The Bible holds that Israel's very existence is predicated upon exclusive loyalty to the Lord and views the worship of other deities by Israelites as a crime exposing the entire nation to disaster. Therefore, Israelites who worship deities other than the Lord are subject to capital punishment. If the authorities hear that an Israelite city has been led astray and worshipped other deities, the report is to be investigated carefully; if confirmed, the city's population is to be executed, its contents completely destroyed, and the city itself never to be rebuilt. This law reflects the concept that God is Israel's king and that worshipping other gods is high treason. It has parallels in ancient treaties and similar texts which require that sedition against the sovereign, by individuals and cities, be reported and punished.
Talmudic exegesis holds that the authorities may not seek out such cases on their own but may investigate only if the crime is reported to them by others; the townspeople must be given a chance to reform, and only the guilty are to be punished. The rabbis interpreted the law narrowly and imposed stringent procedural safeguards on the investigation. Because the total combina-tion of circumstances they required for applying the law would rarely occur, some held that it was never expected to be applied but was stated in the Torah only to show the gravity of the crime.
Jeffrey H. Tigay
Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures
University of Pennsylvania
M. Sanh. 10:4-5; B. Sanh. 71a and 111b-112a; Tosef. Sanh. 14:1; Sifrei Deuteronomy 92-94; Maimonides, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah chap. 4.
M. Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford, 1972),
pp. 91-100; J. H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia,
scheduled for 1996), ad loc.; M. Weinfeld, "The Loyalty Oath in the Ancient
Near East," Ugarit-Forschungen 8 (1976):389-390; P. E. Dion, "Deuteronomy
13: The Suppression of Alien Religious Propaganda in Israel during the
Late Monarchical Era," in Law and Ideology in Monarchic Israel, ed. B.
Halpern and D.W. Hobson (Sheffield, England, 1991), pp. 147-216.