Much of the book of Devarim is devoted to a reexamination of the desert period; but this look back is accompanied by significant contemplation of the future, and a good part of the book, including Chapter 12, is devoted to life in the land of Israel. The chapter opens the lion’s share of the book devoted to laws, and, along with the laws themselves, it offers insights about the significance of the transition to a land, to one specific place.
The entrance into the land is significant for many reasons. One, dealt with in our chapter, is the fact of choosing a place. Formerly a nomadic people in perpetual movement, Israel is transformed into a nation tied to one specific location. This is a big change for Israel, which over the course of its history up to this point has been connected to a variety of places, each of which has influenced its character and actions. In Egypt, Israel were the slaves of the local people; in the desert, Israel were nomads – nomads who, on the one hand, moved from place to place, and on the other, looked ahead toward one distinct place, insofar as the entire desert era was colored by the journey’s goal: the arrival in the land of Israel.
At the same time, we can note with interest that the transition to the land means one place, a specific location, not only for Israel, but also for God. How is this place described? What is the divine place like, and what is the nature of connections formed there between God and human beings? And is there any place for worshiping other gods in the new space? We’ll see what Chapter 12 of Devarim can tell us about the meaning of the transition to the land.
Opening The chapter opens with an declaration:
These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that YHVH, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth.
Following this opening statement, Moshe does not immediately present a list of laws, but rather commands in detail, perhaps as a first law, the uprooting of places of worship of other gods:
You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.
This commandment raises questions. Do these words mean that there is no place in the land for any other gods? Is the desert a place that does tolerate other gods, while “the place” is distinguished by less tolerance (to the extent that it is possible to characterize a place in this way)? Does the command to destroy places where other gods are worshiped derive from the fact that the land is the place of Israel’s God alone?
God, as we have said, chose this place for his people, and yet, in accordance with the established characteristics of the relationship between Israel and its God, locating Israel in one specific site goes along with defining a specific site for God as well. The verses that describe God’s place, describe God in effect choosing a place for God’s self:
“But look only to the site that YHVH your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation; seek his resting place, and go there.”
And again, later in the chapter:
These you must consume before YHVH your God in the place that YHVH your God will choose – you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levite in your settlements – happy before YHVH your God in all your undertakings.
God is the one who chooses God’s self a place, a choice that takes place in conjunction with Israel’s localization in their land. Choosing the land of Israel as a place is a mutual action, and takes place toward God and toward the people of Israel simultaneously. Yet in relation to the land, responsibility is laid jointly in the broadest sense on both human beings and God. While it is God who chooses Israel’s place as well as God’s own place (” in the place that God will choose”), the human being is also asked to undertake active steps in this context: “seek his resting place and go there” (5). People are asked to seek God actively, and to go to the place that is defined as God’s place.
The midrash, in fact, raises the suggestion that humans are involved even before God comes to dwell in the specific place, but rather in the fact of choosing a place for God. This is how the Tannaitic midrash Sifrei on Devarim reads verse 5:
“‘Only to the site that YHVH your God will choose amidst all your tribes,’ Seek, according to a prophet’s words. Perhaps then you should wait until a prophet tells you? Rather the text specifies, ‘seek his resting place and go there’: seek and find, and afterward the prophet will tell you.”
The midrash clarifies that there is a human obligation to find a place for God. Even though this area requires God’s involvement, whether directly or through the medium of prophecy, still human beings are required to seek God’s place even before this divine involvement.
After the order to destroy places of foreign worship, the verses turn to teach us that there are also things we must not do: “Do not worship YHVH your God that way” (4), and again further on, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, each person as he sees fit,” (8). The actions that are the objects of these words are not defined in the verses. What are the things that should not be done? What is done in the desert that must not be done in the land? Perhaps the next verse, which we examined earlier, offers an explanation for these words: “but look only to the site that YHVH your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation; seek his resting place, and go there” (5).
The central emphasis of this verse is that, in the land, God is worshiped in one place, God is sought in a fixed sanctuary, there is one location on which God chooses to set God’s name. In contrast to the desert, where humans worshiped God in a variety of places, sometimes by means of the mishkan and sometimes without it, in the land there is a specific site that God has chosen for God’s self and for people who seek connection to the Divine.
God’s place is characterized in this chapter by active negation. That is, the places of other gods are described in conjunction with an order to destroy those places, and that process implicitly characterizes God’s place by contrast. However, the verses also describe the problematic qualities of places of foreign worship in the land; so that, very delicately, between the lines, a picture emerges of some characteristics of a place for foreign worship that the land may be able to contain and tolerate:
You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any verdant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name… Do not worship YHVH your God that way, but look only to the site that YHVH your God will choose amidst all your tribes as His habitation; seek his resting place, and go there.
The verses emphasize, teach, and tell us that, in contrast to the idol worship that previously exists in the land, worship found under every verdant tree, everyplace and therefore without place, without specific location, Israel’s God in the land has a place. The verse might indicate that, In the desert, everyone does as he or she sees fit as far as a place to connect to God, but in the land of Israel, God chooses one place as an anchor site for meetings between God and human beings.
Accordingly, we can understand the destruction of idolatrous monuments scattered through the land of Canaan as the destruction of dispersal. Canaan is the land of ‘place,’ that as it were does not tolerate dispersal. Israel is commanded to destroy the idol worship that is endemic everywhere, on every hand, under every verdant tree.
Even idol worship can exist in the land, but only as long as it is ‘in a place.’ This reading suggests that in the land of Canaan, in The Place, there is room for a variety of cults, even for people other than Israel – but that this is only possible as long as they have a place: there is no tolerance for their endemic presence, dispersed on every hand.
In conclusion, the land of Canaan is a place for Israel and in it there is a place for God. These verses teach that, in the face of the possibility of “somewhere” that the land of Canaan represents, the rejected alternative is not “nowhere,” but dispersal, that is, “everywhere.” The land represents an invitation for Israel, for human beings, and for the connection between humans and God: an invitation to ingathering rather than to dispersal, an invitation to be joined rather than shattered. In the plain meaning of the verses, God is the one who chooses God’s place, while in the midrash Israel choose a place for God. Perhaps Israel has a responsibility to find and keep not only the place of their own cultic ritual, but the ritual places of others as well.