1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For 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. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
6 “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. 9 But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. 10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.
12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, 13 that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. 16 You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. 17 None of the devoted things shall stick to your hand, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you and multiply you, as he swore to your fathers, 18 if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 13:1-18 ESV
Chapter 12 ended with the following call from Moses:
“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” – Deuteronomy 12:32 ESV
And what follows in chapter 13 was intended to provide the Israelites with concrete, real-life examples of what adding or taking away from the law might look like. Moses wanted them to know that keeping God’s commands was about far more than what they did or did not do. The temptation to play fast and loose with God’s laws was going to be great, and it would come in a variety of forms. So, Moses provided them with three concrete illustrations of just how subtle and subversive the threat to their faithfulness to God could show up.
It is important to note that this is a communal problem, not just an individual one. The call to faithfulness and obedience was national in scope and aimed at the entire Israelite community. No family, tribe, or city was exempt. There were to be no exceptions, and anyone who failed to treat God’s commands with reverence and respect were to be dealt with quickly and harshly.
In each of the three case-studies Moses provides, the common theme and threat is apostasy, a turning away from God to serve a false god. In other words, they each involve idolatry, which is a direct violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. Moses presents the same basic scenario in three different forms but featuring one common element: The call to abandon God.
“Let us go after other gods…” – vs. 2
“Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 6
“Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 13
One message, but each delivered by three radically different messengers. The first two are individuals, and their inclusion was meant to surprise and shock the Israelites. The first is a prophet, a respected religious leader. The second is a trusted family member. No Israelite in their right mind would have expected a prophet of God or a member of their own family to issue a call to practice idolatry. Such a thing would have been unthinkable.
But the point Moses seems to be making is that call to apostasy can come from the most unexpected places and from the least likely sources. Yet, regardless of the source, the people of Israel were to take it seriously and deal with it immediately.
A prophet was considered a spokesman for God. He was to have been a messenger of God who faithfully proclaimed the word and will of God. A prophet was a truth-teller. Yet, Moses described a scenario in which a prophet issued a call to the people of Israel to abandon God in order to serve gods “which you have not known.”
So, get the picture. Here you have a recognized leader, who by virtue of his role, represents and speaks for God Almighty. But he is encouraging the people to disobey the very first commandment. Because he is a prophet, the people would be prone to take his words as having come from God. But Moses makes it clear that if this man’s message is not in keeping with the commands of God, he is not speaking on behalf of God. He is a liar and he “shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5 ESV).
Notice how Moses describes this seemingly unlikely scenario: “For 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.”
The Israelites were going to face constant tests to their faithfulness. And Moses wanted them to know that the call to idolatry could and would come from the most unexpected places, including the lips of men who claimed to be speaking for God. That’s why Moses has put so much stress on hearing and knowing the commands of God. It is why he told the people to make them a permanent part of their lives.
“…commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that as long as the sky remains above the earth, you and your children may flourish in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 11:18-21 NLT
The best way to recognize falsehood is to know the truth. And as long as the people of Israel made the commands of God their highest priority, they would be able to discern a lie, even if it came from a so-called prophet of God.
But the next scenario Moses described brought the danger even closer to home, literally. It involves an intimate friend or family member issuing a secret call to join them in apostasy. Unlike the prophet calling the entire nation to disobey the command of God, this close friend or relative is using their familial relationship to encourage unfaithfulness. And because it involves a close friend or family member, the temptation will be that much greater. But the point Moses seems to be making is that it is the content of the message that matters, not the source. It doesn’t matter whether the call to unfaithfulness comes from a prophet or a parent, the response is to be the same.
“…you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.” – Deuteronomy 13:8-9 ESV
The lie was the same, regardless of the lips from which it came. And the danger was just as real whether it came from a religious leader or a relative. So, Moses outlines a non-negotiable strategy for eliminating the threat of apostasy.
“You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God…” – Deuteronomy 13:10 ESV
This kind of language shocks and surprises us. It all sounds so barbaric and inhumane. It rubs against our modern sensibilities and seems to contradict our view of God as loving and kind. But we must remember that God is holy, righteous, and just. He cannot and will not tolerate sin. It is nothing less than open rebellion to His sovereign will. God had great things in store for the people of Israel, but it was going to require that they obey Him by taking His commands seriously. And the greatest affront to God’s holiness is to reject His status as the one and only God. Which is why Moses had repeatedly told the Israelites:
“Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-6 NLT
That’s why the call, “let us go after other gods” was to be considered so egregious and dangerous, no matter whose lips it came from. And that brings us to the third and final scenario. This time it entails an entire city. Moses describes a group of “worthless fellows” – literally, “sons of Belial.” These are individuals lacking in morals and scruples who influence and, ultimately, infect an entire town with their apostasy. They issue the very same call, “Let us go and serve other gods” and, in time, the entire city buys into their lie and follows their lead. So, what is the rest of Israel to do? How are they to respond to this isolated case of unfaithfulness in their midst? Moses provides them with the answer.
“…you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” – Deuteronomy 13:15 ESV
No punches pulled. No excuses accepted. No exceptions made. This was to be treated with a soberness and seriousness that reflected an understanding of the danger involved. Sin, like cancer left untreated, will spread unchecked and result in the spiritual death of the community. And the greatest sin is that of apostasy, rejecting God as the one true God. The constant threat God’s people face is to listen to the siren call to seek and serve other gods. It is subtle and can come from the least-expected places. But regardless of the source, we are to reject the message and do what is right in the sight of our God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.