EXECUTING A REBELLIOUS SON
If 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: Then 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; And 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. And 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 (Deut. 21:18-21).
The theocentric basis of this law is God's threat of execution against Adam for rebelling against Him. Adam was an adult. He was living on his Father's property. The mark of his Father's ownership of both Adam and the world in which Adam dwelled was the forbidden tree. God declared this tree off-limits for Adam. It was not Adam's property. Adam was under God's authority because God was his Creator, his Father. Adam should have known that this world belongs to God. As a resident of this world, Adam was required to acknowledge God's total ownership and universal authority, but Adam rebelled against this arrangement. He would not acknowledge God's sovereign ownership.
Consider the way in which his rebellion took place. He rebelled by eating the forbidden fruit. Consumption in this case was a sin for Adam. The modern free market doctrine known as consumers' sovereignty, first articulated in the mid-1930's by W. H. Hutt,(1) in this instance applied to God, not Adam. God, as the tree's owner, was a consumer: He had separated the tree and its output for Himself. This form of consumer demand is sometimes called reservation demand: demand by the present owner.(2) Whatever income the tree might produce in the future belonged exclusively to God. God was absolutely sovereign over this tree. He was absolutely sovereign over all of the trees, of course, but by placing a verbal "no trespassing" sign around one representative tree, God announced His absolute ownership of the earth and its fruits. By authorizing Adam to eat from all other trees, herbs, and animals (Gen. 2:29-30), He announced His sovereign ownership: His right to share His property with others. God's right to include Adam as a minority shareholder in the creation was publicly revealed by His exclusion of Adam from access to the tree. Adam did not accept his position as a minority shareholder. He wanted exclusive control.(3)
The tree was forbidden to Adam; so, eating from it was Adam's way of expressing his rejection of God's self-asserted authority over Adam and the creation. God then tried Adam in a court of civil law, convicted him, and pronounced the death sentence on him. Nevertheless, God then showed mercy to him by allowing him time to repent, time to bear sons of his own, and time to train them. Time had not yet run out for Adam. But this was all a matter of grace: gifts of God that Adam did not deserve. As the injured party, God had the right to extend mercy to Adam: the biblical judicial principle of victim's rights.(4)
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reveals many of the same characteristics as the account of Adam's rebellion. There is a hierarchy of parental authority, and a son breaks it. His ethical rebellion is visible in his gluttony: rebellion through undisciplined eating. Adam ate without self-discipline. God tolerated Adam's rebellion for a while; so do the parents in this passage. Judgment finally came on Adam: he died, just as God had promised. So does this rebellious son. Most important for a clear understanding of this passage, Adam was an adult. So is the son in this passage.
This law was not a seed law, relating to the preservation of the tribal system, nor was it a land law. It has to do with universal principles of civil justice and crime prevention. Yet some aspects of it were based on its land law status.
A Matter of Disinheritance
This law was a law of disinheritance. Because a father in Mosaic Israel could not legally disinherit a son on his own authority as the head of the household (Deut. 21:15-17), the family had no autonomous means of disinheritance. This was because of the jubilee land law regarding inheritance. One or both of the other two covenantal institutions had to validate the decision of a parent or parents to disinherit a son: church or State. There had to be a joint institutional declaration against him. No one person or institution possessed the exclusive voice of authority in God's name. There was a balance of authority in Mosaic Israel regarding disinheritance.
First, there was reversible disinheritance: ecclesiastical excommunication. The excommunicated son lost his citizenship in Israel. He no longer had legal access to service as a warrior in God's holy army. He therefore could not be a judge, bringing negative covenantal sanctions in God's name. In this sense, the excommunicated man had become a covenantal stranger. A stranger could not inherit rural land in Mosaic Israel prior to the return from the Assyrian-Babylonian captivity. This is why excommunication was a form of disinheritance. Because excommunication extends into eternity, this was the most threatening form of disinheritance. Death would seal the priesthood's eternal death sentence.
Second, there was irreversible disinheritance: civil execution. This was the most threatening form of disinheritance in history, but it had no eternal implications. Parents and the State could not speak authoritatively regarding a man's eternal judicial status; only the Levites could do this. Two-fold disinheritance was eternally permanent: excommunication pronounced judicial sentence historically and eternally, but with the possibility of repentance and the restoration of the forfeited inheritance; execution removed the common grace of time that could lead to the special grace of repentance.(5) The sentence of execution reduced the time available for repentance: from the judges' announcement of the death sentence until its enforcement. For the rebellious son who was brought before the civil authorities by his parents, time had just about run out. There would be no further common grace extended to him by God through his parents.
