“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city…They shall say…’This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us; he is a glutton and a drunkard’. Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.” (Deut.21:18-21)
Such ideas (stoning children) are proof-positive to the carnally-minded person that the Bible is an antiquated and at times barbaric book written in a bygone era and should not be the standard of behavior for a modern, enlightened, progressive population. At the least, even if this command was valid at one time, it certainly can’t be now. In fact, it’s illegal. Like other, similar commands in the Torah, if one were to literally attempt to walk this out here in the United States, they would be promptly arrested for murder. This is not the case in such joyful environments as those populated by Islamic jihadists, such as we see in the picture leading this article.
I have, on numerous occasions, been sarcastically addressed by people who know that I pursue Judaism with the clever quip, “So, are you going to start stoning your children now?” How heartwarming.
However, the attitude behind this question reveals a spiritually poverty-stricken soul that is not in touch with the purpose of their existence.
A spiritually alive person will not dismiss a commandment like this, but will instead inquire about it. They will ask serious questions about what they are to understand from it. How could a loving, gracious God, the same God who shows such interest in our family relations, command us to do such a thing? Does He not, through his prophet Malachi, say this?
“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)
How am I drawing near to my son by stoning him to death? What does this accomplish?
The sages of Israel also mightily struggled with this passage as well, and this is reflected in the Talmud. In a lengthy discussion in tractate Sanhedrin, we first see that only a son and not a daughter is included in this command, and only one who has reached the age of accountability, the age of Bar Mitzvah (Sanhedrin 68b).
As the Gemara in this section rambles on about the dangers of intoxication, the ultimate emphasis in adjudicating the ruling of the rebellious son pertains to what the child is becoming, and the murderous, uncontrolled monster he will become if he is not stopped now (Sanhedrin 68b-71b).
However, this shows the impossibility of the commandment in reconciling it with the rest of scripture, and also its incongruity with the balance of Jewish law. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points out this fact in his commentary on this passage:
“The Bible tells us that Sarah…believes that (Ishmael) will be a bad influence on her son Isaac, and God agrees with her that the mistress and her son should be banished into the desert…The Angel comforts Hagar: “Do not fear; God has heard the voice of the lad from where he is now”(Gen.21:9-17)…Rashi cites the Midrash which seems to defy the Talmudic position on the wayward (son):
“From where he is now” – He is judged in accord with his present actions and not for what he will eventually do. (The angels now protest this, based upon the actions of Ishmael’s descendants in refusing the children of Israel water or safe passage). God answers them, “In accordance with his present actions do I judge him, from where he is now.“ (Midrash Rabbah). – Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “Torah Lights: Devarim”, Maggid Books, pg.218-19
The Talmud further obscures the clarity of our understanding of this passage as well as the ability for it to be applied, when it declares:
“(Mishna) If the mother was not suited for his father, the two being an inappropriate match, as the Gemara will explain, he does not become a stubborn and rebellious son. (Gemara) The Gemara asks: What does Rabbi Yehuda mean when he speaks of the mother as not being suited for the father?…Rabbi Yehuda is saying that the boy’s mother must be identical to his father in several aspects…Rabbi Yehuda says: ‘If his mother was not identical to his father in voice, appearance, and height, he does not become a stubborn and rebellious son…What is the reason for this? As the verse states: ‘He will not obey our voices” (Deut.21:20), which indicates that they both have the same voice…” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 71a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
The rationale behind this seemingly impossible analysis is found in the proceeding lines, which quotes a Baraita that is not included in the Mishna, but was an established part of the Oral Tradition:
“There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never be one in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halacha…And why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive your reward for learning…” (IBID)
To understand the Talmudic perspective on this we must come to grips with the nature of the giving of the Torah itself. Contrary to many Christian narratives, the Torah was not given to man in order to “break us against its laws, leaving us no choice but to crawl to God for unmerited mercy” (a Calvinist view).
No, not at all. The Torah was given to man as a divine revelation in order that man might be able to partner with God in rectifying and reclaiming the world for God, and for the healing of our souls.
