Those Pesky Old Testament Passages
October 9, 2010
This is a loaded question to say the least. The passage they are speaking to is Deuteronomy 21:18-21:
18If 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: 19Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; 20And 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. 21And 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.
The shocking nature of the passage makes people often conclude the the Old Testament is clearly wrong. Let me offer some answers. First, let me state that morals are not sustainable in mid air. In other words, they need a foundation. One of the problems with secularism (and atheism) is that there is absolutely no way to support in any sustainable way that anything is forever right or wrong. Peter Hitchens (the Christian brother of atheist Christopher) once said that atheists “have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute, a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.”
So let me start with this plea that may seem terribly backward in todays society but I believe it with all my heart: the standard in the Bible has to be our rule. There is no other absolute rule by which we can live by. I would rather a rule that is brutal at times than none at all (which is effectively what you get with secularism).
With that noted, let’s look at what the text actually says and we will see that, thankfully, it does not command us to stone our children.
The first thing to note is that the stoning of disobedient offspring is referring to adult children. The fact the the passage mentions that the guilty party is a “drunkard” and a “glutton” should make this point clear enough. Further, this passage and all the passages about honoring your parents are fundamentally about the command that children must care for their aging parents. This was a physical and difficult society in which an old person would not be able to care for themselves. A drunken and rebellious young man would be effectively leaving his parents to be destitute. This society had no social safety net. Children were expected to reciprocate the love and care their parents had given when they were helpless and in need. For them to turn around and reject their parents when it comes time to reciprocate would destroy that society.
So, now I think we understand what the Old Testament law is saying. But is it still something the church should push for? This brings up the relationship between the Old Testament and the Christian. Are we bound by the Old Testament Law?
Christians divide the Old Testament Law into three categories:
1. Moral Laws (the ten commandments, sexual codes, etc)
2. Ceremonial laws (how to be ceremonially clean in the Temple, how to be a priest etc)
3. Civil laws (how the Government of Israel should enforce the Moral and Civil laws, what sorts of punishments should be given etc).
The Moral law remains in effect for Christians but the Ceremonial law is not (the Temple is no longer needed) and the Civil law is not (the Church is not the Government).
So looking at the stoning of adult children who dishonor and do not provide for their parents, you can see that the moral law is still in effect (it is very bad to dishonor your parents) but the civil law is not (the church has no right to stone a person who sins in this way).
Let me conclude with this, I have found that all of the common passages that atheist apologists point to in an effort to paint the Old Testament in a terrible light have similar explanations. The Old Testament law is primarily concerned with creating a society that honors God and protects the weakest members of society. There are many passages that are easy to misconstrue but when you honestly explore what is being said, most people will recognize that it is reasonable and fundamentally quite wonderful.