Sunday, 29 July 2007
The Rebellious Son
This is part 4 of a series by Samuel Martin. This posting is taken from an appendix to the book Thy Rod and thy Staff. The website for further information is www.biblechild.com.
Misunderstanding the harshness in Biblical Teachings
One of the recurring themes found in many articles and books written by psychologists or those in the children's rights/human rights community against smacking concerns some statements that are found in the Bible which seem very harsh on the surface. The fact is, there are some statements that are in the Bible, when looked at on the surface, one would come away with a very harsh, cold and unfeeling approach to life advocated by the writers of the Bible.
I could give many examples, but in this regard, I am going to focus just on one. The example is from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 21:18-21. It concerns the so-called "stubborn and rebellious" son. The text reads: "If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of the city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto 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. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear."
This text seems so clear and easy to understand. It is the death penalty without exception. Speaking about the above-mentioned text from the book of Deuteronomy, Dr. Philip Greven whose excellent work I have previously quoted in this volume, interpreted this text in the following way. "Other Old Testament texts lend additional support to the punishment and violence against children advocated in the name of King Solomon. … Thus, the price for filial disobedience is death." This is a common interpretation about the harshness of the legislation outlined in the book of Deuteronomy, but does it represent an accurate historical understanding of the application of the text itself?
Looking on the surface, this interpretation is exactly that related by the text itself. Moses comes across as a harsh, legalistic and brutal writer. But is this the truth? What is required of this text is some accurate interpretation. In this regard, I wish now to refer to the work of Rabbi Abraham Chill, whose excellent book has been quoted in other sections of this work. Rabbi Chill provides a thorough historical context for interpreting this text. This text cannot be interpreted without the assistance of outside authorized authorities. Rabbi Chill, who is himself a recognized authority of Jewish law, points to almost 20 different historical sources to assist him in understanding this passage. It is by referring to the intellectual giants of past scholarship that we can see the depth and breadth of opinion regarding this or any Biblical text. Rabbi Chill, a giant of Biblical scholarship, would not think for one moment of referring to this text in a historical vacuum and offer a face value estimation of its meaning.
There are two points about this text and about the death penalty in general, as it was understood in the Biblical and post-Biblical period. First, the death penalty was imposed only when the Temple in Jerusalem was in existence.
"Under Jewish Law capital punishment was imposed only when the Temple was still in existence, when the offerings were still brought to the altar, and when the Sanhedrin still sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stones (in the Temple). This means that no matter what this text says, following the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans, this text has never even once been applied to anyone.
"Second, death sentences were not every day occurrences. We need not to rely on the images of colorful Hollywood films that perpetuate historical inaccuracies. We need to examine the historical documents to teach us what was indeed taking place based upon eyewitness testimony. Note the following: "the death sentence was imposed only after much investigation and deliberation on the part of the court of justice. The judges made every effort to avoid imposing capital punishment. Circumstantial evidence was not accepted in trials for a capital offence and once the defendant in the such a case had been acquitted, he could not be brought to trial again for the same offence, even if direct evidence had turned up in the meantime to prove his guilt."
It must be pointed out here that we are speaking about a Jewish cultural background. This quote refers to "judges," the Court of Justice," "defendants," and a "case." These terms must be understood as referring to courts that were in existence to adjudicate matters of law and in this case we are talking about matters of Jewish religious law. In addition, on reading this quote, some may be reminded of the concept of "double jeopardy" which is a component of our modern Western judicial systems. Jewish legal scholars have known about "double jeopardy" for over 2000 years and it was applied in ancient times.
We find other sources making even stronger cases against the death penalty. Note the following:
"Should the court find that the homicide was deliberate, sentence of death was passed; but there was great reluctance to resort to capital punishment and every endeavor was made to avoid it. Indeed, it was remarked: 'A Sanhedrin which executed a person once in seven years was called destructive. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, 'Once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarphon and Rabbi Akiba said, If we were members of a Sanhedrin, never would a person be put to death.'" So, we see that the death penalty itself had very strict rules and regulations associated with it.
