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Death Penalty for Old Testament False Prophets
Justified or Religious Intolerance?

This article is a spinoff from our Interpretation Challenges of the Book of the Kings chapter.  It involves one of my favorite events in the book (1Kg 18:16-46), the contest on Mt Carmel with God's prophet Elijah against the prophets of Baal.  Immediately after Yahweh shows Himself to be the true God of Israel, Elijah executes the false prophets in an act that many in our modern sin-tolerating society would consider an unwarranted act of religious intolerance and a hate crime.  In the original article, we confirmed that Elijah acted in accordance with the Law given by God to the Israelites via Moses.  In this article, we further examine the legal, moral and spiritual issues surrounding these particular actions.

Written Feb 2016.

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Battle of the Gods

We begin with a brief  historical background and survey of the aforementioned contest.  When Ahab became king of Israel, he did more evil in the eyes of the LORD (Yahweh) than any of the previous kings before him.  He married Jezebel, the evil daughter of a foreign king.  Under her influence, he built a temple in Samaria to the false god Baal and set up an Asherah pole for worship of the Canaanite fertility goddess (1Kg 16:29-33).  As a result, the Prophet Elijah told Ahab that “there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1Kg 17:1).

During the next three and a half years of drought (Ja 5:17), Ahab searched unsuccessfully for Elijah while Jezebel attempted to kill God’s prophets, but Obadiah hid many of them from her.  Then per God’s instructions, Elijah confronted Ahab and proposed a contest to decide the real God.  This set up a contest on Mt Carmel that any promoter would love to sponsor.  “In the red corner, we have Ahab and Jezebel with their 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah; and their opponents in the blue corner, Elijah and Yahweh.  Let’s get ready to rumble!”  Ahab and Jezebel had home field advantage since Mt Carmel was believed to be a sacred Baal site.  For the actual contest, each side was to prepare a bull on a wooden alter and call on their God to send down fire (lightning) from heaven on the sacrificial offering.  We might even say that Elijah gave his opponents choice of weapons since Baal was purported to be the god of the storm.

I should interject here that the title of this chapter, “Battle of the Gods” is not exactly accurate since only Yahweh (the true Creator God and Lord) actually existed.  The false god Baal and goddess Asherah subsisted only in the minds of their deluded followers.

Prior to the contest, Elijah made the famous declaration to the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him; but the people said nothing” (1Kg 18:21).  As the context started, the prophets of Baal prayed all morning but received no answer, so they frantically danced, called out and even slashed themselves in their attempt to draw their false god into action.  Finally in the evening, when it came Elijah’s turn, he prepared his alter to the Lord, and even dumped so much water on the alter that the surrounding trench was filled.  In contrast to the actions of the false prophets, Elijah calmly prayed to Yahweh who immediately sent fire that burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and even licked up the water in the trench (1Kg 18:38).  The people fell prostrate and cried out “The LORD--he is God! The LORD--he is God!”  Elijah then had the false prophets executed (1Kg 18:39-40) and God ended the drought by sending a heavy rain on the land (1Kg 18:45).

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Prohibition of False Prophets in the Old Testament

A biblical prophet was God’s messenger and spokesperson, a representative of God before His people.  The prophet delivered and interpreted God’s messages and on occasion, also interceded with God on behalf of the people.

False prophets living in the surrounding territories performed similar roles, albeit with non-existing gods.  The Israelites were warned time and time again not to intermingle with the Canaanites and thus imitate or participate in their pagan religious rituals.  We also find numerous accounts in Scripture of false prophets originating from among God’s chosen people.  These indigenous false prophets, with whom we are primarily concerned in this article, can take one of two forms.  One group would represent and promote a false god or gods, such as the false prophets of Baal and Asherah that we detailed above.  The other type of false prophet would pretend to receive messages from the true God, but deliver his own message for personal gain or other selfish motives.  A common recurrence involved the false prophet tickling the king’s ear by predicting an upcoming great military victory or other success even though God had opposite plans.  The actions of either type of false prophet would result in the people turning to false gods, the former by advocating for the false gods and the latter by making it appear that the true God was speaking falsely.  Consequently, it is no wonder that we find forbiddances and warnings concerning false prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In addition to violating the first two commandments (Ex 20:3-6, Dt 5:7-10), the prohibition against false prophets is clearly set forth in Deuteronomy by Moses to the second generation of Israelites that were rescued from slavery in Egypt and were preparing to enter the Promised Land of Canaan.

