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Deuteronomy 12: Changing Rules for a Changing Context

I love Indian food. I love curries, naan bread, mango chutney and poppadoms. I used to live near Bradford in the north of England where there is a wonderful Indian population and an array of delicious places to eat. So, it’s no surprise that curry was, for a long time, my comfort food. It was where I went after a rough day in the classroom teaching. Experiencing those familiar flavors and the heat of all the chilies was soothing for me when my nerves were raw.

And then I moved to Texas.

Now don’t get me wrong, Houston has an array of options and various Indian restaurants. I know, I’ve tried a few! Yet try as I did when I moved here, nothing quite hit the spot like the curry-houses back home. Some were closer than others to Anglo-Indian cuisine, but nothing quite tasted like the comfort food back home. It’s no surprise, really. Grow vegetables in different dirt and the flavor will be different, and Indian food here caters to an American palette which brings in different emphases (in my experience, typically sweeter). I could try and try to find an Indian restaurant where everything tasted the way I wanted it to, or I could accept the fact I was somewhere new and find something that worked as an equivalent. And so, I found a practical and very delicious alternative: Mexican food.

Read Deuteronomy 12:15-25
Change is rarely straightforward, even good change, and some things that worked in the old context don’t work in the new one: they either need to be thrown out, re-imagined or adapted. In Deuteronomy 12,­ we find God knows that not everything works in every context. The people of God had been traveling together through the wilderness and the meat sacrifices had been pretty straightforward (though fairly gruesome) to perform. The instructions around eating meat had been clear: deer and gazelle were permissible as they were not animals used for sacrifice, but the sacrificial animals (oxen, sheep and goats) were permissible to eat only as part of a sacrifice at the altar in the tabernacle. You couldn’t eat these particular meats unless they were your share from an offering at the altar, where the blood had been poured out and the necessary parts reserved for the priest or Levites.

Now the people of God were about to enter the land God had promised them. They would spread out into their tribal regions and settle. This change meant it was wholly unrealistic to expect some people to travel down to the tabernacle (and later temple) every time they wanted to sacrifice (and eat their share of) a cow, sheep or goat. So, what does God do with the commands He has given His people? He’s more practical than we might expect! In Deuteronomy 12:15-25, God gives a rather sensible caveat into His instructions regarding sacrifice. If you live too far away, God commands, eat the meat like you would any non-sacrificial meat. No longer do you have to be ritually pure to eat these meats. They can be enjoyed by the clean and ritually unclean alike. A new context has presented a new challenge and this is how to adapt.

Not everything changed, however. Notice in vv. 16 and 23 we hear God reiterate that no matter what you’re eating, you do not eat the blood . Why? Because the life is in the blood. Even if you’re not going to the altar, this instruction stands. Certain offerings stay the same also (vv. 17-19). Just because you live farther away doesn’t mean you get to eat what still rightly should be given to God. Some things change for practical reasons. Other things stay the same.

When reading the Bible, it’s easy to focus so much on chapter and verse we miss some pretty important things in the bigger picture. The whole of Deuteronomy 12-26 is known as the “Deuteronomic Code” and is framed around the Ten Commandments (listed in Chapter 5). These commands and instructions flesh out the implications and more of each commandment. Today’s passage from Deuteronomy 12 comes as a working out of the first commandment: to have no other god before Yahweh (5:7). The people are entering a land in which the Canaanites worship Baal among various other gods. Although the logistics of giving sacrifices changed slightly, taking account of a new geographical set-up, it nonetheless maintained and emphasized the importance of worship of Yahweh over and above all other gods. We adapt, yes, but only to continue our allegiance and covenantal responsibilities to the one, true God.

We live in a moment of change: schools, sports teams, colleges, libraries, museums, theaters and so on are all figuring out how to adapt and survive in a post-COVID world. It’s a tough one and I’m regularly grateful that I don’t have the responsibility to make some of these decisions! It is also a moment for us as Christians to ask ourselves what’s important as we continue to show our allegiance to Jesus and be salt and light in this world. The questions below offer us an opportunity to think through this for ourselves.

Questions for Reflection
  • When have you had to make changes to your life/routine/habits as a result of a life-change? What impact did that have on you, both in positive and negative ways?
  • Are there things in your Christian life you want to hold onto, even in this time of change, that God is perhaps less concerned about? What are they?
  • Conversely, are there things in your Christian life that you want to throw out, but are no less important in lockdown than they were before? Why do you want to stop them? Why are they still important to God?
  • What new opportunities have you enjoyed through this season? Where have you struggled? Take a few moments to name them before God, giving thanks to Him for new things that are good and asking for His strength in things that have been difficult.
  • Do you think of God as practical? Can you think of other examples in Scripture where God is practical and realistic with His people?
  • What might God want us to continue, as a church community, of how we lived pre-COVID What might He be asking us to leave behind as logistically impractical?

A Prayer for this Week
Almighty God, we thank You that You cared for Your people in Israel in realistic and practical ways. We thank You that You work with us in this way too and deeply understand our contexts, especially when they change. Help us to listen to You, follow Your Word and grow in wisdom as we seek to adapt and change to new circumstances, holding fast to that which is always true and being flexible to let go of those things that no longer serve us in our faith. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Suse E. McBay
Associate for Adult Christian Education and Prayer Ministries