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An atheist asks about one of the Bible's more difficult passages. Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell provides a thorough response to this issue.
…I read the Bible. I didn’t have too many problems until I read Deuteronomy 21:18-21. I was a bit rebellious when I was a teen. I said horrible things to my father. My father forgave me, of course, but according to the wonderful loving and just God that I was raised to believe in, I should have been stoned to death. This verse raised a fountain of questions for me. If that was the law and that was for the Jews, why would it be good for ancient Jews to kill their children and not for modern Christians to do the same? It shouldn’t be good for anyone ever or whenever to have killed their own children in this horrific manner. I eventually came to the conclusion that God never did exist and that such terrible laws are the writings of priests and scribes that they used to control people.
–R. (an atheist)
To evaluate any biblical passage correctly, we must consider the context in both the text and the culture. This section of Deuteronomy contains a number of laws given by God to provide for justice and order in an already-existing society rife with both legal and illegal forms of injustice. This society was supposed to become a theocracy, and the nation through which God would preserve His Word and send the Savior.
Many of these laws protected people from overzealous punishment or other abuses by those who were hard-hearted (so described by Jesus in Matthew 19:8). For instance, unwanted wives were protected from brutality, whole villages were protected from genocidal retaliation, and inheritance rights of females and disliked male heirs were guarded. Capital punishment was designated for certain crimes, but multiple witnesses were required for a conviction (Deuteronomy 17:6).
In the instance described here, parents were empowered to bring a son who remained a “stubborn and rebellious,” gluttonous drunkard to the bar of justice, which consisted of the elders of his city at the gate. There, his case would be publicly tried, and if he was found guilty, he would be executed by stoning, the same method of execution used for other capital crimes.
The passage goes on to describe the public display of executed criminals by hanging the body on a tree, such as was done in many countries in our Western world for centuries. However, unlike the cases in European history, the Bible limits the visual deterrent until sundown, saying “he that is hanged is accursed of God” but burying him at the end of the day.
Let us take note of what abuses this particular passage actually protects people from. While providing a way to rid Israel, a theocracy from its inception, of the criminal excesses which would inevitably spread to others, the law actually protected individuals from injustice and did not prohibit mercy.
Like many societies of the time, Israel had a patriarchal society. In such societies, the word of the father in the family was law. Thanks to this law in Deuteronomy, a father who was displeased with his son—whether justly or unjustly—could not simply kill him himself. Previous verses had already made it impossible to disinherit an unfavored son (Deuteronomy 21:15–17), and now these verses essentially guaranteed due process of law to protect the rights of the accused son. The trial was to be held in the city of the accused, where the trustworthiness of the parents and the son’s own character were likely to be well-known. Since capital crimes required the testimony of two or three witnesses for a conviction, the word of the father would be insufficient. (According to Matthew 26:59–61, even the prosecutors at Jesus’ trial tried in vain to find trustworthy witnesses who would tell the same story!1) The parents’ own responsibility in the upbringing of this defendant could be called into question, as the verses specify the son must have proven himself unresponsive to chastening.2
A close look at the context and the words used imply an individual with a persistent and well-established character of vile immorality, uncontrollable excess, and bitterness.The charges here are not trivial. We tend to use some of these words lightly, thinking of a glutton, for instance, as someone with a weakness for pizza and chocolate, a stubborn son as a child having a tantrum, and a rebellious son as a teenager pouting and spouting off about being grounded. But a close look at the context and the words used imply an individual with a persistent and well-established character of vile immorality, uncontrollable excess, and bitterness.
Believe it or not, it’s not as if God’s chosen people were looking for reasons to put people to death. For example, in the New Testament, Joseph, prior to an angelic visit, thought Mary had become pregnant through impurity, and would have been thus justified in having her stoned; however, he planned to handle the matter quietly and mercifully. In the Old Testament, God Himself extended mercy to King David after he committed adultery and murder—both capital crimes.
The parents in the Deuteronomy case could keep trying to chasten their prodigal. In fact, even though the Old Testament does contain examples of people who committed capital crimes and were executed—such as two citizens who deliberately violated two of the ten commandments shortly after they were given3, as well as various types of treasonous behavior4—we don’t have any biblically recorded examples of this sort of case being tried and executed. Given all the Bible’s examples of the law being enforced to its fullest extent, the absence of any recorded Old Testament examples of this case is telling.
Well, actually, although the Old Testament doesn’t contain any examples of this “horrific” penalty being carried out, the New Testament does.5 Consider that the Bible makes it quite clear that all of us have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that when we break even one of God’s laws, we are as guilty as if we have broken them all (James 2:10). Romans chapter 3 is particularly uncomplimentary to us humans as it describes our mouths full of deceit, bitterness, cursing, and death, and our actions full of destruction and misery, concluding that “all the world” is guilty before God. In fact, we carry our propensity to sin from the moment of our conception (Psalm 51:5)! Romans chapter 5 explains that since the time of Adam’s sin, death has been the destiny of all human beings because all humans since then have been sinful. (Romans 5:12-21). Yet the one Person who never had any guilt of His own bore the penalty for our vile, rebellious, sinful character and actions. 2 Corinthians 5:21 and many other verses tell us that Jesus, who had no sin of His own, became “sin for us” as He bore the penalty for the “sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2) on the cross.
The tie-in to Deuteronomy 21 is extremely clear when we look at Galatians 3:13. Recall that Deuteronomy declared anyone who was executed and hung on a tree to be accursed of God. Galatians tells us that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, “being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13, KJV).
The Old Testament parent, legally restrained from impulsive family violence, could, as a last recourse for society’s sake, take his son to court on a capital charge. When Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, He probably described the heart of most parents in that they are more desirous of restoring a son than writing him off. Jesus, the Son of God, though accused by some of His detractors of being “a gluttonous man and a winebibber” (Luke 7:34), never sinned at all. Yet God the Father sent His Son to be the Savior of the world, to drink a bitter cup of punishment for sins He never committed. Such is the love of God for us. He made a way for us to avoid eternal damnation and to know Him and His love for us personally, by sending His own Beloved Son to bear a “horrific” death on the cross in our place. God’s justice was satisfied on the cross, so mercy can reach to us. As Isaiah 53:6 prophesied, “the Lord hath laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all.”
Elizabeth M. Mitchell, MD