This chapter finally begins giving commandments in more detail. Apparently this continues on through chapter 26, and it’s theorized that this is the oldest part of Deuteronomy.
Still, you can see elements of it that likely postdate Moses. It talks about “the place that the LORD your God will choose” (v 5, 18, 21), which is pretty obviously intended to be the temple. Only, if you’ve read Leviticus, sacrifices aren’t supposed to be done at a stationary place but at a mobile tabernacle. If the tabernacle is intended to become stationary, then Deuteronomy hasn’t indicated where yet – maybe Mt. Gezirim? Are the Samaritans right? If I recall correctly, in the later histories God initially didn’t even want a permanent temple built for himself (back when I tried reading the whole Bible through, I skipped from Exodus to 1 Samuel).
So it makes sense that this is likely an insertion for the reference of later Israelites, to make it clear for them that these sacrifices are to be performed at the temple, since the roaming tabernacle didn’t exist anymore.
What this passage makes even clearer is where you can’t make sacrifices: any of the worship sites used by their predecessors. It’s considered too much of a temptation to continue old practices.
The idea of a new religion using the worship site of an older one isn’t all that unusual, really. In Japan, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines used to share the same buildings. In India, the tradition of building on top of a previous holy spot has gone on for thousands of years. Some archeologists speculate that the reason we haven’t found temples for the Indus Valley Civilization is because they’re underneath the nearby mosques. I’m not sure if this practice was common in the Middle East so that Deuteronomy felt it was necessary to say this.
The chapter also takes pains to stress that so long as you drain the blood properly you can slaughter an animal for food anywhere, not just at the site-to-be-chosen-later. Question: does this mean that prior to entering the promised land the Israelites did all their slaughtering at the tabernacle? Were all meats sacrifices? I know that was the case in Ancient Greece, which is why Paul talks a lot about the ethics of meat-eating, but I had no idea that might have been the case among the Israelites.
Maybe what’s being stated here is, again, a diagnosis of what went wrong: everyone sacrificed at their local town altar, usually built alongside or on top of some other deity’s altar, rather than at the one, right place in Jerusalem, and that’s why everyone wound up worshiping other gods and they lost their identity and the country became decentralized and they all wound up in exile.
The centralization of worship, of course, has an advantage to a centralized state as well. In unifying Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu set up a branch system of temples that placed all the different Buddhist denominations under state control. It’s possible to argue that the writers of Deuteronomy may have less-than-noble reasons for wanting sacrifices to only be in the temple. Certainly Judaism has actually worshiped rather well without a central temple for two thousand years now, so if the writers thought that it was the solution to keeping orthodoxy, they were wrong. You can worship wherever, but there has to be an idea of center, a point towards which you face, an origin towards which you yearn, a focus to bring people together.
I once saw a photo of an Israeli woman in National Geographic once, where she held a sign saying “Rome for Christians, Mecca for Muslims, Jerusalem for Jews.” Setting aside the many, many problems with that, it made me think: is part of the reason Protestant Christians remain so factionalized that we don’t have a central place? I don’t mean that we need a central authority; Eastern Orthodox churches revere Byzantium/Istanbul, but the Patriarch of Constantinople is only a first among equals. But do we need a pilgrimage place? I’m afraid at this point we’re too divided up to be able to choose one spot, but if we’d had it from the start, could we have stayed together? Or were we doomed, thanks to the intolerance of our founders, to never be able to find a common ground (literally) to bring us all together?
The Japanese: chouzou “statue, sculpture, image” (v 3), sumai “residence,” tazuneru “to visit” (v 5), minasu “to regard, to consider” (v 8), kamoshika “serow, gazelle” (v 15), arayuru “every, all, any,” toujiru “to cast, to throw” (v 31).
Translation note: there aren’t any gazelles in Japan, and rather than use gizeru, a loanword, the NCT chooses kamoshika, the serow, a kind of ruminant native to central and eastern Asia. Their closest relatives are sheep and goats, and they look a little like hornless goats. They aren’t particularly closely related to gazelles, but my dictionaries give gazelle as a rare second meaning. This seems to be another case of the NCT choosing a local creature that is analogous to the Hebrew. Serows are small, wild animals, known for their speed and agility, and hunted for food. They may look nothing like gazelles, but they’re not a bad match.