The Greatest Commandments, Part 9

This is part of a series of posts that studies each of the commandments in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Jewish and Christian bibles), then maps them in a massive visual hierarchy that details their interconnected nature.

Have a look at:

This week we’ll be mapping commandments found in Deuteronomy 13, all of which pertain to idolatry. This will be a bigger chunk to bite off than normal, as we’ll be discussing and mapping 12 commandments in all.

No Inciting Cities To Idolatry

If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that wicked men have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. Destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock.

-Deuteronomy 13:12-15

This commandment isn’t spelled out explicitly in the text, but is inferred from the context, and rightfully so. Maimonides extracts the commandment: “don’t incite a city in the land to idolatry”.

Last week we introduced a new datum for each of the commandments: CanBeCarriedOutOnlyInIsrael. This comes in handy this week, as some of this week’s commandments are meant to be carried out only in Israel.

This commandment is no exemption, predicated on occurring in “one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in”, i.e. an Israelite town.

I have derived this commandment from the “no enticing others to worship idols” commandment, which is discussed below:


Burn the Idolatrous City

Gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God.

-Deuteronomy 13:16a (13:17 in Jewish bibles)

Another commandment that could be carried out only in Israel (and indeed, I can’t think of a time in history where this has actually been carried out!), is the commandment to burn the idolatrous city, along with all its plunder, as an offering to the Lord.

I find the “offering to the Lord” part curious. We typically think, in our modern understanding, that offerings to the Lord are usually pleasant things: sacrifice of praise. Offering of thanks-giving. Or even, a pleasing incense from the altar on which a ram or other animal was offered.

Here, we have something which opposes that idea: a whole town, and all the plunder in it, as an offering to God. Not exactly a pleasing incense! This changes my own personal thinking on the concept of sacrifices and offerings.

We deem this commandment as deriving from the above “no inciting a city to idolatry”:


No Rebuilding the Idolatrous City

It is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt.

-Deuteronomy 13:16b (13:17 in Jewish bibles)

After the city and its plunder is burnt as offering to God, the city is never to be rebuilt!

Quite the instruction. I wonder if either this commandment and its associated commandments have ever been carried out.

I imagine this is one of those “limit commandments” – if things get really bad (entire cities worshipping idols), drastic measures are in order. This commandment, I imagine, is to stand as a warning for future generations: things got so bad, the whole city had to be destroyed, and here are the ash heaps.

I still wonder – has it ever got this bad? And if so, was this measure really carried out? I’d be surprised if it were.

We deem this commandment deriving from the “burn the idolatrous city” commandment:


No Benefiting From Destroyed Idolatrous City

None of those condemned things shall be found in your hands, so that the LORD will turn from his fierce anger; he will show you mercy, have compassion on you, and increase your numbers, as he promised on oath to your forefathers, because you obey the LORD your God, keeping all his commands that I am giving you today and doing what is right in his eyes.

-Deuteronomy 13:17 (13:18 in Jewish bibles)

We’re still not done with this “things have gone down the crapper, and whole cities are worshipping idols” bit:

  • A whole city was lead astray into idol worship.
  • We burned the city.
  • Burned the plunder.
  • Never rebuilt the city.

…and now, we cannot take anything from the city as our own. All of it must be burned entirely.

Footnotes to this commandment suggest the Hebrew term of “destroying completely” here refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD. This suggests again the whole city going up as an offering to God.

Thus, we deem this commandment deriving from the “burn idolatrous city” commandment:


No Enticing Others to Worship Idols

Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

-Deuteronomy 13:11 (13:12 in Jewish bibles)

The ancestor commandment of all the above commandments is this: “no enticing others to worship idols”.

This commandment isn’t spelled out exactly in the text, but it’s apparent from all the explicit commandments that leading others to idolatry has dire results.

We derive this commandment from “no worshipping idols”:


No Loving Idolators

Do not yield to him [the idolator] or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him.

-Deuteronomy 13:8 (13:9 in Jewish bibles)

Maimonides derives 5 commandments from this verse. The first commandment is to “refrain from loving the idolator”.

Not to love the idolator is a debatable interpretation, as it’s not explicitly spelled out in the text or the context, but I can see how it could be interpreted that way, so I’ve stuck with the wise sage’s wisdom here.

I’ve derived this commandment from the “no idols” general commandment, which has now seen numerous child commandments:


No Yielding To Idolators

The second commandment derived from Deut. 13:8 is to not yield to idolators.

This is my personal interpretation, which differs from Maimonides’ interpretation. His interpretation goes,

“Do not cease from hating the idolator.”

-Maimonides’ interpretation of Deut. 13:8

I find this interpretation to be questionable, and quite the stretch on words.

First, there is no mention of hating the idolator. It might be construed that way, but it is debatable. Is “not loving” the same as “hating”? It’s my personal opinion that there is something in between loving and hating.

Second, to not cease hating him as an additional requirement of this commandment is yet more of a stretch; there isn’t anything about prolonging your non-love, or even your hate, of the idolator from the surrounding texts.

Thus, this is one of those rare times I’ve had to default to my own interpretation. I’ve deemed this commandment as deriving from the above “do not love the idolator”:


No Pitying Idolators

The third commandment pulled from Deuteronomy 13:8 is another explicit explanation of what it means to not love the idolator: don’t show him pity.

Once again, I’ve departed from Maimonides’ interpretation:

Do not refrain from incriminating the idolator.