What Was the Son's Crime?
A crime is a matter of civil sanctions. Sin may not be. The negative sanction in this case was death: the supreme civil sanction. What, then, was the son's crime? He was a sinner, surely, but were these sins crimes? If they were crimes, why did the parents have to file charges against him? Why hadn't the civil authorities taken independent action against him?
To find the answers, let us go through the steps in this case. The father and mother took their rebellious son before the civil authorities. They informed the authorities of the nature of his infractions: gluttony,(6) drunkenness, and disobedience to parents. Hearing this formal covenant lawsuit against the son, the authorities were required by this law to decide in favor of the parents. While they retained the right of cross-examination to verify the facts, the presumption of this law was that the parents had not testified falsely against their son. Parents may be expected to testify falsely on a son's behalf, but they rarely bring false charges against him, especially when the penalty is death. This law assumed that parental love was operating as a disincentive to a false accusation. The accusers therefore had been driven to this extreme remedy by the behavior of their son.
The son was an adult. We know this because of the nature of his sins. He was a drunkard and a glutton. Drunkenness is an adult's sin. In no society that I am aware of has the State ever legalized continual drunkenness for minors. It is clear from the text that the State had no authority to keep him from drinking excessively or eating excessively apart from this formal complaint by his parents -- a complaint that necessarily invokes the death penalty. This means that the son was an adult. He would not control himself, and his parents could no longer control him.
His refusal to obey them indicates that their threats no longer scared him. It also indicates that they had run out of threats. Physical punishment by his parents was no longer possible because he was an adult. Disinheritance was not much of a threat, as I shall argue, because he had already been disinherited. Another meaningful threat was for them to throw him out of the house, and I shall argue that they were unwilling to do this for a socially valid reason: their fear that he was unsafe to be in society as an autonomous agent. This leaves only the threat of execution. This, too, had failed. Judgment day had come.
This son was not a criminal. If he had been, the State could act independently of the parents. He had not behaved violently against his parents. Had he done so, he would already have been executed. The case laws of Exodus set forth the laws of battery and verbal assault against parents: "And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death" (Ex. 21:15). "And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death" (Ex 21:17). So, his rebellion involved a dissolute life style and disobedience to parents. This behavior had become criminal behavior, but only within the context of the family. It was the covenant lawsuit brought by his parents that transformed his sins into crimes.
We know that the actions of the son were judicially criminal, for they called forth the death penalty. Yet drunkenness and gluttony are "victimless crimes." They do not inflict physical damage on contemporaries. But they do inflict damage on the covenant line: the dissipation of the family's inheritance. Gluttony and drunkenness are assaults on the family's economic future because they involve the squandering of present resources. These sins of excess transfer wealth from the family that has accumulated it to families that sell food and drink to the wastrel. The son's addiction to wine and food threatens the continuity of family capital. His parents seek a way to put a stop to this.
But is this transfer of capital a criminal matter? This son was an embarrassment to his parents, but why were his actions matters for the civil court? Why did the court have to execute him? Disobedience to parents is a negative response to positive commands. There had been no parental victim of a verbal assault. He had not stolen from them, beaten them, or in any way threatened him. He had merely ignored their instructions. He was an adult. Was he still required to obey them? On what legal basis could the State execute him? There is a two-fold general principle of biblical civil law: 1) there must be a victim; 2) the State is to prohibit public evil, not make men good. In what way were these parents victims of positive evil? In what way were the sins of drunkenness and gluttony deserving of public execution?
The deciding legal issue here was continual disobedience to parents. There is no indication that drunkenness as such was a capital crime in the Mosaic covenant, nor is it a capital crime today. In fact, there is no indication that it is a crime at all. The State has no jurisdiction over drunks who are not threatening other people with bodily injury.(7) The same is true of gluttony. It was not illegal to eat too much, nor is it today. Yet this son was to be executed by stoning, the sign of God's judgment against evil men.
If we eliminate drunkenness and gluttony as the joint basis of his conviction, we are left with disobedience to parents. They could not control him. He was a threat to their authority in the household. He was therefore deserving of death. His gluttony and drunkenness were evidence of his disobedience, not the judicial basis of his execution. The issue here was disinheritance: irreversible disinheritance. The parents were so convinced that he was beyond redemption that they were willing to bring him before the civil court for execution. While there is no text that required them first to seek and gain ecclesiastical excommunication, it is likely that they had already done so. This sanction had failed to gain his obedience to them. They were now bringing him to the final court of appeal in history in order to transport him into God's final court of appeal in eternity. In short, they were acting on behalf of God as lawful covenantal authorities. They were bringing a covenant lawsuit against their son.
