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The seriousness of enticing people to serve other gods is shown in Deuteronomy 13:6-11.
6 If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you, or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him, 9 but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 10 So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such a wicked thing among you.
It is doubtful that any Israelite was ever stoned on account of such seduction, even though they so often strayed into idolatry. Certainly, we have no biblical example of such executions. This is one of those laws that make Christians recoil in horror at the severity of God’s law. To many, it is not a reason for keeping it, but to put it away on the grounds that it surely could not reflect the mind of Christ.
To put this in perspective, let us first assert Paul’s statement in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” The fact is that, in the end, all sin is worthy of death. That is why we are all mortal. Yet even as mortals, we have a difficult time comprehending the seriousness of any particular sin, especially when that sin is so widespread. When everyone does it, we begin to think that God must certainly indulge our weakness or sin. In practical terms, God could not execute everyone without depopulating the earth, so therefore we feel safer in committing those sins.
The fact is, however, that the law was meant to establish the perfect standard for man, and that perfect standard is the mind of Christ. If God had condoned idolatry, such as is mentioned in this passage, we would have clear grounds to accuse God of accommodating man in his weakness. If God had legalized any sin, then He would have been unjust to judge them for it, for, as Paul says in Romans 5:13, “sin is not imputed when there is no law.”
Any legalization of sin would mean that when the divine plan was complete at the Creation Jubilee, man would achieve only an imperfect standard that yet accommodated his mortal weaknesses. The law, you see, establishes the measure of perfection that man will achieve when he is perfected.
We should not expect God to lower His righteous standard just because man has trouble meeting its demands. This is especially apparent when we understand that the law is prophetic. The Ten Commandments, including the prohibition against idolatry, are the promises of God, telling us what we shall be like in the end. “You shall not steal” is a command under the Old Covenant, during the time of our mortal weakness, but it is a promise under the New Covenant when we shall be perfected and never steal again.
That is the light in which we ought to understand the entire law. The First Commandment prohibits idolatry, saying, “You shall have no other gods before Me,” and is the foundation of the entire law. God is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14), and He is not willing to share our attention with other gods. Neither is He willing that any of us should retain iniquity—any hidden tendency to believe a lie concerning the character of God. His motive is love and passion, not anger or hatred.
Did God really expect the Israelites to execute their best friends, or brothers, or even their wives for seducing them to worship other gods? Yes and no. This was certainly the righteous standard, as the law says clearly. But God has commanded many things, knowing full well that the people would not actually carry out those commands.
For example, he told them to conquer and destroy the Canaanites (Deut. 31:3); but then He deliberately left many of them in the land to test their hearts (Judges 3:1), as we have already shown. Did God know that Israel would follow false gods more often than the true God? Of course. Moses knew it, too, for in his final instructions in Deuteronomy 31:16, we read,
16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them.
In other words, God told Moses that the people would entice each other to violate the First Commandment. Did any of them execute their friends for suggesting such a sin? Probably not. More often than not, they succumbed to the temptation themselves.
Because the people themselves did not abide by this law, God Himself intervened and judged the nation by putting them into various captivities. An iron-yoke captivity “kills” the nation (as a political entity). A lesser penalty is a wooden yoke, where God sells Israel to a foreign master. So we read in Judges 3:5-8,
5 And the sons of Israel lived among the Canaanites. . . 6 and they took their daughters for themselves as wives, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods… 8 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, so that He sold them into the hands of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia…
This was a “wooden yoke” captivity, where the people were able to remain in their land while serving out their sentence. Hence, even God did not immediately execute the nation for violating this law, even though the potential existed for such a penalty. If God could show mercy to Israel for worshiping false gods, then it is plain that the law itself is not without mercy. In fact, God was the victim in such cases, and the victim always retained the right to extend mercy or forgiveness.
