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Parashat Re'eh 5758/1998
"The site that the Lord your G-d will choose"
Menahem Ben Yashar
Department of Bible
Early on in Parshat Re'eh, the section called "the laws of Deuteronomy" (12:1-28), also known as "Moses' speech about the mitzvot", begins with a law about centralizing worship of the Lord in one place, namely, "the site that the Lord your G-d will choose" --hamakom asher yivhar Hashem (12:5, 11, 18, 21, 26). This is how the phrase was understood by the entire spectrum of biblical exegetes until the 1920's, when certain scholars began to challenge this view. They maintained that the proscription was not against a multiplicity of sacred sites, but only against arbitrarily establishing them. These sacred sites, of which there could be any number at a given time, were to be built only where the Lord chose, although the way this choice would be made manifest was not clearly stated; apparently, it was by a sign from heaven or through the mouth of a prophet.
This debate, which of course is integrally tied to one's fundamental approach to the book of Deuteronomy, has not been settled. The proponents of the "centralized worship school" rely on phrases such as "amidst all your tribes" (12:5) and "in one of your tribal territories" (12:14) to show that the Torah's intent is to one place of worship. The proponents of the distributive school respond that these expressions could apply to a number of concurrently existing centers. H. Gevaryahu has suggested an intermediate solution: neither many places existing simultaneously, nor a single sacred site; rather, a single site in any given generation, which might, and perhaps even should, move elsewhere; in other words, a single itinerant center.
Here is the gist of his argument: Deuteronomy does not mention a house of worship for the Lord. The assumption is that the Tent of Meeting that journeyed through the wilderness continued to exist and move about in the land of Canaan. Where? This passage does not use such phrases as "in one of your cities" or "one of your gates," rather, "amidst all your tribes" (mikol shivtekhem) and "in one of your tribal territories" (beahad shevatekha). This indicates a tribal reference: in the tribe that would be chosen by the Lord you shall place the Sanctuary.
Indeed, in Parshat Shoftim (17:8-9) we read: "... you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your G-d will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time,..." From this we learn that the seat of the magistrate, the shofet, is the chosen place, and this is the place where the Tabernacle and priests are. In a patriarchal tribal regime, G-d would choose in every generation a magistrate to be instilled with the spirit of the Lord. His tribal seat was chosen as the national center and the site of the Tabernacle, as long as the magistrate "in charge at the time" had his seat there.
Further, Gevaryahu points out that the first judge after Moses, namely Joshua, installed the Tent of Meeting in Shiloh, which was in the center of the tribal territory of his tribe, Ephraim, (Josh. 18:1). We may add that theoretically, after Joshua's death, the Ark should have moved on to some other tribe where the next judge arose. This, however, did not prove to have been the case. Throughout almost the entire period of the judges the Tabernacle and the Ark remained in Shiloh, in the tribal territory of Ephraim.
Our answer to this is that there was nothing more permanent than the transitory. To wit, events in the time of Gideon (Judges 8:1-3), and Jephthah (Judges 12:1-7) point to the tribe of Ephraim presuming leadership, even (and especially) in the time of judges from other tribes. Therefore, it made sense not to let the Tent of Meeting be removed from their territory, especially considering that most of the judges did not exert strong control over the tribes. Nevertheless, the Shiloh Tabernacle eventually became corrupt (I Sam. 2:12-25), and ultimately was destroyed (Jer. 7:12, 14) and was rejected by the Lord (Ps. 78:60-67).
Thus it appears that the intrinsically itinerant quality of the Tabernacle continued its nomadic history in the wilderness, and was tied to the tribal regime in the time of the judges. Therefore, once David captured his capital, Jerusalem, so that "David knew that the lord had established him as king over Israel" (II Sam. 5:12), he concluded that the era of the Tent wandering from place to place had drawn to a close. Henceforth Israel would have a fixed capital, and there a House of the Lord should be built (II Sam. 7:1-3).
Although personally the prophet Nathan agreed with this reasoning, his subsequent prophetic opposition to a Davidic Temple in the name of the Lord (vv. 4-13), follows reasoning equally cogent. His vision begins (vv. 6-7) with the statement that throughout the era that the Tabernacle had moved about in the wilderness and in the land, the Lord never requested that a temple be built for Him. Nathan's vision proceeds to describe David's eminence as a savior and king, and how the Lord would make him head of a dynasty (vv. 8-12). Nevertheless, construction of the Temple would be transferred to David's son who would succeed him and whose "royal throne will be established forever" (v. 13). The logic was that notwithstanding David's greatness, he was not yet a dynastic monarch, and in this way was no different from the judges or from Saul. Now we all know that the latter's dynasty was cut off. Only the second generation of the Davidic monarchy could establish a true dynasty, a continuing monarchy, whose fixed capital would put an end to the nomadic regime; then the time would come to build a temple edifice.
In Chronicles, Nathan's vision is ascribed to David (I Chron. 17), but a different reason is given to explain why the role of building the temple was passed from David to Solomon: David was a man of war and bloodshed (I. Chron. 22:7-10; 28:2-3), whereas Solomon was a man of peace and rest. This motif first appears in Solomon's epistle to Hiram, king of Tyre (I Kings 5:16-20). The author of Chronicles takes the pragmatic reason given in this diplomatic correspondence and imparts it religious significance, perhaps reflecting the religious spirit of his times.
The Sages identified "the site that the Lord your G-d will choose" not with a portable Sanctuary but with Jerusalem, for they were not interested in giving a literal historical interpretation to the text, but, like all of Midrash, in applying the Bible to their day and to generations to come. Since the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, reverting to tribal rule had become inconceivable; the Jewish state would have a permanent capital, and clearly "the site that the Lord your G-d will choose" could only apply to Jerusalem.