Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

StoningThere are a number of laws in the Torah that, when you just look at them cold, strike us as rather outlandish, harsh, and even bizarre. You know, the kind that usually get trotted out in the middle of apologetic debates about the morality of the Bible, or the Old Testament law. For instance, that bit in Numbers 15 about stoning someone for moving a few sticks on the Sabbath. That strikes us initially rather harsh and it is, but as I’ve written before, I think there are some significant considerations at the contextual, historical, and theological level that can shed some light on the text.

I was reminded of another such text this last week when my pastor was preaching out of Hosea, in a passage referring to Israel as a rebellious son. He chose to highlight and contrast that with the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. ‘ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Now at this point, the usual response is, “Really? I’m supposed to believe that God wants me to take little Joey outside and stone him for talking back and not taking out the trash when I tell him to? That’s a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?” Well, yes, taken baldly, it does seem like a bit of an extreme regime of parental discipline. But once again, I think there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, mitigate some of the seemingly inexplicable barbarism of the text.

Contextual Keys

So what are these factors?

Instruction. Well, first of all, a number of commentators note that there is no record of this punishment ever having been administered in Ancient Israel. In fact, OT scholar Duane Christensen draws attention to the explicit logic of the law as being handed down so that if it ever came to it, “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.

A Son, but a Man. Second, pushing beyond that, we need to get it out of our heads that we’re dealing with some aggressive form of childhood punishment. The “son” in question is not a boy, or even just a teenager who is going through a rebellious phase, experimenting with heavy music and so forth. This is a presumably a young man, yet a still man who is of an accountable age before the Law. He stands accused by his parents of being a hardened delinquent, a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” What does that mean? Well, scholar Paul Copan says the scenario involved was something like this:

The son, probably a firstborn,  would inevitably squander his inheritance when his father died; he would likely bring ruin to his present and future family. He was like a compulsive gambler who bets away his home and life savings right out from under his family’s feet. –Is God a Moral Monster, pg. 91

More than that, drunkenness and gluttony lead to and represent a wholesale departure from the Law. You can easily imagine this including a tendency to criminal debt, familial violence, and other profligacy. This is a man, then, whose choices not only threaten his own safety but who shows every sign of being on course to destroy his family.

Families and Social Authority. What’s more, he is a repeat offender. He is someone who has rejected all counsel, all rebuke, even that of both of his parents, which was a significant rejection of all social and moral restraint in Ancient Israel. Why is this significant? Modern Westerners have trouble thinking along these lines, but in Ancient Israel, the foundation of the social fabric in terms of political authority and social peace in the clans and subgroups was the family. When the family falls apart, society falls apart. We must not forget that honoring father and mother is one of the 10 foundational commands that form the charter for Ancient Israel’s relationship with God as a nation. Historically, commentators have found in this command not only the foundations of familial relations, but the structure of human political authority in general.

Again, Christensen comments:

Respect for and obedience to parents were of vital importance in ancient Israel. In the Book of the Covenant, a son who strikes his father or mother, or who curses them, “shall be put to death” (Exod 21:15, 17; cf. also Lev 20:9); and the covenant curses of Deut 27:16 include “anyone who dishonors father or mother.”

So, this man’s rebellion was a threat at multiple levels. First, he was threatening his family, next the social order, and finally, his rebellion was an assault on the whole nation’s covenant with the Lord. Scripture, especially in the OT, doesn’t deal with us as purely independent, autonomous units. Israelites were members of Israel as a whole and it is with Israel that the Lord deals. So the whole community is implicated in this man’s rebellion and sin against God as long as it persists. One man’s disobedience is a threat to everyone.

Community Justice. Which brings us to a next point. It is important to note that it is not actually the parents who condemn or stone in the man, nor even the father alone. No, we are told that both mother and father, who have presumably reached their wit’s end, are to bring it to the leaders of the community at the gate (the court of the local village), in order for the community as a whole to evaluate and render judgment about the situation. It also bears noting that the mother’s inclusion in the process serves as something of a surprising disruption of our expectations of a patriarchal society. This is not the pure patria potestas of the Romans. This wasn’t, then, some hasty act of parental vindictiveness, but one of justice administered by the proper civil authorities.

The Obedient Son Replacing Insubordinate Israel on the Cross

One final note, though, to round out our consideration of the text. As Christians, we cannot claim to have fully examined it unless we set it in the broader context of Jesus’ own story. Remember, Israel had been created and called by God to be his faithful firstborn son (Exod. 4:22), who served him and represented him among the nations. But Israel proved false, a drunkard and a glutton, worse, an idolater and a murderer who had spurned God’s fatherly hand, rejecting his rebuke, and returning all of his good with vile ingratitude (Hos. 11).

Now, along comes Jesus, the pure, perfectly obedient True Son bringing the Kingdom of God, playing his role as the New Israel and what do they accuse him of being? A “glutton and an drunk” and a friend of tax collectors and sinner (Matt. 11:19). And what happens to him? The execution the law prescribes for the disobedient Son, death outside the gates.

