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with Catholic Commentary by George Leo Haydock

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Deuteronomy 17

All sacrifices to be perfect, Idolaters must be slain. (1-7) Difficult controversies. (8-13) The choice of a king, His duties. (14-20)

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All sacrifices to be perfect, Idolaters must be slain

1 Thou shalt not sacrifice unto the LORD thy God any bullock, or sheep, wherein is blemish, or any evilfavouredness: for that is an abomination unto the LORD thy God.

2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,

3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;

4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:

5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.

7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.

Difficult controversies

8 If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within thy gates: then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which the LORD thy God shall choose;

9 And thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment:

10 And thou shalt do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall shew thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee:

11 According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand, nor to the left.

12 And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.

13 And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.

The choice of a king, His duties

14 When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me;

15 Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.

16 But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.

17 Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.

18 And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites:

19 And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

20 That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.

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G Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

Ver. 1. Ox. By this name all bulls, cows, &c. are designated. For it was not lawful to sacrifice any thing which had lost any member. Ex. xii. 5. Lev. i. 3.

Ver. 2. Covenant, by incurring the evil of idolatry. C. Heb. x. 29.

Ver. 3. The host of heaven. That is, the stars. Ch. — This species of idolatry was the most ancient and common in the East. Job (xxxi. 26, 28) takes notice of the adoration of the sun and of the moon, and calls it a very great iniquity, and a denial against the most high God. He lived in Arabia, and probably not far from the place where Moses was addressing the Israelites. H. — The pagans looked upon the sun and moon as the king and queen of heaven, and the stars as their guards. Plato says (in Phædro) that “the sun marches at the head of the gods, in a winged chariot, and the eleven other gods lead on their bands of demons,” or the stars, &c.

Ver. 5. Stoned, not far from the gates, where they received sentence. Thus the sabbath-breaker was stoned without the camp, (Num. xv. 35,) and S. Stephen out of the city of Jerusalem, Acts vii. 57. When only a few were concerned, the twenty-three judges passed sentence: but if a whole tribe had been guilty, the cognizance of the affair was left to the Sanhedrim. When a city was infected with this abomination, it was wholly destroyed. But no one was punished, except two witnesses (v. 6,) attested that formal idolatry, by sacrifice, &c. had been committed. Seld. Syned. iii. 4.

Ver. 6. Slain. When the action was public, this formality was not requisite. C. xiii. 9. — Him. One witness was never admitted to prove any crime; neither would the Jews receive for witnesses, women, infants under thirteen, slaves, publicans, thieves, &c. Josep. iv. c. ult. The Rabbins also reject other notorious offenders, enemies, relations, and those who had not a competent knowledge of the law, &c. Ap. Seld. Syn. ii. 13. 11. and Grot. — But we could wish for some authors of more credit. C.

Ver. 7. Kill him. Thus testifying that they approve the sentence, and are willing that his blood should be required at their hands, if they had accused him falsely. The criminal was hurled down a precipice by one of the witnesses, and, if he survived, he was stoned by the other, and by the whole people. Maimonides asserts, that the execution took place on some great festival, for the terror and instruction of the multitude; but others call this in question. Fagius. C.

Ver. 8. If thou perceive, &c. Here we see what authority God was pleased to give to the church-guides of the Old Testament, in deciding, without appeal, all controversies relating to the law; promising that they should not err therein; and punishing with death such as proudly refused to obey their decisions: and surely he has not done less for the church-guides of the New Testament. Ch. — Hard. Heb. also means, “doubtful, hidden, divided;” so that the opinions of the judges do not agree. In matters of fact, the thing is more easily investigated on the spot. But in these cases, where the law is ambiguous, as even the divine ordinances frequently are, being delivered in human language, (Grot.) a living judge is necessary. God remits the Jews in the council of the priests, at the head of whom was the sovereign pontiff, who was the natural and supreme judge of such difficulties, v. 9. 12. H. — And blood, to decide when murder must be punished with death, and when the right of an asylum may be claimed. C. — The Vulg. renders the same words, 2 Par. xix. 10. — Between kindred and kindred, as the different degrees cause many embarrassments, with regard to marriages, &c. T. — The Rabbins understand that the judge had to declare when a woman was rendered unclean. Lev. xii. 4. Lyran. — And cause, or law-suit; some thinking that a greater sum for reparation of an injury should be required, others judging that one of the contending parties should be set at liberty, while the other judges are of a contrary sentiment. Heb. “between judgment and judgment,” when a doubt arises whether laymen or the Levites may be the proper judges. The Rabbins only remit three cases to the tribunal of the latter, respecting, 1. The red heifer; 2. the woman accused of adultery by her jealous husband; 3. the heifer to be offered in sacrifice, for a murder committed by a person unknown. C. xxi. 5. — And leprosy. Various difficulties might arise concerning this matter, of which the priests had to pass sentence. Lev. xiii. Some render the Heb. negah, “wound.” The law of retaliation required a scrupulous nicety. Blood, cause, and leprosy, may denote lawsuits of a criminal, less important, and ceremonial nature. Jans. — Vary. Heb. “which are matters of contention within thy gates.”

