The foundation of the covenant is its prohibition against worshiping any god other than Yahweh. Nothing is more fundamental to the people’s place as God’s chosen people than their exclusive worship of Him. Thus violations of the first two commandments are to be dealt with in the harshest terms. In Chapter 13 Moses lists specific examples of breaking the commands and how the people are to address each. God vividly demonstrates that He indeed is a jealous God who does not take spiritual adultery lightly.
This chapter in some ways is difficult to accept and brings up several questions. Can a prophet perform legitimate miracles and not be from God? Does God test the loyalty of His people by deliberately trying to deceive them into sin? Are the first two commandments really so important that breaking them justifies entire cities getting wiped off the map and family members personally killing each other? Are we sure the God who wrote Deuteronomy 13 is the same God we worship today?
In the first of three hypothetical situations, Moses lays out a scenario where a false prophet arises to lead the people away from God. The false prophet is very persuasive because he is able to perform signs and wonders which are genuine.
Moses describes what the prophet does in somewhat confusing terms. He says the prophet “gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true.” What is unclear is whether the prophet directly performs a miracle or merely predicts something strange and miraculous and it comes true. Either way, the evidence for the prophet being a true prophet of God is powerful.
What is interesting about this scenario is that later – 18:21-22 – Moses will tell the people that the way to verify that a prophet is a true prophet of God is to see if what he predicts actually comes true. If a prophet claims to speak for God, then his prophecies will be accurate. Someone whose prophecies do not come about cannot be from One who is perfect and Omniscient. In this case, however, the false prophet seems to pass this test. His prediction comes true and he has actual power to perform signs and wonders.
Using the sign to convince his listeners, the prophet tries to lure them away. He says, “Let us go after other gods and let us serve them.” The prophet has legitimate power but it is not from God. Like the magicians of Egypt (Ex 7:11-12,22) he can perform or prophesy miraculous signs, but he is clearly not from God as his purpose is to lure the people to idolatry.
God warns the people not to be duped. Though the prophet is convincing he must not be believed. This means that a true prophet of God must do more than perform signs or offer accurate predictions; his message must correspond to God’s Law and point people exclusively to God.
Jesus and the apostles will later confirm this. Both the actions and the message of a prophet must lead people to God for him to be judged true. Jesus will tell His disciples that a teacher is known by his fruits; the one who does the will of God is truly His (Matt 7:15-23). Paul will warn the Galatians that they should only accept teachers who proclaim Christ’s gospel – the same one Paul proclaims (Gal 1:8-10). And John will tell his readers that only teachers who proclaim that Christ came in the flesh and whose message the world rejects(!) are from God (I Jn 4:1-6). Everything about the prophet must correspond to God’s message for him to be believed.
It is interesting how much there is in the Bible about false teachers (which must mean they are a danger to believers in every age – including ours). As soon as the Law was handed down at Sinai or the gospel was preached after Jesus’ death, false teachers came along to pervert both. The Enemy knows that one of the best ways to deceive people into hell is to proclaim mostly truth along with some error to keep people from true belief. The old sermon illustration of rat poison being 98% corn comes into play. To take otherwise religious people and doom them to destruction is often just a matter of sending someone to them who claims to believe as they do but whose message is actually from the Father of Lies.
This is why the best defense against false teaching is knowledge of the word. Having an intimate familiarity with truth makes error and deceit easy to identify. For the people of Israel, they know a false prophet because he urges his followers to break the first two commandments. For the 21st century believer, it is anyone who preaches salvation outside of or in addition to Christ’s gospel. In both cases knowledge is necessary to identify falsehood. The false teacher will typically sound good and seem sincere. But his message and lifestyle show who he belongs to and only an understanding of what both should look like makes it possible to identify him for what he is.
