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Deuteronomy 17


Justice Must be Administered (16:18-17:13) Laws Dealing with Justice and Religion (16:18-17:20) The Administration of Justice (16:18-17:13) Abuses in Worship (16:21-17:7)
16:21-17:1 16:21-17:1 16:21-17:1 16:21-17:1
17:2-7 17:2-7 17:2-7 17:2-7
      Levitical Judges
17:8-13 17:8-13 17:8-13 17:8-13
Principles Governing Kings   Instructions Concerning a King Kings
17:14-17 17:14-20 17:14-20 17:14-15

READING CYCLE THREE (see introductory section)


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



1"You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep which has a blemish or any defect, for that is a detestable thing to the Lord your God."

17:1 "blemish or any defect" This verse is contextually related to 16:21-22, which also deals with appropriate places and types of sacrifices. In the OT "blemish" (BDB 548) refers to any kind of physical defect (cf. 15:21; Lev. 22:20-25). Malachi 1:6-8 records an example of Israel giving God less than the best.

NASB"a detestable thing"
NKJV"an abomination"
TEV"the Lord hates this"

This term (BDB 1072) is discussed at 14:3.

▣ "the Lord your God" This is the common covenantal phrase using YHWH and Elohim. See the SPECIAL TOPIC: NAMES FOR DEITY at 1:3.

"If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, 3and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, 4and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. 6On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst."

17:2-13 These verses deal with administrative justice. Verses 2-7 deal with idolatry and legal witnesses. Verses 8-13 deal with the practical setup of the courts.


NASB"who does what is evil"
NKJV"who has been wicked"
NRSV"who does what is evil"
TEV"has sinned"
NJB"who does what is wrong"

This phrase is a Qal imperfect verb (BDB 793 I, KB 889) and a direct object (BDB 948). This is the common two-consonant root ער, which means "bad," "evil," "distress," "misery," "injury," or "calamity." Here the context defines it as (1) "transgressing His covenant," v. 2 (BDB 716, KB 778, literally "passing over") and (2) "has gone and served other gods and worshiped them," v. 3:

1. "has gone" - BDB 229, KB 246, Qal imperfect

2. "served" - BDB 712, KB 773, Qal imperfect

3. "worshiped" - BDB 1005, KB 295, Hishtaphel imperfect

▣ "by transgressing His covenant" This verb (BDB 716, KB 778, Qal infinitive construct) basically means "to pass over" or "pass through." It is most often used in a literal sense, but sometimes in a theological sense. Originally it may have referred to the act of halving an animal as a covenant act and walking between the parts (e.g., Gen. 15:17). Violation of the covenant resulted in death or destruction (i.e., like the halved animal). It denoted the violation of clearly defined actions (i.e., covenant stipulations, cf. 26:13; Josh. 7:11,15; Jdgs. 2:20; II Kgs. 18:12; Jer. 34:18-19; Hos. 6:7; 8:1).

17:3 "the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host" The ancient Babylonians were the first, but not the last, to see the heavenly bodies as representatives of gods and goddesses (cf. 4:19; II Kgs. 17:16; 21:3,5; 23:4-5; II Chr. 33:3,5; Jer. 8:2; 19:13). They felt that the lights of the sky controlled mankind's destiny (physically and spiritually).

17:4 This verse is similar to 13:14. The verb "you shall inquire thoroughly" (BDB 205, KB 233, Qal perfect) implies a complete investigation (cf. 13:14; 17:4,9; 19:18; Lev. 10:16; Jdgs. 6:29). Accusations and second-hand knowledge were not enough to convict. Israel's judicial system was harsh ("stoned to death," v. 5), but thorough.

NASB, TEV"if it is true"
NKJV"if it is indeed true"
NRSV"the charge is proved true"
NJB"it is found true and confirmed"

 This Hebrew idiom (hypothetical particle, BDB 243 II, b and noun BDB 54) is repeated three times in Deuteronomy (i.e., 13:14; 17:4; 22:20).

NASB"this detestable thing"
NKJV"that such an abomination"
NRSV"an abhorrent thing"
TEV"this evil thing"
NJB"this hateful thing"

This same term (BDB 1072) is used in 17:1, where it refers to a blemished sacrifice. Here it refers to idol worship (i.e., "the host of heaven").

"Israel" See Special Topic at 1:1.

17:5 "to your gates" This phrase meant "to your local court." This was where the local elders sat.

▣ "stone them to death" This was a form of corporate punishment (cf. v. 7). Every adult member of the community acted to rid itself of the evil (see full note at 13:10).

The Hebrew text has a series of verbs that refer to death in vv. 5-7:

1. "stone to death" - BDB 709, KB 768, Qal perfect, v. 5

2. death - BDB 559, KB 562

a. v. 5, Qal perfect

b. v. 6, Hophal imperfect

c. v. 6, Qal participle

d. v. 6, Hophal imperfect

e. v. 7, Hiphil infinitive construct

Covenant violations carried severe consequences (cf. Deuteronomy 27-29)! Evil within the community must be eradicated.