A parent is required by God to inflict pain on rebellious young children. "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes" (Prov. 13:24). "Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying" (Prov. 19:18). The parent's authority to inflict pain on a disobedient child is basic to the family covenant.(8) The parent possesses the legal right to impose physical sanctions. That is, he is not to be threatened with civil or ecclesiastical sanctions for beating his child, so long as the degree of punishment fits the infraction. This is a fundamental principle of biblical law: the punishment must fit the infraction.
The family covenant does not authorize the imposition of capital punishment by a parent.(9) This is why the Mosaic law required parents to take their rebellious adult son to the officers in the gate, i.e., the civil judges. Under the Mosaic covenant, the State clearly had the right to impose the sanction of execution on a son who was brought before it by the parents. More than this: it had an obligation to do so. Yet the son had not committed any physical violence against his parents. If he had, he would have been subject to execution independent of his parents' formal accusations (Ex. 21:15, 17). Cursing a parent or striking a parent is considered an attack on God and His authority. For the son to escape judgment, his victimized parent would have had to publicly forgive the son for this action. But the son would have been marked as a rebel. Repeated violations would have classified him as a habitual criminal. As we shall see, this passage implies that habitual criminals in Israel were executed. So, the mandatory execution of Deuteronomy 21 was not for a positive assault by the rebellious son. It was for his disobedience to his parents, as revealed publicly by his drunkenness and his gluttony.
His crime was contumacy: a refusal to obey lawful authority. The parents had lost control over their son, as they admitted publicly: "he will not obey our voice." In some fundamental way, this man threatened the social order. If the primary agents of discipline had failed, and were willing publicly to acknowledge this, then the State had to intervene. But was execution mandatory? The text indicates that it was. There seems to be no room for mercy. I have argued that this was not a means of disinheriting him. The Levites could have cut him off from his people. In fact, it seems probable that this would already have been done prior to bringing him before the civil government. The church would have cut him off from access to service in God's holy army. This would have effectively removed his citizenship. He would have had no further rights of inheritance.
Then why bring him before the judges? Wasn't execution a form of judicial overkill? No; it was a means of making permanent his disinheritance in history. It was a means of persuading him to come to grips with the judicial meaning of his prior excommunication: the threat of eternal disinheritance. He had run out of time. He could no longer delay the day of reckoning. By bringing him before the civil court, his parents were telling him: "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (II Cor. 6:2b).
A Double Witness
Both parents had to bring charges against him. This was a capital charge. "At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death" (Deut. 17:6). In ecclesiastical proceedings for excommunication, the father had the right to bring the son to the Levites for judgment. The preceding passage deals with the eldest son of the first wife, the unloved wive. Reuben, the son of Leah, was the model.(10) Mosaic law was concerned about inheritance. There had to be a valid reason for any disinheritance. The reason was covenant-breaking. A father did not possess the independent authority to make this determination with respect to the family covenant. Excommunication had to be pronounced by an authorized ecclesiastical officer.
Under such circumstances, the mother of the accused son might have opposed her husband's judgment. She might not have been willing to bring formal charges against her son. But the father still had the right to bring such charges for the sake of preserving the inheritance. But it was not for him unilaterally to decide judicially whether his son would inherit under the Mosaic law.
In contrast to the laws governing excommunication, it took a double witness to invoke the capital sanction. This was a matter of the right of inheritance: irreversible disinheritance. The parents had decided to cut off further mercy.
Preserving the Family Name
This son was still under their household jurisdiction. Presumably, he had already been excommunicated. He was no longer a citizen of Israel. He was judicially a stranger in the land. But his parents still allowed him to live in their household. In other words, they were showing mercy to him, just as God had continued to show mercy to his disinherited son, Adam. The son could no longer inherit, but he might repent. The parents had not thrown him out of their household. This was a prodigal son who had not gone into another nation to spend his inheritance, for he possessed no inheritance. He was nonetheless a prodigal. Whatever assets he gained through working he spent on strong drink and food.
This son was not merely a slow learner; he was a non-learner. He was not merely a son of Adam; he was a son of Cain. This was a threat to the parents: because their son was a resident in their household, they would have been liable for his actions outside the home. Household authority in a patriarchy was very great under the Old Covenant. The father was considered the head of his household. Thus, those who lived under his lawful authority placed him at economic risk. Their law-breaking might result in legal claims against him. His son's drunken behavior might threaten the non-landed inheritance of the other children. The parents of an excommunicated son had two ways of reducing their legal liability: send him out of their household or have him removed through execution. Presumably, sending him away was the easiest way. This granted him time for his possible repentance. It would also have severed the legal tie to him which his continued presence in their household created.
