Why does the Old Testament Prescribe the Death Penalty for “Rebellious” Sons?

Some Old Testament texts seem harsh, even morally backwards to society today. But if you want people to listen to you on your own terms (and not put words in your mouth), shouldn’t you also extend the same courtesy to others? It’s just the Golden Rule of Listening: listen to others as you want to be listened to.

So when you read a text that could be hard to swallow, take a step back and try to understand the Bible on its own terms. One of the those hard texts is when the Bible prescribes the death penalty to rebellious children. What is going on in a text like this?

18 “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, 19 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, 20 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.’ 21 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.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21

Understanding the covenantal context of Scripture helps to make sense of such commandments and also gives us tools for applying such texts to the church today as well.

Parent-Child as Covenant

God intended that a man and woman would be joined together in a covenant called marriage (Malachi 2:14; Genesis 2:20-25). A covenant binds together two people as family (husband and wife). Such a covenant comes with promises and responsibilities. God also intended the marriage covenant to be fruitful (Genesis 1:27-28). Husbands and wives were supposed to have children, who are literally the “one-flesh” of a husband and wife (Genesis 2:24).

The fruitful covenant of marriage issues forth in other covenant relationships: parents to their children. Some scholars would deny that a exists covenant between parents and children. For some scholars, the covenant relationship is elected (i.e. chosen) whereas the relationship with parents and children natural (i.e. biological, no choice is involved). Such a distinction doesn’t really hold up, however. Covenants are not necessarily elective, or chosen. For example, when God enters into covenant with Israel, his covenant extends beyond the original generation who was at Sinai when the covenant was made. Of course, God later renews the covenant with later generations. But he does not do that with every subsequent generation. Therefore, children born into Israel later in her history would enter the world already in a covenant with God but they did not necessarily choose to be in such a covenant.

The same is true of parents and children. Although children did not choose to be born into their family and in covenant with their parents, they still are. Moreover, covenant terminology is applied to the parent-child relationship, especially in the book of Proverbs.

King Solomon wrote most of the Proverbs (1:1). He writes these things addressed often to his “son” (1:8, 10, 15, 2:1; 3:1; 10). In fact, the first major section of Proverbs is 10 sermons that Solomon gives to his son about wisdom (1:8-7:27). Throughout the sermons, Solomon explains the importance of wisdom and also addresses the parent-child relationship.  For example, Solomon exhorts his son: “do not forget my teaching (torah)” (3:1). Most likely, such teaching is the practical application of God’s Torah with Israel due to the covenant God made with her at Sinai. As the king in covenant with God, Solomon was supposed to be the “model” Israelite who diligently studied the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

So the book of Proverbs is probably Solomon’s reflection on the Law of God (Torah) and applied to every day life. Such instruction is passed on from parent to child as the guiding charter of the parent-child covenant. Moreover, Solomon tells his son, “do not let lovingkindness (hesed) and truth (emet) leave you” (3:3). The word pair hesed and emet summarize the covenant relationship that Israel was supposed to have with God. Of course, a child was supposed to live according to lovingkindess and truth in his or her relationship with God. But the context also seems to indicate that the parent-child relationship is supposed to be characterized by hesed and emet, hence there is a covenant relationship between parents and children.

Establishing the presence of a covenant between parents and their children is important because in covenants there is blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. Such a reality is plainly obvious throughout the book of Proverbs. If a child obeys the covenantal instruction of his father, he will have “length of days and years of  life” (Proverbs 3:2). But those who spurn wisdom, especially coming from their parents, will be destroyed (Proverbs 2:28-33).

Solomon develops those who reject the covenantal instruction of their parent into the “fool” later on Proverbs. The wise son brings joy to his parents, but the foolish son brings devastation (10:1). The “fool” in the Bible is not someone who is unintelligent. Rather, the “fool” is someone who rejects the covenant with their parents and with their God. The “fool” is a covenant breaker, someone who persistently rejects the instruction of the Lord and his or her parents.

The Bible is not making a claim against rank atheism, when the fool says, “There is no God” (Proverbs 14:1). In context, the fool is saying that there is no God in Israel. The fool is someone who rejects Yahweh and desires to walk in his own way. Moreover, the psalmists characterizes the fool as “corrupt” and committing “abominable deeds” (Psalm 14:1). It has nothing to do with intelligence, but everything to do with obedience.  

Such an understanding of the fool helps to look back at Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and realize that it is talking about the same kind of child! This is a child, probably significantly older, who has rejected the covenant with his or her parents and rejected the covenant God has with Israel.

The High Stakes of Holiness

Rejecting the covenant God made with Israel had major consequences. God certainly would bless his people for upholding their responsibilities in the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Yet God also details significantly more curses if the people disobey and reject him (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). The stakes were high to obey the covenant instruction God had given to the people at Sinai and preserve the holiness of the people. The point of obedience for Israel was not just rank compliance to commands. But there were very real benefits, based in the grace of God.