Ver. 9. Judge. Moses does not specify whether the contending parties, or the judges themselves thought proper to have the matter debated before a higher court. The Rabbins observe, that appeals to the Sanhedrim were only the last resort, and that the sentence of that tribunal was to be complied with under pain of death, v. 12. Seld. Syned. iii. 2. 2. The judge here mentioned, according to them and the generality of commentators, after Josephus, Philo, &c. is no other than the high priest, as the Scripture plainly indicates. C. xxi. 5. Ezec. xliv. 24. He abode near the tabernacle, and God enabled him to explain the law, when he was arrayed with the ephod, and the Urim and Thummim. Some moderns, who have an interest to lessen the authority of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, with Calvin, Ainsworth, &c. pretend that an appeal was to be made to the priests, in disputes which concerned religion, and to the civil magistrate in other cases. The latter were indeed commissioned to pass sentence in the different cities. 2 Par. xix. 5. C. —But an appeal to the high priest, in doubtful cases, could not be denied. The government of the Jews was a theocracy, and the pontiff acted as the vicegerent of God. H.

Ver. 10. Preside. The high priests who are to succeed each other. W.

Ver. 11. According, &c. This law was to be the rule of the priests, in passing sentence. It was not left to the judgment of individuals to comply or not, according as they might explain the law for themselves. Such a proceeding would be nugatory, as they would thus be themselves the ultimate judges of their own cause. H. — They shall seek the law at his (the priest’s) mouth. Mal. ii. 7. Protestants make, therefore, a very frivolous restriction, when they allow his sentence to bind only “so long as he is the true minister of God, and pronounceth according to his word.” Bible, 1603. W. — If any had been proud enough among the Jews, to persuade himself that he understood the law better than the high priest, he would not on that account have escaped death. H. — The authority of the Christian Church is not inferior to that of the Synagogue, only, “instead of death, excommunication is now inflicted” on the rebellious. S. Greg. Mat. xviii. 17. S. Aug. q. 38. In effect, S. Paul assures us that the priests of the law, serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things. But now he (Christ)…is the mediator of the better covenant, which is established on better promises. Heb. viii. 5. If therefore the privilege of deciding points of faith and morality, without danger of mistake, was granted to the synagogue, can any one doubt but that Christ would provide as ample a security to his Church, with which he has promised to remain for ever, and with his Holy Spirit to teach her all the truth? H. — S. Augustine dwells upon this argument (Doct. 4.) and proves the infallibility both of the Jewish and of the Christian Church. Hence Christ said, with respect to the former, which was not yet rejected, All therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works, do ye not: for they say the truth, and do not practise what they require of others. If the heads of the Catholic Church should be equally immoral, their true doctrine must not therefore be despised, lest Christ and his Father be at the same time despised. For this is the express admonition of our heavenly lawgiver, hear the Church: (Mat. xvii. 17,) and this he does not require without giving us a full assurance, that we may do it without fear of being led astray. The sole command of God implies as much, if he had said no more. For can he order us to sin? The pretended reformers, who blushed not to make this blasphemous assertion, might easily swallow down the other, respecting the defection and fallibility of the whole Church; and might even believe, that the whole world had been drowned in abominable idolatry for eight hundred years and more. Hom. on the peril of idolat. p. 3. How much more they do not determine, lest they should be forced to tell when the religion of the Catholics began, and that they will never do without dating from Christ and the apostles, the foundations of the only true Church. H. — The Jews had such a respect for the decisions of their Rabbins, in consequence of this command of God, that some hesitate not to assert, that if one of them should declare that the left hand was the right, they would believe him; and they condemn the refractory to most grievous torments in hell. Buxtorf. Syn. i. — We must shew the most profound submission to the decrees of the Church. C. — Yet we are not bound to assent to the decisions of every teacher. Only, when the Church speaks, we must not refuse to obey, nor pretend to appoint ourselves judges of what she teaches. A private doctor, however eminent, may fall into some absurdities, but the major part of the pastors of the Church, with the Pope at their head, never can. In vain have the records of nineteen centuries been ransacked, to find a single instance of such a general agreement in error. If the Synagogue passed a wicked sentence upon Jesus Christ, we must reflect that the forms here required (v. 8,) were neglected; and it was then expiring, and giving place to a better covenant, as the prophets had foretold. Yet even in that sentence, which was so unjust on the part of Caiphas, S. John (xi. 51.) acknowledges the truth of God. And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest, that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God that were dispersed. The Synagogue could claim submission no longer, after the great prophet had come to abrogate the law of fear, and to substitute that of love. Hence while he was there to teach himself, (Heb. i. 2,) there was no danger of deception for the people. But the covenant which he has established is to last for ever: no prophet or lawgiver is promised to introduce any change, or greater perfection, so that no one can plead for an excuse of his rebellion, that the Church may deceive and pass an erroneous judgment; or, if he do, he must be cut off from the society of the faithful, by the spiritual sword; and, dying in that state, without the Church for his mother, he need never expect that God will acknowledge him for his son. See S. Cyp. Unit. Ecc. If an individual pastor should pass such a perverse sentence, the case would be very different. Yet, even in such trying cases, an humble conduct will be the best security and proof of innocence, and God will reward those who have suffered unjustly. H.