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them”, you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.  The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.  It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.  That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion (Heb: sara) against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn (Heb: nadah) you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow.  You must purge the evil from among you (Dt 13:1-5).

The Hebrew noun for rebellion (sara) is used here to indicate a distinct defection (probably in both a moral and legal sense) and can also be translated as “revolt”, “disobedience” or “apostasy”.  The Hebrew verb for turn (nadah) is translated elsewhere as “drive out”, “banish”, “expel”, “go astray” and “cast out”.  The verb’s root denotes the forceful action of driving someone or something away, and is also used by Moses to describe cutting down or destroying a tree with an ax (Dt 19:5, 20:19).  It was often used of people being driven out of their land, and by Jeremiah to indicate the false shepherds (prophets) that were scattering and driving away the flock (people) from the true Shepherd (Jer 23:2, Ps 80:1).  Thus in each case, we see a deliberate and purposeful action by the false prophets in their attempt to lead the people astray from the one true God.  This was considered such a serious offense that no attempt was made to bring the agent of Satan to repentance (if even possible).  There was no other option than to purge the evil in order to safeguard the purity of God’s people.

This was such a critical matter that it extended to a person’s closest relatives.

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, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him.  Show him no pity.  Do not spare him or shield him.  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.  Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again (Dt 13:6-11).

The people were thus warned not to cover up or protect even a family member who was guilty of this egregious crime against a most holy God.

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Justification of the Death Penalty

In mandating that a false prophets should be put to death, some have suggested that God was just being intolerable, envious or insecure.  This is not the case at all.  God is not threatened by any of these false prophets or their non-existent deities, but is genuinely concerned for the spiritual welfare of His people.  So, why was the sin of the false prophet so severe that it warranted the death penalty?  Not that God’s decrees or actions need any vindication from us, but we offer four explanations for the utmost seriousness of this offense. 

The first explanation involves the rituals that were practiced in the worship of the false gods.  The text in Deuteronomy 13 should be understood in the context of the closing verses of the previous chapter in which Moses reminds the people that God was driving out the current occupants of the land not just for worshipping false gods, but for all the detestable things done in service to these gods.  In particular, he mentions that the Canaanites even burn their children in the fire as a sacrifice to these gods (Dt 12:29-31).  In Leviticus 18, Moses relays God’s warning to the Israelites against imitating the practices of the Canaanites.  He then lists several forbidden activities such as incest, adultery, homosexual acts, temple prostitution, child sacrifice, and bestiality.  Archeologists such as William Albright have uncovered writings that detail the adventures and pastimes of the imaginary deities.  So, when the Canaanites were participating in the above acts, they were merely imitating the perceived exploits of their false gods.

A second explanation is related to Israel’s type of government.  The nation was created as a Theocracy under the Mosaic covenant at Sinai with the true God as their Sovereign Ruler.  Over the next four hundred years, Moses, Joshua, and a series of judges guided Israel as God’s chosen servant leader.  Even under the monarchy, the various kings were themselves subject to God’s sovereign rule in what became a modified theocracy.  As a result, the false prophet’s actions essentially amounted to the highest form of treason, a capital offence even in most modern human-government countries.  How much more serious is this crime when committed against the true infinitely Holy God.

A third explanation for the strictness of the Mosaic Law concerning the false prophet’s actions was due to the resulting consequences for those who believed their proclamations and teachings.  By leading people astray, the false prophets condemned their followers to an eternal death and separation from God in hell.  Thus their actions were tantamount to committing spiritual murder.  We could note here that Satan himself was the original false prophet.  By giving a false message to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 (“Did God really say…”), he condemned all mankind to physical death, and all unbelievers to spiritual and eternal death.

We could also ask, why come down so hard on the false prophets for merely offering bad advice?  After all, couldn’t the people simply ignore their teaching?  To answer this question, we return to the restating of the Law in Deuteronomy (the word “Deuteronomy” derives from the Greek word Deuterononium meaning “second law” or “repetition of the law”) to the second generation of exiles preparing to enter the Promised Land.  In chapter 18, Moses is dealing with various governmental functions.  After giving some background information on the Priests and Levites, and warning the people against adopting the pagan practices of the current inhabitants of the land, Moses turns to the functions of the prophets.