In this instance, however, the parents decided that he was too rebellious to be sent into society. It was therefore not just a matter of their legal liability for his actions, which could be removed by sending him away. Something more crucial than economic liability was involved. He was a potential threat to society. He was a disgrace to the family name. To preserve the integrity of the family's name, they could take him before the judges, present their case against him, and have him executed.
The parents made a joint decision: this son deserved to die. His rebellion against them had become a way of life. His rebelliousness was a pattern of behavior. He was a habitual rebel. His drinking and eating habits testified to this. He was in bondage to sin. He was not fit to be sent into society. As his parents, they had the joint authority to make this determination. The civil magistrates were required to enforce this decision. The civil magistrates had to accept the testimony of the parents when supported by independent evidence: the son's eating and drinking habits. They had to acknowledge the authority of the parents to protect society and the family name by removing their rebellious son from any further mercy. If parents believed that their son was both incorrigible and a threat to society, their assessment had to be honored by the State.
Supporting Family Authority
Heads of household in Israel were not allowed to impose the covenantal sanctions of excommunication or execution. These covenant sanctions were outside of their lawful sphere of authority. Because the ultimate physical sanction of execution was prohibited to them, they lacked a powerful negative sanction. They also could not impose the maximum sanction of excommunication. Presumably, the Levites had already done this. Nevertheless, their son was still a rebel. They still could not control him. If the three sanctions of excommunication, revocation of citizenship, and reversible disinheritance had not thrown the fear of God into him, what would? The fear of execution: irreversible disinheritance. Without this, he could not be controlled.
The parents could not impose this sanction on their own authority. But without this threat, they could not maintain control in their own household. They had to be backed up by the civil government, which possessed the authority to impose this sanction. So, in this case, the State became the supporting agency of parental authority. The parents were restrained by law from imposing the ultimate remaining sanction. Somebody had to.
The parents had decided that this son was not fit to be released into society without being under family jurisdiction, and they were no longer willing to accept this responsibility. He was too great a liability. They could no longer control him, and they also could no longer risk keeping them under their legal authority. The church could not control him. Who could? The State. The State had to be called in to support the judgment of his parents: he was not fit to stay alive. If parents were willing to say this in public, their judgment had to be honored. The State had to execute him. This was a two-fold matter of preserving family authority and preserving public safety.
What was his crime? Contumacy. He had rebelled so continually against family authority that this constituted a threat to society. His family possessed the authority to tell him to quit practicing evils that fell short of public actions that were subject to civil sanctions. The State could do nothing on its own authority to stop him from excessive drinking and eating apart from this formal accusation by his parents. To keep State authority on a tight chain, the Mosaic law did not authorize the State to execute people for drunkenness and gluttony. Therefore, in order to reinforce family authority, the Mosaic law granted to parents the right to invoke the permanent civil sanction against their son. Neither covenantal institution could impose this sanction on its own authority. This kept both forms of authority in check. It took joint action on the part of both covenantal authorities to remove a rebellious son. Because of the nature of authority in Mosaic Israel, the church presumably had already imposed its ultimate sanction: excommunication. The text does not reveal this, but we can safely presume that the parents would not have resorted to this final declaration of their inability to control their son unless the church had also failed in its attempt to support family authority.
The heads of a household had an enormous responsibility in Mosaic Israel. They were asked to subordinate the traditional and nearly universal bonds of parental affection to the larger purpose of defending God's law. One aspect of this defense was the preservation of family capital. A wastrel son was dissipating family capital and, by implication, the family line. The parents were called on by God to put an end to this destruction of the family line.(11) They were to call on the State to destroy the destroyer.
This meant that there had to be another heir through whom family capital could be extended. This family was in a situation analogous to Adam and Eve after Cain killed Abel. While God protected Cain from execution, He also removed him from his parents' presence. A new son, Seth, became the heir of his parents. Through Seth came the covenant line. A similar problem faced the parents of a rebellious son. If they had no other son, then they would either have to pray for one or else adopt one. The point is, it took faith in God's plan to bring a rebellious son before the civil rulers. It took faith in the appearance of a replacement heir. Parents would have to place obedience to God's law over bloodline inheritance in the extension of the family's legacy through time.