God outlines three responses to the false prophet. In verse 3 He says, “…you shall not listen to the words of that prophet.” In verse 4 He says, “You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.” And in verse 5 He says, “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death.” They are not to listen to him, they are to obey and hold fast to God, and they must execute him for his crime (purge the evil from the assembly).
This is the model for how to handle false teachers even today. We do not have a mandate to kill anyone, but we certainly can turn away and make sure the person has no forum within the congregation. Note also that the best reaction is to run back to God – listen to Him, serve Him, fear Him, cling to Him.
So the answer to our first question in the introduction is ‘yes.’ Someone can perform legitimate miracles or predict signs and wonders that do in fact come true and not be from God. No way to know exactly how this works, but apparently God allows Satan to empower his followers in certain instances to see if they can lead the unknowing astray. But what about the next question? Does God actually try to deceive His own people just to test their loyalty?
God’s words in verse 3 seem strange. He says, “…for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” Does this seem right or fair? All-powerful God will send people into the lives of His followers simply to test their love for Him?
As always it is imperative to compare scripture with scripture. James says in 1:13-14, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust” (note the temptation seems to come mostly from within – Satan tempts, but based on what James says he apparently just works with the raw material that exists within the one he targets – we are tempted when our lusts are exposed and carry us away). Paul says in I Corinthians 10:13 – after discussing the sins of the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses (including idolatry) – that God will not allow temptation that is beyond the ability of His people to resist. And Jesus tells us in the model prayer – Matthew 6:9-13 – that we are to ask God to keep us from temptation. So the three passages together mean that God is not the source of temptation but apparently allows it. When He allows it, however, He limits it so His people never HAVE to sin. They face temptation but are without excuse if they fall to it. They are tempted and sin because they are carried away and enticed by their own lust.
This illuminates God’s words here. He allows the people to be tempted by the false prophet who performs signs, but He is not the power behind him or the One who sends him. God is not susceptible to evil and cannot violate His nature by being the source of it. He derives no pleasure from His followers falling to temptation.
The example of Job is instructive. Remember that God allowed Satan to test Job in horrific ways. Satan was the instigator of all that happened to Job but worked only with God’s permission and within the limits God set. God did not act on Job Himself but allowed everything that happened because He is sovereign over all things – even Satan’s temptations (which is hugely encouraging – even in the furnace of temptation we can have confidence that God is ultimately in control and will not allow Satan to overwhelm or destroy us – God’s mercy never leaves us alone or unguarded).
Practically, it may not make much difference to the Israelites that God allows rather than sends the false prophet. In both cases the prophet is there to test their love for God – to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (love keeps us from looking for something to fill a void – if we are not looking we cannot be tempted). But technically it makes all the difference in the world because it means we can trust God’s word and that He truly is who He says He is. God cannot author sin and does not lead His people into it. But He sometimes allows the Enemy access to His people and may bring circumstances into their lives that expose their lusts.
Moses lays out a second scenario. In this example, the temptation to worship false gods comes from a family member or a close friend – the one doing the tempting is intimate and loved. Yet God says the tempter – just like the false prophet – must be destroyed. Even the wife you cherish must be stoned to death if she attempts to lead her husband away from God.
This seems much harsher than the first example. When the tempter is a nameless false teacher it does not seem too difficult to accept that he must face the death penalty. But here it hits much closer to home. Wife, brother, parent, child, intimate friend – all must be killed if they violate the first two commandments or even tempt others to do it. The stakes are much higher and accepting God’s justice much more difficult.
However, this only echoes Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:37. There He says, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” His point is that no one can have higher priority in our lives than God and no one can be more precious to us than Him. We must love God with all our heart and soul and strength – nothing else and no one else can demand that level of love and commitment.
So Moses simply says what Jesus will later confirm. Even a family member must be eliminated if he or she attempts to draw the follower of God away. This is harsh but it is simply God applying in full what the first two commandments really mean. There is only one true God and nothing and no one is to interrupt His followers’ exclusive worship of Him.
