'You must not worship God in their way'
Some people claim that Deuteronomy 12:30-31 commands us not to borrow any custom of any kind from pagan religious practices. Nothing once used in idol worship is to be used in worshiping the true God. Absolutely nothing. Some Christians have therefore argued that all attempts to transform pagan customs into Christian customs are wrong. Those who think this way allow for no exceptions. “Once pagan, always pagan,” they reason.
We appreciate the sincerity of those who earnestly seek to obey God. We don’t ask them to do anything that violates their conscience. Yet we must ask, Are they correct? If something is once pagan, is it always pagan?
Various customs and traditions in Israel’s religion had earlier parallels in pagan religions — customs that God either commanded Israel to use or that he accepted, endorsed, promoted and blessed. Temples, priesthoods, sacrifices, sacred music, tithing, festivals, circumcision, all existed in pagan contexts and generally came earlier than those found in Israel. Such examples prove that although a custom may be pagan in one context, it may be commanded or permitted by God in another.
Take, as an example, the temple. Pagans built temples more than a thousand years before Moses. At Sinai God instructed Israel to build a tabernacle, not a temple. Four hundred years later David decided to build a temple, though God had not instructed him to do so. David reasoned that since he was going to live in a palace of cedar, then the ark of God should be in a temple.
In response, God reminded David that he never had asked Israel for a house (2 Samuel 7:6-7). Furthermore, David’s plan would set aside much of the letter of the law (those portions concerning the tabernacle, its construction, maintenance and transportation). In principle, what David proposed was noble. God was to be given greater honor than the king.
However, a temple was so alien to Israel’s thinking that Solomon had to rely on craftsmen from the pagan kingdom of Tyre. They had experience in temple construction. Nonetheless, God blessed this and other worship innovations.
How then should we understand Deuteronomy 12?
The context of Deuteronomy 12 is God’s command to utterly destroy the many pagan sacrificial sites that existed within the Promised Land (verses 1-3). The Canaanites, like many other pagans, had many sacrificial sites because they thought that various gods had power in various places. They believed that if the worshippers of these gods offered acceptable sacrifices, the gods would be forced to do what the worshippers wanted. Human sacrifice and temple prostitution were parts of their religion.
To discourage Israel from adopting the polytheism and immorality of paganism, God commanded Israel to have only one place of sacrifice, the tabernacle. It was only to the tabernacle that Israel was to bring their sacrifices, offerings and tithes (verses 4-18). God expanded on this thought in verses 19 through 28. He told Israel where and under what circumstances certain meats were to be eaten. He emphasized that Israel was not to eat blood, and that they were to pour the blood of their sacrifices beside the tabernacle’s altar, not just anywhere that they pleased (verse 27).
Then in verses 29 through 31 God repeated his intent to destroy the pagan nations occupying Canaan. He commanded Israel not to worship God in the pagans’ way of worship (verse 31). The reason? Because their way of worship included vile and hateful things, such as child sacrifice. This was not a blanket condemnation. The passage does not condemn the adoption of things that by nature are not evil. We have already seen how the change from tabernacle to temple fit that pattern. God did not forbid prayer, even though that was a part of pagan worship. He did not forbid sacrifices or harvest festivals, although the pagans had them.
The final verse of Deut. 12 commands Israel not to add or take away from what God has commanded. David’s innovations did not violate the spirit of this command. Other human innovations that God subsequently approved included religious holidays not originally a part of the old covenant’s festival calendar — including Purim and Hanukkah. These two days celebrated great events in Israel’s history.
God abolished the Levitical system and the old covenant through Jesus’ sacrifice. His birth, death and resurrection are of supreme importance to our salvation history. Deuteronomy’s focus on the Exodus, the tabernacle and its rituals no longer applies. We are dead to and released from the law (Romans 7:4-6). We do not have to worship God in old covenant places and in old covenant ways. We may add celebrations of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet the principle of avoiding vile and hateful practices in worship, such as child sacrifice, remains.