerusalem temple as the sole focal point for worship of God was confirmed by historical circumstances.
After Hezekiah’s death, Kings describes a period in which forbidden practices are again ascendant. This came to an end with the reign of his great-grandson, Josiah (second half of the seventh century B.C.E.), who took similar centralizing steps after finding the law book in the Temple in the eighteenth year of his reign, i.e. 622 B.C.E. (see especially 2 Kings 23:1–3, 8, 14–15).
This law book is generally understood to be some form of Deuteronomy, and the description of it being “found” offers circumstantial evidence to it being relatively new during this period. Thus, many scholars suggest that Deuteronomy—or at least the core of the Deuteronomic Law Collection, with its requirement for centralized worship—was written during the period between Hezekiah’s reform and that of Josiah.
Holding the Judean Kings to Account
According to this reconstruction, the question posed above as to why righteous kings like Asa and Jehoshaphat didn’t enforce centralization would have a startlingly simple answer: they didn’t yet know of such a law! But if that is the case, how then can the Book of Kings on the one hand imply that Josiah was the first king to have imposed centralization on the basis of a law book, while on the other hand take previous kings to task for failing to uphold that same commandment?
A Case of Lost and Found
All of the verses in the Book of Kings related to the theme of centralization are generally assumed to be part of the editorial layer of historians influenced by Deuteronomy (thus the term “Deuteronomistic History” or DtrH), from the 7th-6th centuries. These editors attributed Deuteronomy itself to Moses, so they had to condemn the earlier kings for not centralizing worship. But as the book is lost by the time of Josiah, the question becomes, which kings does the Deuteronomic history envision as having had access to Moses’ book?
Certain kings, like David and Solomon, seem to be privy to it, since David, before his death, is reported to have charged Solomon to follow God’s laws, commandments, rules, and admonitions “as recorded in the Teaching of Moses” (1 Kings 2:3). However, by the time of Josiah, the law book is portrayed as having been lost and forgotten for at least some time. The Deuteronomistic historians thus offer an imaginative reconstruction, according to which the law book was both ancient, dating back to the time of Moses, yet only sporadically known until the time of Josiah.
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August 16, 2017
November 23, 2020
Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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