A short time ago I blogged about my ministry going forward and mentioned Deuteronomy 13. More specifically, I wrote about how, due to the nature of what I often write about (the supernatural worldview of the Bible), there was potential for my work to be cherry-picked out of context to prop up beliefs and practices I neither hold nor endorse. I want to spend some time on Deuteronomy 13 to kick off an informal series of posts about signs and wonders. As I noted in that recent post, I’m neither a traditional cessationist nor a charismatic. My view is today characterized as “cautiously open” in academic parlance, a view that basically contends that God can do supernatural things today, including bestowing supernatural gifting, when it suits him. A corollary thought is that, in doing so, God would never be behind such a thing if it was inconsistent with the patterns and purposes we see discerned in the record of God’s giftings — i.e., the Bible. Claims of supernatural gifting, then, need to conform to Scripture in terms of their purpose, their fruit, and any truth claims attached to them. With that introduction, let’s take a look at this neglected passage.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (ESV)

1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

The passage is straightforward. The term translated “prophet” (nāḇîʾ / נָבִיא) is the normative and frequent Hebrew word used of Yahweh’s prophets. One cannot therefore contend that we have in view some idiosyncratic practitioner. “Dreamer of dreams” (ḥolēm ḥalôm / חֹלֵ֣ם חֲל֑וֹם) is less frequent, but the lemmas used are still common. They occur individually or in some combination of people with whom God did indeed communicate, such as: Joseph (“this dreamer”; Gen 37:19 – literally, “master of dreams”: baʿal haḥalomôt / בַּ֛עַל הַחֲלֹמ֥וֹת), Pharaoh (Gen 20:6); and Jacob (Gen 28:12). The point is that, in other passages, prophets or dream recipients do in fact receive their messages and sign abilities from Yahweh.

Prophets of Yahweh of course performed signs and wonders, or knew of some future event that would come to pass. Examples are numerous. One needs only to read of Moses and the signs and wonders called down in both judgment on the Egyptians and for the benefit of Israelites. Interestingly, Moses is called a prophet in the same book of Deuteronomy (Deut 18:15). This connection suggests that the warning of Deuteronomy 13 might have an individual in view who sought leadership or authority over God’s people. That notion is strengthened by noting the crime for which that individual is condemned: performing a sign or wonder, or dispensing a “word” of revelation that indeed comes to pass, but which was contrary to the worship and commands of Yahweh:

1 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. . . .

Yahweh was thus NOT the source of the sign or revelation despite the fact that both were real. Consequently, the problem wasn’t the genuineness of the sign or revelation. Instead, the problem was the prophet or dreamer, for along with the sign and revelatory word came false teaching: “Let us go after other gods . . . and let us serve them.” In other words, the issue was doctrine. 

That this is the case is confirmed elsewhere in the chapter. The nature of the problematic “let us go after other gods” Yahweh tells his people to reject is discerned by noting what Yahweh wanted affirmed: “You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice” (Deut 13:4). Israel was not to “leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded [them] to walk” (Deut 13:5).

The context for these “commandments”, “obeying God’s voice”, and “walking in the way” is, not surprisingly, the revelation at Sinai. In Deuteronomy the scene of the giving of the Law is found in Deuteronomy 5. That more than the Ten Commandments is in view is seen by taking note of Deut 5:28-33, verses that follow the enumeration of the Ten Commandments:

28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. 29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever! 30 Go and say to them, “Return to your tents.” 31 But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.’ 32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.

The language here is obviously (and intentionally) drawn upon in Deut 13:4-5. In a nutshell, if the wonder-working prophet or dreamer of dreams married the sign or revelation with anything contrary to what God had commanded for Israel, he or she was to be rejected and … worse … put to death (Deut 13:5).

This last part that ought to get the attention of modern-day prophets and revelation-dispensers — and those who listen to them. In my experience, a lot of Bible students know Deut 18:22 (cp. Jer 23:23-32), where we are told that if a prophet (same word: nāḇîʾ) predicts something that doesn’t come to pass, he or she is to be rejected as a true prophet of Yahweh:

22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

But (also in my experience) it seems that few who know this verse are familiar with Deut 13:1-5 and its “reverse” circumstances. I think the passage ought to make churches very cautious about listening to “prophecies” from people. Are churches prepared to obey Deut 13:1-5?

Obviously, we aren’t in a theocracy (by God’s own design, mind you), and so the death penalty for people who perform a sign or “speak a word” to a church or believers and who wind up using the success or accuracy of that deed to lead people astray isn’t on the table. But what is the right course of action is evident from the epistles: false teachers should be exposed so that believers and churches know to avoid them (2 Pet 2:1-3). Paul quite clearly said there was such a thing as “false apostles” (2 Cor 11:13) who taught people error instead of truth.

Before wrapping this short foray into Deuteronomy up, I want to return to something I said earlier — that Deut 13’s warning seems connected to the legitimate God-ordained authority of Moses. Deuteronomy 13 sets up a situation where the power of Yahweh (signs, dream revelation) could be mimed as part of an effort to get Israelites to depart from the truth of Yahweh and follow other gods — to follow someone other than the one God had validated. This is an important contextual factor that we must keep in mind.

Perhaps a somewhat hypothetical illustration will be helpful. I have had several people at various points of my life tell me they had a “word” for me. Invariably, the “word” was so vague that it would take some real analysis to discern if it ever came to pass. It may have, but I can’t be sure since it was so imprecise. I don’t think that these people were what Deut 13 was talking about. I’m willing to entertain a darker thought here, but I tend to file what they did and said in the “kind word” bucket. I think they were trying to be an encouragement and blessing. That said, if these “prophets” had been correct and then used that to leverage their influence with me to prompt me to embrace something contrary to Scripture, I’d say they’d deserve exposure and condemnation. Notice I said “contrary to Scripture” — not only because of what we read in Deut 13, but also because we don’t follow leaders above Scripture. While it’s true that God gifted men and women in both New Testament days and thereafter to lead (read: serve) the Church in specific capacities, those officers are repeatedly judged in the New Testament by their alignment and allegiance to the teachings of Scripture — not the gift-title they bear. It’s the authority issue that, I think, must factor into how we think about Deuteronomy 13. We all need to realize that our authority is Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17). In that sense, churches ought to be prepared to obey Deuteronomy 13 if a sign or wonder or “word” comes to pass but brings false teaching with it. We ought not be so impressed by a sign or revelation that we become less impressed with the Word of God.