When Were Private Altars Prohibited?
Moshe opens the list of ordinances and laws ("הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים") in Devarim 12–26 with a dual command to destroy the idolatrous places of worship throughout the land of Israel and to serve Hashem only at His single chosen location:
(א) אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְרוּן לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה' אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֶיךָ לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ כל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה. (ב) אַבֵּד תְּאַבְּדוּן אֶת כל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ שָׁם הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹרְשִׁים אֹתָם אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם עַל הֶהָרִים הָרָמִים וְעַל הַגְּבָעוֹת וְתַחַת כל עֵץ רַעֲנָן... (ד) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. (ה) כִּי אִם אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם לָשׂוּם אֶת שְׁמוֹ שָׁם לְשִׁכְנוֹ תִדְרְשׁוּ וּבָאתָ שָּׁמָּה. (ו) וַהֲבֵאתֶם שָׁמָּה עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם וְאֵת מַעְשְׂרֹתֵיכֶם וְאֵת תְּרוּמַת יֶדְכֶם וְנִדְרֵיכֶם וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶם וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקַרְכֶם וְצֹאנְכֶם.
(1) These are the ordinances and laws which you are to observe in the land which Hashem, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess it, all the days that you are living on the ground. (2) You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations which you are dispossessing worshiped their gods, on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every green tree... (4) You shall not do so to Hashem your God. (5) But to the place which Hashem your God will choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, to His presence you shall seek and come there. (6) And there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the offerings of your hands, and your vows, and your freewill-offerings, and the firstborn of your cattle and your sheep.
Interestingly, in the immediately following verses, Moshe proceeds to restate almost the very same instructions:
(ח) לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנַחְנוּ עֹשִׂים פֹּה הַיּוֹם אִישׁ כל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו. (ט) כִּי לֹא בָאתֶם עַד עָתָּה אֶל הַמְּנוּחָה וְאֶל הַנַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ. (י) וַעֲבַרְתֶּם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מַנְחִיל אֶתְכֶם וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכל אֹיְבֵיכֶם מִסָּבִיב וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח. (יא) וְהָיָה הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בּוֹ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם שָׁמָּה תָבִיאוּ אֵת כל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם עוֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם מַעְשְׂרֹתֵיכֶם וּתְרֻמַת יֶדְכֶם וְכֹל מִבְחַר נִדְרֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְּרוּ לַה'.
(8) You shall not do all that we are doing here today, every man whatever is right in his own eyes. (9) For you have not come until now to the rest and to the inheritance that Hashem your God is giving you. (10) And you will cross the Jordan and dwell in the land that Hashem your God will give you as inheritance, and He will give you a rest from all your enemies around, and you will dwell in safety. (11) And there shall be a place that Hashem your God will choose to cause his name to dwell there, there you shall bring all that I have commanded you, your burnt-offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offerings of your hands, and all your choice vows which you vow to Hashem.
Why does Moshe repeat himself? Does the second section add something new, or is the reiteration merely for emphasis?
When and Where?
While the first set of verses above appears to indicate that the command begins immediately upon inheriting the land of Israel, the second section mentions also the precondition of "וְהֵנִיחַ לָכֶם מִכל אֹיְבֵיכֶם מִסָּבִיב וִישַׁבְתֶּם בֶּטַח" ("And He will give you a rest from all your enemies around, and you will dwell in safety." Was this condition of security from all of Israel's enemies fulfilled already at the time of Yehoshua's conquest, or only at a later stage in the time of David and Shelomo's empire? Additionally, once the injunction against private places of worship had taken effect, did it remain for eternity, or did it cease to apply during times when Israel was no longer secure from all of its enemies?
The early books of Neviim record several occasions where characters such as Gidon, Manoach, Shemuel, and David offer sacrifices to Hashem in places other than the Mishkan. In some of these instances, the offerings were even explicitly sanctioned or commanded by Hashem. How can these cases be squared with the Torah's prohibition?
1. The continuation of Devarim 12 repeats the instructions two more times, with regard to burnt offerings in verses 13-14 and tithes, firstborn animals, and vows in verses 17-18.
2. This is one of only two mitzvot in which this stipulation is mentioned. The other is the command to eradicate Amalek (Devarim 25:19).
3. See the parallel language used in Yehoshua 21:42 and 23:1.
4. Compare to the similar phrases in Shemuel II 7:1, Melakhim I 5:18-19, and Divrei HaYamim I 22:9,18.
See approaches on AlHaTorah.org