Consider the following passage in the Talmud relating to Moses receiving the Torah:
“What is the meaning of that which is written: “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Gen.1:31)?…It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, established a condition with the act of Creation, and said to (the whole earth): If Israel accepts the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan, you will exist; and if they do not accept it, I will return you to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. Therefore, the earth was afraid until the Torah was given to Israel, lest it be returned to a state of chaos. Once the Jewish people accepted the Torah, the earth was calmed.” (Talmud, Shabbat 88a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
Further into the narrative, we see the gravity of the event playing out on Sinai:
“When Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, the ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He…what is one born of a woman doing here among us? (God answered) ‘He came to receive the Torah.’ The angels said before Him: ‘The Torah is a hidden treasure…concealed…before the creation of the world, and you seek to give it to flesh and blood?’…The Holy One…said to Moses: ‘Provide them with and answer as to why the Torah should be given to the people.’…” (IBID, 88b)
Moses proceeds to ask the angels a series of challenging questions which distinguish man from the angels. He asks,
“Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh?…Do you dwell among the nations who worship idols that you require this special warning?…Do you perform labor that you require rest from it?…Do you conduct business with one another that may lead you to swearing falsely?…Do you have a father or mother that would render the commandment to honor them relevant to you?…Immediately (the angels) agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He made the right decision to give the Torah to the people…” (IBID)
What all of this illustrates is something extremely important if we are to understand the value of the Torah and a proper way to approach it in study.
No parent desires to stone their son to death. Do you? Even in your most disappointed moments as a parent, when you truly are angered at them to the point of rage, do you ever stop loving them? Do you ever truly wish to abandon them to the murderous mob?
Of course not.
And this is the lesson the Torah is teaching us through the sages:
When you have a stubborn and rebellious son who is on the path of destruction, remember that you, too, are or have been the stubborn and rebellious son of God, and rather than stone you to death, He gave you time to learn, and like Ishmael, who was destined to rebel against Him, heard your cries when you were lonely in the desert.
The lesson is the same lesson that Yeshua parlays in the gospel:
“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn.8:7)
We must see, however, that this is not a matter of the commandment being of no effect “because Jesus fulfilled it”. That is a juvenile, grossly ignorant view of the Torah’s lesson in this. Rather, we should internalize and personalize the Torah’s command, for the healing of our own heart and mind.
At a practical level, God is providing us a “soul-mirror” in the Torah’s commands, to lead us in becoming godly parents.
The Talmud has something deeply important to share with us concerning these issues that goes far beyond most Christian understandings of the Torah:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Anyone who teaches his son’s son Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it from Mount Sinai, as it is stated: “But make them known to your sons and to your sons’ sons,” and juxtaposed to it is the phrase in the verse: “The day when you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 4:10), as Horeb is Mount Sinai.” (Talmud, Kiddushin 30a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
Further on, we find this:
So too the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: My children, I created an evil inclination, which is the wound, and I created Torah as its antidote. If you are engaged in Torah study you will not be given over into the hand of the evil inclination, as it is stated: “If you do well, shall it not be lifted up?” (Genesis 4:7). One who engages in Torah study lifts himself above the evil inclination….A Sage from the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: My son, if this wretched one, the evil inclination, encounters you, pull it into the study hall, i.e., go and study Torah. If it is a stone it will melt, and if it is iron it will break, as it is stated with regard to the Torah: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). (IBID, Kiddushin 30b)
Finally, the Gemara relates this principle to the raising of sons:
“As the Sages taught: There are three partners in the forming of a person: The Holy One, Blessed be He, who provides the soul, and his father and his mother. When a person honors his father and mother, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says: I ascribe credit to them as if I dwelt between them and they honor Me as well.” (IBID, Kiddushin 30b)
When we have a wrong-headed view of Torah, we think like John Calvin, and others like him, who views the Torah as an indictment against the utter depravity of man, who always deserves death but is spared only because of the unmerited grace of God through the Messiah.
But when we understand God’s intent in giving the Torah to man, we realize that this is not at all the paradigm we are to be left with in this matter. Rather it is as if God wishes to reveal to us the divine spark that He had placed inside of us, His most special of all His creations, that we may come to know Him and His character.
In facing us with the impossibility of stoning our own children, we recognize His unfathomable love for us.