Conversation Guide #5: Deuteronomy 17 – by Joep Dubbink & Klaas Spronk

In Deuteronomy 17 it seems that apostasy or ‘leaving your religion’ is punished by death, a shocking outcome for the modern reader. However, this paper claims that this cannot be regarded as characteristic of the biblical view on exclusion and inclusion.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

According to this text, idolatry and worshipping other gods are absolutely not acceptable. The prohibition on idolatry is deeply rooted in the religion of Israel; it is found in the Decalogue, in the commandment that forbids the making and worshipping of idols (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8). Idolatry is a matter of transgressing God’s covenant and an ‘abomination’ (17:2, 4), an expression indicating a variety of cultic and ethic practices that can have no place in Israel.

Due process is important: thorough inquiry and a minimum of two witnesses (cf. Deut. 19:15) is necessary to avoid false accusations. The witnesses are required to start the execution themselves, obviously to make them think twice and make them even more responsible for the verdict based on their testimony (cf. also the way Jesus uses this: John 7:53-8:11, especially 8:7). All this is meant to ‘purge the evil from your midst’ (v. 7). Removing evil, unacceptable sins, from society is the first intention of this rule. A pedagogic intent is sometimes added (Deut. 19:20; 21:21), but is secondary.

Historical and biblical theological setting

For a long time,  biblical Israel was not as ‘monotheistic’, as the ‘historical overview’ of Genesis – 2 Kings seems to suggest. It was only after a long battle that the ‘YHWH-alone-movement’, which shaped the characteristic biblical faith, finally won, and their views were accepted as normative. The Book of Deuteronomy testifies to this battle: Deuteronomy 17:2-7 is meant to draw a line as a safeguard against apostasy, as that would be disastrous for the whole community.

For  twenty-first century readers, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 could easily be mistaken as a text about conversion, ‘changing your religion’, but the concept of religion as a set of truths, values and guidelines for worship and behaviour that one freely chooses is a modern one. In antiquity much more than in our times, religion was a collective choice or not even a choice. Whoever was born in Israel was a member of the covenant and responsible for upholding the rules of the covenant. Anyone transgressing fundamental rules of the covenant could not remain a member of the group.

Reception history

In the history of interpretation, we do not find indications that the execution of this law was much propagated. We do not know of any examples of executions of perpetrators under this law in the Second Temple period. Jewish tradition, on purpose, added so many criteria that it became almost impossible to carry out the death penalty.

In the history of the Christian church, especially in the time of the Reformation and Contra-Reformation, many people were executed because of assumed apostasy. However, those in power did not base the right to carry out the death penalty on Deuteronomy 17, but rather, for instance, on Romans 13. Calvin uses Deuteronomy 17 to ask for rigidity but also for ‘diligent inquiry’ and reads verse 7 about the witnesses being the first to throw a stone as a warning against light accusations.

Luther, in a lecture on Deuteronomy 17:1-7, states that with regard to sinning against faith and the word, there is no room for lapse (as is the case with regard to sinning against love), because when faith is lost, everything is lost, while love endures everything. Some commentators follow the line of Luther, indicating that at some point there is no more room for mercy or compromise. They stress, for example, the fact that the faith of Israel is diametrically opposed to the Canaanite religion, as life against death, or apply it to the Christian responsibility to keep the church pure, rather ignoring the violent content of the pericope.

At the other end of the spectrum, commentators focus on capital punishment as cruel and as a form of violence. The first type of reader changes the harsh content of the text by taking it metaphorically: no stoning but excommunication. Readers of the second kind explicitly refuse to spiritualize the biblical text and take the text seriously, including all its negative aspects, but they also, in the end, have to find a way of dealing with the text in the present day.

Exclusion and inclusion within Tanakh

The broader context of the Hebrew Bible shows that there are different voices on the theme of inclusion/exclusion. Safeguarding one’s identity can be important in a specific situation. There are many different situations, from family/clan, settlements, tribes, to monarchies and parochial organizations. In each of them outsiders play specific and also often changing roles.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are witnesses to a theology that is determined by fear. With the events of the exile in mind, the implication is that Israel narrowly escaped annihilation, that new transgressions are a direct threat to its society and foreign influence has to be removed (e.g., Ezra 9:1-15, Neh 9).

In the book of Jonah, a much more lenient view on the heathen (and hostile) city of Nineveh is found than in Nahum: in Jonah, the non-Israelite sailors are doing the right thing; they pray to YHWH (Jonah 1:14). In the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman is presented as faithful to her mother-in-law and to YHWH, while Numbers 25 warns against the danger of Moabite women leading the Israelites astray. The book of Genesis displays open and often even friendly relations between Abraham and his descendants on the one hand and the Canaanites on the other hand (e.g., Jethro, the Midianite father-in-law of Moses).

The book of Joshua offers a very clear distinction between the chosen people of Israel and the Canaanites who are only there to be replaced. However, it is introduced by two stories that put this distinction into a new light: Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute in Jericho, plays a positive role as a true believer in YHWH; she and her family survive the destruction of Jericho. Achan, a member of the important tribe of Judah, is stoned to death for his transgressions, together with his wife and children.

These stories cannot be regarded as an exception to the rule of Deuteronomy 17 that apostasy deserves the death penalty, because outsiders like Ruth and Rahab are only included after they proved to be true followers of the god of Israel. The older situation of henotheism, in which it was accepted as normal that other peoples served other gods, is replaced in most texts in Tanakh by strict monotheism. Traces of the older situation can be found in a text like Deuteronomy 4:19, which shows that YHWH had no problem with other people worshipping the sun and moon, as long as Israel  refrained from it. Alas, this aspect has been ignored in the reception history, and the most radical versions of ‘otherness’ have frequently been adopted as the only possible meaning. Fundamentalist readers of the Bible to this day have thus justified the unmerciful exclusion of ‘outsiders’ from the community of believers.

In line with these remarks, we conclude that, in our opinion, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 does not have the last word when it comes to exclusion or inclusion in Tanakh. It should be handled with care when we want to base our discussion of this topic on biblical grounds, as it is not just a text about conversion and it should be read together with other texts with a different approach to this theme.



  1. What are your first impressions after reading Deuteronomy 17:2-7: consent, approval, fear, disgust, protest, or something else?
  2. Do you regard faith as a matter of personal choice, or do you feel yourself a member of a community of people whose faith you share?
  3. Would it be easy for you to change or abandon your religion, or would you experience opposition? If so, would this opposition come from within (your own conscience) of from others, like family, friends, religious or worldly authorities?
  4. To what extent is the variety of opinions within the Bible on ‘outsiders’ problematic for you, and to what extent do you regard this as an enrichment?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Joep Dubbink and Klaas Spronk, which can be found here: Deuteronomy 17:2-7 within the Context of Tanakh.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.