Ver. 12. And the decree. Some copies read with Sixtus V. ex decreto, by &c. “decree,” (H.) as if a lay-judge stood ready to put the sentence in execution. C. — But there was no necessity of any farther judgment after the high priest had spoken, who is here declared the sovereign judge. S. Cyp. ep. 55. Heb. “or to the judge.” Amama ridicules his friend, Ant. a Dominis, for saying that the Heb. and Vulg. have et decreto. H. — The Rabbins inform us, that if any judge refused to acquiesce in the decision, and endeavoured to draw others into his opinion, in matters of consequence, (as those are where the guilty is ordered to be cut off,) he was to be strangled, on a festival day, at Jerusalem, that all the people hearing it might fear, v. 13. Seld. Syned. iii. 3. C.

Ver. 13. Pride. Heb. “do presumptuously,” as the Prot. translate. How will they excuse their leaders, Luther, &c. and themselves, from this grievous charge? If the person, who presumed to assert that the leprosy had not infected some one, whom the priests condemned, (v. 8,) could not escape death, shall we esteem those innocent whom the whole Church rejects? Hic niger est, hunc tu Romane caveto. Hor. H.

Ver. 14. King. The Rabbins observe, that one was to be elected before the place for the temple was fixed upon, that the tribes might not contend about that honour. Grotius. — God foresees that the people will insist upon having a king, and gives his consent, reserving to himself the choice, and appointing laws for him, that he may not forget that he is the only lieutenant of the most high. Yet God testified his displeasure, when the Israelites demanded a king, because they did it in a seditious manner, so as to reject the prophet Samuel, whom he had given them for a ruler, in whom they could discover no fault. C. 1 K. viii. 7. and x. 19.

Ver. 15. Choose, as he did Saul, David, and Solomon, who succeeded to the throne of his father, though he was not the eldest son. M. — Then the throne began to be hereditary, in virtue of God’s promise to David. C. — Brother. The Jews neglected this law, when they willingly recognized the authority of Herod, two years after the birth of Christ. See Gen. xlix. 10. H. — A stranger might attempt to draw off the people from the service of the true God, and mutual love would not so easily subsist between them. M.

Ver. 16. Horses. Josue and David rendered the captured horses useless, (Jos. xi. 6. 2 K. viii. 4,) and the judges rode on asses. Judg. x. 4. and xii. 14. Solomon began to keep some, and in his days in Egypt was noted for the traffic of horses; though, after Sesostris had intersected the country with canals, they were more neglected. Marsham. Canon. sæc. xiii. and xiv. God did not wish his people to engage in the tumults of war, nor would he permit their king to be puffed up with his own strength. Ps. xix. 8. and xxxii. 17. Philo says he would not have them to listen to any one who might promise to conduct them to a better country and thus teach them to lead a wandering life. C. — He precludes also the attempt to conquer Egypt. Heb. “he shall not make the people return to Egypt, in order that he may multiply horses,” by their buying them for him in that country, 3 K. x. 29. — Way. When the people proposed returning, God severely punished them. Num. xiv. 5.