Family, Society, and State
This degree of religious faith is rarely present in any family. Families are normally highly protective of their members. They place members inside a shield of toleration and protection from outside criticism. They resist the intrusion of outsiders who would bring a covenant lawsuit against a member. But God's law requires parents not only to avoid such defensive arrangements but actually to initiate the covenant lawsuit against a wastrel son. This act of covenantal judgment visibly places the family under God's law. The State has no independent authority to initiate this covenant lawsuit. It must wait on the parents to do their duty. The magistrates must order the execution of the son on the word of the parents. The authority of the two witnesses must be respected. The witnesses act as agents of the court.
Parents in Israel who refused to do their duty faced a choice: 1) continue to protect the wastrel, thereby placing family capital at risk, either through his dissipating ways or through lawsuits brought against them as responsible agents over him when he commits a crime; or 2) send him out into society on his own, thereby placing others at risk. Parents may have decided that the former decision was too risky for family capital, but the second choice shifted the risk to outsiders. The law was clear: parents were not to do this. They were to protect society by delivering their son up for execution. They were to subordinate family ties to the glory of God and the needs of law-abiding society.
Apart from a radical transformation of men's allegiance and understanding, it is unlikely that most family heads will ever do their duty in this regard. Rather, they will subordinate society to family ties. But when they do this, they transfer power to the State. They defer to the State the responsibility of bringing a covenant lawsuit against a known wastrel. But before the State can lawfully bring a covenant lawsuit against him, there must be a victim. He must harm someone. Thus, the unwillingness of families to subordinate their interests to God's law leads to an increase of crime and social disorder. Those who knew that a wastrel is dangerous to society have nonetheless sent him out into society. They have washed their hands of him by sending a potential wolf among sheep. In doing so, they have raised the risk of harm to others.
Parents are society's first line of defense against evil. This law makes it clear just how important parental responsibility is, and just how burdensome. Parents must subordinate their love for their son to the law of God and the needs of society. They must place God's interest above family interests. Jesus said: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37). This law indicates that Jesus was drawing upon an Old Covenant principle when he announced His judgment against the cult of the family.(12)
Rushdoony's Interpretation: Juvenile Delinquency
Rushdoony discusses this passage in several places in The Institutes of Biblical Law. He says that this passage refers to "incorrigible juvenile delinquents."(13) He repeats this in a section dealing with the Fifth Commandment: "The Economics of the Family."(14) He discusses this law at length in the section on "The Family and Delinquency."(15) He cites it when discussing family authority and law enforcement. "The family very clearly has a serious role in law enforcement. The family is a law-order and disciplines its members. The nature and extent of the family's punishing power can be seen by looking again at a text previously considered, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, the death penalty for juvenile delinquents. There are certain very important aspects to this law. First, the parents are to be complaining witnesses against their criminal son. The loyalty of the parents must thus be to God's law-order, not to ties of blood. If the parents do not assist in the prosecution of a criminal child, they are then accessories to the crime. Second, contrary to the usual custom, whereby witnesses led in the execution, in this case, `the men of the city' did. Thus, where the death penalty was involved, the family was excluded from the execution of the law."(16) But this law went beyond mere family authority, he says. It extended to society at large: the prevention of the creation of a criminal class. He writes:
Third, as we have seen, incorrigible juvenile delinquents were to be executed (Deut. 21:18-21), and also all habitual criminals. Such persons were thus blotted out of the commonwealth. When and if this law is observed, ungodly families who are given to lawlessness are denied a place in the nation. The law thus clearly works to eliminate all but the godly families.(17)
Clearly, then, the intent of this law is that all incorrigible and habitual criminals be executed. If a criminal son is to be executed, how much more so a neighbor or fellow Hebrew who has become an incorrigible criminal? If the family must align itself with the execution of an incorrigibly delinquent son, will it not demand the death penalty of an habitual criminal in the community? . . . The purpose of this law is to eliminate entirely a criminal element from the nation, a professional criminal class. . . . Biblical law does not recognize a professional criminal element: the potentially habitual criminal must be executed as soon as he gives plain evidence of this fact.(18)
In the United States in the final decade of the twentieth century, gangs of teenage boys have become the single major source of crime. These gangs are masters of the illegal drug trade. They are spreading across the nation, replacing the Mafia and other traditional criminal syndicates. They are well organized and difficult for law enforcement authorities to penetrate. The breakdown of family authority in the inner cities has led to a replacement institution: the gang. The gang provides community, authority, commitment, and income. It is bound by a self-maledictory covenant oath. The gang has become the primary agency of physical sanctions in the predominantly non-white inner cities.
