Let us turn our attention to the text itself. This law in Deuteronomy 21 gives the classic formulation for a case law, “if…then.” If this happens, this is the necessary consequence according to God’s Law.1 Here are a few preliminary comments concerning this law. The first thing to note is that this child is rebellious and stubborn. The Hebrews words sarar (rebellious) and marah (stubborn) are very similar.2 They have a range of meanings. They can refer to one who provokes or disobey. Since both adjectives are together, the author conveys a very negative attitude. At the outset, the reader is aware that the death penalty is not being given to a son or daughter because they have simply disobeyed their parents. This is far beyond mere disobedience. After all, this is why the rod is needed, so that a child will never get to the point of Deuteronomy 21:18.
This is exactly the point of verse 18. It presupposes that there has already been a firm attempt to bring the son into reconciliation with the parents and with society. Verse 18 reads, “though they discipline him, he will not listen to them.” Here is where a careful reading of the text may bear much fruit. The text reads, “stubborn and rebellious son.”3 The Hebrew word for “son” ben is indefinite. It is used to refer to both sexes elsewhere (Exodus 21:5), but most often it refers to man, in particular this may be the reference in this text. But what is the age of this son? In other passages, it may refer to a child or a young man. However, the text in Deuteronomy gives us clues to the age of the rebellious and stubborn son. In this context, it is impossible to conclude that the son is view is a 6-10 year old. In fact, we can be clear that he was probably a young adult. Einwechter summarizes:
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.4
The rebellious and stubborn child is not a little child or a naughty child who hits his little brother because his toys were taken, nay; this refers to a mature teenager (at least mature in physical strength) who has severally rebelled from the teachings of their parents.
Notice also that he is a “drunkard” and a “glutton.” These are two of the most contemptible sins in the Bible. As a drunken young man, he is uncontrollable. He is harm to society5 and puts at risk every one that comes in his way. He may be violent, threatening his parents6 and other family members. He curses his brothers and sisters and curses his parents out of contempt for them.7 As a glutton, he causes financial stress to his parents and is also constantly sick due to excessive eating. Furthermore the idea of “gluttony” in this text is much more than just excessive eating. The Hebrew word “zalal” indicates that the son is “worthless.” His existence serves only to bring turmoil and sadness. He does not add one iota of good to society or family. The point of these descriptions is that repeated attempts to bring him to accept the authority of his parents over his life have failed. The only solution, the last solution, is to bring him before the courts.
After all this, the parents have no option, but to bring him before the magistrates. The parents bring him before the magistrates; they are the authoritative two witnesses. They are the ones who have suffered and have seen everything first hand. In verses 19 and 20 the parents present their case before the judges, and if they are convinced of the evil done8 the men of the city are to stone him to death.9 All this so evil may be purged and the parents may once again live in tranquility being free from the threats within the household.
- The penalties for adultery and homosexuality, which are reasons for the death penalty in the Older Covenant, are not reinstated in the New Covenant. This to me is no reason to deny those civil penalties either. However, in the case of the rebellious child, our Lord Himself in Matthew mentions that particular case law. This is not the proper place to discuss those laws, or to engage John Murray and his arguments. [↩ back]
- It is used in the Old Testament of a wild, untamed heifer (Hos. 4:16 [↩ back]
- By Biblical implication we note that the daughter is also in view, though in this text and throughout the Old Testament, the son is the disobedient one. [↩ back]
- Rev. William Einwechter, Stoning Disobedient Children. [↩ back]
- In our modern day, he would be a harm on the road driving. [↩ back]
- Exodus 21:15 [↩ back]
- Exodus 21:17. [↩ back]
- At this point I am not sure that if the son shows any remorse. I would assume that even if he did, it is too late. He had every opportunity to repent and obey and abandon his evil ways. [↩ back]
- Since stoning is an old practice, it may need to be adjusted to our modern situation. However, some theonomic scholars like Gary North gives convincing reasons to use stones, as opposed to modern methods of execution. [↩ back]