-Maimonides’ interpretation of Deut. 13:8

I’m unsure where Maimonides gets this from in verse 8. One could argue earlier passages might suggest not withholding evidence against idolators, but even that is a stretch. Perhaps Maimonides’ took the sentence “do not have pity on him” and took it to mean, “before a religious court”. It’s possible. I’m not convinced.

In any case, I’ve instead extracted this commandment from the text directly, which specifically states not to have pity on him, which may encompass Maimonides’ more specific interpretation. I deem this commandment deriving from the root “do not love the idolator” commandment:


No Saving Idolators

The fourth commandment derived from Deuteronomy 13:8 is “no saving idolators”. I agree with Maimonides’ interpretation, as it’s spelled out quite clearly in the text: “do not spare him”.

I deem this deriving from the root “no loving the idolator” as well:


No Defending Idolators

The fifth and final commandment derived from Deut. 13:8 is not to defend the idolator.

I suspect “no defending” and “no saving/sparing” the idolator commandments is what drove Maimonides’ to imagine a judicial hearing of sorts, where, after a “thorough investigation” of the idolatry charges (Deut. 13:14), the instigators are brought before the religious court, and if found guilty, executed.

Thus, I can see why he interpreted other commandments using judicial language: “do not refrain from incriminating the idolator”, and “do not say anything in the idolator’s defense”.

I deem this deriving from the above “no saving the idolator” commandment, with the “no loving the idolator” as its grandparent:


No Idolatrous Prophesying


No Listening to the Idolatrous Prophet

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.

Deuteronomy 13:1-4

These 2 related commandments are extracted from the opening verses in Deuteronomy 13.

All of chapter 13 is a result of failing to heed these first words of warning against the false prophet, who then sways your loved ones, who then sway an entire city.

I derived these commandments like so:


Closing Thoughts

All of Deuteronomy 13 might be told as a story of letting in a little leaven into the assembly of Israel, with a disastrous end for those involved.

Chronologically, it might be described like this:

  1. Don’t listen to that miracle worker who’s leading you to worship other gods. (verses 1-5)
  2. Failure to comply? Oh no! Now your loved ones will be swayed. Don’t listen to them. (verses 6-11)
  3. Failure to comply? Oh no! Now there’s rumors of idolatry in your entire city. (verses 12-13)
  4. Thoroughly Investigate the rumors. (verse 14)
  5. Oh no! They’re true. Destroy the whole town: the people and livestock by sword, the town and all plunder by fire. (verses 14-17)
  6. Then God will turn from anger, show his mercy on you, have compassion on you, and increase your numbers. (verses 17-18)

This is a worst-case scenario, with multiple failures to nip-in-the-bud the seeds of idolatry in Israel.

Many people in today’s pacifist, “love/tolerate everybody” culture will find these punishment laws repugnant.

And even many Christians may find these laws to be in opposition to the rather ambiguous “law of Christ”, as if Christ has laws that counters God’s Law.

I heard MJTI rabbi Stuart Dauermann use an analogy to describe these laws in the Torah:

Much of the harsh language in Torah is what I term “limit language,” where God sets hard limits on Israel’s behavior. However, laws must be interpreted and enforced, and as a rule, the community of Israel found strict, on-the-face interpretations of such passages to be morally repugnant and therefore found ways to not enforce the laws according to the plain reading.

It is like a parent who tells his teen age son, “I am giving you the keys to the car. But if you crack it up, I’ll strangle you.”

-Messianic Jewish rabbi Stuart Dauermann

I like that explanation. I’m opened to others.

One other curious bit was that stoning the idolatrous prophet, and killing the idolatrous citizens by sword, is not listed as an explicit commandment by Maimonides. Perhaps we’ll encounter these commandments later on.

The Big Picture

Behold! In all its glory, the current snapshot of the Greatest Commandments project:

Click for full size (Click for full size)

Beautiful! This thing is coming together quite nicely.

Nerd Notes

I’ve modified the source code so that the 2 golden commandments will be generated with, well, a gold background. :-)

I’m looking for ways to display the additional data we store with each commandment: how should we display commandments that can be kept only in Israel? How should we distinguish commandments with not kept by Christians, Messianics, or Orthodox Jews?

I’m thinking either colors or different shapes to distinguish such commandments. We’ll see.

Here are the stats for the commandments so far:

  • 50 commandments have been mapped. Hooray! We’ve reached the half-century mark.
  • The project is 8% completed.
  • 10% have alternate readings.
  • 18% are from Exodus.
  • 30% are from Leviticus.
  • 4% are from Numbers.
  • 48% are from Deuteronomy.
  • 96% can be carried out in modern times.
  • 10% can be carried out only in Israel.
  • 38% are positive commandments.
  • 62% are negative commandments.
  • 74% are observed by Christians:
    • 38% obeyed, 26% attempted, 10% recognized.
  • 92% are observed by Messianics:
    • 54% obeyed, 30% attempted, 8% recognized.
  • 94% are observed by Orthodox Jews:
    • 56% obeyed, 30% attempted, 8% recognized.
  • The average commandment length is 139 characters, just inside a twoosh! ;-)
  • The average summary length is 28 characters.

Thanks for reading thus far, fine blog readers. I hope you are enjoying the Greatest Commandments Project! Special props always to Nate Tuggy for his help with the project.

Have a good shabbat.


  1. That's a funny quote from Stuart Dauermann!

  2. @Yahnatan,

    Yeah, it caught my eye, seems almost out of character. But I was amused by the explanation, and it actually sounds plausible. :-)