SynopsisThis chapter can be broken down into three sections, but each of them is, in a nutshell, saying the same thing: The Israelites are not to worship other “gods.”
The first section of this chapter, in verses 1–5, talks about prophets. If a prophet ever comes to the Israelites, and prophecies something which comes true, but that prophet then tries to entice the Israelites to follow other gods to worship them, the Israelites are not to listen to him. Instead, they are to put him to death, for preaching rebellion against the LORD, “who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery” (verse 5). If this happens, verse 3 says that it’s happening because the LORD is testing the Israelites, to find out whether they love Him with all their hearts. According to verse 5, this is to be done to purge the evil from among the Israelites.
The next section, in verses 6–11, talks about close relatives. We already know that the Israelites are not to worship other gods, and the punishment for that sin is to be death, but in this section, the LORD goes so far as to say that even if a very close relative—“your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend” (verse 6)—tries to entice you to follow another god, that person is to be put to death. Not only that, but your hand should be the first to put that person to death. As verse 11 says, “Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.”
The third section, in verses 12–18, talks about the case where an entire Israelite town has fallen into idol worship. If the Israelites find out that an entire town has fallen into idol worship, they are to wipe that town out—men, women, children, and even livestock. In fact, even the plunder from the town is to be burned; the Israelites are not allowed, in such a case, to keep for themselves anything from the town, it’s to be destroyed completely. And, once it is destroyed, they are never to rebuild on the town’s ruins again. However, the Israelites are not to just go willy-nilly destroying towns; verse 14 says that they are to “inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly,” to find out if it’s really true, before they do anything.
ThoughtsHopefully, by this point in the Old Testament, you’re getting the idea that there is no other god but God, and that He will not tolerate His people worshipping other gods—giving the love and attention that they should be giving to Him to “gods” that aren’t even real.
In the first section in this chapter, we come across a concept that I’ll probably write about numerous times (and I think I’ve already mentioned in the past): God “testing” His people. What does it mean that God “tests” people? Doesn’t He already know whether the people love Him as they should? And my answer to that question would be that of course He does—so what’s the deal with a “test?” My take on this is that when God “tests” someone, it’s not so that He can find out if that person is really faithful, it’s to show the person whether or not he is faithful. If God ever allowed a prophet to come to the Israelites, enticing them to follow other gods, and the Israelites were led astray, it would be a sign for the people that they are not following God as they should. God would definitely not be in Heaven saying “Oh no! I thought they were My people, but it turns out that they’re not!”
The second section in this chapter probably feels a bit too reminiscent of the Nazis for our liking, what with people commanded to turn in their own families for idolatry, but the point God is making is that He should have a higher priority in the Israelites’ lives than anything—and that includes family. Jesus said something similar in the New Testament, when he said:
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37–38)
The point is not that we’re not to love our relatives, friends, and dear ones; we quite clearly are supposed to love these people. But we are to love God more.