If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother ... all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die ....(Dt. 21:18, 21)
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 contains what is, perhaps, the most vilified law of the Old Testament. It is widely believed that this law authorizes the stoning of children who disobey their parents. Accordingly, this law is used to prove how harsh, severe, and unworkable Old Testament law is in "the New Testament age of love and grace." When theonomists advocate the use of the case laws as the standard for ethics and civil law today, often one of the first remarks they hear is something like, "So you advocate the stoning of children who disobey their parents." The supposition is that by merely referring to this "harsh" law, they have proven that the theonomic view is absurd and cannot possibly be the standard for Christians today. Detractors of theonomy believe that the mere mention of the law of "stoning children" in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 will silence the theonomist, and prove to all thinking Christians that these "cruel" Old Testament case laws should not govern our lives in this "age of grace."
But as with most attacks on theonomic ethics, this objection to the use of the Old Testament case laws is based on a shallow reading of the law, a misunderstanding of the actual case law requirement,1 and an attachment to sentimental impulses as opposed to a commitment to the high ethical provisions of Biblical law.2 When this case law, which applies the moral law of the Fifth Commandment to a specific circumstance, is understood it will prove to be "holy, just, and good," a delight to the heart of God's true people (Rom. 7:12, 22).
This law is given in the standard case law formulation of "if . . . then." The genius of the case laws is that they establish justice (or duty) in a specific case so as to enable us to know how to proceed (act righteously) in all such related cases. The particular case at hand involves a "stubborn and rebellious" son who will not heed the admonitions of his parents, nor submit to their discipline (v. 18). It is vital to proper interpretation and application that the precise nature of the case be ascertained.
A Grown Son
First, the person in view is a not a small child but a grown "son." The Hebrew term for "son" (ben) employed here is indefinite. It is sometimes used of children of both sexes (Ex. 21:5) but most often of the male offspring of parents, and that is clearly the sense in this text. Of itself, the word "son" does not give any indication of age. It can refer to a child or a young man (cf. 1 Sam. 4:4; 19:1; 1 Kg. 1:33); age must be determined from the context. In this case, the son in view is not a child, for the sins brought forth in testimony to show his contumacious manner are gluttony and drunkenness (v. 20), hardly the sins of the average 6 or 10 year old! The case also indicates that the parents have tried to restrain their son, but all their efforts have failed (vv. 18, 20); specifying that he is physically beyond their control. Furthermore, the parents bring their son to the magistrates to judge the matter (v. 19); hence, the son would have opportunity to speak on his own behalf. All of this indicates that the "son" in question is no mere child, but, rather, a young man at least in his middle teens or older. As Wright observes, "The law is not talking about naughty children but about seriously delinquent young adults."3
Second, the problems associated with this son are severe. This is not the case of a child who has failed to do his chores, spoke back to his parents, or even committed a serious act of disobedience, but of a son of dissolute character who is in full rebellion to the authority of his parents—he holds them and their word in contempt. The text says that the son is "stubborn" and "rebellious" (vv. 18, 20). Both of these descriptive terms are active participles, thus indicating habitual action. The son does not display a stubborn streak now and then, or act rebelliously from time to time, but is continuously stubborn and rebellious. The word "stubborn" refers to one who is obstinate in his resistance to authority. It is used in the Old Testament of a wild, untamed heifer (Hos. 4:16); of a immoral woman who has cast off restraint and indulges in lust (Pr. 7:11); and of Israel as a stubborn people who will not submit to God's authority (Ps. 78:8; Is. 1:23). The word "rebellious" means, literally, to strike or lash, and is used of those who contend against authority and refuse to heed their words. The "rebellious" individual lashes out in contempt against those who have authority over him verbally, and perhaps even physically. In light of this, it is important to note that the law of the covenant prescribes death for anyone who strikes his parents (Ex. 21:15) or curses his parents (Ex. 21:17). There is, therefore, reason to suppose that the son in this case law has broken the law of the covenant in one or both of these ways. The parents also describe the character of their son as being a "glutton" and a "drunkard." These sins are put forth as examples of a life lived without restraint.