These developments were implied in Rushdoony's analysis of this passage, which he offered a decade prior to the public's recognition of the plague of gang life. Yet his actual exposition is ignored by ignorant or willfully perverse Christian critics of theonomy who imagine that they are more humane than God, let alone Rushdoony. "Theonomists would execute little children!" they cry in horror, never bothering to read Rushdoony's clear statements regarding this law, never considering the threat of juvenile delinquency to residents of inner cities. In the white middle-class safety of the suburbs,(19) critics issue smug dismissals of theonomy in the name of tender little children. (When they are mugged in a parking lot, however, they call on the State to imprison these teenage thugs and throw away the key.) They impugn God by impugning Rushdoony. They ridicule God's law by ridiculing their version of what they think Rushdoony says. They do not attempt to exegete Deuteronomy 21:18-20; they just continue to cry out, "The theonomists would execute little children." The ancient heresy of Marcionism is with us still: the belief that an evil God gave us the Old Covenant, but a loving God gave us the New Testament. The critics of theonomy never put things quite this bluntly, but what they write and say about the capital crimes and sanctions of the Mosaic law indicates that they believe it.
My interpretation is different from Rushdoony's. I do not think the son was a juvenile delinquent. He was a delinquent, but he was no juvenile. In today's usage, "juvenile delinquent" means "a convicted criminal who is not old enough to be dealt with by civil law as an adult, and who is therefore under milder civil sanctions." This was not the legal status of the son in this passage. He was not yet an identifiable criminal. He had not broken any civil laws. He had not been convicted of any crime. Here was his legal status: he was under his parents' legal authority; he was a glutton and a drunkard; he would not obey his parents; and they could not control him by means of family sanctions. Presumably, he was also an excommunicant. He was on the road to perdition, and he was a disgrace to the family name. His parents believed that he was too dangerous to be sent into society as a disinherited stranger. Before he committed any crime, his parents brought him to the civil authorities to have him executed.
This means that merely by his continual refusal to obey them, coupled with the marks of uncontrollable behavior -- gluttony and drunkenness -- he had committed a capital crime. This in turn means that open, wilful, publicly visible rebellion against joint parental authority is a crime equal to murder, for the civil sanction is the same. It was not gluttony and drunkenness that constituted his crime; it was his long-term rebellion against family authority while living under that authority. This was Adam's crime, too: eating what his Father had prohibited. He died for this sin.
I disagree with Rushdoony's argument that this son was a juvenile delinquent. This was an adult who was still living in his parents' household. I do agree with his conclusion that this law, when enforced, would restrict the formation of a criminal class. This law and its capital sanction serves as a model of the biblically mandatory hostility that a godly society must have against habitual criminal behavior. If parents are not to tolerate continual rebellion against family authority, to the point of demanding that their son be executed by stoning, how much less toleration should society show toward incorrigible breakers of the civil law! If loving parents must be willing to bring a capital covenant lawsuit against their own flesh and blood, how much more ready must citizens be to rid society of habitual criminals! If it is a capital crime for a man to drink too much and eat too much and disobey his parents in the privacy of their home, then it surely is a capital crime to be convicted of a third or fourth felony. The government should not lock up incorrigible felons and throw away the key. It should execute them. As the Bible says about the rebellious son, "And 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" (Deut. 21:21). If all Israel was to fear becoming a rebellious son, surely every Israelite was to fear becoming a habitual felon.
Illegal Drugs and the Messianic State
Today, men and women around the world call upon the State to deal with drug dealers. They do so in the name of their children. They cry out to the State: "We cannot control our children. They are addicted. They steal from us. They lie to us. They rebel against our authority continually. Therefore, we must arrest drug dealers, convict them, imprison them, and throw away the key!" What they do not say is this: "This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice. He is a drug addict. Stone him to death. So shall other people's sons learn to fear."
The State responds to political pressure by passing innumerable laws against addictive drugs. Nevertheless, the addiction spreads. The State takes away more and more civil liberties, especially privacy, in the name of the war on drugs. Nevertheless, this war is visibly being lost. The public believes that the sale of addictive drugs should be made illegal. What the public does not believe is that their own sons and daughters are making self-conscious decisions to spend money on substances that will addict them, knowing full well that these drugs are dangerously addictive. They see their children as ill-informed. It is the parents who are ill-informed; their children know a great deal about drugs. This is not an information problem. It is a moral problem. It is also an incentive problem: lack of fear of the legal consequences.
Children in the West have wealth at their disposal greater than what the rebellious son possessed. Sons and daughters in today's world of unprecedented wealth have great purchasing power. They are nevertheless wilfully destroying themselves, squandering their inheritance, not in some far country, as the prodigal son did, but in the bedrooms of their parents' homes. They are perfect examples of the rebellious son of Deuteronomy 21.
