I was recently asked what kind of God tells His people to kill their intransigent children. I knew the answer, but it’s a long one, so I decided to move that over here, because it’s an interesting study on one of the more hard-to-believe rules that God set out for the Israelites. This command is found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
18"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, 19then 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, 20and 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.’ 21Then 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 (ESV)
At first glance, this appears to be pretty drastic; and, as with many first impressions, this does not get much better. This passage provides a plan for parents to deal with sons who did not respond to their rearing or their discipline. They are required to “purge the evil” from their camps. However, this is not the preference, as we’ll see towards the end.
First up, let’s look at the plan. If parents had a son, and this son rebelled, and they tried to discipline him to correct his behavior, and he still didn’t respond to that correction, the parents were expected to make a tough call. If they felt that he would not respond to their correction, they were to go to the elders of their son’s city and inform them that their son was rebellious and impenitent. Then, the elders would listen and, if they agreed, they would go get the son, take him outside the city, and stone him to death. The son’s behavior was a violation of the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12), and this penalty directly implemented the inverse of the blessing promised in the last half of that verse.
That was the plan, but equally important is what the plan was not. First, this is not something that parents do to a young child, out of the frustration of childish rebellion. Notice that these parents are to go to his city’s elders - the son in this scenario is not living with his parents, and may be living in an entirely different city. It is a last resort for parents who had done their dead-level best to rear their son in the way the Lord had commanded, but despite their best efforts, their son chose not to follow his upbringing.
Second, this outcome was to be prevented if at all possible. Twice in Proverbs, Solomon exhorts parents to do what it takes to make sure their direction to their children sticks.
18Discipline your son, for there is hope;— Proverbs 19:18 (ESV)
do not set your heart on putting him to death.
13Do not withhold discipline from a child;— Proverbs 23:13 (ESV)
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
Third, this outcome was not intended to be used very often. According to the end of verse 21, the reason given for this is that “all Israel shall hear, and fear.” Just as many of our laws are written so as to deter the behavior they punish, that is the case with this law. God did not want to see large mounds of dead sons outside every city; He wanted people to see that He was serious about His commandments. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps people doing the right thing is the knowledge of the consequences of their actions.
The plan is a tough one, but the goal is even tougher - “purge the evil from your midst” (v. 21). This is not the first time we see this in Deuteronomy; in fact, there are 7 instances of that phrase. What 6 other things are considered evil that needs to be purged?
- False prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)
- Worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)
- Failure to accept legal decisions (Deuteronomy 17:8-13)
- Malicious witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15-20)
- Disgracing the family name sexually (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) (Note that this was not automatic; Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives an alternate way to handle this)
- Slavery through theft (Deuteronomy 24:7)
In each of these cases, the offense can be traced back either to a direct offense against God Himself, His appointed legal or parental authorities, or those who attempted to unjustly affect or subjugate the life of another. The son would have run afoul of both God and his parents. God was serious about not keeping bad influences around that would pull His people astray. This sentiment was echoed at least twice by Paul in the New Testament.
33Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”— 1 Corinthians 15:33 (ESV)
11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler - not even to eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”— 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 (ESV)
While a purge was commanded, the preference is much different. We’ve already seen that the Bible told parents to do whatever they could to make sure that this outcome never occurred. God’s desire was not to have a bunch of dead kids and sad parents; His desire was to have a people who were following Him, free from corrupting influences of those who were not interested in following Him or doing what He commanded.
This punishment was harsh, no doubt. This harshness illustrates God’s lack of tolerance for sin. However, this should also make us even more grateful for the grace that He provided through His Son. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, if we accept His payment for our sins, we are no longer under the law. Although a large part of the Mosaic law is no longer actively enforced, it has never been struck down (according to Jesus Himself).
17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."— Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)
How can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? There is no way we can do that in our own strength; in fact, that was the key problem with the scribes and Pharisees. They were so focused on the letter of the law that they had completely missed its spirit. (They also had some pride issues.) The only way to live up to verse 20 above is to truly know Jesus, and accept His payment for your sins.
Parents are still to do their best to rear their children, and even Israel no longer enforces this law. This is now quite literally up to God; He is now the one who decides when a son has had enough time to repent. The recorded law exists to give us an insight into His view of sin, how serious He considers it to be, and as a reminder to us of the amazing grace that is available to us today, free for the asking.