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After establishing principle of the unblemished sacrifices in Deuteronomy 17:1, Moses turns to the topic of idolatry in Israel. The law of sacrifice pointed to Jesus Christ in Old Covenant terms, forbidding anyone in the Kingdom of God to worship any other god. In Israel’s day, where a kingdom had been formed at Sinai, they were to enforce this first within their community (church) while in the wilderness, and then later in the Promised Land itself when the church received territory.
The New Testament church has also been a “church in the wilderness,” even as in the days of Moses, except that the time has been extended from a mere 40 years to 40 Jubilees. As in Moses’ day, the church was responsible to exclude from their midst those who worship other gods. We now anticipate receiving territory as we come out of our wilderness, at which time the Kingdom will enforce the First Commandment territorially.
Moses said in Deuteronomy 17:2-5,
2 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, 3 and 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, 4 and if it is told you, and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. And behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 then 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.
The first thing to note is that God calls such false worship a transgression of His covenant. God redeemed Israel from Egypt and therefore had the right to demand their worship and obedience. From that standpoint, they were God’s slaves. But more than that, Israel also married God at Sinai, and so she was expected to be obedient as a wife—especially since she was actually a bondwoman (Hagar type), which limited her marital rights according to the law.
Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai, complete with a vow in Exodus 19, was a marriage covenant. Hence, Israel had no right to follow other husbands (gods), but was bound to her Husband in marriage.
Secondly, if it was alleged that anyone had strayed—that is, if they had committed spiritual adultery with other gods—there was to be a thorough investigation into the matter. No one was to be presumed guilty prior to the investigation. If it is proven that the charge is true, then the man or woman was to be stoned.
In times past, men have been too quick to judge, and often they have not given adequate consideration to repentance or the opportunity to leave the community and live in exile. But these were alternative judgments available to the judges even at that time. In fact, we see God’s example displayed vividly. Israel worshiped the golden calf in Exodus 32, and God judged them for this. We read in Exodus 32:28 that 3,000 men were killed. But what many miss is that the rest of the people were just as guilty as the 3,000 who died.
In other words, the fact that only 3,000 of the idolaters died shows that God was merciful to them as a whole. In later years, when they again followed other gods, their judgment came in the form of captivities throughout the book of Judges. When God gave their land to the control of foreigners, it fulfilled the law of exile in the most merciful manner, for this change of rule simply turned Israel into a foreign land. In other words, the Israelites suddenly became exiles in their own land. (Jeremiah referred to this as a wooden yoke.)
Still later, the Israelites and Judahites were exiled to foreign nations under “an iron yoke” (Deuteronomy 28:48). This was the equivalent of a national death sentence. In essence, God used foreign nations to “stone” Israel to death. Mountains are nations in prophetic symbolism (Isaiah 2:2), and mountains are made of stone. Hence, He used these mountains to “stone” Israel.
This shows that exile may serve as a substitute for stoning. Such judgment was employed as early as Cain, who was exiled to the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16). But we also see this in a smaller context in the laws regarding accidental homicide, where a man could flee to a City of Refuge, where he was to remain effectively in exile until the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:11).
Over the years men have attempted to apply the law in ways that differ from the mind of Christ—who was the Author of the law. In this case they read Deuteronomy 17 and saw no provision of mercy explicitly stated and did not search for the mind of Christ in the rest of the law. Thus, many people were unnecessarily executed, and the teachers of the law became legalistic and hardened in their understanding. In other words, their understanding of the law did not match the intent of the Lawgiver.
Not just the Scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament era, but also the church itself later became legalistic under its own traditions of men. When its leaders usurped the authority of God, forgetting that they were mere stewards of authority, they themselves were guilty of going after false gods. The false gods in that case were to be found inwardly. It is not surprising, then, that the leaders would demand subservience to their own leadership above serving God Himself, and that any who objected were liable to be executed and even tortured as “idolaters.”
Moses tells us also the manner of inquiry by which the truth was to be found in a biblical court of law. Deuteronomy 17:6 and 7 says,
6 On 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. 7 The 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.
We read later in Deuteronomy 19:15 that “a single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed.” So this law of the double witness was not limited in its application to cases of idolatry. It was a basic right of the people not to be accused of a crime by any single witness.
This law, of course, limited the court’s ability to prosecute crime. Ever since this law was written, men have chafed at it on the grounds that many guilty people remain free from prosecution. For the same reason, men have sought the right to torture suspects in order to extract confessions from them. But God had a different way of arriving at the truth and of doing justice in every case. The public could be adjured to testify in any case, and they had no more right to refuse this adjuration than the accused himself. Though no one could be tortured into confession, all were bound by the law to confess the truth.
Any time justice was not done, either because there were less than two witnesses, or because an unjust judge released the guilty or condemned the righteous, one could always take the case to the Supreme Court of heaven. The accused would swear an oath of innocence, and priest would put the case into God’s hands for His direct judgment.
When men do not believe in God, or when they think that God will not or cannot judge cases on earth without the help of man, then they look for other ways to obtain justice. Their lack of faith causes them to erode the divine rights of men to a fair trial, or they convict men without sufficient witnesses, or they torture men into self-confessing. These are all man-made practices, borne out of their lack of faith. They do not believe as David did that “the law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19:7), and so they seek ways to circumvent it. Neither do they believe as Paul did that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), and so they create man-made laws that they claim will better serve the cause of justice.
But those of us who have faith in Christ, who believe that His word is true, who are confident that His law is good when used in a lawful manner (1 Timothy 1:8), find ourselves in agreement not only with Jesus Christ Himself, but with Moses, David, and Paul and all of the biblical writers.
Moses continues in Deuteronomy 17:8,
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.
Here Moses sets forth the principle of the Supreme Court. During the wilderness journey, Moses himself served as the primary Supreme Court Justice, saying in Deuteronomy 1:17, “And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring it to me, and I will hear it.” But this speech was given at the end of his life when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, and so he looked ahead to the time when the Ark would rest in “the place which the Lord your God chooses.” The high priest in that future place was to be consulted in Moses’ stead, and if the case remained unclear, he was to present the case to God for direct judgment.
9 So 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. 10 And you shall do according to 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. 11 According 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 to the left.
The high priest’s verdict was final, whether he rendered a judgment himself or presented it to God. If he presented the case to God for judgment, the oath of innocence was final and ended the dispute (Hebrews 6:16).
12 And the 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. 13 Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.
This being the highest court in the land, the people were to submit to the final verdict. Normally, there would be no reason for rebelling against the final verdict, because if either party remained dissatisfied with the high priest’s verdict, they could always request that the case be handed over to God Himself for adjudication. All further disputes would be acts of rebellion against God Himself, and as such, the death penalty was in order for violation of the First Commandment.
It is plain that apart from God’s interest in establishing justice on earth, many people would remain victimized with no hope of justice. Secular nations suffer needlessly from such injustice, for their systems of justice always end with man and his limited ability to ascertain truth. It is only when a nation recognizes God as the Creator and the Supreme Judge of the earth that we may rest in the knowledge that sooner or later justice will be done, even if some matters are not fully adjudicated until the one like the Son of Man is seated upon the Great White Throne in that final court scene.