I’m an American. But more importantly, I’m a German American. Which means I know what the 60 Years’ War was without having to go to wikipedia. It was things like the 60 Years’ War, but especially the Civil War in England, that caused America’s founders to decide to create a nation that was more-or-less religiously neutral. Sure, they may have questioned the loyalty of Catholics and given no regard to the beliefs of the natives and encouraged forcible conversion of slaves, but in principle, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which we’ve short-handed as the separation of church and state. By and large it’s done very well for us so far, which is why it’s disappointing that there are some Americans who hate it.

Some of them take their inspiration from these passages in Deuteronomy, believing (in a long tradition going back to the Puritans) that America is somehow the “new Israel.” Just as Israel is to have a zero tolerance policy on worshiping anyone other YHWH, so too should America.

I will note that, while I admit to envying the Jewish people their history, I don’t plan to ever rob them of their role as the Chosen People like this. America is not Israel; the Jewish people are Israel.

There are three cases where chapter 13 calls for killing people who worship other gods, and all three are problematic, to say the least.

The first calls for death to any prophet or diviner who correctly predicts the future from dreams or omens but also advocates the worship of other gods. What’s important here is that Deuteronomy doesn’t use their apostasy as a way of casting doubt on their abilities. It doesn’t say, “And if they tell you to worship other gods, then you know it was just a coincidence, or they’re running a scam.” No, it says “the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (v 3) That’s where the death penalty feels particularly awful. How can you put to death people who are basically pawns in some game to tempt people away? One wishes that the author of Deuteronomy had the nerve to just call out the reliability of omens and oneiromancy, to say, “Just because they managed to get something right doesn’t mean you should follow everything they say,” rather than turning God, yet again, into a kill-happy puppet master.

The second asks people to turn over any friend or family member to be killed if they try to convince you to worship other gods. Family members get to throw the first stone at the public execution! And the third calls for the eradication of an entire village, with all its goods, if, after a trial, it is confirmed that they were encouraging people to worship other gods. The commandment to destroy all their property and never rebuild on their land could be another act of severing all ties and temptations to worship other gods; or it could be a way of discouraging people from falsely accusing a rival town, since they wouldn’t gain anything financial from it.

In all of these cases, it’s the act of convincing other to turn away that is the named crime, not actually turning away itself. Proselytizing is banned, not worship of other gods. I imagine that this loophole is likely going to be closed up in later chapters, and it’s little consolation to anyone who believes in freedom of worship. Do you want people to only worship God because they’re afraid of the consequences? That is what the chapter advocates, arguing that with a swift, brutal death, “all Israel shall hear and be afraid, and never again do any such wickedness.” (v 11)

Isn’t it better to argue with the carrot? To remind people of God’s goodness, of what they owe him, of the tight relationship they have? Will fear of criminal execution really keep people from worshiping other gods? Or will it just make them worship in secret?

For a religion to truly take root, it can’t just be enforced by the sword. It has to have something in it that makes people want to follow it. Otherwise, they’ll continue to practice what they’ve believed before, only hidden away. See: Crypto-Jews in Spain, Vodun, Santeria and Candomblé in the Americas, hidden Christians in Japan, Shiites in Sunni-majority states, etc. etc. etc.

The Japanese: douchou suru ” to sympathize with, to join, to follow suit,” kabau “to protect, to plead for, to stick up for” (v 9), narazumono “rogue, hooligan, gangster” (v 14), morotomo “together with” (v 17).

This is another case of the NCT following the Jewish verse and chapter numbering, so it is one verse off from the NRSV.

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