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Deuteronomy: The Second Law - Speech 3

A commentary on the third speech of Moses in Deuteronomy 9-13. The book of Deuteronomy is a series of 12 speeches that Moses gave just before his death at the end of Israel's wilderness journey.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 23

An Idolatrous Community

After giving a strong warning against anyone who might seduce others into idolatry, Moses then extends this to an entire town. While Westerners are more individualistic, the community is of much greater importance in the East. In the West each person makes his own decision as to which God or god he wishes to follow and is largely unaffected by his neighbor’s decision. But in Moses’ time and in that culture, the question of which god to follow was more often a community decision made by the elders.

And so Moses extended his individual prohibition to include a community decision to follow after false gods. Deut. 13:12-15 says,

12 If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to live in, anyone saying that 13 some worthless men have gone out from among you and have seduced the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” (whom you have not known), 14 then you shall investigate and search out and inquire thoroughly. And if it is true and the matter is established that this abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying it and all that is in it and its cattle with the edge of the sword.

Once again we are made uncomfortable by the severity of the judgment, for we cannot imagine doing such a thing today. But look at the passage more closely. Moses first reminds Israel in verse 12 that God was the One who had given the people that land in which to live. Earlier in verse 5, when Moses spoke of a potential prophet who might seduce people into idolatry, he reminded the people that it was “the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery.”

The point is that God claimed the right to rule the people, because as their Redeemer, He purchased them as His slaves, or bond servants. In the law of redemption, a redeemer had the right to be served by the redeemed ones (Lev. 25:53). Beyond that, their Redeemer was now going to give them land in which to live. This land was not theirs to do with as they pleased, but was to be used to serve their Redeemer. God still claimed ownership not only of the Israelites, but also of the land itself (Lev. 25:23).

A Hypothetical Example

Suppose a man sinned and was then sentenced by the judge to pay a large sum of money to his victim. Suppose the debt was far too large for him to pay it, and so all that he owned was sold in order to make payment. Suppose that even this was insufficient to pay off the debt, and so the judge ordered him and his family to be sold, as we see in Jesus’ parable in Matt. 18:25.

Let us say that you decided to purchase the man and his family to be your slaves. You pay the man’s debt, and in return you receive his service for twenty years as a court-mandated sentence.

Now let us suppose that your new slave which you purchased (or redeemed by paying off his debt) began to take his orders from other men, and that he devoted his time and energy toward the service of others. What would you do?

It is likely that you would give your slave a corrective interview. But what if he refused to listen to you? You might inflict some sort of punishment upon him for his violation of your court-ordered rights. But what if he continued to rebel against you, having no concern for the fact that you had paid off his debt? Would you not take him to court?

In a biblical setting, any man who absolutely refuses to abide by the decision of the court is guilty of contempt and is liable for the death penalty. The judge would no doubt make this fact perfectly clear in order to induce the slave to obey the court order. But if he still persisted in his rebellion, he could indeed be sentenced to death.

Scripture shows that Israel was redeemed as a slave from Egypt. God was recruiting slaves to build a farming community with a very large “vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1-7). The problem was that His slaves revolted against Him and took over the vineyard for their own use (Matt. 21:38). Jesus Himself asked the chief priests and Pharisees how to judge such a case in Matt. 21:40. Their answer is in verse 41,

41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers, who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”

This was a proper verdict. The only problem was that the chief priests and Pharisees did not realize that they were the guilty ones. Not only them, but the whole house of Israel was guilty almost as soon as Joshua had planted God’s “vineyard” in the land of Canaan.

If a city revolted against an earthly king, would not that king take action to compel the rebellious city to submit to him? Would not that king bring judgment against that city if it refused? Virtually all of the governments on earth throughout history have believed that it was their right to demand submission from those who might rebel against its rule. Why then should it be different with God, who has far greater claim to be served than any government of men?

The Legal Process of Enforcement

There is a big difference between the governments of men and the government of God in the manner of enforcement. Governments of men have little love for the people, and they expect men to be willing to die for their government. By contrast, King Jesus proved His love by demonstrating that He was willing to die for the people.

Such love is also expressed in the manner of law enforcement that God has established. While most men see only a harsh response, in that a rebellious city was to be destroyed, they nearly always overlook the legal process leading up to the decision to destroy the city.

