Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Warning Against Idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:12-18)

The following quote is taken from 
            "Burn Nonbelievers - Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods.  In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully.  If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock.  Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it.  Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God.  That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt.  Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction.  Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you.  He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors.  "The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him."  (Deuteronomy 13:12-18 NLT)

            This passage is another example of the term charam (see my earlier article on "Charam"), which means, "the complete consecration of things or people to the Lord, either by destroying them or by giving them as an offering" [1]. 
            In this instance, there are a few things which need to be considered.  First of all, the charge of idolatry is a very grievous sin, which God does not take lightly (see Exodus 20:3-6, 23; 23:13, 23-24; 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:15-28; 5:7; 6:14-15; 8:19; 12:31; 17:2-7; 27:15; 29:17-18).  God warned the Israelites on several occasions that if they committed idolatry, it was a crime that warranted the death penalty.  The Israelites' covenant with God demanded that they worship and serve him only.  They were not supposed to worship other gods or fashion idols for themselves.  God had warned them that if they did these things, it would lead to their destruction: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed" (Deuteronomy 8:19, NIV). 
            Why is idolatry considered such a serious crime?  The severity of the judgment, capital punishment, is due to the severity of the sin.  God is the only God, the Lord and creator of all the universe.  When anyone bows down and worships or pays tribute to a false god or idol, they are taking credit away from God and giving it to something undeserving of that credit.  "I am the LORD; that is my name!  I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 42:8, NIV).  The crime of idolatry was so serious that it was often referred to as adultery against God (Ezekiel 6:9).
            A process was involved in determining whether or not someone was guilty of this crime.  First of all, the case had to be carefully investigated, and there had to be proof of guilt (Deuteronomy 13:14).  It could not be a baseless accusation.  The Law also stipulated that there had to be at least two witnesses to the crime before it could be investigated (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15).  Finally, if there was proof that the crime had been committed and the inhabitants of the town were sentenced to death, they and all of their possessions were to be destroyed.  The people could not just kill those convicted of the crime and keep their property and possessions.
            A question that may arise here is, "Why was the entire town burned, including all of the people?"  In instances of charam, God designated certain persons, places, and things as objects of his special wrath and judgment because, in his omniscience, he knew them to be impure and hopelessly unrepentant [2].  An example was to be made of that town, so that those who observed it would be warned against ever committing the same crime themselves (Deuteronomy 13:11).
            It is also important to note that the town was burned after the inhabitants had been killed (verses 15-16).  The inhabitants of the town were not burned alive.

[1] Footnote in the Holy Bible, New Living Translation (NLT).  This term (charam) occurs in the following verses: Exodus 22:20; Leviticus 27:21, 28-29; Numbers 18:14; 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 26; 13:15-17; 20:17; Joshua 2:10; 6:17-21; 7:1, 11-15; 8:26; 10:1, 28, 35, 37, 39-40; 11:11-12, 20-21; 22:20; 1 Samuel 15:3, 8-9, 15, 18-21.
[2] Footnote on, for Deuteronomy 2:34.