15The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites.  You must listen to him16For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17The LORD said to me: “What they say is good.  18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth.  He will tell them everything I command him.  19I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name20But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.” (Dt 15-20)

Thus, God would communicate to His people by sending a succession of prophets, culminating with the ultimate prophet, Jesus the Messiah (Ac 3:17-24).  God would put His words into their mouth, so that they would actually be speaking with God’s authority, and to ignore or disobey God’s representative was equivalent to disobeying God Himself.  Thus, God would “call to account” anyone who disregarded His prophet’s message.  The Hebrew word used for “call to account (dārash) is the same word used in Genesis 9:5 when God vowed to “demand” life for life in the case of murder, and by Reuben when confessing that he and his brothers must “give an account” for the blood of their brother Joseph (Gen 42:22).  So, the Israelite could ignore the words of the Lord’s prophet at the possible risk of his or her own life.

This of course, begs the question, how was the listener to know whether the prophet was bringing a true or false word?  Moses anticipates this question:  You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?”  If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.  That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (Dt 21-22)

Thus, whether or not the prophesied message came true became the criteria by which the legitimacy of a prophet was judged.  Obviously this test was applicable to predictive prophecy only.  In addition, if the prophecy was to be judged by his contemporaries, it would need to be fulfilled within his own generation.  We’ve seen many people throughout history who were hailed as prophets by making vague predictions with a long or undetermined time frame, but not so with the Biblical Prophets.  Isaiah and Daniel both prophesied events hundreds of years in the future, but also spoke of many within their own lifetime.  The true prophets of God validated their authority by proclaiming events in the near future, often within a very short time period.

In discerning between true and false predictions, judgments were likely cumulative rather than isolated.  That is to say, with each fulfilled or unfulfilled predictions, each prophet probably built up a track record that could be taken into consideration.  As I was growing up, my mother often spoke of a “trust factor”.  If I was caught in a lie, she was more prone to doubt my word until my trust factor was rebuilt.  This is an imperfect analogy since one false statement would disqualify a person from being a prophet of God, so the final validation of a true prophet couldn’t be made until all his predictions had come true.  We can say from a discernment standpoint however that, as a prophet’s predictions continued to be accurately fulfilled, the more confidence a person could place in his remaining predictions and in the belief that he was a true spokesman of God.

Predictive prophecy and other types of prophetical messages were also judged by their consistency with previous revelation from established true prophets.  We find a very good example of discernment in Jeremiah 26, where many of the Jewish priests and (false) prophets placed Jeremiah on trial to be executed as a false prophet for delivering God’s message that, if the people of Judah did not repent and turn back to Him, He would send the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.  After Jeremiah made his defense, the court officials declared that Jeremiah was not deserving of death and that he had spoken in the name of the Lord (v16).  In making their decision, the officials noted that the prophet Micah had used similar language in bringing a proclamation against Judah about a hundred years earlier during the reign of King Hezekiah.  The officials even quoted Micah 3:12, showing that the writings of other prophets were already being preserved.  Jeremiah was released, but unlike King Hezekiah who heeded Micah’s warning and preserved Judah for a time, King Jehoiakim disregarded Jeremiah’s warning, and Judah was subsequently destroyed.

The fourth and final explanation for the seriousness of false prophecy is closely related to the third.  If left unchecked in leading God’s people astray, the false prophets could have (and did to a certain extent) impede God’s plan of salvation for people of all nations.  We should include a note here regarding God’s sovereignty and human ability to “impede” God’s plan.  God’s objective will and associated ultimate plans cannot be altered by anything that humans do.  Subjectively however, there are some aspects of God’s plans that He allows to be conditionally based upon human action.  Thus, although the false prophets could not ultimately block God’s plan of salvation for mankind, they could prevent (by God’s conditional allowance) their followers from obtaining salvation.

With this in mind, let’s take a brief look at God’s historical plan of salvation.  In John chapter 4, Jesus was having a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well when He declared that “the salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22).  So, what exactly did Jesus mean?  The simple answer is that salvation would be offered to people of all nations from among the Jews, that is, through the Jewish Messiah.  Note also that Jesus said “the (Gk he) salvation (Gk soteria) is from the Jews”.  The inclusion of the nominative singular definite article “the” clearly proclaims that this is not merely one means of salvation among many, but rather is the exclusive means of salvation (see also Jn 14:6, Ac 4:12, 1Ti 2:5).