God had formed the people as a “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As Peter Gentry points out holiness does not refer to moral purity first of all, but to “consecration” or “devotion.” Yahweh is devoted to his purposes and upholding the covenant. He then chooses a people to be fully devoted to himself and his ways, Israel. Obedience to the covenant relationship (lovingkindess and truth) meant that God would dwell among his people. His presence would be there to bless them (Leviticus 26:12). He would “walk” among them, just like he walked with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). So the people had the responsibility to keep themselves devoted, or consecrated, to Yahweh.

Such consecration did not mean sinless perfect; that’s why God instituted the sacrificial system. Faithful Israelites who sinned could have their sin “atoned for” through offering a sacrifice. But what consecration did mean was purging those who persistently rejected the covenant and would want nothing to do with Yahweh and his commandments. It’s one thing for the faithful Israelite to sin and then throw himself or herself upon the mercy of God through sacrifice. It is an entirely different thing to reject Yahweh and want nothing to do with him.

So when the Old Testament speaks of the rebellious son being executed, it is not talking about one sin and you’re done. It’s not even talking about repeating the same sin over and over again. It’s talking about a “rebellious” son who rejects the covenant with Yahweh and his parents. He has become an idolater, a worshipper of other gods. And he is subsequently contaminating the people’s holiness, their devotion to the Lord. Such contamination would ultimately lead to the “death” of the people: exile.

So the stakes were high. It’s sort of like the classic thought experiment: is one innocent person’s life worth sacrificing to prevent the death of millions?  But in this case, the person is not innocent, but justly deserving death because he has rejected the path of life, Yahweh’s rule often expressed most clearly in the instruction of faithful parents.

The idea of “purging evil” in Deuteronomy is not something which was to be done for every little infraction. Instead, it was for major infractions that imperiled the covenantal bonds and functioning of society. Purging is reserved for idolaters who would lead the people astray from Yahweh (13:1-5; 17:2-7), those who do not accept a just ruling from Israel’s “courts” and therefore live for themselves (17:8-12), murderers (19:11-13), false witnesses who malicious attempt to pervert justice (19:16-19), those who violate others sexually and fray at the covenantal bonds of marriage (22:21-24), and kidnappers of their fellow Israelites who attempt to sell them into slavery (24:7).

While it may seem that purging a “rebellious son” from among the people is a curveball in rather straight forward cases, it actually makes sense.

New Testament Purging

The idea of “purging” evil actually makes its way into the New Testament as well. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church to kick an unrepentant person out the church as basis that they must “remove (purge) the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:13). From the context, Paul is not calling for the penalty. Instead, Paul calls for the church to excommunicate this attender/member of the church. The reason being is because his person has been doing something that even the pagans know is wrong (1 Corinthians 5:1)!

The shift from the death penalty to excommunication is due to the covenantal progression that came in Christ. In other words, once Christ inaugurated the new covenant in his blood, the old covenant passed away. The new covenant is not like the old covenant. Whereas the old covenant merely stated God’s commands but gave no power to fulfill them, God would write the law on his people’s hearts in the new covenant, giving them the ability to be faithful to him (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The new covenant community also changes. It is no longer made up primarily of one ethnic group given promises to inherit a specific piece of land and under covenant as a nation. Instead, the new covenant community is made up of everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the “rules” which govern each covenant community are different. In the Old Testament, God gave Israel the Ten Commandments as well as all the stipulations and ordinances, all the seemingly “random” laws to govern their spiritual, public, and governmental life. But under the new covenant, the whole law has been fulfilled by Christ (Matthew 5:17-20).

When Christ preaches the Sermon on the Mount, He establishes himself as a “new Moses” with a “new Law” in essence. But most of Jesus’ contemporaries would be concerned that Jesus was going to destroy their ancestral traditions and overturn the Law of God. In fact, if that is what Jesus was doing, then Pharisees would have had legitimate criticism against Jesus too. But Jesus does not abolish the Law, but fulfills it (Matthew 5:17). The fulfillment means that Jesus was the destination of the Law all along. It all pointed to Him and should have lead the people to embrace Him as the Messiah and Savior.

Jesus was to fulfill the Law. Why? Because the Law would be in place for a certain amount of time: “until all is accomplished” and “until heaven and earth pass away.” But Christ has accomplish everything in the Father’s plan and ushered in the new creation os that the old creation has passed away (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Consequently, Jesus has established a grounds for righteousness and a new “code of conduct” for the new covenant community (5:19).


Pulling all these strands together looks something like this. The death penalty in Israel was not the capricious code of an angry God. Instead, the death penalty was given against those who were tearing at the fabric of society: murderers, those trying to upend the justice system, and idolators. The rebellious “son,” then, is someone who had scorned the covenant and was attempting to lead his fellow Jews astray from worship of Yahweh. That’s why the death penalty was prescribed for those situations. Moreover, moving into the New Testament, we find that Paul encourages “purging” in 1 Corinthians 5. The purging found in the New Testament, however, is not the physical death penalty but spiritual excommunication from the church. Due to the inauguration of the new covenant through Christ, the new covenant community is not an theo-political nation-state like Israel was. Instead, the church is a spiritual body united to its head by faith. Therefore, the penalties for abandoning the new covenant are those with spiritual consequences.


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