OT Penal Sanctions and Apostasy

PMT 2013-023b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this article is a study on the new covenant application of Deuteronomy 13 showing that it does not establish capital punishment for unbelief.

How does the theonomic ethic understand the capital sanctions regarding apostasy, as recorded in Deuteronomy 13 and 17:2-7? Do we call for civil governmental enforcement of all excommunication decrees by capital punishment? These are important questions. Let us set forth some critical observations regarding the application of these laws “when properly interpreted.”

First, it should be noted at the outset that the framing of the law in Deuteronomy 13 has in view solicitation and seduction to idolatry (Deut. 13:2, 6, 13). It does not have in mind personal unbelief or even personal rejection of faith in Jehovah God. Those who mistakenly assume that this law would inevitably draw the State sword into church discipline for unbelief are mistaken. In point of fact, unbelief in Israel was not punishable by death. For one to refuse to be circumcised (an expression of unbelief, cf. Lev. 26:41; Deut. 30:6; Jer. 9:25-26; Eze. 44:7) meant that he was “cut off” from the religious community (Gen. 17:14). He was excluded from the worship in Israel (Exo. 12:48; Eze. 44:7, 9); he was not capitally punished.

Second, in Deuteronomy 13, we have what in essence is the framing of a law against treason. This is evident on the basis of the following three-staged consideration: (1) By the very nature of the case, the god of a society is that society’s source of law. It has been thus in the fallen world since the temptation of Eve to be as “God” by “knowing” (determining, legislating) good and evil (Gen. 3:5). Hence, the pagan tendency for political rulers to be deified, as illustrated in the Babylonian king (Isa. 14:4, 13-14) and the Roman emperor (Matt. 22:15-22; 2 Thess. 2:4; Rev. 13:4ff). Hegel clothed this pagan conception in modern dress: “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.” To seek another god, therefore, is to turn from the Law of the present God, Jehovah, which Law was the constitutional basis of the nation of Israel.

(2) The context preceding Deuteronomy 13 speaks of the gods of the nations around Israel. It speaks of nations serving their gods: “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, `How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise’” (Deut. 12:29-30). This leads me to note that:

(3) The Deuteronomic law is developed in such a way as to indicate the ultimate outcome of such apostasy. It is wholesale, treasonous rebellion against the lawful authority and integrity of the nation: “If you hear someone in one of your cities, which the LORD your God gives you to dwell in, saying, `Certain corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” gods whom you have not known’ “ (Deut. 13:12-13). As Craigie puts it: “In its implications, the crime would be equivalent to treason or espionage in time of war.” Thus, in a certain respect such a law was a right to “self-defense” for the nation, as was the right to wage defensive warfare.

Third, any perception of idolatry as a quietistic unbelief is wholly mistaken. The very nature of idolatry involved the ancient worshiper in a number of capital crimes. Thus, the punishment for idolatry is a punishment for those particular crimes. As Mayes notes, Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is the “general introduction” to chapter 13. This “general introduction” clearly speaks of certain “abominable acts” of idol worshipers:

When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, `How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. (Deut. 12:30-31)

Idolatry involved wide-scale criminal conduct and was a dangerous cancer. The Canaanites were not thrust out of the land for unbelief, but for wholesale moral and criminal perversion. That idolatry was a real danger is evident in the days of Israel’s apostasy, when abominable acts were committed (2 Kgs. 16:3; 21:6; 23:10). All nations served idols in those days (2 Kgs. 17:29). Israel fell right in with them and with their grossly immoral crimes (2 Kgs. 17:7ff, 17-19), thus corrupting and subverting the moral fiber of their culture by legalizing child sacrifice, bestiality, homosexual conduct, cult prostitution, and the like.

Thus, as we have seen, the apostasy laws of God’s Laws are not laws against mere unbelief or against misguided worship. Those laws were designed to protect the legal integrity of the nation (criminalizing such actions as treason, conspiracy, seditious revolt, and espionage) and to bring judgment against wicked idolatry (criminalizing such actions as cultural subversion and public mayhem).

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