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 who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear. (Deuteronomy 21:18–21
Does God’s Word encourage parents to bury their dysfunctional and disobedient children under a hail of stones? This passage prompts many questions and concerns from a wide range of people from believers to atheists. Why is this passage in the Bible?
To evaluate any biblical passage correctly, we must consider its context, both textually and culturally. 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, the nation through which God would preserve His Word and send the Savior.
Protection of Due Process
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, 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 were 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 that the person—whose sins had justly brought God’s curse upon him—should be buried at the end of the day (Deuteronomy 21:22–23).
The law actually protected individuals from injustice, even legalized injustice.
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 criminal excesses, the law actually protected individuals from injustice, even legalized injustice. Moreover, the laws laid out here did not prohibit mercy.
Like ancient Rome, 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. The patriarch’s power in Israel was thus limited. 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
The charges here are not trivial. We tend to use some of these words lightly, thinking of a glutton as someone with a weakness for pizza and chocolate, a stubborn son as a toddler having a tantrum, and a rebellious son as a teenager pouting and spouting off about being grounded. But the context of these words implies something far more sinister and destructive—an individual with a persistent and well-established character of vile immorality, uncontrollable excess, and bitterness.
A Story of Mercy
Believe it or not, it’s not as if God’s chosen people were looking for reasons to put each other 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 given,3 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 other laws being enforced to the 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 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 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. Second 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 one Person who never had any guilt of His own bore the penalty for our vile, rebellious, sinful character and actions.
The tie-in to Deuteronomy 21 is extremely clear when we look at Galatians 3:13. Recall that Deuteronomy 21:22–23 declared anyone who was executed for a capital crime was to be hung on a tree to signify the significance of his sin in God’s eyes. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul refers to this, writing, “Christ hath 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.”