In fact, it’s even worse. Paul reminds us that:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13)

The text Paul quotes comes in the section in Deuteronomy right after the text on the disobedient son:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (21:22-24)

In effect, we see that Jesus, the faithful Son, bears the curse and punishment of God that the unfaithful son Israel deserved, in its place. He does so that in “Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Rounding it Out

Now, after all this, you still might find the law harsh, and that’s quite understandable. I do think there’s been some historical progression from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, certainly a radical shift in implementation (I’m not a theonomist by a long shot), and the impact of Christian social thought on our moral sensibilities in the administration of criminal justice.

That said, I think with considerations like these in place, we can begin to understand the moral core to even this initially shocking text in its own Ancient Near Eastern context. What’s more, along with the concerns I outlined in the case of Numbers 15, we begin to see the way it provides some of the dark backdrop against which we understand the bright light of the gospel of the faithful Son who goes to the cross in place of a rebellious people, so they might receive the Spirit who makes them true sons. As Paul says again,

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Soli Deo Gloria

12 thoughts on “Understanding the Execution of the Rebellious Son

  1. ‘In other words, the point of the law was “pedagogical” or educational, but not so much featuring a scenario likely to be put into practice very much, if at all.’

    Bingo. The laws in the OT are far more ‘principles’ and far less case laws, at least as I read it, though I would want to push that too far and end up with ‘purely spiritual’ applications. Though there are cases where some of the scarier laws were enforced – think of Achan, for example.

    • Yes, or the stoning of the man picking up sticks on the Sabbath. But in my other post, I pointed out that even there, these are recorded specifically as pedagogical events as well, as they occur early in the life of Israel.

  2. The point: we are all disobedient sons who deserve death and the only obedient Son died in our place. The same could be said of Genesis 22: God gave his beloved Son so ours don’t have to be sacrificed.

  3. Thanks for this post Derek. Very helpful. I couldn’t help but see the Prodigal Son in this description, particularly as Copan explains it. I’m not sure that Jesus had that particularly in mind when using that parable, but clearly it fits with the broader redemptive- historical theme. Anyway, thanks again for the post.

    • That is another parable that sheds light on the text, or rather, vice versa. The parable is all the more remarkable when considering the OT law’s prescription for young men like the son.

    • The parable of the prodigal son also came to my mind while reading this. Jesus painted a picture of an incident where the public would cry out for the execution of a disgraceful son and instead turns it into a story of grace then faces the punishment of execution himself for our own sinful actions. Amazing grace!

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  5. Derek,
    Thank-you so much for not ducking the difficult passages, and offering us a helpful way of reflecting on this story. I wish that I had access to this kind of reflection when I was younger. Your post was really well done and provoked some additional questions on my end that might produce some additional ways of fruitfully reflecting on passages like this:
    1) If the context in which this narrative takes place is one in which the son’s reckless and recalcitrant revolt goes viral and actually leads to the death of others (through their starvation, death in battle, etc…), wouldn’t the community’s refusal to confront this “crank” be a kind of complicity in their own death / ruin?
    2) In other words, aren’t there other seasons in the OT where a rebellion that is not mortally opposed will inevitably lead to the temporal / eternal death of those affected (See for example: Phineas in Num. 25:6-13, or Agag in 1 Sam. 15, or Israel in Judg. 2:1-15)? And if so, then in that context, wouldn’t the passive refusal (of an Israelite) to mortally oppose the recalcitrantly wicked simply be a complicity in the death / utter ruin of others?
    3) In sum, is it possible that this account (Deut. 21:18-21) and others might not seem so bizarre if we regarded particular kinds of passivity (in the O.T.) as a form of complicity in the death / utter ruin of others?
    I ‘m not writing this as a critique of your post – as it was exceptionally well done. I’m simply wondering if there are further angles that might be profitably explored in this genre of dilemmas… Blessings and thanks for your time and thoughts!

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  7. In this rebellious son passage would there be a covenanted connection as well? I think of the death of the two sons of King David. The newborn that David mourned and fasted for until it died after which he got up and proceed as usual because he was sure of where the baby was. Quite the opposite with Absalom whom he mourned for because he knew the end result meant something different. One was under the covenant or covering of the family/church, the other was in rebellion against it and died without reconciliation. Therefore the law was to emphasize the the severity and gravity of children not following in the same belief and practice of the parents. You would want to do something before you lost the child for eternity. Today many Christian parents treat the result of their kids as a flip of a coin. 50/50 if my child will be christian, whereas it should signify a battle of life and death. They could kill a rebellious child not because he would waste the inheritance, but if he died under the parents authority that could somehow save him because he was still “in the religion”. For example, he would die as a Jew before he ran off to another country and joined their culture. It would apply directly with the prodigal son though the father doesn’t exercise that right and afterward finds reconciliation.

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