Notice the specific command in verse 9. Moses says the one who has been tempted will be the first to throw a stone at the one condemned. This seems to raise the harshness of this scenario even further. Not only must you turn in a beloved family member to be killed – you must lead the way in the killing. You cannot turn away or simply not show up for the execution – you have to be front and center and literally throw the first stone. What is the point of this? Is this just an example of God being especially brutal and making things as horrific as possible?
It is important again to look at another passage. In Deuteronomy 17:2-7 Moses lays out a similar situation where someone is found violating the first two commandments. In this passage he stipulates that one can only be condemned on the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses (6). He then says the same thing he says in 13:9 – “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death.” Here it seems to make more sense. If witnesses who testify against an accused know they will be called upon to throw the first stones at his execution, they will likely be careful to testify truthfully. It takes away the opportunity to testify falsely and walk away. It also means the witness knows if he is later proved to be false he will be convicted of murder and put to death himself. God has a reason for commanding the accuser to throw the first stone.
[This perhaps sheds more light on Jesus’ standoff with the Pharisees over the woman caught in adultery. His command to them (Jn 8:7) – “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” – seems to go along with this passage. The Pharisees knew they were hypocrites and probably false witnesses and obviously knew the Law. They knew the ramifications of what Jesus asked.]
The third scenario involves a city that falls away and worships other gods. It is difficult to understand fully what it means that worthless men go out from among the people and seduce an entire Israelite city to forsake Yahweh, but the result is that – unlike in the first two scenarios – the people actually fall away and the punishment is not limited to the ones who tempt them. And regardless of whether they are coerced or simply led away, the whole city is declared guilty.
The punishment for their guilt is complete destruction. Moses says every living thing must be destroyed – man, woman, child, animal. He effectively pronounces the same sentence on them as on the Canaanite cities the Israelites must destroy. Nothing is to be left alive and no spoil is to be kept. The city and all the possessions within it are to be burned entirely and the city itself is never to be rebuilt. It will serve as an example to others so they will fear to engage in its behavior.
Verse 17 seems to imply that as long as the city exists, the blessing of God on the nation as a whole will cease. He will turn away from His burning anger and show mercy to Israel and make them increase only after the city and its inhabitants are destroyed. This again makes it clear how high the stakes are in regard to the first two commandments. God’s blessing and provision are dependent on the people’s fidelity in worship.
So what about our last question? Is this the same God we worship today? Since we do not practice capital punishment on false teachers – and we certainly still have them – is this chapter just an example of the harsh God of the Old Testament being different from the loving God of the New?
It is important to remember that Israel in the Old Testament is a nation only because it was chosen by God to be His. Its whole reason for existence is to follow God and provide the line for the Messiah. It is made up of God’s chosen people. To worship other gods fundamentally changes that relationship. No other nation has this foundation. As such, the exclusive worship of God is not just a religious tenet but a civic one. The entire safety and prosperity of the nation – because of the Mosaic covenant received at Sinai – depends on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. And that’s why the punishment for any individual or group who engages in it must be harsh.
This means the God of Deuteronomy 13 is in fact the same God we worship today. He has not changed at all – and does not change. We may not abide by the civic laws of Israel, but God is still a jealous God and still views His exclusive worship very seriously. And as we have discussed – most notably when going through the Ten Commandments in Chapter 5 – there are still plenty of false gods to worship. We likely do not bow down to little statues or golden animals, but opportunities to give our time and affection and money to things other than God abound. Anything that substitutes for God in our life is a false god, and like pagan idols of old it always has self at the center of worship. God does not share His glory, and setting up an idol in any form is still a serious offense to the One who redeemed us.
We cannot relegate this passage to the archives since the temptation to violate the first two commandments is as great today as it was in Moses’ time and God can still allow false prophets to test our commitment to Him. It is therefore vital that we know the word and not live as if we are called to love God with most of our heart and most of our soul and most of our strength.