The Bible on Apostasy

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 2: Freethought I: Criticism of Religion

The Bible on Apostasy

A good place to start our argument on the scriptural foundations of violence in the Bible is with Deuteronomy 13:1-3 (“a warning against idolatry,” as the English Standard Version euphemistically puts it). There we find the following passage:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 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,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.

The attitude exemplified in this passage cannot come as a shock to a well-informed reader. Every faith will discourage its devotees from going after other gods. Every religion tries to keep its community together, and so does the Jewish religion. As Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936- ) writes in an analysis of the concept of God in the Christian tradition:

Central to Jewish understanding of its national God, Yahweh, was that this God has chosen them to be his people and had given them the laws of life. They should worship him alone. Infidelity to their God brought stern punishment.[127]

The Bible says: “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” (Deuteronomy 13:4-5).

The theory of ethics that is implicit in this passage is what has been called the “divine command theory” of ethics.[128] I will analyze that theory more extensively in Chapter 4, but the gist of the theory can be stated now. It holds that the believer is supposed to follow the ethical injunctions that are revealed by God, manifested in Scripture. As philosopher and classicist John E. Hare (1949- ) writes: “Morality and religion are connected in the Hebrew Bible primarily by the category of God’s command.”[129]

There is a problem though. Doing this can imply tensions with what we consider morally appropriate or what is legally required or forbidden by civil law or “human law” (as contrasted with “divine law”). This is, for example, the problem that Abraham faces when ordered from above to sacrifice his son. The story of Abraham and its significance for the secular outlook will be dealt with in the fifth section of Chapter 4.

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, circa 1601-02.
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio, circa 1601-02.

So far, Deuteronomy has suggested nothing that can be considered problematic in the sense of violating the moral or civil law, but in Deuteronomy 13:5 there is a turn. After the turn, we read: “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” (Deuteronomy 13:5-6).

So the prophet or the dreamer of dreams “shall be put to death.”

If this is interpreted as a description of what will happen after death, this text may still be compatible with contemporary civil and penal law, for these are only applicable to the situation here on earth. It is not very polite perhaps to tell other people that they will burn in hell for what they believe or do not believe, but as long as the furnace is not ignited in this life these visions about what happens in the hereafter do not have to cause us great worry. It appears from the context, however, that the Bible is not simply making a factual statement about what will happen to our souls in a future life, but admonishes believers in this world to execute the false prophet or the “dreamer of dreams.” That means: the individual believer is exhorted – in contemporary jargon – to “take the law into his own hands” and purge the community of false prophets.

That the Bible takes this point seriously is clear from further commentary on the way this prescript should be interpreted. There it appears that this injunction is not restricted to unknown people but should also be applied to those most intimate and dear to us. Our brother, our son, daughter, wife or friend – they should all be put to death if they preach rebellion against the Lord. In Deuteronomy 13:6-12 we read:

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 or the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other, 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. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord 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.

“Warning against idolatry” is an unduly euphemistic description of what we find here, so it appears. It is a warning to idolaters, false prophets, and dreamers of dreams, but the text also spells out in no uncertain terms what has to be done with them. They deserve the death penalty. And the execution of this death penalty is not reserved for God in the hereafter; the text proclaims it to be the specific duty of all members of the Jewish tribe to carry it out.

Furthermore, we should not be distracted from our religious duties when the false prophet is our son, our daughter, brother or wife. In particular when it comes to those dear to us, we should be the first to throw the stone, the rest of the community has to follow.

In modern terminology we should describe this as a prohibition of apostasy.[130] When we compare this provision in the Bible with modern constitutions and modern textbooks of penal law there is a manifest contradiction. Modern constitutions and treaties on human rights proclaim the freedom of religion. That freedom also comprises the freedom to reject one specific religion or relinquish all religions. This is stated clearly in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance” (italics added). So here we have a manifest contradiction between modern constitutional texts like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and “Holy Scripture” as handed down by the ancient religions of the book.

That contradiction is not restricted to the matter of apostasy. Deuteronomy generally has a completely different opinion about taking the law into your own hands than the modern state. It presents no rules to guide an earth-bound government in dealing with the matter of apostasy; it does not even refer to God. It is the individual member of the community who is assigned to be officer of the law and executioner. We all have to stone the apostates and those inciting others to embrace the false gods ourselves.

Obviously, this would be detrimental to civil order and to the principle of free speech. And this would not only be detrimental to the modern civil order, by the way, but it would also have undermined ancient states and communities. No state, whether ancient or modern, can condone violence perpetrated by citizens themselves.[131] A clear example of what this would imply we find in the biblical story of Phinehas.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part II: Biblical Terrorism: The Story of Phinehas


[127] Reuther, Rosemary Radford, “The Politics of God in the Christian Tradition,” Feminist Theology, 17 no. 3 2009, pp. 329-338, p. 330.

[128] See on this: Idziak, Janine Marie, “Divine Command Morality: A Guide to the Literature,” in: Janine Marie Idziak, Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York 1979, pp. 1-38.

[129] Hare, John E., “Religion and Morality,” in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu, 2006, pp. 1-31, p. 6.

[130] In several European countries there is a debate about apostasy in Islam. See on this: Zwemer, Samuel M., The Law of Apostasy in Islam, Marshall Brothers, London 1924; Warraq, Ibn, ed., Leaving Islam. Apostates Speak Out, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2003.

[131] See: Weber, Max, Staatssoziologie. Soziologie der rationalen Staatsanstalt und der modernen politischen Parteien und Parlamente [Sociology of the State. Sociology of the Rational Institution of the State and Modern Political Parties and Parliaments], ed. Johannes Winckelmann, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1966, p. 27 and Baldwin, Thomas, “The Territorial State,” in: Hyman Gross and Ross Harrison, eds., Jurisprudence. Cambridge Essays, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1992, pp. 207-231.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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