For individuals or towns to serve other gods was a violation of the law and the conditions by which God had provided for them to live in the land. While men may think this sin is too trivial to evoke such a strong divine response, God treats it as treason. The problem is that men do not fully appreciate God’s rights as the Creator. They think that God ought to give them freedom to worship false gods. Certainly, the Israelites took this view during most of their history. Such also is the view of modern culture that needs correction.

The second point to understand is that the judgment of God was not to be administered apart from a thorough investigation. Verse 14 says, “you shall investigate [darash, “seek with care; study”] and search out [chaqar, “examine; dig down”] and inquire [sha’al, “ask, beg”] thoroughly.”

In other words, Moses required a very thorough examination of the matter. If such a terrible sentence was to be carried out, there must be no question of guilt, and the city must be fully unrepentant in its stubborn zeal to do the will (law) of false gods.

In verse 13 we see the first mention of the Hebrew idiom, “sons of Belial,” which the NASB translates “worthless men.” The word applies to unprofitable men having no benefit to the community, or to unproductive trees that do not bear good fruit. This word was used later to describe the homosexuals in Judges 19:22, the sons of Eli in 1 Samuel 2:12, and to the men who falsely testified against Naboth on behalf of King Ahab in 1 Kings 21:13.

Paul uses the term in 2 Cor. 6:15, saying,

14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness [anomia], or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16 Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God…

In verse 16 Paul must have had Deuteronomy 13 in mind, for the verse recalls Moses’ prohibition of idolatry. In the first century, Judea was under Roman occupation, and so the religious leaders did not have the authority to carry out the divine judgment prescribed by Moses. Neither did Paul recommend such action. But he did counsel the church not to enter into partnerships or marriage with unbelievers and their anomia, “lawlessness.” As God’s temples, we have no agreement with idols and have nothing in common with those who are lawless.

We may draw some parallels between first-century Judea and the world today. In other words, because we are under Babylonian masters today, Christians lack divine authority to eradicate lawlessness and idolatry in the world in the manner that Moses prescribed. Moses was speaking to Israelites who had covenanted with God to declare Him King and to follow His law. But since the days of Daniel, the Kingdom has been turned over to other nations whose rulers have not recognized Jesus Christ as King. Times have changed, therefore, and, like the Judeans of the first century, God has expected us to submit to the authority of those ungodly nations as we serve out our sentence.

Yet during a time when the Kingdom of God and its laws are in force in a nation, the people are not at liberty to commit treason by following the laws of other gods. If such a thing happens, a thorough investigation was to be made, and the rebellious city is to be given every opportunity to end its treason. This was to be with love, not with condemnation. The investigators must be men of humility, not those who are prideful. Their interest must be in people’s salvation and welfare, not in “defending the honor of Christ,” who made Himself of no reputation (Phil. 2:6-8).

The principle of Gal. 5:1 should be followed:

1 Brethren, even if a man who is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Yet if the rebellion persists, even in the face of all attempts at restoration through gentle humility and love, the law must then enforce the death penalty upon such a city. Paul himself teaches this in Gal. 6:7 and 8,

7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.

Jesus also taught the principles of negotiation with those who fall into sin. Matt. 18:15-17 shows the personal application of a general principle of negotiation that governments might do.

15 And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every fact may be confirmed. 17 And if he refuses to listen even to the church [assembly of witnesses], let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.

When a man goes to a sinner in private, the assumption is that the sinner truly is at fault. The privacy of the discussion is to get the other person’s side of the story, in order to prove or disprove the allegation. Here is where the “spiritual” man ought to come in humility and with gentleness, rather than assuming he is guilty. If the spiritual man still believes that the other party is guilty, then he may take the case to the next level, which is like a private court room, complete with witnesses as prescribed in the law (Deut. 19:15).

Assuming that the witnesses are valid, if the sinner continues to deny his sin, he is then shown to be in violation of the divine verdict. In a Kingdom setting, such a man could be executed for contempt of court (Deut. 17:12). But Jesus prescribes exile, partly because He lived under the rule of Rome, which had reserved for itself the right to condemn anyone to death, and partly because the law of God itself allowed men to be exiled as a substitute for the death penalty.

The same, then, would apply to a rebellious city. They could be forced to leave the country and live elsewhere and worship the gods of their choice. It is only when the investigation was complete, and if the city was proven to be treasonous, and then only if they refused to leave the country, that they should be destroyed. This was a last resort.

