“If you hear in one of your cities, which the LORD your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. None of the devoted things shall stick to your hand, that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you and multiply you, as he swore to your fathers, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 13:12-18 ESV).
Whole burnt offerings require fire that God himself lit. God’s presence lit the fire on the altar in the Tabernacle. When Aaron’s two oldest sons tried to add new fire, God consumed them (Lev 10). So the most obvious meaning of this passage is that fire from the altar is used to burn the city.
The reference to not allowing anything from the city to stick to one’s hand, and then the city being a heap forever, reminds us of what happened not too long after Moses gave these instructions. Achan took gold and silver and a garment from Jericho. He let it stick to his hand. “And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day” (Joshua 7:26a ESV).
Jericho was put to the sword and then burned as a Canaanite city. This puts Moses’ instructions in perspective. He is telling them that, once they have eradicated paganism and are living in the land, if a city becomes pagan, it should meet the same fate as the pagan cities. Cities like Jericho were the first ones burnt with fire from the altar.
But consider the details: Before Jericho is conquered, two witnesses go to the city and single out a household to save, protecting them within the doors of a house.
This had happened before. Centuries earlier two angels went to Sodom and saved Lot’s household before devoting the city to destruction by fire from heaven.
So what once was done by angels is now done by people.
And just as Jericho was destroyed by a worship processional, so now our prayers wage war:
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake (Revelation 8:3-5 ESV).