Answers in Exegesis: Did God really command parents to stone their disobedient children?


This is probably one of the most misrepresented texts in the biblical text of the Old Testament, and probably one where some flustered parents say, “It would be nice.” (Yes, that is a joke.)

What exactly is it that I am talking about? This particular passage from the book of Deuteronomy:

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, 19 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, 20 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.’ 21 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, ESV)

This is one of those passages that, when it’s divorced from it’s context, seems pretty condemning and atheists and skeptics love to pull it out and beat Christians over the head with it, as an example of being an “immoral” command by God to kill “stubborn and rebellious children“. But there’s just one little problem: the passage has nothing to do with “children” other than the fact that everyone who exists is someone’s child.

Let’s begin, not with the first verse of the passage, but rather the commandment from which this greater prescription flows:

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.  (Deuteronomy 5:16, ESV)

This is a repeat and and expansion of the command originally given in Exodus 20:12 and reiterated in Leviticus 19:3, which reads,

Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, …(ESV)

That just a few verses later gets expanded further,

For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.  (Leviticus 20:9, ESV)

In this message here, Dr. James White argues that this passage doesn’t seem to refer to a young child who is simply  pitching a hissy fit, but rather it refers to someone who is old enough to be able to provide for themselves and reject their parents, even going so far to abandon them.

Now, back to the focal passage. There is something that has to also be remembered when it comes to understanding so many of the Old Testament passages: there were no juvenile halls, no police, families and clans and tribes in the theocratic state of ancient Israel were responsible for maintaining civil order in their own towns and villages. While these communities were to appoint judges to decide civil and criminal matters (Deuteronomy 16:18-17:7) actually arrest powers lay in the hands of the people. Also, many of the laws were not so much “Don’t do that”-laws, rather they were case studies meant to describe something of a worst case scenario.

Now that we’ve laid a cultural foundation, to the text, for the language.

The Hebrew word translated as “soncan mean a person’s biological son, just like the words translated as “father” and “mother” can refer to a person’s biological parents, however given that the terms are unqualified we must take them in their most general sense: in terms of their clan and tribal relationship. Notice that there is a plea on the behalf of the elders of the clan as they “discipline” this one that is described as “stubborn and rebellious“. As a final act of attempting to get this person’s attention, they bring him before the “elders” who are to plead with this person one last time to listen to reason, but further charges are brought, accusing the “stubborn and rebellious” person of being a  “glutton and a drunk“. The Hebrew word that is translated as “glutton” can be translated as “abusive“.  So, let’s just run the list here:
The person has been admonished by his closer relatives but remains unrepentant in his attitudes and actions.
As a final attempt to reason with this person, he is brought to the elders of the village where his actual crimes are discussed.
Therefore, we need to conclude that this person is not a young  child, rather this is an adult whose behavior has become abusive and is recalcitrant in his attitude and actions.

As I believe I have pointed out before, it seems as though some people skip over entire sentences in biblical passages, reading what that want to. So, as this post is being concluded, what is it that the atheist/skeptic is seeing when they read this passage? I believe that the answer is pretty straight forward.

They probably see this statement:

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,…[they] shall stone him to death with stones.

If you compare that with the entire passage you will notice 2 striking points:
They left out 2 very important phrases, and

They inserted a word that is not even in the passage.

So, the assertion fails on two very basic premises, one that it misrepresents what the text says and the second how the text defines its categories, as well as the fact that it is separated from its context.


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