[Yes, Daily Breadcrumbs is now back from its longer-than-anticipated hiatus. Thank you for your patience.]
Today's reading is Deuteronomy 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers an entreaty to love and obey God; the results of obeying or disobeying; the commandment to destroy the Canaanites' holy things and construct one place of worship to God, and the sacrifices that must be eaten there; and how to deal with anyone promoting the worship of other gods.
Through most of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, they have tended to revert to their own Egyptian habits. They longed for Egyptian food, Egyptian customs, and at least once, Egyptian gods (the golden calf). However, as they approach the land of Canaan, Moses informs them that they will be held to higher standards, and woe to any Israelite who doesn't obey.
Early in Deut. 12, Moses prepares them for the upcoming invasion. The Canaanite nations are, of course, polytheists, as were most other Mediterranean nations at that time. Like the other nations, the Canaanites worshipped idols at a large variety of altars. In Deut. 12:1-7, Moses informs the Israelites in no uncertain terms that they must get rid of all these foreign gods and places of worship. He tells them they must "utterly destroy" any place of worship, break their altars, burn their groves, smash their idols, and even destroy the names of the gods from those places. In other words, any hint of foreign religion must be completely destroyed.
This is partly a safeguard measure. One of the most repeated commandments throughout the first five books of the Bible is that the Israelites must worship God and only God. Any reminder of foreign gods in the land the inhabit would only be an invitation to break this commandment. Thus, Moses ensures that any trace of foreign worship is completely destroyed, so it cannot tempt the Israelites or their descendants.
Moses goes on to explain that, once this wholesale destruction of foreign religion is complete, God will show the Israelites where he wants them to erect his dwelling-place. (Deut. 12:8-11) Once it is established, it will be the only place the Israelites can bring their sacrifices and make their vows. (Deut. 12:13-14, 12:26-27)
Yet again, this is most likely an attempt to maintain a uniform religion throughout the Israelite nation. If the Israelites were allowed to establish regional shrines to worship God, sooner or later the rituals at those shrines would start diverging. It is even possible that, given enough time, foreign religions would begin to re-emerge amongst the Israelites. By having a single meeting place for worship, the high priest could ensure that all the nation followed proper religious procedure.
More than maintaining a religious centre, the single place of worship would also provide a civic centre to the nation. In the ancient world, and indeed in any era but the most recent, travel was uncommon. It would have been unlikely that many Israelites would travel to neighbouring communities, let alone distant parts of their country. By forcing the Israelites to congregate in one place for their sacrifices, Moses (or, more accurately, God) ensures that they continue to meet, mingle, and maintain a common sense of identity. If the village leaders from Rueben routinely see the village leaders from Asher, it is easier for the two to remember that they are part of a larger community.
The readings provide one more safeguard against a lapse into foreign worship: a commandment to kill anyone who suggests worshipping other gods. Specifically, the text provides three cases which might be ambiguous, and through them establishes the universal nature of the commandment.
First, the text deals with prophets. (Deut. 13:1-5) While it would be easy to berate a prophet who failed to perform any miracles, the text specifically describes a prophet or dreamer whose signs and wonders actually happen. If a prophet accurately predicts the future or successfully works a miracle, many people will flock to him and take him seriously. This is why the text discusses these types of prophets specifically. Specifically, the text says that if such a prophet says to follow other gods, he must be killed. The miracles and signs are only trustworthy, in other words, if the prophet complies with the teachings of the Bible.
The second case involves immediate family members or close friends who advocate worshipping other gods. (Deut. 13:6-11) In this case, the text says that not only must that person be stoned to death, but the family member or close friend they tried to entice must strike the first blow. In this way, the text emphasizes that even friendship or blood-ties are not enough to escape punishment. If someone wants to turn to other forms of worship, his relatives must be the first in line to prove their loyalty to God.
Finally, the text discusses cities. (Deut. 13:12-18) If there is a rumour that urbanites have begun preaching foreign worship, the Israelites must first verify that the rumours are true. If they are, then not only must the preachers be killed, but the whole city must be destroyed. The Israelites must kill every inhabitant, all their livestock, and destroy all their goods. They must burn down the town and leave it as a ruin forever.
This last case might seem far harsher than the other two. After all, there may have been innocent, God-fearing people in those cities. However, it is established that new religions often spread faster in cities, due mainly to the higher concentration of people. It is far easier to spread a new ideology in a city than in the countryside. The text apparently views cities where preachers are advocating foreign religion as infected, and they must be destroyed before the new worship can spread to the countryside.
These three cases are obviously extreme example. However, if God would go to such lengths to kill miracle-workers, family members, and city-dwellers who turn against him, surely any other person who did similarly must receive a similar punishment. The message is clear: anyone who returns to pagan worship will soon find themselves buried beside the pagans.