The Execution of the City

Moses then continues by telling Israel what they were to do with such idolatrous towns in Israel. Deut. 13:16 and 17 says,

16 Then you shall gather all its booty into the middle of its open square and burn the city and all its booty with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God; and it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt. 17 And nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from His burning anger and show mercy to you, and have compassion on you and make you increase, just as He has sworn to your fathers.

This was to be considered a burnt offering to God. A burnt offering consumed the entire animal (Leviticus 1). No flesh was to be saved or eaten. Such an offering represented the complete death and eradication of the flesh.

One such burnt offering was the red heifer in Num. 19:1-10. Its ashes were to be gathered and stored in a clean place outside the camp. When the temple was built, the ashes were kept on the top of the Mount of Olives, so that those who had been rendered unclean by touching a dead body could purify themselves on the eighth day as they came over the mount to the temple below.

Jesus fulfilled all of the sacrifices, of course, including the burnt offering. For this reason He was crucified on the top of the Mount of Olives near the ashes of the red heifer that had prophesied of him. When He said, “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39), He presented Himself as that burnt offering, for His fleshly will was seen to be fully subservient to the will of the Father.

In the case of the idolatrous village, all of their fleshly possessions were to be offered as a burnt offering to God. The principle was thus established that the fleshly tendency of idolatry and lawlessness was subdued, consumed by the fiery law of God, and purified by the ashes.

The Execution of Jerusalem

The prophets condemn Jerusalem as an idolatrous city and prophesy of its destruction according to the law in Deut. 13:16. The law says that “it shall be a ruin forever. It shall never be rebuilt.” Jer. 19:5 says that Jerusalem worshiped Baal and sacrificed their children to Baal. As a result, the prophet says in verse 8, “I shall also make this city a desolation.” He then illustrates it in verses 10-12,

10 Then you are to break the jar in the sight of the men who accompany you [the witnesses, elders of Judah and Jerusalem] 11 and say to them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Just so shall I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot again be repaired [raphe, “healed”] and they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place for burial. 12 This is how I shall treat this place and its inhabitants,’ declares the Lord, ‘so as to make this city like Topheth’.”

We see, then, that Moses said, “It shall never be rebuilt.” Jeremiah confirms this, saying it “cannot again be repaired.” The law thus applied to the Old Jerusalem, the city called “Hagar” in Gal. 4:25 that represents the Old Covenant. Paul says in Gal. 4:30 that the city must be cast out in order that the true inheritors, the children of Sarah, the New Jerusalem, may be established to fulfill their calling in the earth.

It is apparent that the law in Deut. 13 applied to all rebellious cities, including Jerusalem itself. Whereas it was supposed to be the “City of Peace,” which is the meaning of its name, it became instead the “City of Blood(shed)” as the prophets named it (Ezekiel 22:2; 24:6; 24:9; Nahum 3:1). It is obvious, however, that God spent many years entreating the people of Jerusalem to repent of their treason. He sent many witnesses to them to prophesy the word of the Lord, giving them many opportunities to repent. Finally, however, after a thorough investigation, the divine verdict was rendered in accordance with the law in Deuteronomy 13.

Of course, this verdict did not negate the promises to Jerusalem that He had already made. God had a unique way of fulfilling the judgment of the law and His promises without contradiction. The key was in the fact that there were two Jerusalems. The earthly Jerusalem received divine judgment leading to its destruction; the heavenly Jerusalem received the promises of God.

The Hebrew name for the city is Yerushalayim, which literally means “Two Cities of Peace.” The ayim ending is a Hebrew “dual,” meaning precisely two cities. While the prophets never distinguish between the two cities by name, the apostles do so in Gal. 4:25, Heb. 12:22, and Rev. 21:2, 10.

The Judgment of the World

The law in Deut. 13, where God destroys an idolatrous city, applies only within the boundaries of the Kingdom of God. Outside those boundaries idolatry is tolerated for the moment, not because God tolerates sin, but because they remain outside the legal jurisdiction of Christ and His law.

Since Israel and Judah were destroyed and exiled from the old land, the Kingdom has been without land (territory). The Kingdom, then, has been confined “within you” (Luke 17:21). It is within those who are in a covenant relationship with Christ. That covenant has made Christ Lord and King over our own bodies, which are made of the dust of the ground. But after the beast nations have run their course, jurisdiction is taken from them and given to the saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:27).