In the case of such rebellion and riotous living, and after all attempts at discipline and control have failed, the parents are to bring their son before the magistrates for judgment. If the magistrates concur in the parents' estimate of the situation, they are to order the men of the city to stone the rebel with stones so that he dies (vv. 20-21). The purpose to be served in the execution of the rebellious son is to "put evil away from among you" and that all will "hear and fear" (v. 21).
The Real Meaning
Therefore, the law of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is not about stoning disobedient children. The Bible does not instruct parents to use stoning in dealing with the rebellious nature and disobedience of their children, but to use the rod and reproof (Pr. 29:15). Children are to be trained from a young age by consistent and loving discipline so that the foolishness that is bound up in them can be driven out (Pr. 22:15), and they will learn to honor and obey their parents and all those whom God has placed in authority over them. The case law in discussion does not apply to young children during the formative years, but applies, instead, to a grown son (and by extension to a daughter as well) who, for whatever reason, has rebelled against the authority of his parents and will not profit from any of their discipline nor obey their voice in any thing. It is a case of habitual contempt of parental authority characterized by a young adult living a life without moral restraint who lashes out verbally and/or physically against his mother and father. It is a case where the evil character of the son is apparently set,and there is no reasonable hope of his ever changing.
The kind of rebellion against parental authority described in this case law is called "evil" (v. 21). It is evil because it holds both God and his law (i.e., the command to honor parents) in derision. It is evil because it threatens the very existence of the family, and therefore, of society itself. It is evil because it signals the rejection of all God-ordained authority and leads to civil and ecclesiastical disorder. God considers it such a dangerous evil that it must be extinguished by death at the hands of the civil magistrate.4
Those who consider death as a horrible punishment here must realize that in such a case as described in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, "death" is inescapable. Contempt of parental authority, if left unchecked, is the death of the family, law, and order. The question then is: Who or what should die? The rebel, or family and society? Furthermore, the life of a rebel inevitably leads to the grave (sheol; cf. Pr. 30:17); he will die an early death, and probably take others with him. Finally, God himself declares that even if such a rebel against parental authority escapes the judgment of man, his curse is upon that man and he shall be cut off (Dt. 27:16; Pr. 30:17). Therefore, the execution of the rebel in view is just, merciful, and preventive. Just, in that the transgressor deserves to die; merciful, in that his quick death prevents the destruction of the family, society, and others; preventive, in that it strikes fear in the heart of other would-be rebels and restrains them from taking a similar ruinous course.
Theonomists must not be embarrassed by the law of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, nor should they be chagrined when others try to use it to discredit the case laws of the Old Testament. Properly understood, it displays the wisdom and mercy of God in restraining wickedness so that the righteous might flourish in peace. It is those who reject this case law that should be embarrassed, for they have cast reproach on God and his law, cast aside the testimony of Christ,5 and have substituted their own imaginations (Jer. 7:24) for the blessed word of God.
1. To understand and properly apply the case laws of the Bible requires diligent work. The Lord anticipates this need by repeatedly reminding us of the need to "meditate" in the law of the Lord "day and night" (cf. Ps. 1:2; 119:15, 97-99; Jos. 1:8). The wisdom and justice of God's law is perceived by those who diligently search for it as for hidden treasure (Pr. 2:1-9).
2. By nature, we are bent to reject the standards of a just and holy God for "that which seemeth right in our own eyes."
3. Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (Peabody, MA, 1996), 235.
4. The family does not have the power of the sword. Only the state has the authority to execute those who are worthy of death. Therefore, if a state refuses to follow the law of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, parents are left only with the option of covenantal death (i.e., disinheritance by the family and, where applicable, excommunication by the church).
5. Jesus himself specifically endorsed the death penalty for cursing parents (Ex. 21:17) in Matthew 15:4.