Friday, March 23, 2007
Should you kill your disobedient children?
As a follow up to my dialogue at the Friendly Atheist blog about a contextual reading of scripture, one of my atheist friends asked about the Old Testament command to stone disobedient children. Even in a contextual reading, how is this command any less barbaric and morally reprehensible? Here was his exact question:

For instance, (and I’m not being sarcastic) Leviticus says something about smashing my kid’s head in with a rock because she mouths off to me. If I take that in a historical context, that somehow doesn’t mitigate what I see as horrific lunacy. Millennia ago that made sense? How did any teenager survive? If I take it in a symbolic context, is he just saying it’s really important to respect your parents? Seems like a rather extreme metaphor for something that can and has been expressed in positive and very beautiful ways in non-biblical literature and poetry.

Anyway, I don’t want to bog down this discussion with a tedious scripture debate. There are so many what-the-hell-does-that-mean parts for me that we’d never be finished.

Here's the answer I gave:

You’re referring to Deuteronomy 21:18-21, and you’re right, neither of us have the time to get into explanations for every confusing bit of scripture (Lord knows there are enough that I still haven’t figured out!)

However, just to give you a little snapshot of how I might approach a difficult passage like that from a historically & culturally informed perspective, consider the following:

1. In the context, the command is clearly referring to an adult son, not to a young child or even a teenager. We’re talking about someone who has reached maturity and yet continues to act in destructive & rebellious ways.

2. Keep in mind that ancient Israel, like most societies up till the industrial era, lived on the razor edge of survival (see the opening chapters of Jeffrey Sachs book “The End of Poverty” for more on that). Their economy was not unlike that of most third world nations today where whole families and whole villages often teeter on the brink of starvation. We’re not talking about people with a lot of resources to waste.

In that context then, look at what the rebellious son’s crime is: he is profligate and a drunkard. In other words, he is wasting his family’s precious resources on his own selfish desires. He is literally putting his family’s very survival at risk. And he is stubborn (v. 20), meaning his family has already tried to correct him, extend grace to him, and he still continues in his selfish and harmful ways. There is nothing else they can do. You might say that at this point it’s a choice between the son’s death or the death whole of the family - maybe even the whole village depending on how slim their resources are.

Anyhow, I think by looking at it through that lens of historical context we can see how serious the situation would have been. It’s not about stoning your daughter for mouthing off. It’s about a grown son who cares more for his own pleasures than for the survival of his family. Indeed, it seems very harsh to me too; but at the same time, I’ve never had to live in a subsistence level society. If everyday is a fight to have enough food, and the lives of my whole village depend on social unity, I can imagine how a wasteful and selfish individual would be seen as a very dangerous threat. I can begin to see why the Bible takes this kind of thing so seriously.

Of course, I also think that the Bible eventually points us on an upward trajectory away from this kind of punishment. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 seems like a direct reversal of this scenario - in which the son wastes half of the family’s wealth and yet the loving father still comes running to him with tears to forgive him and lavish even more good things upon him. But consider… would Jesus’ story have been nearly so subversive and powerful if his 1st century Jewish hearers didn’t have Deuteronomy 21 in mind as he spoke? Would the wonderful absurdity of the father’s grace be as overwhelming if they weren’t well aware of the seriousness of the son’s crime (serious not in terms of the punishment, but in terms of the destructive effects on the family and society)?

Anyhow, I’m just throwing that out there as an example of how this approach works. And I hope you can also catch a little glimpse of why this approach gets me so excited. When looked at this way, there are so many layers of cultural and historical meaning, so many interconnections between the different parts of scripture, so many nuances. Even if you think it’s complete fiction, it’s still a marvelous piece of literature. Well worth taking some time to understand, IMHO.

Thanks for the dialogue!

It's not a perfect answer, but it's the only way I can make sense of those kinds of commands at the moment - and I hope it's a good example of what it looks like to read scripture with an eye to the historical context as well as to the overall redemptive trend.


posted by Mike Clawson at 8:27 AM | Permalink |


At 3/26/2007 08:43:00 PM, Blogger Marcia

Wow, great explanation. I'm impressed.

The sad thing about that, though, is that there are many of us who don't have all of that historical background and knowledge, and so questions like that leave us hanging.

Many people reading the Old Testament for the first time would feel this way as well. It's a problem.

I do have to admit that, as a mother of three teenagers, my first response to the post title was, "Don't tempt me!"


At 3/27/2007 07:45:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

LOL, Marcia! I only have a 2 year old, but I know what you mean. :)

Thanks for dropping by!


At 3/27/2007 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Kay

All I can say about this particular post is that I second Marcia's "Wow."

I've spent some time this morning reading a few articles on your blog. Great stuff. I've added you to my blogroll. Hope you don't mind. :)


At 3/27/2007 02:05:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks Kay, I'm glad you dropped by.

I have to say that becoming more aware of the plight of the poor and oppressed in our own world has opened my eyes to reading the Bible in new ways too. I have to try to see the text through the eyes of someone in those situations - not through my own middle-class American lenses. The poor, I think, understand things about the Bible that we rarely grasp.


At 3/27/2007 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Marcia

not through my own middle-class American lenses.

This is the challenge for the ages, isn't it?


At 6/17/2007 11:49:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Norman

Thanks for the post. I just referenced in a discussion on beliefnet (


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