The Kingdom of God will then move from “within you” into the earth itself, as nations begin to covenant with Jesus Christ to make Him the King of whole nations. Then the laws of the Kingdom will apply to physical territories and whole cities, all of whom will be expected to have allegiance to Jesus Christ alone. At that point, idolatry will not be tolerated within the borders of the Kingdom of God.

As the Kingdom of God grows and increases its territory, idolatry will be pushed back until, in the end, the legal jurisdiction of Christ will fill the whole earth. It is implied in Isaiah 2:2-4 and Rev. 20:5, 6 that this will take a thousand years to accomplish.

After this, we are told that a new phase of Kingdom history will begin. The resurrection of ALL the dead, great and small, will be decreed by the divine court. This will be the point where Christ will take back all the land that is rightfully His. All men from past generations will then be issued a subpoena to appear before the Judge of the whole earth and be sentenced to court-ordered slavery. They will be sold to those who are called to rule the earth (Rev. 5:10).

Daniel shows the manner in which divine judgment purifies the earth (and all flesh) of its idolatry. Daniel 7:9 speaks of the Ancient of Days sitting upon His fiery throne. From the throne, then, flows a river of fire to judge the people as they are rising from the dead. The court is in session, and the books of the law are opened (7:10). The fire is not literal but metaphorical for the law itself.

Revelation 20 sees this as well, except that the river has now become a “lake of fire.” While Daniel focuses upon the flow (or administration) of divine judgment as a “river,” John focuses upon the long-term result (or “lake”) that is formed by the river of judgment. The decree is the “river of fire”; the long-term application of the decree is the “lake of fire.”

In any case, the fire is the judgment of the divine law, whereby all are judged according to their works—some more harshly than others, but all with absolute justice as defined by the law.

Getting back to Deuteronomy 13, the world is the final “city” that is offered to God as a burnt offering. Moses contemplates only individuals and towns that may persist in idolatry, but these establish the principle of judgment that is relevant to the whole world and to all flesh. The burnt offering is not to be taken literally, as if to say that sinners will be tortured in a fire—or even annihilated by fire.

We ourselves are to present ourselves to God as “living sacrifices,” as Paul tells us in Romans 12:1 and 2,

1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Our flesh is the “old man” that is crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6). Christ Himself offered Himself up as a burnt offering outside the camp where the ashes of the red heifer were stored. Christ did not have to be burned at the stake to fulfill the prophecy of the red heifer (or any burnt offering). The fire was the judgment of the “fiery law,” which was a metaphor for this “crucifixion.”

In that we ourselves are crucified with Christ, we too have become burnt offerings, for as we present our bodies as “living sacrifices,” the ways of the flesh are burnt up. Our minds are thus renewed, and we no longer conform to the ways of this idolatrous world.

So also the law in Deut. 13:16, 17 pictures all the works of the idolatrous city being piled into a heap and burned as a burnt offering to God. This law prophesies of the lake of fire when all idolaters from past generations become living sacrifices unto God. Their works of the flesh are burned up (1 Cor. 3:15), in order that they might be saved.

When these sinners appear before God’s throne, every knee will bow, and they will all confess their allegiance to Him (Isaiah 45:23; Psalm 22:29; Phil. 2:10, 11). The law will then sentence them to be sold for their debt on account of their sin, as the law prescribes in Exodus 22:3. They will be sold to the body of Christ, who will then be charged with training their slaves in the ways of God.

Because this will be a court-ordered slavery, according to the law, no one will be allowed to avoid this judgment. They will therefore remain under the authority of the body of Christ until the great Creation Jubilee sets all creation free into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).

In Deut. 13:8 Moses then concludes by summarizing his speech saying,

18 if you will listen to the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all His commandments which I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.

Recall that Moses started His speech in Deut. 9:1 with the words, “Hear, O Israel!” So he closes with “If you will listen (hear).” The question in his day, as well as ours, is this: Will we indeed have ears to hear?


Moses’ third speech is entitled Why Israel was Chosen. Primarily, being chosen is to receive the authority and blessings of the Birthright. Yet to receive those blessings, they must first accept Yahweh (Jesus Christ) as King, hear His voice, and learn to walk in His ways. Only then will they find themselves equipped to teach other nations and to dispense the blessings of God’s ways with the rest of the world.

In essence, Israel was chosen to be a blessing to all families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Being chosen did not mean that they were the only recipients of God’s blessings. Rather, they were chosen vessels to disburse those blessings until all creation should come under the rule of Jesus Christ and receive the inheritance of immortality.