To briefly expand on God’s plan of salvation, we need to go back a couple of millennia before the Christ’s first advent.  Beginning with what was forecast in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15), God call the man Abram (later renamed Abraham) out of a pagan nation to move his family to a place that would be revealed to him, promising not only to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation, but that all peoples throughout the earth would be blessed through him (Gen 12:1-3).  When Abraham arrived in Canaan, God gave him the promise of the land (Gen 12:4-9).  These unconditional promises are known as the Abrahamic Covenant.  During a great famine a couple of centuries later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob (aka Israel) moved about 70 of his family to Egypt where God had providentially placed Jacob’s son Joseph as ruler.  After Joseph’s death, a new Pharaoh enslaved Jacob’s descendants for 400 years, until God raised up Moses to lead them out of slavery and back to the Promised Land of Canaan.

Israel became a nation at Mt Sinai on the way to the Promised Land under stipulations known as the Mosaic Covenant (~1445BC).  God conditionally promised the Israelites via Moses that “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).  Thus, God called the Jews to a special covenantal holiness to be set apart as priests in demonstrating His redemptive love and truth in the sight of people of all other nations.

Unfortunately, after Joshua (Moses’ successor) led the Israelites’ conquest of the Promised Land, the Jews continually failed to be obedient to the covenant throughout the period of the Judges and the Monarchy (during this time, the nation split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, ~931BC), until God exiled them from the land (Israel ~722BC, Judah ~586BC).  This was driven in large part by the people listening to and believing the false prophets rather than the true prophets sent by God.  Thus God sent His Son as the true seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16) from the Jews (Mt 1:1-16) as the Savior to all nations (Ac 13:26,47).

In addition, God sending His Son was not just a last minute substitute plan due to the failure of the Jews.  God had predestined the Christ’s role in our salvation before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4-10; 1Pe 1:18-20).  Yet, the failure of the Jews to act as role models for other nations, and thereby to reveal the true God, doomed most of the people of other nations (and many of the Jews) to an eternal separation from God.  In a sense, the Israelites became a type of false prophet to the surrounding nations by turning from the true Creator God to worship images of the creation (Rom 1:21-23).

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Method and Purpose of Capital Punishment

Before we close this article, I’d like to make a few concise comments on our main text in Deuteronomy 13, beginning with stoning as the prescribed method of execution in the Mosaic Law (Dt 13:10; also 17:5, 21:21, 22:21; Lev 20:27, 24:14 etc).  Methods of capital punishment found in extra-biblical ancient law codes for surrounding nations include beheading, impalement, drowning, and burning, but the practice of stoning has not been discovered outside of the Bible, so it appears to be unique to Israel.  Since the primary objective of the executions was to purge the evil from the community, stoning was likely chosen since it was carried out communally (Dt 13:9).  By contrast, executions in other nations were performed by the authorities in power.  With Israel’s communal method, no single person was responsible for the execution; however the primary accuser had to throw the first stone (Dt 13:9).  This stipulation was included to prevent the accuser from rashly bringing an allegation against an innocent person.

We spent the majority of this article justifying the death penalty for false prophets on the basis of the seriousness of the sin (or crime).  We’ve seen that false prophets impugn the honor and holiness of the true God and condemn those made in His image to an eternal hell.  Yet our scripture text offers an additional purpose for taking such drastic action.  The threat of capital punishment would serve as a deterrent to others (Dt 13:11) that might otherwise commit this crime and bring judgment on themselves and spiritual condemnation on their followers.

Unfortunately, the previously summarized account of Elijah and the false prophets on Mt Carmel was one of the few times that these commands (Dt 13:9-11) were actually carried out.  The effect of this lack of enforcement is readily apparent.  For the most part, the false prophets were allowed to unabatedly turn the people from the true God to the false gods of the surrounding pagan nations.  Because the religious and political leaders refused to enforce God’s sentence against the false prophets, God Himself brought a series of judgments on the kingdoms in an attempt to exhort His chosen people to turn back to Him.  These actions resulted in sporadic periods of repentance, but the people’s spiritual condition continued to deteriorate until the Lord allowed their enemies to conquer the kingdoms and exile the people.

Our final point may be difficult to accept for many in our modern times, particularly for those living in non-Christian or fast becoming post-Christian societies.  Contrary to the popular belief permeating these cultures that capital punishment reflects a low view of life, the Biblical practice actually arose out of the extremely high value of human life.  We’ll discuss and expand on this point in our second related article linked below.

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Related Articles

False Prophets in the New Testament (In Progress) – In this article, we’ll discuss the views on false prophecy in the NT, and the differing methods of punishment with false prophets as compared with the OT.

Capital Punishment and the Value of Life (In Progress) - In this article, we’ll demonstrate how the death penalty confirms and upholds an extremely high view value of life, the basis for this high value of human life, and the contrasting views on capital punishment between Biblical and modern times.

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