17:6 "On the evidences of two witnesses" This is a Mosaic requirement (cf. Num. 35:30 and Deut. 19:15; also note Matt. 18:16; John 8:7; II Cor. 13:1; and I Tim 5:19).

▣ "he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness" See 19:15-21 and Num. 35:30.

17:7 "The hand of the witness shall be first against him" The ones who witnessed against a person were to throw the first stones (cf. 13:9; Lev. 24:14). Thus, if the witnesses were lying, then God would punish them for shedding innocent blood (i.e., murder).

8"If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. 9So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them and they will declare to you the verdict in the case. 10You shall do according to the terms of the verdict which they declare to you from that place which the Lord chooses; and you shall be careful to observe according to all that they teach you. 11According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. 12The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the Lord your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again."

17:8 The very difficult (BDB 810, KB 927, Niphal imperfect) cases were to be referred to the priests at the central sanctuary (cf. 12:5,11,13).

These types of judicial difficulties are described as:

1. "blood to blood" (BDB 196), meaning homicide

2. "judgment to judgment" (BDB 192)

a. NRSV, "one kind of legal right and another"

b. TEV, "certain cases of property rights"

c. NJB, "conflicting claims"

d. REB, "civil rights"

e. JPSOA, "civil law"

f. NET Bible, "legal claim"

g. NIV, "lawsuits"

3. "stroke to stroke" (BDB 619), meaning some kind of assault (cf. 21:5)

The Jewish Study Bible, p. 405, asserts that the difficult cases involved a lack of evidence. By referring these to the priests at the central sanctuary, Moses is assuming that divine insight will determine the guilt or innocence of the parties involved.

"the place which the Lord your God chooses" This verb (BDB 103, KB 119) is used in Deuteronomy for several things:

1. YHWH's choice of Israel's forefathers, 4:37

2. YHWH's choice of Israel, 7:6,7; 10:15; 14:2

3. YHWH's choice of the place of a central sanctuary, 12:5,11,14,18,21,26; 14:23,24,25; 15:20; 16:2,6,7,11,15,16; 17:8,10; 18:6; 26:2; 31:11

4. YHWH's choice of a king, 17:15

5. YHWH's choice of an Aaronic (Levitical) priesthood, 18:5; 21:5


17:9 "the Levitical priest" The Masoretic Text (Hebrew), the Septuagint (Greek), and the Peshitta (Aramaic) have the plural, "priests." This indicates a pool or guild of priests (cf. 19:17). This was the rabbinical proof text for the Sanhedrin (set up by Ezra).

▣ "the judge" The Masoretic Text has the singular. This refers to a single judge (cf. II Chr. 19:11 for historical example of this) or leader of a group of judges.

17:9-12 Israel is to be respectful and obedient to judicial discussions because they reflect the authority of YHWH. Notice the verbs used:

1. "declare" - BDB 616, KB 665

a. v. 9, Hiphil perfect

b. v. 10, Hiphil imperfect

c. v. 11, Hiphil imperfect

2. "do" - BDB 793, KB 889

a. v. 10, Qal perfect

b. v. 10, Qal infinitive construct

c. v. 11, Qal imperfect

d. v. 12, Qal imperfect

3. "teach" - BDB 434, KB 436

a. v. 10, Hiphil imperfect

b. v. 11, Hiphil imperfect

4. "not listening" - BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal infinitive construct


17:11 "you shall not turn aside from the word. . .to the right or the left" This is a Hebrew idiom for not changing the verdict and punishment handed down by the Levitical judges. A similar metaphor is used of YHWH's words in 4:2; 12:32. Once YHWH's will is known, turning right or left means disobedience (cf. 5:32; 17:20; 28:14; Josh. 1:7; 23:6; II Kgs. 22:2; Pro. 4:27).

17:12 "presumptuously" This term (BDB 268) is used of wilful disobedience (cf. 1:43; 17:12,13; 18:20,22). The judge and priest were representatives of YHWH's authority. Therefore, to reject their decisions was to reject YHWH! In 18:20-22, it is prophets who do not know YHWH speaking in His name, using His authority!

▣ "the priest who stand there to serve the Lord" This is a metaphor for a Levitical priest.

NASB, NRSV"you shall purge the evil from Israel"
NKJV"you shall put away the evil person from Israel"
TEV"you will remove this evil from Israel"
NJB"You must banish this evil from Israel"

The verb (BDB 128, KB 145, Piel perfect) means to burn or consume (cf. Num. 11:3). Here it is used metaphorically as in 13:5; 17:7,12; 19:13,19; 21:21.

14"When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,' 15you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman. 16"Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, 'You shall never again return that way.' 17He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself."

