1 If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. 5 But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God– who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery– to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
6 If anyone secretly entices you– even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend– saying, “Let us go worship other gods,” whom neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 any of the gods of the peoples that are around you, whether near you or far away from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 8 you must not yield to or heed any such persons. Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. 9 But you shall surely kill them; your own hand shall be first against them to execute them, and afterwards the hand of all the people.10 Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.11 Then all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.
12 If you hear it said about one of the towns that the LORD your God is giving you to live in, 13 that scoundrels from among you have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods,” whom you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, 15 you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it– even putting its livestock to the sword.16 All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It shall remain a perpetual ruin, never to be rebuilt.17 Do not let anything devoted to destruction stick to your hand, so that the LORD may turn from his fierce anger and show you compassion, and in his compassion multiply you, as he swore to your ancestors, 18 if you obey the voice of the LORD your God by keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God.
As modern people the language of Deuteronomy, particularly the voices heard in sections like this can be difficult to hear. This does come from a different set of experiences and a very different time and culture and so I’m going to deal first with what it says and then reflect on how we might engage this within our own time, culture and struggles in a modern (or postmodern), secular and pluralistic world. If Deuteronomy reaches its final form in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, which many scholars believe, as the people are wrestling for answers for how they retain their identity in a foreign land then Deuteronomy provides a voice arguing strongly against accommodation with the surrounding culture and provides a blame on the previous generations’ unfaithfulness to this as the reason for their current desolation. Deuteronomy is not the only voice in this conversation but among the scriptures that make up the Hebrew Bible they form one of the dominant voices.
We often think of decisions in terms of individual choices in a disenchanted world, but that was not the worldview of the people in the ancient world who received the book of Deuteronomy and who passed it on from generation to generation. This was a world in which belief was a communal activity which kept the demonic forces at bay, some of these forces like disease or famine would be looked upon today as a part of the measurable scientific worldview but in ancient times they were either ‘acts of God’ or acts of some other divine or demonic forces. If one person either turns away from or refuses to participate in the communal worship, beliefs and practices then it endangers everyone. As Charles Taylor says about the ancient worldview, “Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of those rites in danger, and hence pose a danger to everyone.” (Taylor, 2007, p. 42) In more recent history this may be some of the paranoia behind witch hunts, or why the church as it entered into the crusades or the conquest of the new world often had a ‘convert/be baptized or die’ mentality. It may be alien to our time and as Walter Brueggemann states:
Church readers of this text might conclude that a large measure of accommodation is preferable to even a small amount of brutalizing vigilance. Deuteronomy of course is unpersuaded by such a judgment, unpersuaded but not self-critical about its own urgings. (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 156)
The text begins with prophets or dreamers who lead the people astray both by their words and by the actions that come to pass. No longer is merely the efficacy of a prophecy the measure of a prophet’s truthfulness but also now is introduced the reality that they must also remain faithful to the LORD. This leading astray is treason, and in a world where the religious and political authorities are merged as they are in Moses and the judges that will follow him, betrayal of God is also betrayal of the people. There is an interesting interpretation that the LORD is testing the faithfulness of the people through these false prophets, and throughout the telling of Israel’s story in Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings (commonly known as the Deuteronomic history because these books share a common perspective with Deuteronomy) there are numerous times where military leaders, religious leaders and kings will lead the people into the worship of other gods, which is the ultimate betrayal in Deuteronomy’s perspective. The penalty for this is harsh, it is death. That these decisions of loyalty for the people of Israel are matters of life and death for them as individuals and for them as a nation.
In the ancient world the closest bond is family, and so the second set of instruction in verses 6-11 involve a family member or a friend who tries to introduce unfaithful practices. The two examples that come to mind immediately is Solomon who begins to practice what his foreign wives practice and Ahab and Jezebel in their struggle with the prophet Elijah. Deuteronomy is unyielding even toward these closest of relationships and enhances the closeness by highlighting with terms like ‘the wife of your embrace’ or ‘your most intimate friend.’ In a culture where a husband may have many wives it is highlighted that even the favorite must be shown no accommodation, nor any child or intimate friend. In an uncompromising set of negative commands: do not yield, do not listen, do not pity, do not have compassion and do not shield; the family member is commanded to not only participate with the community in the execution of the offender but to throw the first stone. The peoples’ loyalty to the LORD is to be stronger than their loyalty to blood or companionship.
Finally the situation is discussed where a village or a community turns away from following the LORD to following other gods. The people who lead others astray and those led astray are together to bear the judgment of the broader community. Yet, with a village or community there is to be a thorough investigation to discover the truth of the charges, but if true the entire village, all of its people, animals and wealth are to be destroyed. On the one hand this seems harsh, especially to the animals who had no choice in the matter but perhaps there is a gracious edge in this. If the spoils of the destruction of the village, both the animals and the wealth, are denied to the ones carrying out the destruction perhaps there is less incentive to make an accusation of unfaithfulness. Especially if they are also unable to rebuild the cities but are expected to leave them as a perpetual ruin. The reality is that if this sentence was ever carried out the city probably did not remain a perpetual ruin, and there are many stories in the book of Joshua and throughout the story of Israel where the people are to consign everything to destruction and hold back taking either the livestock and wealth or the women as a part of their conquest. This will be an ongoing struggle in the story of the people.
As modern people, who can look back upon the Salem witch trials, the Crusades and conquest of the new world, and countless other events where the practice of an exclusivist faith led to a betrayal of the practice of faith that would be consistent with many people’s reading of the person of Jesus, passages like this are difficult to read. We live in a world where faith is an individual decision and we can look upon people of different faiths or no faith and not see them as traitors or uneducated and so this exclusivist world of Deuteronomy seems alien to us, so how do we approach it in our time? Part of the answer for Christians I think does rely on the understanding that not all scripture holds equal weight. Different traditions approach this differently, but as a Lutheran Christian what lifts up Christ becomes central as a revelation of the character of God. For the Jewish people the first five books of the Bible may occupy a central place but for Christians there is the mutual flow of the New Testament interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures but the Hebrew Scriptures also helping us to understand the New Testament. That does not mean we can cast aside the parts or either set of books we disagree with, but it does give us a different set of tools to engage and wrestle with them. As Martin Luther could understand correctly that the first commandment does mean that “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” But we no longer live in a society where killing a person because they are of another faith is acceptable. We live in a much more secular world. Yet, I do think the wisdom that is present in texts like this is to highlight the seductiveness of alternate worldviews which encourage us to trust in other gods, which may not have a religious system associated with them in our time. We live in the constant struggle for where our trust and allegiance will lie and the temptation can come from others whose words seem to be trustworthy in other things, or a close friend or family member, or from the community around us. It is perhaps more challenging to live a faithful life in a secular world where the plethora or alternatives are paraded before us in diverse media and the ancient struggle of the people now becomes the internal struggle of the individual to live a faithful life. Yet, we need the communal aspect and I believe this is where the community of faith comes in to help and support us in our struggle to be faithful to the God who calls us.