Does the Bible Command Parents to Kill Their Disobedient Children?



Good question, because it seems to.

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. (The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016. Print. emphasis added)

Atheists will often drag this passage out in some attempt to somehow cast biblical commands as being immoral. But is it, really?

Some biblical commands seem, to moderns to be cruel, sadistic even, but as I’ve demonstrated in a previous post, God often demonstrates a greater degree of disapproval for some behaviors, even equating them to the most horrible act that one person can do to another. But surely not mischievous little Johnny, who’s really a good boy at heart, he’s just a kid, he’ll learn to behave if you give him a chance.

Alright, stop right there, go back up and read the text again, paying attention to the phrase in bold. 

Does that sound like something a mischievous child would do, or does that sound like someone older, maybe someone in their late teens or even older?

Quick anthropology lesson: back in those days, when survival depended on the community working together, an able-bodied person who would not pull their weight was considered to be dead weight. They were considered to be burdens on the community. Add to that the fact that family honor, the respect that was derived from the community, was quintessential to social status when it came time for someone to marry.

If a family had a son with a wild and rebellious streak, that was, as the text says, a “drunk and a glutton”, then the family had a limited ability to sanction such behaviors, to “discipline (ESV)”, “chastened (NKJV)” (v18), him, their last resort is to, “take hold of him and bring him out to the elders” where he lives. This is important, because it is not the parents who make the final decision, the decision falls to the elders.

Notice something else about the text: it is phrased as an if-then conditional. The parents are bringing their son, which is an age-neutral category (I’m 40 years old, and will never cease being a “son” to my parents), to the government (the elders) for sanction is a last ditch effort, a scared straight moment of truth. This was, for all intents and purposes, an intervention. If the “son” did not repent, would not repent and set about to reform his attitude and his actions, the community would be left with no choice.

But stoning?

Ancient legal systems often listed the harshest penalty as the prescribed punishment, simply articulating that such an option was on the table for those who would not reform and adhere to the expectations and requirements of those who wished to be members of the community. Keep this in mind though, even though a person could be sentenced to death, under Israelite law, his life could be redeemed (Numbers 35:31) and in such a case he would have to work for whoever purchased his life in order to redeem it.

Was the system harsh? Yes, but so was just living life at that time. But it could also be argued that such laws protected life because it had built-in options to extend mercy and give opportunities for repentance, as well as providing a foundation for what we moderns would come to call the juvenile justice system.

So what’s the takeaway? Atheists who bring up this passage are clearly engaging in equivocation with the terms “son”, “father”, and “mother”, twisting them to describe an age, rather than a relationship, since the terms were used freely to describe multiple kinds family relationships in the ancient Hebrew context, such as aunts, uncles, grandmothers, and grandfathers. The rest is simply ignoring what is said and folding that into the context of the whole law. It’s also an argument from emotion, pulling on our heartstrings at the thought of angelic faces being crushed by flying rocks  for not putting up their toys, or forgetting to make their beds (see, I can do it too).

(Other posts dealing with exegetical issues: here, here, and here)


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