Ver. 17. Mind, and reign in his name. Heb. “and his heart turn not away” from the worship of the true God, as it happened to Solomon, and to many other kings, whom Moses seems to have had in view. Too great a number of wives would tend to perplex and enervate the king, and to eat up the treasures of his people. The Jewish lawyers allow the king only 18, and they say David and Roboam had that number. But the latter had moreover 60 concubines, (2 Par. xi. 21,) and Solomon had many more. In effect, the number seems not to be restricted, and, what is very singular, the Rabbins allow all but the high priest and the king as many as they can keep, though the sages advise people to have no more than four, which seems to be the sentiment of the Mahometans. This liberty was taken by the Jews till the emperors restricted them, A.D. 593. Seld. Uxor. i. 8, &c. Plurality of wives was not formerly a sin, though Solomon offended by too great excess. S. Aug. q. 27. W. — Gold. Immense riches are seldom possessed even by kings, without the oppression of their subjects, and great danger of falling into extravagance. If David amassed so much gold, it was destined for the building of the temple. But Solomon laying on heavy taxes, alienated the hearts of his people, and gave occasion to the revolt of 10 tribes; and Ezechias brought on a severe chastisement by making a parade of his treasures to the ambassadors of the king of Babylon, 4 K. xx. 15. C.

Ver. 18. Of this law, perhaps from the 14th verse to the end of the chapter (H.) or the whole Book of Deuteronomy, which contains an abridgment of the law, (Jos. viii. 32. M.) or even the five books, which were formerly written without any division, and went under the name of the law. Grotius, &c. — Heb. seems favourable to this last opinion, (C.) “he shall write a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is kept by the priests,” unless Moses might only require that he should have a copy of what he was then delivering. H. — Some say that the king was obliged to take two copies, one of which he was to have always about him. It is not certain whether he was obliged to write himself, as Philo asserts, or another might do it for him. The diadem and the law were presented to Joas, when he ascended the throne, 2 Par. xxiii. 11. C. — If (H.) Josias had not seen a copy of the law before the 18th year of his reign, this precept must have been very ill observed, 4 K. xxii. 11. C. — But, very probably, that book, which Helcias discovered in the temple, was the autograph of Moses, and therefore made a deeper impression upon all who saw and heard it read, than if it had been read than if it had been only an ordinary copy. This copy might have been mislaid or secreted in those troublesome times; and then the high priest brought it to light again, he as well as the king and all the people, were filled with joy and amazement. H. — It was the custom of the Jews to present a copy of the law to their kings, when they first sat upon the throne; and hence, perhaps, they make a similar present to the Pope, when he goes to take possession of the Lateran church. Morus. — They presented one to Innocent II when he made his entry into Paris, 1146, and another to king Louis the Fat, as Suger informs us. C. — Priests. Temporal princes who desire to become virtuous and wise, will ever take the law of God at the priest’s hands. W.

Ver. 19. Law. Pious Christian emperors and kings have esteemed it their greatest glory and happiness to read and meditate on the holy commandments of God, in order to regulate their conduct, amid the various dangerous occupations of their station. H. — Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, S. Stephen of Hungary, Alphonsus I. of Spain, were noted for the zeal which they shewed in the particular. Alphonsus of Arragon, had read the Bible, with the Commentaries, 14 times over, and the great Alfred wrote all the New Testament twice over with his own hand. C. — He had translated into English Saxon all or most of the Bible before 900, as king Athelstan did about 925. Encyc. Brit. Bible, &c. Yet the Catholic Church never condemned this conduct of her children, as Protestants would insinuate. Cath. Doct. by N. G.

Ver. 20. With pride. This is not expressed in Heb. but it is clearly (H.) implied. Humility is the most difficult virtue for a prince to practice, amid the flattery of his courtiers, and the splendour with which he is environed. See S. Aug. C. D. v. 24. C. — His sons. Wicked kings seldom left a quiet possession of the throne to their heirs. M. — David and his posterity reigned in succession, by an effect of the divine bounty. C.