Import jQuery

Torah demands interpretation: an example from Deuteronomy 16


God gave to Israel the commandments – all 613-ish of them – but practicing these today isn’t straightforward. Here we are some 3500 years removed in time and culture, and we have to assume, use inference, and yes, even make guesses at what a commandment means in practice.

Deuteronomy 16:16 is a great example of this:

“Three times a year all your men are to appear in the presence of Adonai your God in the place which he will choose — at the festival of matzah, at the festival of Shavu‘ot and at the festival of Sukkot.

- Deuteronomy 16:16

How would you apply that commandment, fine Kineti reader?

My modus operandi for the project is to restate each command in the broadest, least-interpretive way possible, keeping faithful to the text without inferring or assuming what those words mean. As I came across Deuteronomy 16:16, I wrestled with this standard.

For some commandments, this standard is near impossible to apply without some creative interpreting/inferring/assuming.

For example, “just the facts, ma’am version of this mitzvah is, “Appear before God at the place he chooses for the 3 pilgrimage feasts.”

OK, that’s nice, how would you actually apply this in your life, today?

Well, you first have to know what it means to “appear before the Lord”. Christians might say it is attending church, or just praying to God. And Christianity generally disregards the feasts as obsolete, so that part would just be omitted. And Judaism might suggest the best way to keep this commandment is to come to a synagogue for the holy days.

And what of “the place that God chooses”? Some might spiritualize this to mean the place where God leads you to go. Some of my religious friends may sincerely believe God has led them to go to a particular congregation or home for Passover, for example.

All of these might be valid interpretations of the command, a kind of personalized interpretation tailored to a specific individual in whatever circumstances he happens to be in.

The Jewish sage Maimonides, the man who came up with the exact list of 613 commandments from the Torah, interprets this commandment in a way that I think is most likely the authentic, original meaning:

“Appear at the Temple on Passover, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot.”

-Maimonides’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 16:16

That is, Maimonides is interpreting “the place that God chooses” to be the Temple in Jerusalem, and “appearing before the Lord” means making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bring offerings at the Temple.

This really is a reasonable and likely accurate interpretation in light of a few historical facts and the broader context of Scripture:

  • Historically, we know the people of Israel went up to the Temple for these feasts.
  • The psalms – in particular, Psalm 84, the Pilgrimage Psalm – attest to pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the feasts, which we understand to be Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot. It also equates going up to the Temple with appearing before the Lord.
  • The gospels also record a young Yeshua and his parents going up to the Temple for the feasts.
  • Jerusalem and the Temple appear to be the place God has chosen: the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, as well as several of the prophets of the Hebrew bible, label Jerusalem the “city that God has chosen”, with the Temple being “the house of which I said My name will be there.”

And so it appears that Jerusalem really is the city God has chosen, and the Temple is the house where God set his name. It is reasonable, then, to interpret/infer/assume that Deuteronomy 16 refers to the Temple.

If that is the case, it’s tempting to go through the Scripture with a pen and cross out “the place that God chooses” and put “the Temple.”

In fact, that’s pretty much what Maimonides does in his famous 613 commandments list. (And the issue of the Temple is one of many such interpretive strikeouts he takes!)

Of course, Maimonides could be mistaken. Thinking unbounded for a moment, maybe God chose more than one place. Or maybe that place God chose was specific to Israel in the exodus. Maybe it was each place where the Tabernacle moved to during the exodus. And when God gave this commandment, it was clearly directed to people living in the land; given the Jewish people have been in dispersion for 2000 years, is this commandment even applicable to Jews outside Israel? (How few Jews in the world travel to Jerusalem 3 times a year for the pilgrimage feasts?)

And what of all these Messianic gentiles who love Israel, love Torah, and desire to keep the commandments – even though these people are not Jewish, and living outside of Israel, should they be making pilgrimage to Jerusalem 3 times a year?

And even if Maimonides is right, we need not invalidate other interpretations. For a person who is unable to travel to Jerusalem, would God have him celebrate Passover at another place, one God chooses and leads that person to?

The commandment specifies “all your men” must appear – where does this leave women and children?

Not the least of our problems is the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists; there’s no way to appear before the Lord, if indeed that is the proper interpretation.

It’s all a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? Yet it demonstrates that the Bible requires creative interpretation, assumptions, inference, and sometimes even guessing before application.

Incorrect interpretations can lead to all kinds of weird applications, where Passover is Easter, the place that God chooses is a mountain in Samaria, or that Zion is Ethiopia. Whole religions get built around these things.

You might think I am arguing for rabbinic or church interpretation; leaving the hard work of Bible interpretation to people smarter and more studied than us. But the take-home here should be: commandments are not always straightforward. Practicing them requires study and learning. Jewish and Christian traditions can guide us as a point of reference, but should not be elevated beyond the educated guesses they are.

The good news is, I am convinced, God is leading people towards truth. By studying and learning and, as the psalmist wrote, “meditating on His word”, we are moving in the right direction.

So we keep studying, keep plugging, keep moving forward. And if we keep to this progress, there may be a time we can live out this command as the psalmist did:

Your dwelling place, O God – so lovely!
My soul longs and desires to be there in your courtyard

Happy are those who live in your house, God
From strength to strength they travel
Until appearing before you in Zion

Better a day in the courts of God
Than a thousand anywhere else
Better standing at the door of God’s house
Than living with the wicked in their tents

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