Deuteronomy 17-20
(Organization of the State)
February 26th

Produced by The Listening for God Ministry
Copyright 2016

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Please refer to one or more Bible versions of your choice to read this section. We recommend that you read at least two versions for added understanding. For your convenience, we have provided six links below, each of which takes you directly to today's chapters in a specific version:

Key Verse

When you enter the land that God, your God, is giving you and take it over and settle down, and then say, “I’m going to get me a king, a king like all the nations around me,” make sure you get yourself a king whom God, your God, chooses. Choose your king from among your kinsmen; don’t take a foreigner—only a kinsman. And make sure he doesn’t build up a war machine, amassing military horses and chariots. He must not send people to Egypt to get more horses, because God told you, “You’ll never go back there again!” And make sure he doesn’t build up a harem, collecting wives who will divert him from the straight and narrow. And make sure he doesn’t pile up a lot of silver and gold.

- Deuteronomy 17:14-17 (MSG)

Summary of Chapters

This section continues the Deuteronomic Code with an emphasis on rules for organizing the state of Israel. Some of the rules are a re-statement from Numbers and Leviticus, while others represent additional guidance points that are consistent with the LORD’s rules.

In chapter 17, Moses provides several principles for a fair and balanced justice system. If a man is accused of pagan worship, for example, it must by proven by the testimony of at least two or three witnesses. If he is convicted, then those witnesses must be the ones who initiate the sentence of stoning to death. Moses also instructs the people to appoint judges to distribute the responsibility of handling disputes, as he did shortly after leaving Egypt. They were told to bring difficult judgments to the Levites. If the Levites could not resolve it then they would bring it before God. Unfortunately, the people failed to fully follow this wisdom.

In the last part of this chapter Moses defines rules for a king, in the case that the Israelites decide they want to have one like everyone else does. If they did want a king, he must abide by the following rules for royalty:

    1. Must be appointed by God
    2. Must be from one of the tribes of Israel
    3. Must not acquire great number of horses
    4. Must not return the people to Egypt
    5. Must not take many wives
    6. Must not accumulate large quantities of silver and gold
    7. Must write for himself a copy of the law and read it daily so that he will worship God and not consider himself better than anyone else.

If all this is done, then he and his descendants will reign for a long time.

In the 18th chapter, Moses describes the proper offering for the priests and Levites and prophesizes about a future prophet. The prophet is not named, but Moses says that "you must listen to him (Deut 18:15),” and then he explains how the LORD described the role of the prophet:

    The LORD said to me: “What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

    - Deuteronomy 18:17-20 (NIV)

Moses returned to the theme of a justice system in chapter 19 by describing the rules for cities of refuge and rules for sufficient witnesses. The cities of refuge provide a place for a man to flee when accused of murder so that a proper trial can be convened. Moses ordered a system of highways put in place so that the refugees can have easy access to these cities.

In chapter 20, Moses describes rules for going to war without a faint heart, because the LORD will be with them. The army of Israel should offer peace to certain opponents, but if they refuse, then they may lay siege, and take plunder. By contrast, there were certain specified nations that had to be destroyed:

    But with the towns of the people that God, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, it's different: don't leave anyone alive. Consign them to holy destruction: the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, obeying the command of God, your God. This is so there won't be any of them left to teach you to practice the abominations that they engage in with their gods and you end up sinning against God, your God.

    - Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (The Message)

But, says Moses, they should respect the fruit-bearing trees, and not destroy those.

Reflection and Application

The rules for witnesses in chapter 17 are a good technique for upholding the commandment to not give false testimony against another person. One person who gives false testimony would be outnumbered by the other witnesses. If several witnesses conspired to give false testimony then they would have the guilt on their hands for beginning the stoning. What incentive do we have to only tell the truth? We ought to recognize that when we give false testimony that we are subjecting our neighbor to some type of unwarranted trial.

Notice that God did not command for the people to have a king. Instead, he recognizes that this is something for which they are going to yearn - because the other nations have one. If they are to have one, then the king and the people must remember that no man is higher than God, all are subservient to him, and in fact, no man is better than any other, even if one is the king.

Keep that royal check list from chapter 17 handy as we read the remainder of the Old Testament so that we can see if the people adhered to it. For example, when we arrive at the story of Solomon, son of David, third king of Israel, we will learn that he was justly focused on wisdom, but then became enamored with wives and riches. His descendants were allowed to rule, but the kingdom eventually split into two and regressed into a moral decay.

Note that the final instruction was for the king to have the law with him always to remind him to fear the LORD and walk humbly in his ways. Not many other people of that day had the luxury of having any printed material in their possession. The printed Bible would not become accessible to large numbers of people until more than 4,000 years after Moses.

The invention of movable type printing by Johannes Gutenberg (1398 A.D. – 1468 A.D.) in the 15th century A.D. was considered one of the greatest achievements of the second millennium. This machine made it possible to produce a printed Bible (and other books) for a cost that was considerably lower than the price of a hand-copied manuscript, which had been the only other option. The Bible was the first major book that Gutenberg produced and the first Bible ever produced on a printing press. Gutenberg's format was commended by the Pope of his day and became the standard for future Bibles. Only a few remaining original copies of the Gutenberg Bible have survived, including one in the New York Public Library that sits behind a glass case (1). Check it out the next time you are strolling through that part of the city.

Thanks to Gutenberg and subsequent printing improvements, the people of our era can buy a Bible for a reasonable price, or borrow one from a library. The invention of the hypertext concept by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (June 8 1955 - Current) in 1989 made it possible for the Bible and other content to become available on the Internet, on sites such as Bible Gateway, which offers it for free. Therefore, we have the opportunity to read the Bible and gain access to the same source of the king’s wisdom. We can’t make the excuse that we don’t have access to a Bible or never heard of it. If we choose to seek this wisdom, then we need to set aside time to devote to study and reflection, as you are doing now.

God spoke to Moses and he spoke through the prophets that are recorded in the Bible. He still speaks to his people, and might speak to any one of us. We may not talk about this openly, but it’s true. If we are bold enough to share our experiences and ask others about theirs then we will hear amazing stories of God’s intervention. We should be cautious about those who claim to be God’s spokesperson, as warned by Moses. We can ask ourselves if their words are consistent with the Bible, but we should not limit the ways in which we believe God might intervene. Nor should we limit ourselves to believing that there are only certain types of people that God might speak to or work through. We can observe in the Bible that God uses all types of people to achieve his plans.

God told the Israelites to wipe out their near neighbors so they would not be influenced, but they did not fully follow through and it became their ruin. When God speaks to us, we ought to stop what we are doing and start listening. When we hear him tell us to do something, then we must follow through.

Questions and Prayers for Further Reflection

    Related Questions
    1. What was an experience in which you were falsely accused?
    2. What are some of the benefits that you have experienced regarding the justice system where you live?
    3. What does God want you to follow through on today?
    Recommended Prayer
    Father in heaven, please help us to follow through on what you have told us.

    Suggested Prayer Concerns
    Judges, lawyers, and others who work in the judicial system, including Attorney Generals and their Assistants.


    (1) "Gutenberg Bible," article on Wikipedia, 2/25/11

    Looking Ahead

    Tomorrow's reading: Deuteronomy 21-23 (Mishpats - Part I)

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