17:14-20 These are some of the most controversial verses in the OT, especially the Pentateuch. These verses speak about a coming king. Many OT scholars of our day say that Deuteronomy is the book that was found during Josiah's reform hundreds of years later during the monarchial period, and that it was written by the priests then to centralize worship at Jerusalem (cf. II Kgs. 22:8; II Chr. 34:14-15). They assert that this is evidence that it was not written by Moses because nowhere else in the Pentateuch is there mention of a king. It is an anachronism referring to Solomon, so obviously it must have been written later. I do not believe any of this! Some verses which show that vv. 14-20 are not unique in the Pentateuch are Gen. 17:6, 35:11; 36:31; Num. 24:7; Jdgs. 8:22,23; 9:6. See Special Topic below.


17:14 "and you say, 'I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me'" The verb is a Qal cohortative (BDB 962, KB 1321). It is repeated four times in vv. 14 and 15. The second (Qal infinitive absolute) and third (Qal imperfect) usages go together as a way of intensification:

1. NASB, NKJV "you shall surely set"

2. NRSV "you may indeed set"

3. TEV "be sure"

The problem was not a king, but a king "like all the nations who are around me"! The king was to represent YHWH (cf. v. 8), not Oriental pagan courts. This very issue is dealt with when Israel asked Samuel for a king in I Samuel 8.

17:15 "whom the Lord your God chooses" God is sovereign, He (not Israel, cf. v. 14) chooses the man, but Israel confirms His choice by their affirmation (e.g., Jdgs. 11:11; Hos. 1:11).

Notice the guidelines for kingship: 

1. when Israel possesses the land, v. 14

2. one whom YHWH chooses, v. 15

3. not a foreigner, v. 15

4. he shall not trust in military armament ("multiply horses"), v. 16

5. he shall not seek help from Egypt, v. 16

6. he shall not trust in political allegiances ("multiply wives"), v. 17

7. he shall not trust in wealth ("increase silver and gold"), v. 17

The numbers 4-7 above reflect Solomon's abuses! It is unique in ancient Near Eastern law that the king has his powers limited, but in Israel God:

1. sets the place and procedures of justice

2. sets the pattern of worship

3. sets limits on kingly power, succession, and wealth

4. the king is one among many covenant partners (cf. v. 20)

5. the king must study regularly and implement (personally and officially) God's laws (cf. vv. 18-19)


17:16 "he shall not multiply horses" Horses were owned only by rulers, not local people. A horse was a battle weapon for war. In other words, "Don't trust in your military might. I, God, am protecting you."

▣ "You shall never again return that way" This possibly refers to a later practice of trading Hebrew mercenaries for horses. One historical example is the Elephantine community. However, in context, it again asserts that the coming king must trust totally in YHWH alone!

17:17 "He shall not multiply wives" This refers to (1) lustful use of power or more probably (2) political and religious alliances. This was the ancient Near Eastern way to form "non-aggression" pacts.

▣ "nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself" God placed the king as His under shepherd. That under shepherd should never strive for personal wealth or power.

18"Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel."

17:18-20 These verses are a summary of the king's relationship to God's revealed will (i.e., the Law).

17:18 "he shall write for himself copy of this law" This probably refers to someone (i.e., a Levitical priest) making a copy for him (cf. II Kgs. 11:12). This is the verse from which the Septuagint got the title for the book of Deuteronomy (i.e., the Second Law), but in context this verse refers to a second copy of the Law, not a revised version of the Law.

17:19 This verse and vs. 20 has a series of Qal infinitive constructs, which flow from the king's reading (BDB 894, KB 1128, Qal perfect) and learning (BDB 540, KB 531, Qal imperfect) from YHWH's revelation of His will through Moses (i.e., Pentateuch):

1. to fear (BDB 431, KB 432)

2. to keep (BDB 1036, KB 1581)

3. to do (BDB 793, KB 889)

4. heart not be lifted up above his countrymen (BDB 926, KB 1202, cf. 8:14)

5. not turn aside from the commandment (BDB 693, KB 747)

This copy of God's law is to remain with the king (this refers to the first verb in v. 19, BDB 224, KB 243, Qal perfect). This reflects the parallel of the Hittite treaties, where two copies of the covenant were made. One was put in the temple of the covenant partners' deity (here YHWH's tabernacle) and the other remained with the vassel king (i.e., to be read regularly so as to be in compliance).

▣ "this law and these statutes" See Special Topic at 4:1.

17:20 "to the right or the left" This is a Hebrew idiom of obedience. God's will was described as a "path" or "trail." It was clearly marked (by the Law). Israelites were to stay on the path (e.g., Ps. 119:105), which referred to lifestyle (e.g., Pro. 6:23).

▣ "so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom" Kingship, like the high priesthood, was to be a hereditary descent. The kingship (i.e., later concept of Messiah) was predicted to be in the line of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:10; II Samuel 7).


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. How is 16:21-22 related to 17:1?

2. How was justice to be administered?

3. Why are vv. 14-20 so controversial?

4. What was Israel's King's relationship to law?


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