Throughout Jewish tradition the danger of worshipping other gods has taken many forms. The Midrash of Abram smashing his father’s idols is one of the first, giving us a demonstration of how we should behave around idols. Moses gives us another demonstration, reacting with such anger at the idolatrous Israelites dancing around the golden calf that he smashes the tablets given to him by God. The third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make a sculpted image,” is arguably the first commandment that actually is a command, illustrating its high priority in monotheistic worship of God. The poetry of Isaiah denounces “non-gods” and decries illegitimate devotion, so that even the idea of anything other than God is as condemnable as praying to other gods.
Earlier in Parashat Re’eh we read that God will choose a place for us to worship so that we will not be tempted by the profane locations of other religions (Deuteronomy 12:5), but never before have we heard such a harsh punishment for idolatry. Should they attempt to lead us astray, we must pursue even our closest friends and family members. Not just destroy their work like Abram or get angry at them like Moses, but seek to kill them.
I cannot imagine an example of when this commandment may have been followed through. At the same time, it serves as a declaration of just how serious this “no other gods thing” is. Monotheism was an innovative religious practice when the Israelites were learning their religion. Harsh punishments declared for ignoring the most important practices strengthen the magnitude of the law. We never intend to do harm to our loved ones. The purpose of the text is to show them that there is very little if anything in this world more important than devotion to God and God alone.