In Deuteronomy 18:20 we read:

Based on this verse, some Muslims have therefore concluded the following:

Well, sure. But let's not stop there. Deut. 17:12 says that anyone who won't obey the priest or the judge shall die; so all those criminals, thieves and murderers in our society must really be innocent since God didn't strike him dead, right? Deut 22:25 says that a man who rapes a maiden in the field shall die, so if the man isn't instantly struck dead by God then she must have wanted it, right??? Deut 24:7 says that if you sell your relative as a slave you shall die, so if you're not struck dead then it must have just been a lease, not a sale :-)

In English we can also use what is commonly the future tense to give a strong command. When I say to my son "you are going to clean up your messy room today" then I am not really making a statement about the future (he could disobey) but I am giving a very serious command. I could also say: "Clean up your room", but the very seriousness is expressed in using the future tense for it.

And the Hebrew works similarly and the future tense is often used to give commands to be obeyed instead of predictions of what God will do.

For example, the Ten Commandments are (nearly) all expressed in future tense. "You shall not have other gods before me" is a strict commandment, not a prediction. In fact, the Israelites fell into idolatery many times and God had to punish them for their disobedience.

Therefore the NIV translates this verse Deuteronomy 18:20 appropriately in this way:

It is not a promise from God what he will do, but a command to the people of Israel how they have to deal with false prophets.

They did not always obey and that is why we read about the existence of false prophets at many times of the history of Israel.

Technically, the translations who say "shall die" are right. Semantically and contextually, the NIV is the correct translation of the intended meaning.

Several such commands in the Torah follow with something like "And you shall put away the evil from among you." That makes it pretty clear that the sense being conveyed is that of execution, not divine wrath. For example, in Deuteronomy 17:12 (just one chapter before our verse) we read:

It is absolutely unambigiuous that the phrase "that man shall die" is a command to be acted upon by the people of Israel, not a prediction of what God will do.

Grammatically prediction and command are pretty much the same in Hebrew. These Deuteronomy passages use the participle of "die" whereas Ezek 18:4 "the soul that sins shall die" uses the imperfect, but that's probably a feature of later Hebrew (i.e. post-exilic vs. the age of Deuteronomy). But the reductio ad absurdum at the beginning should make this point clear enough.

And the crucifixion of Christ fits in exactly with this scenario. God didn't strike Jesus dead for blasphemy and false prophecy, but the religious authorities decided to kill him for blasphemy. They are the ones to act and to decide and they did.

Obviously, as in every society, the authorities can be wrong every once in a while. The fact that somebody was killed for blasphemy doesn't prove that he is guilty nor does geting away for a while without being punished (Muhammad) automatically prove the authenticity of the person claiming prophethood.

The Muslim claim about this passage is based on a misunderstanding of the Hebrew language - or rather of the English translations they read without comparing how this construction is used in many other places of the scriptures.

Even more discussion on this passage is found here.

Bible commentary Index
Answering Islam Home Page