My colleague Ralph Smith has recently written on this passage, here.
I entirely agree with Ralph’s thrust, which is typological, that the passage is ultimately aimed at the entire nation of Israel itself as the rebellious son. But what I am thinking is from another perspective, perhaps a more immediate sociological perspective that deals with the immediate effect such a law would have on ancient, tribal, Israel. And let me say, that the seed of this is from the conservative Jew, Dennis Prager, in his dealing with some other laws in the Pentateuch.
One of the now gnawing Progressive doubts concerning biblical authority begins with Abraham. “What kind of God would tell someone to sacrifice their own son…?” (Abraham and Isaac) Well, Abraham did not sacrifice his son, and the precipice that God made him walk is the cornerstone of the end of human sacrifice (which he was surrounded by in the company of the Canaanites). And in conjunction with this, “How shocking that there is a law commanding the killing of ones’ own child.” A certain oddity of this, is the complaint comes from inside a civilization that most enthusiastically uphold Roe vs Wade, and would see its revocation as a return to barbarism, when such policies actually are at the heart of ancient barbarism. Since Roe vs Wade, 55 to 60 million children have been aborted. One wonders just what we could possibly say to Aztecs or Incas.
But, let me begin here: If someone is shocked by Deut. 21:18-21, then I think the appropriate answer to them is, “I see the law has worked, at least in your case…” We are now, in fact, shocked and appalled at cultures that kill their own children (however blindly since we countenance and promote abortion). But that of course has not always been so. The primary temptation of all tribal societies is father/son rivalry, and patricide and/or infanticide and child sacrifice, were extremely common. And who cannot understand “teenageacide”? Indeed, we still make jokes about it. To the bratty teenager, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out again.” Or, “Do you know why Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac when he was twelve?” (Answer) “Because the next year he would have been a teenager, and then it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice.” What is a joke for us has been a deadly issue in primitive societies.
The law in Deuteronomy does not forbid killing your offspring, or having him killed (which is precisely what shocks progressives). No, rather, it imposes due process on the issue.
One of the things that is at heart here, is warrior, male rage. This would apply to both father and son. To go “berzerk” in battle is a known phenomenon. It is to be overtaken by a killing rage. In tribal and warrior societies, in controlled ways, this is highly prized. The danger in all tribal societies is that a father, and or, a son, in berzerk passion, will murder those in his own household. Angry passion is always, up to our own times, a great danger. When admired, it will sometimes go out of control. Fathers who kill their sons, and sons who kill their fathers, could well become feared and admired warriors.
Deuteronomy simply imposes due process on this issue, and it necessarily slows it down. It takes all passion out of the issue. It may even introduce a strong element of shame into the process.
Father and mother have to turn in the son to outside authorities (both parents is unique, not just the father, as with pater familias, in all other cultures). Both of the attributes in the passage are unique to the ancient world, all the way up to and through, the Roman Empire. Everywhere else, the law was the law of pater familias, the ownership of the father over the family, with legal authority, all the way up to imposing death on anyone in the family, at will. And, in Hebrew law, outside tribal elders have ultimate authority (not the father), and the mother as well as father have an appeal to these elders. This is a huge brake. The mother will have a different perspective. Father, mother, and son, will all be taken before tribal elders and testimony will be received not just from the father but also from the mother and from the son. In principle, there is no reason testimony could not also be received from others, from siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and nearby neighbors and friends who would have knowledge of family behavior. That being the case, things might now look a little, or very different. What is the story, what’s the whole story? Is father being a good father, one who names and inducts children into the knowledge of the Lord, or is he one who is “provoking his children to anger,” and acting as an angry, raging, tyrant? This will now be a matter record before elders who decided things very deliberately and together, sifting evidence and testimony. Maybe in the end, the whole family will get a good lecture, and it is not impossible that sanctions could even be imposed on the father and / or the mother. It is now a matter of public shame and humiliation, not one of masculine fury, passion, and perhaps blood thirst that is momentary (and encouraged by tribal society). And, if the boy is found guilty, and the maximum penalty is to be exercised (and the maximum penalty is never a forgone conclusion — to reform the son, he may have to do some kind of labor designed to bring restitution to family honor — if his disobedience is less than total) then it isn’t the father who just goes off and kills the kid. It’s the whole community of all the men. A community stoning is not exactly a party. It is deliberate and gruesome, and something no family would ever, ever, ever want to be subject to. It would be remembered for years.
Due process slows things down, removes passion, and introduces all kinds of automatic disincentives. According to Dennis Prager, there is not one single instance in Jewish history of a rebellious son being put to death. I.e. it worked. Of course, we all know that in other senses, the passage is ironic. It typologically applies to Israel itself. Israel is the rebellious son, and was exiled as a symbolic death penalty in the Babylonian captivity, and this brought everlasting shame on the nation. And of course, Jesus was put to death in part, as “the rebellious son,” with this as a justification. Jesus was accused of being a “glutton and a winebibber,” the exact phrase from this law (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34).
Now this same process applies to other issues as well. According to Prager, slavery simply disappeared from Jewish cultures, for the same reason. Due process imposed by Hebrew law made slavery onerous (death for someone selling a kidnapped person into slavery, or keeping him [or her] as a slave, and all widespread slavery depends on kidnapping or “manstealing” -Exodus 21:16, death for killing a slave – Exodus 21:20, freedom for a slave injured by a master – Exodus 21:27, and the forbidding of pursuing a runaway slave – Deuteronomy 23:15-16). God did not forbid slavery, He simply imposed conditions on it that removed the advantages of it. The same is largely true of polygamy and concubinage, by legally imposing equal treatment for multiple wives (Deuteronomy 21: 15-17), and giving equal rights to concubines (Exodus 21:7-11), and the previous laws concerning slaves would also apply to concubines since concubinage is actually a form of slavery. There is no advantage to this form of a female slavery, if she has the full equal rights of a wife.
Just impose due process with certain legal conditions, and various things will disappear. Forbidding does not always work. Due process may be far more effective. The Bible is not utopian. It is utterly realistic, and its sanctions and commandments bring amelioration and progress, not empty promises.
Richard Bledsoe is a Theopolis Fellow and works as a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.