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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I found the law concerning the rebellious son (Deut. 21:18-21) to be too severe. Could you comment on it?
The interpretation of legal materials requires careful analysis of the specific law itself and its true intent. Laws serve to protect the rights and privileges of individuals as they interact with each other. So it’s important not only to try to ascertain the particular purpose of legislation but also to determine the social background that made it relevant for Israelite society.
We also need to mention a couple principles that will guide us in understanding God’s actions. First, we must recognize that in God’s dialogue with humans He condescends to our level in order to take us to His own level at a pace we can follow.
Second, we must keep in mind that the theocratic form of government of the Old Testament is no longer operative among God’s people. He, as king of the universe, will deal with the violators of His law in His own time.
Now, back to the specific law of the rebellious son. An analysis of this legislation reveals its purpose, background, and function.
1. It builds on the fifth commandment. The command to honor one’s parents does not specify the penalty to be inflicted on its violators. It is phrased in a positive way and promises a long life to those who obey it (Ex. 20:12). The command and the legislation under consideration have the purpose of preserving social order by promoting and requiring respect for authority. It legislates what ought to take place at home, where such respect was instilled in young members of society.
2. It recognizes the rights of those affected by it. The law of the rebellious son recognizes the privileges and responsibilities of the members of the family as they confront a serious legal crisis.
The rights of the parents are protected. They are responsible for the upbringing and disciplining of their children, as they teach and train them. But parents also have the right to seek the assistance of the community if a child develops a pattern of rebellion and disrespect.
The rights of the children are protected. Parents were not to do as they pleased with a child who had no respect for them. This was an extremely important legal protection in a world where children were considered to be only a piece of property. A child’s life was in the hands of the courts of law and not in that of their parents who, out of frustration and rage, could be tempted to kill them.
The rights of the mother were protected. The decision to prosecute a child was not exclusively in the hands of the father. It appears that, at least in some cases, the father thought he had authority over the life of his children (cf. Gen. 42:37). But this law eliminates that power by requiring the mother to participate in the decision to prosecute any of her children and by placing the final decision in the court of law. The legislation seems to have been a significant improvement over existing practices.
Justice is sought. The parents were expected to present evidence showing that the behavior of the child was not an isolated incident but a true pattern of criminal behavior. The legislation is dealing not with an immature child, but with a person who is able to distinguish between good and evil, who has become a juvenile delinquent, a threat to society. The elders of the city, functioning as judges, would analyze the evidence and make a decision. If the decision was to apply capital punishment, the men of the town would execute the sentence. The parents were not involved in the punishment.
Since the consequences of this law were so serious, it served as a deterrent for juvenile delinquency and for parents taking their children to court on superficial charges motivated by anger or any other emotional reaction. The law illustrates how important family life is in God’s eyes, and underlines the serious responsibility of parents and the community of believers in rearing children.