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Wednesday, June 19th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Deuteronomy 13

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


In this chapter three situations are discussed, in each of which, Israel was ordered to put to death the offender.

(1) First, there is the case of some alleged “prophet” soliciting the people to idolatry on the basis of some dream, portent, or wonder which he claimed as proof of his authority (Deuteronomy 13:1-5);

(2) there is the case of solicitation to idolatry by one’s close kinsman (Deuteronomy 13:6-12),

(3) and then there is the case of a whole city that has fallen under the power of Satan (Deuteronomy 13:13-18).

In every instance, the commandment was to put to death the offenders, and in the case of a whole city, it was to be placed under the ban and utterly destroyed.

The critical schools once traced what they thought were multiple sources for the material in this chapter, Davies, for example, naming both “D” and “E” as having a part in it.(F1) It is now known that ONE author, not many, gave us these instructions, and that a SINGLE purpose is evident throughout:

“In the ancient suzerainty treaties, it was required of the vassal that he must not connive at evil words spoken against the suzerain, whether they amounted to an affront or a conspiracy. The vassal must report the insult or the fomenting of a revolt. In case of an actual rebellion, he must undertake military operations against the offenders. Moreover, he must manifest fidelity to his lord in such cases no matter who the rebel might be, whether prince or nearest relative. All of this finds its counterpart in Deuteronomy. Stylistically, the chapter is cast in the casuistic form characteristic of ancient law codes.”(F2)

Verses 1-5

“If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he give thee a sign or a wonder and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams: for Jehovah your God proveth you, to know whether ye love Jehovah your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Ye shall walk after Jehovah your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death, because he hath spoken rebellion against Jehovah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage, to draw thee aside out of the way which Jehovah thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.”

The amazing thing here is that the question of whether or not the false prophet could actually perform such signs or wonders is treated as irrelevant! What if he did, or could? “What stamped the prophet false in this context is the doctrine!”(F3) The possibility that evil men could indeed do wonders “through the power of Satan” is allowed in both Old Testament and New Testament. Paul spoke of the “lying miracles” which would be displayed by the apostate church (2 Thessalonians 2:9), and it surely is implied in this passage that God Himself would, on occasions, allow false prophets to display some signs of credibility in order to “test” the true loyalty of the people.

Adam Clarke gave as an example of how a lying “portent” might be given, the case of one who, through scientific calculations, knew when an eclipse would occur, “predicted it” for people who knew nothing of such matters, and, sure enough, it came to pass!(F4) The plausible nature of the deception practiced in this case was enhanced by the fact that dreams indeed were one of the manners in which God actually communicated to the prophets of old (Numbers 12:6). Also, “A false prophet’s predictions are not always wrong. If they were, no one would believe him.”(F5) “God allows some of them their restricted sphere of power to test the loyalty of His people.”(F6) In the case of questionable “prophets” or “teachers,” the real issue is not: “Did he perform a miracle? but is he furthering, promoting, and teaching the will of Christ?”(F7) It is not necessary to suppose that all miracles claimed by false prophets and teachers are deceptions. Some of them, even many of them could be authentic, because as Christ said, “For there shall arise false christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, so as to lead many astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). As Keil said, “Such miracles are wrought in the power of Satan.”(F8)

Some might suppose that the penalty of death affixed to such offenses as the ones mentioned here was “very severe,” but it should be remembered that, “The purpose of purging the land of all idolatries also required the removal of any Israelites who became infected with the same idolatry.”(F9) “It would have been a mockery of Divine justice, if Canaanite cities had been destroyed for their idolatry, and then the idolatrous cities of the Israelites were allowed to stand.”(F10)

“So shalt thou put away” (Deuteronomy 13:5). “Thou” here is plural, showing that the whole community “must clear itself of all complicity with the specified evil.”(F11)

The stern demand for the death penalty for all such false prophets and teachers “shows how absurd it is to treat Deuteronomy 5:17 as being in any sense an argument against capital punishment.”(F12) The context here as well as parallel passages in Deuteronomy 17:7 and Leviticus 20:2 indicate that in all such cases, “There was to be a formal judicial inquiry, and that the manner of execution was to be by stoning. This would make the whole community a participant in the execution, thus clearing them of all complicity in the condemned actions.”(F13)

Verses 6-11

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, that is as thine own soul, entice thee, secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; of the gods of the people that are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth; thou shalt not consent unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: but thou shalt surely kill him; thy hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him to death with stones, because he hath sought to draw thee away from Jehovah thy God who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is in the midst of thee.”

Strangely, “father and mother” are not listed here, along with other close kin, and, from this, Cook supposed that, “This could imply that no one was obligated to impeach father or mother.”(F14)

“The son of thy mother” (Deuteronomy 13:6). “These words are probably not intended to identify the person spoken of here as a half-brother, but for the purpose of showing the closeness of the relationship.”(F15) This requirement that one should not even spare the closest of kin was “also the requirement in ancient international treaties and suzerainty covenants.”(F16) Note the piling up of the terminology in Deuteronomy 13:8, “do not consent, nor hearken, pity not, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal… etc,” “This makes the commandment all the more impressive.”(F17)

There would appear to be a number of reasons why the form of death in capital cases was made to be stoning. “This was the only form of capital punishment recognized in Hebrew law. Perhaps it originated in a desire to avoid the shedding of blood.”(F18) Another reason may have been in the requirement that the condemned person be not touched by another!

