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Monday, July 25, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (5)

Mothers have this thing about their sons. It’s natural, it’s powerful and it’s often entirely irrational.

Take, for instance, the mother of the Palestinian terrorist who killed an Israeli teen asleep in her own bed. Mom says her son was “a hero” who made her “proud”.

Okay, that’s a little extreme. But the mother of the Bataclan bomber who inadvertently self-detonated told reporters her son never meant to hurt anyone and may have been “stressed”.

Boys Will Be Boys

Seems like a theme to me. And if mothers will defend sons who have inarguably committed atrocities, they far more often find themselves excusing comparatively minor misbehavior, usually in hope that their boy was just sowing his wild oats and will eventually come around.

Basically, if you can get your own mother to publicly denounce you, there’s a fairly reasonable chance you are one bad, bad dude.

That’s one reason I can’t get too worked up about the provision in the Torah that the mother and father of a rebellious son should denounce him in front of the elders of their city and have him stoned to death.

Lots of people are, though. Xpngs says, “It shows that us non christians aren’t the crazy ones”. Cave Dweller says, “It shocks me what Christians will try to explain away and defend!” Partly Cloudy says, “It’s never acceptable. [The Bible] is a horrible and disgusting book”.

Meh, not so much.

The Horrible and Disgusting Book Says …

Here’s the actual passage in question:
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to 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.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
Okay, so we’re not talking about a severe case of the terrible twos here, or even a bad episode of teenage acting out. The passage concerns a son (i) old enough to drink wine or beer and able to acquire them on his own or against the restraints of his parents; (ii) physically strong enough to take whatever quantities of food he pleases by intimidation or force, or he could not be a glutton; (iii) given to doing these things unrepentantly and characteristically, as opposed to making a slip here and there; (iv) still inexplicably living under his parents’ roof and draining their resources, or else they could hardly be held responsible for disciplining him; and (v) genuinely evil in character.

In short, not a kid having a tough time growing up, but an overgrown reprobate who rejected the imposition of all God-given authority and all the norms of the society in which he had been raised. Loosed into the world with nothing but his own appetites driving him and no fear of being held accountable for his actions, what would that have meant for Israelite society? Someone else’s daughter raped, someone else’s business robbed. If such a son could not summon a single ounce of respect for the father and mother who raised him and continued to provide for him, how could society expect to manage him?

Three Levels of Safety Net

Still, there are some pretty awful parents in the world. What if his mom or dad happened to be completely nuts? What about false accusations or overzealous religious loonies? Well, there were three levels of safety net on the law of the rebellious son to ensure it was not mistakenly or inappropriately enforced:

The first level was the elders of the city. The parents had no authority to initiate a stoning or to gather their neighbours like a lynch mob to help them. They had to take their case to the elders and give their testimony, where it would be considered against established facts known to what would have been a tight-knit community: Were the parents credible? Was the father known to be a bully or household tyrant? Was the mother reputed to be a hateful, dishonest harpy? Was there independent confirmation available as to the extent of the son’s dissolution and rebellion, or did testimonies conflict? Was there any reason known to the elders why leniency should be considered?

Any charge that might result in death would be considered very, very carefully indeed, because killing an innocent man would bring judgment on those who orchestrated it. It was this that made the prayer of the Lord Jesus for those who carried out his execution necessary; imagine the wrath of the Father unleashed otherwise!

The second level was the young man himself. Israelite law consistently allowed accused parties to testify on their own behalf under oath. No action was taken in the service of justice without carefully weighing all available evidence. If a rebellious son was stoned by the community, it was not because he had no opportunity to make his case, but because his own words gave the elders reason to believe his parents’ account. Was his behavior chronic and unrepentant? Had the accused been sufficiently warned? His testimony as to these matters would either contradict or confirm that of his parents.

But the biggest safety net on this provision of the law was always the rebel’s mom. Israelite law required the testimony of at least two persons to establish every matter, and this was no exception. It is both “his father and his mother” that were required to speak against the accused. One would not do. The testimony must be confirmed, and confirmed convincingly. It was impossible to execute a son without his mother’s buy-in.

How wicked would a son have to be for his own mother to serve him up on a platter? Such an action goes against every grain of maternal instinct in recorded human history.

The Next Level

Interestingly, Anne Batler claims this law was never enforced. Of course we have no way to know whether she’s right, but certainly I cannot think of a biblical example. I hope it never had to be. How many stubborn, rebellious sons simply left home to wreak their havoc elsewhere, knowing they were flirting with disaster? We’re not told.

But laws do not exist simply to be enforced; they exist so they don’t have to be. The point of the statute was not to decimate the male population of Israel, but to make such a thing unnecessary through deterrence. In order for parental authority to reach the heart of a reprobate, there needed to be a “next level” at which his conduct could be adjudicated. If such a threat was effective even once and the rebel reconsidered his actions in view of the potential penalty, then the law served its purpose.

We live in an age of God’s grace. Christians are not pushing for the stoning of their children (or anyone else’s), even those who may be outright abusive. Jewish civil law does not apply in our Western societies, and there is no biblical reason it should be forced on a people who are indisputably not capable of keeping it. After all, God’s earthly people couldn’t keep it either.

That doesn’t make the law “silly”, “horrible”, “crazy” or “disgusting”. It just means godliness requires something a whole lot more transformative than good law.

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