Here is why the drug trade flourishes: parents have given their children enormous wealth without guidance or restrictions and have sent them into the government's tax-funded schools, which have become the primary marketplace for drugs, especially in the early stages of addiction. The modern public school is a State-funded drug emporium. Students have accepted the religion of humanism that the public schools proclaim: the Darwinian story of man as the heir of beasts and meaningless cosmic chance. They have learned their school lessons well. They now celebrate the religion of humanism with the high efficiency tools of the "cool" drunkard: mind-altering drugs.
Instead of cutting off their children's funds, pulling them out of the public schools, and monitoring their daily activities from morning to night, parents call for more government spending on drug rehabilitation programs, more government money for drug education programs in the public schools, and more government money for drug enforcement programs. In short, they call for more of the same: more humanism, more statism, and more prisons. The parents believe in the religious precept of classical Greece, which is taught in the public schools, namely, that man's problem is educational rather than moral, that man can be saved through law and legislation. The parents worship at the altar of the messianic State and wonder why their children are tempted by drugs.
The key issue here is not the question of the legalization of drugs. That question should be dealt with by comparing the degree of addiction with other addictive drugs, such as tobacco, which have been legalized for adults. The question here is the primary locus of enforcement. The biblical locus of law enforcement is the family. The Bible acknowledges that the institution with the lowest cost of obtaining accurate information should be the initial law enforcing agent. This is obviously the family in cases of gluttony, drunkenness, and drug addiction. Any attempt by parents to shift the locus of primary responsibility to either school or State is illegitimate.
Similarly, if we differentiate between the teenage child and the adult child, calling for reduced penalties for the child because of the child's lack of maturity -- as we do with tobacco sales -- then the penalty could be less than stoning. It might be public whipping: more lashes for students who had sold drugs to finance their habits than for final users. The point is, there has to be a severe public sanction against such rebellious behavior as drug addiction. If parents are unwilling to bring their rebellious children before the magistrates in the name of God, the family's name, and the protection of society, then we can expect the drug plague to continue and the steady disappearance of our freedoms.
This passage in Deuteronomy offers a solution: execution of rebellious heirs. But modern man is too humane for this. Too human. Too humanistic. He prefers living under the messianic State to living under biblical law. He prefers statism to family responsibility. He prefers a growing international criminal class built on drug profits to bringing a capital covenant lawsuit against his own rebellious child. He is ready to send all drug dealers to prison for decades until the day he is told that his child supported his or her habit by luring other men's children into the heartless addiction; then he cries out for a tax-financed drug rehabilitation program rather than prison for his supposedly victimized child. He prefers a massive and costly prison system that clearly is not working to low-budget whipping or stoning that would work very well. In the final analysis, he would rather see his adult child stoned on drugs than stoned by magistrates. He ignores the Bible's warnings: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal. 6:7).
The law governing the rebellious adult son was a law supporting family authority. The magnitude of the civil sanction against this son indicates the severity of the crime and the importance of preserving family authority. But this law had social implications as well. It was a law that offered protection to society from an organized criminal class.
This law was a step beyond the negative sanction of excommunication, which governed citizenship and therefore inheritance. Inheritance in Old Covenant Israel was an aspect of the seed laws and the land laws. It also had to do with eligibility to serve in God's holy army. This law seems to have been a law governing an excommunicated, disinherited son, although no text explicitly says this. The parents had run out of negative sanctions other than sending him away from the household, which they regarded as too risky for society. They had to appeal to the State to impose the maximum negative sanction that remained to be imposed on rebels. This law had to do with three things: family authority, disinheritance, and the protection of the general public. The parents, who were legally able to remove him both geographically and legally from the economic benefits of their household, refused to do this. They must have believed that it was not safe to remove him from their judicial authority as a member of their household. They feared that he would become a threat to society. Thus, to preserve the integrity of the family name and to protect society from a lawless rebel who had not yet become a habitual criminal but who probably would if he was out from under their authority, they brought charges against him in a civil court. The court had to impose the death penalty, given the testimony of the parents and the evidence of both his gluttony and drunkenness.
There is no indication that this law has been annulled by the New Covenant. It was neither a seed law (tribal) nor a land law. There was a need for his execution in order to preserve the family's good name and to protect society. Without the willingness of a few parents to take this extreme measure, rebellious adult sons would learn not to fear their parents. These dedicated parents, who placed God's law, family authority, family reputation, covenantal inheritance, and social safety above their own emotional commitment to their son's biological survival, would serve as representatives for the whole society. The actual execution of a rebellious son would reinforce parental authority in many families.