Verses 12-18

“If thou shalt hear tell concerning one of thy cities, Which Jehovah thy God giveth thee to dwell there, saying, Certain base fellows are gone out from the midst of thee, and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known; then shalt thou inquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be the truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in the midst of thee, thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword. And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shall burn with fire the city and all the spoil thereof every whit, unto Jehovah thy God: and it shall be a heap forever; it shall not be built again. And there shall cleave naught of the devoted thing unto thy hand; that Jehovah may turn from the fierceness of his anger, and show thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers, when thou shalt hearken unto Jehovah thy God, to keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, to. do that which is right in the eyes of Jehovah thy God.”

Alexander states that the words here rendered “hear tell” sometimes have the meaning of “overhearing,” as in Genesis 27:5;(F19) but nothing like that is meant here. It is merely a reference to the common gossip about a town that reaches to another town. In the event of such an evil report coming in about some sister city, the report was to be carefully sifted, diligently researched, and after all doubt of the truth of the report was removed, then, and not before then, the town was to be devoted, that means, “It was to be placed under the ban in its most destructive phase.”(F20) Notice here that no punishment was to be inflicted until the fullest possible investigation had been completed. “Many of the principles of British common law can be traced to these Mosaic enactments.”(F21)

One of the most significant things in these early books of the Bible is found in Joshua 22, where is given a historical example of how Israel honored this law in the instances of an event which, according to the gossip of the day, indicated that the trans-Jordanian tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh had erected an altar contrary to the law of God and were, in fact, defecting from the holy religion of Israel. The other tribes sent a delegation to make inquiry, headed by Phinehas, who was still living, and the result was so satisfactory in clearing up the false report that Phinehas even pronounced a benediction upon the builders of the monument (falsely reported as an unauthorized altar). Joshua 22 contradicts everything connected with the false allegations of critics trying to date Deuteronomy in the 9th century B.C. As McGarvey put it:

“Now, whoever wrote this account, and whatever date may be assigned to the Book of Joshua, if this account is true, all debate about the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy ought to terminate right here.”(F22)

All such witnesses against the evil theories, however, are shouted out of the Bible altogether by its enemies, who, without any evidence to sustain them, without the slightest excuse, and without even the semblance of any reason, declare of all such passages: “They don’t belong… they are not historical… they are a gloss… they are interpolations, etc. etc.” It is far past time that any such criticism should receive any attention whatever from Christians. They do not derive from intelligence, or scholarship, or any kind of investigation whatever, but are pure and simply the children of unbelief!

Some have professed horror at what they call “these bloody laws” in Deuteronomy, but, as Jamieson said, “These laws were in accordance with the national constitution of Israel. God was their King, and idolatry was therefore treason and justly deserved the penalties of rebellion.”(F23)

Note the word “abomination” in Deuteronomy 13:14. Wright observed that, “This is the strongest word that the O.T. possesses for that which is impure, unclean, and lacking in holiness.”(F24)

“Smite the inhabitants of that city… (Deuteronomy 13:15).” By adopting the paganism of the doomed cities of Canaan, any city of the Israelites would by such an adoption have made themselves the same kind of an abomination that pertained to the doomed cities of Canaan, and it would not have been just for Almighty God to have spared any Israelite city so defiled from the punishment meted out against the condemned cities of Canaan. “Note too that the Divine Suzerain, like the common lords in their ancient treaties, imposed strict regulations upon the disposal of the spoil that resulted from the destruction of any rebellious city.”(F25) God’s law differed in this respect, that the spoil was in no sense whatever expected to enrich the persons inflicting the penalty of destruction. It was to be burnt up, made a part of the holocaust that should bring the death of the doomed city. This was an important distinction, because it meant that no monetary rewards would accrue to the people inflicting the punishment. Such a role would have effectively prevented any hasty destruction on the basis of improper or insufficient evidence. Any city incurring such a penalty “was to be made a ruin, never to be rebuilt; and thus was to be treated the same as a heathen idolatrous city.”(F26)

It was especially important that no Israelite allow any of the spoil of the doomed city to “cleave to his hand” (Deuteronomy 13:17). Keil pointed out that, “An example of how such property placed under the ban, if appropriated by an Israelite, would bring the wrath of God upon the whole people is seen in the case of Achan (Joshua 7).”(F27) Speaking of how God’s law that forbade the taking of spoil from the doomed cities was designed to restrain the greed of men, Adam Clarke questioned, “How few religious wars there would have been in the world, if they had been regulated by the principle: `Thou shalt neither extend thy territory, nor take any spoils?’“(F28)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 13". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/deuteronomy-13.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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