You never imagined that it could come to this.
You have been married for years to your dear wife. You have been your beloved’s, and your beloved has been yours. Three sons and a daughter she bore you, four children that now watch you with a look you can’t describe. What an answer to prayer she has been. Your tears hold memories of life before the whispers came. Why is this happening?
You found out from your daughter. In disbelief you went to her with questions. The voice sounded the same, her hair framed her beauty as it always had, the dimple in her cheek and the birthmark on her neck remained where you left them. Yet someone else speaks as her mouth moves, telling foreign words of strange beliefs. The wife of your youth, your lovely doe, has become sick. An illness preys upon her soul. How did this happen? You resolve to reason with her quietly, surely she will snap out of it.
Time heats gentle persuasion into desperate pleading. She no longer follows Yahweh. She implores you and the kids to join her. There are gods elsewhere.
Days pass while leaving you in a nightmare from which you cannot wake. Her idolatry deepens. You would have preferred a grizzly death than see this day. You would have bid the stars crush you or the sea to swallow you before you witnessed her bowing to another than Yahweh. She is you, you are her, one flesh. Your rib has pursued death. And what is worse — you’re tempted to think — you know the Scriptures. You could turn a blind eye, but not a blind mind.
If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you. . . you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. (Deuteronomy 13:6–8)
You shall not yield to her, listen to her, pity her, spare her . . . or conceal her. What then was the hardest thing you have ever done, you did: You brought your daughter and both told the elders her secret. The elders inquired and searched and asked diligently to be certain (Deuteronomy 13:14); she did not hide, did not yield. And again, you know the next lines,
But you shall kill [her]. Your hand shall be first against [her] to put [her] to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone [her] to death with stones, because [she] sought to draw you away from the Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.
Never have you faced such a temptation to cast off Yahweh’s rule. You would give yourself to spare her. How can you sit by and watch her die, let alone be involved in her death, and even throw the first stone? Never has disobedience felt more right. Abraham brought Isaac up the mountain, and came down with him. This day would not end like that.
The community stands watching, waiting. “Your hand shall be first against her to put her to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.”
Cruelty, this is cruelty, the thought hisses into your mind. Before you can think it, she shouts, “The gods of the nations wouldn’t require you to stone your own wife!” Your eye, seeing through a flood, beholds the blurry shape of your dearest embrace, the mother of your children. And through the stillness your ear hears the word of your God, “Your eye shall not pity her, nor shall you spare her.” Your eye or your ear? Your wife or your God?
Could You Cast the Stone?
The scene is horrible even to imagine. It takes an emotional toll to consider. The rock in your hand, a mother, a daughter, a father, a husband, a best friend before you, the community surrounding you, and your God above. Moses knew this while writing,
If your brother, the son of your mother,
or your son or your daughter
or the wife you embrace (literally, “wife of your bosom”)
or your friend who is as your own soul, entices you. . . .
Natural affection screams against the proceedings. This is not a faceless idolater but your beloved. The scene cuts the soul of all who see it; all who hear of it. It tests: to see whether we truly love Yahweh supremely or not (Deuteronomy 13:3). And it teaches. Teaches the fear of God and the proper appraisal of turning from the true God to other loves.
Have you, standing beside the solemn community, learned its lesson?
But God Isn’t Like That — Right?
The New Covenant is different from the Old. We do not execute false teachers or their apostates, do not “purge the evil from [our] midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5) by throwing stones. The closest thing we do — something just as serious — is church discipline and excommunication. When Paul tells the church at Corinth to “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13), he means, “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Yet, the difference between covenants is not the kind that some people want to make. Some imagine that the God of the Old Testament — the God who here would have idolaters and false prophets stoned — is somehow a bloodthirsty and brutal deity, while his divine Son, on the other hand, comes as the more moral, civil, and compassionate of the Godhead. They mention this Old Testament God with red face and ready-made apology. Reading this, they wonder, Why even reflect on such a text? This is not helping the gospel go forth.
“God values perfectly what we value imperfectly. He loves undyingly what we sputter to love and fail.”
Such reluctancies — in them and in ourselves — remind us of great news: God is not like you, not like me. He is more just, more holy, and more compassionate than we imagine, all at once. He is more appropriately tuned to reality than we. He values perfectly what we value imperfectly. He loves undyingly what we sputter to love and fail. He holds allegiances in perfect grasp, knows the weight of the crown upon his head, and legislates with mathematical perfection, despite our faltering algebra. That situation is horrible because sin is horrible, not God.
More Loving than God
Such texts help me (as I hope they help you) recalibrate my thinking and my feeling. They act as smelling salts to my sensibilities, confronting the weaknesses of my personality, community, and age. When I am tempted to imagine myself with a stone in hand, I feel my heart grow faint and shake its head. And when this occurs, when I let the text work on me, I begin to pray, “I believe, help my unbelief.” And I ask, Where are my loves crooked?
With my family, perhaps. I am not to lessen my love for family, but rather love God supremely, with my whole being. Christ reiterates that he will suffer no rivals (should we stand at the crossroad),
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)
Or, perhaps, with my God’s glory. In my imagining, I am more devastated by the consequence of sin than the affront of sin; more offended by the wages of sin than by the sin itself. I need to overhear how God teaches angels to feel about exchanging him for anything else:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12–13)
Or, perhaps, with my community. God shows mercy to the community through this hard lesson: “And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.” Others’ family members would fall if I lacked nerve to obey.
My “compassion” would value the creature over the Creator, high-handed rebellion over God’s glory, my wife’s unbelieving life over the faithful she would infect with her whispers of unbelief.
Let Goods and Kindred Go
Today, we are a people quick to trust our feelings, our judgments, our sense of things, with God somewhere comfortably in the background. Difficult texts like this remind us of the towering worth of God and the high allegiance of our calling. And such texts can test us, “to know whether you love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:3).
“We must decide now, as best we can and with God helping us, to never choose kin over King.”
One of Satan’s most successful snares is to infect faith through our closest relationships. Where God means for them to give life, he means death. We feel for those caught in the crossfire of a beloved’s war with God. But neither can we ignore the rotten fruit: pastors who change their minds on homosexuality because a son comes out; a Christian mother who capitulates on abortion because her daughter secretly procured one; a wife who concedes to universalism because her husband left the faith. Satan has robbed many through this backdoor.
A text like Deuteronomy 13 bids us decide now, as best we can and with God helping us, to never choose kin over King, should that dark day ever come. Though my heart be wrung watching him or her run after other gods, I will not. Although their sin twists my soul in knots I can’t untie, though the loss of that relationship pierces to the deepest part of me, and all the while the world’s gods taunt me that Christ is too narrow, too particular, that it’s not worth it — Lord, keep me yours.
Jesus is worthy to be our great love, and no less — a love we bend or break for none. Let God be true, though every loved one is false. Resolve now to sing to the end with Psalm 73:25–26,
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.