The Stubborn and Rebellious Son
Next, what constituted a "stubborn and rebellious son?" There is no age mentioned in the text, so who decides? Rabbi Chill shows that "who is considered a 'stubborn and rebellious son'? Any young man three months past bar mitzvah age…" This means that this punishment was never inflicted on anyone below the age of 13 years three months. So the concept of "son" required interpretation.
This all may sound interesting, but many may say that this is still a harsh punishment even for a child who just turned thirteen? This may be but consider this. Rabbi Chill points out that the death penalty was not the first solution to a family choosing to apply this law to their child. "The first offence reported by the parents made the boy subject to flogging; if he repeated the offence and was again brought to the court by his parents he received the death penalty – execution by stoning." So, we can see that ancient Israelites were not taking their children out and stoning them to death every time a boy ate too much or drank some wine. There was strict due process involved and those accused of these crimes had legal rights before the law. When you look at it, early Jews were quite familiar with the modern concepts of human and children's rights. Much of what makes up our modern body of law today in this regard was known and practiced in ancient times.
Some might say that here we begin to see the harsh nature of this law after all. Not so fast! Rabbi Chill further adds that: "At least 23 members of the Sanhedrin had to be present when such an offender was tried. Not only that, if one of his parents was lame, blind or deaf, or if one of his parents was unwilling to have him brought to court, the offender was exempt from the death penalty. This meant, in effect, that the death penalty for a 'stubborn and rebellious son' was very rarely carried out."
An addition, regarding this point of the 23 judges, a majority was not sufficient to convict a person in a death penalty case. The judges had to have a majority with a minimum of two votes. This shows that such a case required a great deal of deliberation to judge the defendant guilty. We also find that the junior judges in such a case had to cast their votes first on the basis of their respective ages. The older judges voted last so their votes would not influence the opinion of the younger judges. By digging deeper into the history surrounding this text, we dispel the false notion that the ancient Hebrews were a brutal, violent, lawless society that stoned their children for the most minor of infractions. [This information should be a wake up call to those in the human rights community whose attacks on the Bible often focus on this and similar verses for their criticisms leveled at the Holy Scriptures.]
We also find that the child himself was not the only one on trial. The great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides placed some of the blame for "stubborn and rebellious sons" squarely on the parents. "How does a son become 'stubborn and rebellious'? Through the fault of the parents who are too permissive and permit him to lead a life of irresponsibility." Parents who did not guide their children were a part of the problem and contributed to their children becoming "stubborn and rebellious." Two giants of Jewish scholarship further echo this idea. Rabbi Moses Al Sheikh said: "He explains why the Torah insists that parents personally bring their 'stubborn and rebellious son' to the court of justice. In this manner, he says, the parents acknowledge that they are to blame for the way in which their son has turned out. No child becomes intractable from one day to the next. The process begins when the child is at a very early age when many parents, unfortunately, tend to view such behavior as 'just a phase.' This is a mistaken notion, and the parents are now asked to face the fact that they failed their child when he was in the greatest need of their guidance."
Rabbi Ibn Ezra puts it a little bit stronger placing some of the blame on the parents: "He is not prepared to place the burden of responsibility entirely on the child. The son can be justifiably tried and punished for his behaviour only if the conduct of his parents themselves has been beyond reproach. If they did not provide a good example for him to emulate, they have no right to bring him to court for 'stubborn and rebellious' conduct." So what we find is that not only the son is on trial, the parents as well have to demonstrate that they did the right things. If not, no death penalty will ever be inflicted.
In closing this appendix, it has been my goal to broaden the understanding of this particular verse. I hope that this discussion has brought new perspectives to this particular verse. I hope that we will all look underneath the surface of what these texts say and get some other opinions into their meanings. By doing this, we follow the Biblical suggestion to get several witnesses in establishing a Biblical fact. This is the least we can do for the next generations ahead of us.