If there were any doubt that the destruction of the animal in the burnt offering (Lev. 1) manifested the Lord’s righteous wrath, today’s passage shows the connection between the outpouring of the Lord’s just judgment and the offering. Deuteronomy 13:12–18 helps us understand the burnt offering in its description of the destruction of Israelite cities that abandoned the true God to worship other deities.
After redeeming His people from Egyptian slavery, the Lord sent the children of Israel into Canaan as His instrument of justice to execute His holy wrath upon the wicked Canaanites (Lev. 18:24–30; Deut. 20:16–18). The wickedness of the Canaanites prompted His decision to punish them with the armies of Israel (Deut. 9:1–5). God further warned His people not to take their election for granted lest they become idolaters and earn the very same destruction they visited upon the Canaanites (28:15–68).
Once settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites were not allowed to take up the sword and go out conquering other nations whenever they felt like it. There were, however, specific circumstances in which the citizens of Israel were commanded to execute God’s wrath upon fellow Israelites. For example, cities in Israel that left Yahweh, the covenant Lord of Israel, for other gods were to be destroyed (13:12–18). Such destruction was not enacted haphazardly, for a diligent investigation had to prove first that any rumors of paganism were in fact true (v. 14). Should destruction be carried out, everything in the devoted city had to be destroyed (v. 16), which was a safeguard against people making false accusations in order to claim the spoil of the city for their own profit. But this total destruction was also akin to the total destruction of the animal in the burnt offering (Lev. 1). Deuteronomy 13:12–18, in fact, uses the term burnt offering to refer to the devotion of a city and all its inhabitants to the sword (v. 15–16).
This link of righteous wrath executed on a wayward city with the burnt offering is more proof of what happened when an animal was burned in its entirety on the altar in Israel. That animal bore the wrath of God, not for its own sins but for the sins of the worshiper who identified with it through laying his hands on the creature (Lev. 1).
The church is not permitted to take up the sword against idolaters today, but the destruction of pagan cities in ancient Israel shows us how seriously God takes idolatry. We should be moved when we see others committing idolatry and pray that they would indeed receive Jesus as their substitute so as to escape the wrath that will fall upon all false worship. Are we praying for the salvation of those around us who do not know the Lord?