“He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” (Ex.21:15)
Commonly, within the Church, we hear folks say (often smirking) that “under the Law”, Jewish parents used to stone their children for disobedience.
Horrific visions of wild-eyed parents dragging their young children into the village square for public execution at the hands of the cheering mob are enough to make anyone petrified of even thinking of trying to apply the Mosaic Law to their lives. And this is, of course, the exact way that the Law is viewed by many.
But hold on…is that really how the elders of Israel interpreted verses such as these?
Within the Hebrew of the passage is embedded a clue to the understanding in the Oral Law of Judaism. The word for “smite” (nakah) has nuances to it and can mean different things. Therefore, like all of the Bible, it is dependent upon a tradition of interpretation.
The word “nakah” in the Hebrew can mean to strike to wound or kill. But, it can also mean to become dejected or contrite (sad, remorseful), depending upon the vocalization.
Depression? Yes, the emotional reaction of either the parent or the child can be depression. The parent, who may feel frightened, vulnerable or victimized. The son, who may be very ashamed of himself once his emotions have settled down. In fact, both may be true.
The Law distinguishes between striking one’s fellow countryman, which results in a judgment of monetary compensation, and striking one’s parent, which is far more severe. In the Talmud, the discussion expands the crime to include verbal mistreatment as well as physical.
“…with regard to one who strikes a parent the Torah deemed the status of striking one who performs actions not of your people to be like that of striking one who performs actions of your people, which is not so with regard to one who curses a parent. The Gemara responds: The tanna of the mishna disagrees and holds that we liken striking to cursing…” (Talmud Sanhedrin 85b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
The same halachic rule applies to both parents. You cannot justify your mistreatment (either physically or verbally) of one parent based on your opinion of the other, and you are not to attack one parent to defend the other.
One interesting halachic ruling is that a son is not allowed to judge his father, and certainly may not execute punishment against him, even if the son is a member of a beit din (house of judgment).
There are several aspects to the rulings of the Talmudic sages on this law that are very interesting, and which reflect the priority which they place upon emulating the grace and wisdom of King David in the interpretation of God’s law.
For one thing, while so much of Talmudic law relates to the oaths and intent of the litigants, in this case, the motive of the son is not mentioned since it is considered irrelevant. This is because it is never okay to strike one’s parents. This flies in the face of today’s trend of applying situational ethics to matters of morality. The sages and the Torah agree: Some actions are so severe that they transcend circumstance or intent.
Another very intriguing aspect is how the sages expand their understanding of this law to include harsh or hurtful speech, such as screaming, hateful accusations or verbal threats within the scope of their rulings. This is a classic example of exactly what Yeshua does in his Sermon on the Mount; he expands the law and actually makes obedience more stringent. The sages call this “building a fence around the Torah.” This is most definitely in view regarding the rulings of the sages on this law.
But perhaps the most interesting thing to be found in Jewish Law regarding the prohibition of a son “smiting” a parent is this:
In cases such as this, the parent determines the wound. If the parent does not want to prosecute, then it is not judged.
The beit din was to rule according to the wishes of the parent, in order to facilitate mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is all the more astounding when one considers that the case law refers to the son as a grown man abusing his elderly parents, who are presumed to be frail and unable to defend themselves against their younger, stronger son.
The goal of the Jewish sages (contrary to the smug assertions of many unknowing Christians) was to provide as many contingencies and possibilities of mitigation and interpretation so as to keep the family intact and avoid the death penalty.
The significance of this should not be lost on us, both in regards to understanding the Torah, but even more importantly, God’s heart and attitude towards His people. He is, after all, our Father in Heaven.
It is not difficult to find places in the Bible where the sanctity of the family and of family relations is close to God’s heart. In fact, the Bible points to problems within the home as a sign of evil times, and reconciliation between parents and children as a sign of revival.
“He who assaults his father and drives his mother away is a shameful and disgraceful son” (Prov.19:26)
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and put them to death.” (Mk.13:12)
This type of shameful behavior is also attributed to Esau in the book of Jubilees (Jub.35:10-12) And, concerning revival….
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” (Mal.4:5-6)
The promise of peace within the family is a very real, but often overlooked, promise of the Kingdom of God, as expressed beautifully in the following Talmudic passage:
“Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Hanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: “And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Is.54:13). If all the children of Israel are taught of the Lord, there will be peace for all. The sages interpreted this verse homiletically: Do not read your children, but your builders. Torah scholars are those who build peace for their generation. As it is stated: “Those who love Your Torah have great peace; there is no stumbling block for them” (Ps.119:165).” (Talmud Berakhot 64a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
The Master certainly understood the heart of the Father concerning this issue;
“But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt.19:14)
Fortunately for us, even when we kick and scream against our Maker, we are blessed by the fact that, in spite of our disobedience and rebellion, the Father determines the wound, and he has made a wide opportunity available to us for grace and reconciliation.