A few years ago, I was speaking with a religious relative who was a Muslim Young Earth Creationist. I asked her how her faith handled evidence like dinosaur bones, and she explained that God had put fossils and bones into the ground as a means of testing believers’ faith.

That’s pretty much the theology at work at the beginning of Deuteronomy 13.

The whole chapter is about various types of people who might try to lure believers into the worship of other gods, and describes how to handle each type. The first being the false prophet.

False prophets, Moses warns, may give a “sign or a wonder” that “comes to pass” (v.1-2), but that shouldn’t be counter as an argument in favour of his gods (even though it’s totally sufficient to give God credibility).

Still from the movie The Life of Brian.

Still from the movie The Life of Brian.

But how do we explain those signs and wonders coming to pass? In previous books, God’s right to exclusive worship came from his greater power. When he had Moses and Aaron battle the Egyptian magicians in Exodus 7, for example, their magic existed independently of God, and God showed himself to be stronger than their gods.

This seems rather different by the time of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 4, for the first time (as far as I can tell), God’s ordinances are praised as worthy independently from God simply wanting them followed and having the power to enforce his demands. In Deuteronomy 6, he prohibits the people from testing his power, whereas he had previously been very quick to use demonstrations to give himself credibility.

I think this shows a shift in how God is conceived, something toward monotheism. Here, the prophets of other gods can give “signs and wonders” only because “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (v.3).

No matter how impressive the prophet may be, if he tells people to worship another god, the people must “purge the evil from [their] midst” (v.5).

Loved Ones

It may be that a loved one tries to persuade you to worship a different god – a brother, a “son of your mother,” a son, a daughter, a wife, or even a friend “who is as your own soul” (v.6).

If this happens, a member of the people should not “yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him” (v.8). Even more, when they are stoned to death – as they must be – “your hand shall be first against him to put him to death” (v.9).

This sort of attitude is, unfortunately, still alive and well.

Over at Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered, the author tries to defend these passages:

The Israelites had to kill a murderer of the body. Surely, if someone who kills the body is punishable by death, how should someone be punished who wants to murder someone’s eternal soul? To lead a person from the good path unto the path that leads to eternal damnation. So serious is this sin that it was punishable by death in old Israel.

Which is a good answer, though a decidedly Christian one (and, thankfully, he does say that “this law was applicable only for a specific location and a specific time”). I think that within a deuteronomical context, the danger posed by people suggesting other gods to worship would be to the social order of the whole community, rather than to the salvation status of the individual.

Other cities

If a member of the faithful hears that some people in another city have started worshipping other gods, they are to investigate “diligently” (v.14). If it turns out to be true, they must “surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, destroying it utterly, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword” (v.15).

Do all the inhabitants have to be worshipping other gods? Or is there a percentage that tips it from the stoning of the individual to the razing of the city?

Once all the inhabitants and their cattle are killed, all their stuff is to be piled up in the city square and burned along with the city itself. Even the land is “destroyed” in the sense that the attackers can’t build over the burned town.

This sounds extreme and rather distasteful, but I think I can see the reasoning behind it. If it were just a matter of finding a handful of worshippers in a city, what would stop bandits from finding religious justification in going around the countryside sacking and pillaging nearly at will? Want some extra cattle, or land, or stuff? Find yourself a couple heretics and it’s yours!

So while I obviously don’t like the “raze it to the ground and salt the fields” mentality, I think I understand what it’s supposed to prevent. I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils.