A “Tough” Question: What about the God of Deuteronomy 13?

As suggested by Ray and seconded by David Bychkov and Oscar, let’s give this question a try without an article. A good friend emailed me this question yesterday: “Hey Dr. Ben! I’m having some troubles understanding Chapter 13 of Deuteronomy, where God has commanded that people who try to sway believers from the gospel should be put to death? Did God mean this in the literal sense?”

Related to the above questions is a “famous” quote from Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” which atheists love. Dawkins himself read it at the end of the documentary movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic (woman hater), homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal (killing one’s child), pestilential (causing disease), megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic (denying pleasure), capriciously (impulsive) malevolent (doing evil) bully.” (Brackets mine.)

Answers (and rebuttals) welcomed.


  1. My answer to this question is “Yes, God meant literally putting to death those who sway believers from the gospel.” In the past more than one year I have been learning to take Bile passages literally, unless the Bible explicitly makes it clear to go by symbolic interpretation. Moreover, there was an instance in which God killed (through the Israelite army) not only Balaam (a prophet who turned 24,000 Israelites away from their Lord) but also every man among the Midianites (Nu 25:9,16-17; 31:7-8,16-17; Rev 2:14-16). A key phrase in Deut 13 I believe is turning away from the Lord who brought them out of Egypt. God had such love for these people who were meant to bear spiritual children for Him by being His intimate Bride who loved Him with all their heart, mind, soul and strength (Dt 6:5; Mt 22:37-38). It was because of His love for His people that he had to execute 24K fallen Israelites and a lot of Midianites.
    What Mr Dawkins failed to recognize is that the God of the New Testament (Jesus) is the same God and equally most unpleasant character not only in all fiction but in truth. He (Jesus) is the one who will capture a world famous (false) prophet alongwith his god (the Anti Christ) and will throw both of them alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Rev 19:20). Not only that he also makes war and kills the kings of the earth and their armies (Rev 19:19,21) in a battle. In a superficial judgment all of Mr Dawkin’s attributes (proud…control-freak…blood thirsty…racist…pestilential… in fact all the attributes mentioned) will fit to his plans and his actions described in so many passages by Isaiah, various Psalmists, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and by Jesus himself in Revelation. To us Bible believing Christians, interpreting these passages only symbolically and not presenting a balanced and truthful picture would be throwing away a lot of Bible passages shying away from difficult passages. The principle of His judgment is same whether in Old or New Testament: He makes war because of His love for His people and for planet Earth. Thus for Him justice and love are two sides of the same coin. Yes of course, as His people, in this time and age, we do not take any judgment into our own hands, but we entrust all judgment into His hands and timing, and rather intercede and labor for those who are the objects of His judgments (Lk 17:1-4), just as we had been once. For related articles visit my blog http://delhiforerunners.blogspot.com/ Wish you all a happy Christmas in anticipation of our love-sick Bridegroom King!

  2. Whoa, hold on a second.

    Ben, you present two topics:
    1) your friend’s question about Deuteronomy 13 
    2) The Dawkins quote.  We need to think through each of these.

    The question: “Hey Dr. Ben! I’m having some troubles understanding Chapter 13 of Deuteronomy, where God has commanded that people who try to sway believers from the gospel should be put to death? Did God mean this in the literal sense?”  Before we talk about what God meant, we must talk about what God said. I would respond to this first by asking, “Why do you think Deuteronomy 13 is God’s command to kill people who sway believers from the gospel?” 

    This is not at all what Deuteronomy 13:1-18 says. You have to make multiple jumps to get from ch. 13 to that question, the way it is worded.  I suggest we read that chapter before commenting. 

    I would presume the question is based on Deuteronomy 13:6-9?  “6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known,  7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other),  8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.  9 You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.”

    I propose that we follow the New Testament authors’ approach, who viewed the Old Testament in light of God’s grace. So for example, if we keep reading, we find that God is not commanding Israel to be harsh or narcissistic. Rather God wants his people to be full of grace and truth. They were not to hastily do such things, but “inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly”!

    “12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in 13 that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock.”


  3. Thanks, Abraham, Brian, for your detailed and thoughtful responses. Abraham, I like your mnemonic: F. R. I. E. N. D. (Fore-Runner Intercessors of End-times in New Delhi). Brian, perhaps inappropriately, I linked the question with Dawkins for they both seem to suggest that a God of “love and goodness” does not simply destroy and just wipe people out, thus objecting that a God of love should not judge and destroy anyone.

  4. Hm, this isn’t going to be an answer, but I’m going to comment anyway. Recently, I’ve been re-reading the OT after years of just focusing on the NT.  I’m in Exodus right now now and I’ve found the vast majority of it is not very edifying, nor does it bring me close to God. Having said that, I find the passage of scripture in this article does the exact same thing. When I read it, ESPECIALLY in light of the gospel, it makes me wonder “why? why? why?” At a bible study on the book of Acts my pastor recently said “you can never fully understand the love of God if you just read the New Testament.” If I remember his quote correctly I took that to mean that God STILL loved us and put up with us despite all the terrible things man had done in the Old Testament. I guess I’ll continue to read the OT, but sometimes I just say “jeez.”

  5. Thanks, Oscar. Let me suggest that when you read the OT (which is crucially important for any Christian), to also read a good commentary to help improve your understanding of the text in the proper context. An over-riding principle is that the entire OT is pointing to Christ (Jn 5:39, 46; Lk 24:27, 44). Please feel free to stop by and chat sometimes.

    This is a response from the Quest Study Bible on Joshua 6:21:

    God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:32; 33:11). God wants them to repent and live. Still, the Bible implies a “point of no return” beyond which judgment is inevitable (Jer 11:11; 14:11-12; 15:1-2).

    The Canaanite civilization was so thoroughly degenerate that it was beyond repentance. Chief among their sins was their idol worship, which included sexual perversion and the sacrificial slaughter of infants. Every level of their society was contaminated by evil. Left alone, that evil could have infected the community of God’s people. So God dealt with the problem, directly and forcefully.

    Still, we are haunted by the killing of infants. Couldn’t the babies, at least, have been rescued? We don’t know why God included infants with the destruction of the rest of the corrupt Canannite culture. But because we know that God’s ways are just (Deut 32:4), we must trust God’s character in this severe situation. Also, we should remember that the physical death of a baby is not the same as eternal death.

    • Ben, thanks for the further explanation. I’m starting to see some of your thinking about posting the two points together in your original post. Andy Stanley makes some interesting points about these issues, especially relating to “God does not delight in the death of the wicked” point. Andy’s book “The Grace of God” mentions how God would surely have rejoiced if the Israelites had seen 10,000 scarlet cords hanging out of the windows of Jericho! What if repentance spread through Canaan and they had welcomed Israel, instead of mounting war against them?

  6. Tim McEathron

    I find it interesting in the Bible that striking or cursing your parents was an offense punishable by death. Lev 20:9, Ex 21:15 And as a result there is not one instance in the Bible of any child ever suffering this punishment or crossing this line, which is totally commonplace today. Sometimes hard discipline is the best love. For example a world without any rules in Gen 1-5 quickly became hell on earth. The unfortunate truth is that we’re all a bunch of terrible sinners who only respond to threat of punishment. People had no problem running red lights before, but now we don’t know which intersections have cameras and everyone suddenly started to conform, lest they see the flash! 

    As for the OT I also used to think like Mr. Dawkins, that the God of the OT was a cruel, vengeful God. However, as Christy and Dr. Ben would surely quickly point out, I never believe anything until I read it for myself. After reading the OT I put my Bible down in awe of the love of God. I would say that Ps 139 sums up the entire OT: “His love endures forever…” (endures: “1. Suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently 2. Tolerate (someone or something).”) I couldn’t believe the way that God endured the Israelites who continually spit in his face. I mean when you read the book of Judges you’re thinking do these people have dementia? Alzheimer’s? When you read the making of the golden calf while the cloud of God is ominously circling above them thundering on the mountain, after having just led them through the Red Sea you begin to understand that God’s enduring love is something way, way beyond anything of this world. When I thought about the depth of God’s patience and endurance and hope for the worst sinners who had spit in his face, continuously and how he just bore it though he could erase them in an instant, I really fell in love with God. I would argue that there is more love in the OT than the NT. One act of love is one thing, continual enduring love over millenia is in my book beyond anything in this world. 

    • Tim M., God’s enduring love is something similar to what I was thinking in regard the Dawkins quote. He fails to see the context of the OT. We who live in the year 2011 (well 2012 soon!), typing on the internet and drinking Starbucks, really cannot fathom what life was like in Abraham’s time or in Moses’ time. From what I know of history, the world was an extreme cluster-failure. The OT presents, not an impatient God of wrath who randomly destroys innocent people, but rather, a patient Lord of love who purposefully protects and establishes people. I sincerely believe that the way our Lord acted in the OT times opened the door to a far more civil world (like one in which we can instantly blog about such things globally).

  7. Nowadays you don’t have to kill people very much, because you rarely meet them like people of those days. But it’s still necessary to kill ideas and thoughts which are flooding through all kinds of media sources, and are hostile to the Gospel way of thinking.

    So I’d like to be quick at this kind of killing… And take no captives.

    • Hi Tim H.  Would you explain your thoughts a bit more? I’m just not following your point. How would we go about “killing” thoughts and ideas? And which ones?

  8. Tim McEathron

    I think he means 2 Co 10:5. I agree wholeheartedly. Being a leader for kids, I recently weeded my dvd collection and stopped downloading movies, realizing that even the most subtle hypocrisy with kids has major influence over their idea of right and wrong. I think we need to take some drastic measures in this hostile modern environment of toooo many temptations. Mt 5:29-30, Mt 18:8-9 (do you know that’s the first time I realized this teaching is taught twice in Matthew’s gospel! hmm…some food for thought)

  9. Darren Gruett

    Yes, I believe God meant it literally, just as his commands were meant to be kept, literally.