And so we should not view Deuteronomy 13 in the harsh light in which men have often presented it. We must understand that the death penalty in such cases was “deserved” but only implemented in cases of resolute unrepentance. Furthermore, a persistently idolatrous family member could also go into exile, rather than face execution. After all, it was generally understood by all that anyone living in Israel must conform to the law of the land, and those who did not want to do so should leave. They should settle in a land where idolatry was permitted.
This is shown in the manner in which God Himself treated Israel when it persisted in its idolatrous ways. Israel was sent into exile when God raised up the Assyrians to bring them into captivity. In one sense the nation itself was executed; but at the same time many of the Israelites themselves were spared the death penalty and merely sent into exile (2 Kings 17:6).
The prophets later gave comfort to them, obviously recognizing their continued existence. Hosea in particular prophesied that although they had become Lo-ammi, “not My people,” the day would come when their name would be changed to Ammi, “My people.” In other words, God’s judgment upon Israel killed the nation itself, but showed mercy upon many of the individual survivors. God intended to raise them from the dead at a future time, as the “bones” came together again (Ezekiel 37:9).
When we understand that God’s judgment upon Israel fulfilled the law in question (Deut. 13:6-11), it becomes apparent that even the death penalty is not the end of the story. Death is only a prerequisite for resurrection and a new life as a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
This new creation life is not mentioned in the judgment of the law, because Moses was speaking from an Old Covenant perspective. Under the Old Covenant, the judgments of God appear to be final, and this is why we need the rest of the truth that is found in the New Covenant.
Getting back to Deuteronomy 13, then, let us see how this might have been fulfilled in those days. Understand that while the law itself could not forgive sin, the victims did have that right. The victim of idolatry is God Himself. And while He tells them in verse 8 that “your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him,” we know from the rest of Scripture that repentance changes everything.
In other words, if a man entices his friend to stray into idolatry, the friend should admonish him according to the procedure set forth in Matthew 18:15. If he persists, then it is likely that there would be at least two or three witnesses of his idolatry, and so this could be taken to court. The law says in Deuteronomy 19:15,
15 A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.
This ought to dispel the notion that if a man entices his friend to commit idolatry, he would be stoned immediately. Moses leaves out many details in his speech, because he assumes the people already understand that there is a lawful procedure that must be followed. Unfortunately, many Christians today do not realize this, because they have not studied the law.
Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 show that the first witness was to admonish the sinner to repent. That witness had no right or duty to pick up stones and kill him on the spot. If the man repents, then no further action would be needed, because God (the Victim) is ever ready to forgive. Only if the man persisted in his idolatry, even after being given full opportunity to repent, would he be liable under the law, as long as there was at least one more witness. Even the law does not hastily execute people without mercy.
So if a man were truly in earnest about his belief in false gods—something forbidden in the Kingdom of God—and if that person wished to become a martyr for the cause of those false gods, then he ought to receive the death penalty.
However, there is another option as well. He could choose exile so that he may continue in his idolatry in a foreign land where such idolatry is permissible. He would only be executed if he refused to repent and also chose to remain in the Kingdom of God, where the law forbids idolatry. The death penalty is a last resort.
Moses then says that such a person should be stoned, which was the common form of execution in those days. As usual, the witnesses must cast the first stone, and the community then was to follow their lead. Deut. 17:7 says,
7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.
The purpose of this law is to make the witnesses fully liable if it is revealed later that they were false witnesses, for then they would be guilty of murder. This is what happened when Naboth was falsely accused of blasphemy and then stoned in order that King Ahab might steal his vineyard (1 Kings 21). Yet even the guilty king received mercy after being confronted by Elijah for his sin, for his sentence, the death penalty, was commuted to his successor after Ahab “humbled himself” (1 Kings 21:29).
To understand any single law, one must have some knowledge of the rest of the law. Otherwise it is easy to assume things that are wrong and thereby misunderstand the law. This, I find, is a very big problem, and it is the main reason we are presenting this study of Deuteronomy.