The book of Deuteronomy (Devarim, in Hebrew) records Moses’ exhortations to the people of Israel as they prepared to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Speaking to the children of those Yahweh had rescued from Egypt forty years before, he gave this new generation the keys to success in the Promised Land.
Moses’ extended sermon included many specifics on how to practice the principles of the Decalogue in their time and setting. Lists of the traditional 613 commandments of the Torah locate about 200 in Deuteronomy. Yet Moses often spoke of the commandment (singular) that he was presenting to them (Dt 5:31; 6:1, 25; 7:11; 8:1; 11:8, 22; 15:5).
Contextually, the one commandment is to fear God and give undivided allegiance to him. On the one hand, Moses knew that if Israel followed this one commandment, the other details would fall into place. On the other hand, if they failed to adhere to it, their identity and divine mission would be compromised.
The importance of exclusive loyalty to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is highlighted in chapter 13, where Moses considered scenarios in which an Israelite promoted the worship of other gods. Even if they were a miracle-working prophet, a relative, or a close friend, such a person should be put to death.
Participating in the execution of a close friend or family member is difficult to imagine.(1)
In order to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), several factors need to be considered when interpreting Deuteronomy 13.
First, a death sentence of this kind was not to be carried out lightly. A careful investigation would be required, leading to conclusive proof provided by multiple witnesses at a public trial (Dt 17:2-7).
Second, Moses taught that God was merciful and would forgive his people when they sought him in repentance (Dt 4:29-31; 30:1-10). The implication is that mercy would be extended to an offender who turned away from idolatry and submitted to God.
Third, we should keep in mind that Moses’ purpose in Deuteronomy 13 was to communicate the seriousness of these offenses to deter anyone from ever committing them (see verse 11).
Moses probably had at least two incidents in mind as background for Deuteronomy 13. One was the construction and worship of a golden calf while Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai (Dt 9:13-21). This offense threatened Israel’s future. To put an immediate stop to it, God had directed loyal Levites Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor (Ex 32:27).
The other incident occurred just a few months before when the Moabites induced certain Israelites to join them in sexual immorality and worship of their gods (Nu 25). In that case, Moses, at God’s direction, ordered the execution of the offenders. Phinehas, the priest, took action and struck down a Simeonite leader who was sinning openly.
Both incidents required decisive action to prevent the whole community from falling into apostasy. Over a thousand years after Moses, the Maccabean rebels took courage from the example of Phinehas when they opposed the attempt of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV to outlaw Torah observance. When representatives of Antiochus tried to force Jews at Modein to engage in pagan sacrifice, a priest named Mattathias refused and quickly struck down an Israelite who complied with the king’s order (1 Macc 2:15-28).
Of course, it is also possible to misapply Deuteronomy 13 by labeling a prophet of God as a threat to the community.
When Jeremiah the prophet (in around 609 BC) warned of the coming destruction of the Temple, he was brought to trial based on just such an accusation (Jer 26). Some who opposed Jesus may have viewed him or sought to characterize him, as a violator of Deuteronomy 13. Jesus warned his disciples that they would also face persecution from both synagogue communities and the state (Mt 10:16-25; Jn 16:1-3). This is part of the Christian calling to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus (Mk 8:34-38; 1 Pe 2:21).
Early Christian communities faced the internal challenge of false teaching and the external threat of persecution (e.g., 2 Pe 2). New Testament epistles direct that false teachers be avoided (2 Jn 7-10), forbidden from teaching (1 Ti 1:3-4), and rebuked in order to find the right path (Tit 1:10-14). Ultimately teachers are accountable to God (Ja 3:1), and false teachers should fear divine judgment (Rev 2:16).
Living under the rule of the Roman Empire, early Christian congregations were not authorized to execute wrongdoers. Someone who seriously threatened the holiness and unity of a congregation might be excommunicated, as Paul ruled and wrote to the Corinthian believers. In 1 Corinthians 5:13 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 13:5, showing that he had the principles of Deuteronomy 13 in mind.
Paul’s decision was consistent with Jesus’ instruction that one who sinned against a brother and was unrepentant should be excommunicated (Mt 18:15-17). For both Jesus and Paul, the primary purpose of this discipline was to lead the erring brother to repentance, and they urged that forgiveness be exercised when repentance occurred (Mt 18:21-35; 2 Cor 2:5-11).
With our culture’s focus on individual autonomy and independence, we can easily lose sight of how our actions affect others. Deuteronomy 13 provides an important reminder to prioritize the health and unity of our faith communities. As we read in Philippians 2:3-4, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
(1) A good source for thoughtful discussion of Deuteronomy 13 is Caryn A. Reeder, The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond, Baker Academic, 2012.