These goals have not changed with the coming of the New Covenant. In today's world, the son might be a drug addict rather than a drunken glutton. The point is, he must be visibly out of control. But there must be a two-fold witness against his rebellion. It is not sufficient that he be out of control, though not a law-breaker, for the State to execute him. It is also not sufficient for the parents to bring charges against him. There must be a two-fold witness against him: 1) two parents testifying to his rebellion and 2) publicly verifiable evidence of either his unwillingness or inability to control his own actions.
There has been one major alteration in the application of this law, however. The New Covenant has increased the responsibility of daughters. Daughters are baptized. They are placed under the covenant's dual sanctions: blessing and cursing. Daughters can inherit if they agree to bear the responsibility of caring for aged parents.(20) To limit the application of this law to sons is illegitimate today. If daughters are rebellious, financially able to become drunkards and gluttons or crack-cocaine addicts, and are still living under their parents' household jurisdiction, then there is no judicial reason for them not to come under this law.
Ever since the publication of Rushdoony's Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973, critics of biblical law have repeatedly focused on this law as the sign that theonomy is perverse. In private conversations, I have heard this biblical passage invoked more often than any other as evidence that theonomy is heartless and cruel. Yet the critics never cite Rushdoony's argument that this was a law against the formation of a criminal class. Instead, they cite -- and condemn -- only the law itself. The critics' theological problem is this: their belief that the Old Covenant God must have been heartless and cruel. They hold the Marcionite dogma. Again and again, we hear the refrain: "Theonomists would execute little children!"(21) It is time for this misinterpretation to end. But it won't. It is too convenient a rhetorical device for modern-day Marcionites to resist.
1. W. H. Hutt, "The Nature of Aggressive Selling" (1935), in Individual Freedom: Selected Works of William H. Hutt, edited by Svetozar Pejovich and David Klingaman (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1975), p. 185.
2. Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles (Auburn, Alabama: Mises Institute,  1993), pp. 213-14, 218.
3. He could not gain majority control. Man serves one of two masters, God or Mammon, i.e., God or Satan. Adam elected as his representative the representative of Satan, i.e., the serpent. Even when man believes that he is the President of the corporation, he is in fact operating under a would-be chairman of the board: Satan.
4. Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), ch. 7; cf. North, Victim's Rights: The Biblical View of Civil Justice (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
5. On common grace, see Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).
6. In the most popular Bible in the English-speaking fundamentalist world, the trademarked Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909), there is no reference in its concordance to gluttony. There are three categories for alcohol abuse: drunk, drunkard, and drunkenness. This reveals a great deal about fundamentalism's priorities of evil-doing. A 1997 report on the health of Southern Baptist ministers and leaders reported that of some 1,000 attendees at the 1997 Southern Baptist Convention national meeting, 60 percent of them were at least 20 percent overweight, compared with 26 percent of the general public. This was not a random sample, but it was large enough to reveal the presence of a problem. Meanwhile, none of them admitted drinking heavily. Dallas Morning News (Sept. 6, 1997), p. 6 G.
7. In today's world, a drunk driver does threaten others.
8. This is why modern statist law places legal sanctions on parents who physically beat their children. The messianic State seeks to reserve this monopoly for itself, as the would-be parent of all mankind.
9. Early Roman law did authorize a father to kill his children. In this sense, legalized abortion is more Roman than Christian.
10. Jacob made this determination on his own authority as both father and household priest, since this was before there was a separate tribe of priests (Gen. 49).
11. The heirs of such a man would likely become covenant-breakers. They would die in their sins.
12. Cf. Gary North, Baptized Patriarchalism: The Cult of the Family (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), pp. 1-3.
13. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1973), p. 77.
14. Ibid., p. 180.
15. Ibid., pp. 185-99.
16. Ibid., pp. 359-60.
17. Ibid., p. 380.
18. Ibid., pp. 187-88.
19. Possibly a temporary condition of safety.
20. See Chapter 48: subsection on "Sons and Daughters."
21. I once received a letter from a Westminster Seminary graduate who had not been offered a job. He wanted me to hire him. He also wanted Bahnsen to hire him. He misspelled Rushdoony's name in his affirmation that he was familiar with theonomy, although not yet willing to subscribe to theonomy. I mentioned the possibility that I might be willing to hire him and his wife to run a day care facility. He wrote back that his wife found it odd that anyone who believed in stoning children was ready to start a day care. Needless to say, I did not hire him. His verbally clever but theologically ill-informed wife cost them an opportunity to begin a potentially lucrative and satisfying career with my money. His wife was simply repeating what has become a common misrepresentation of the theonomic interpretation of this passage.
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