How Orthodox Jews read tough Bibical passages: Part II —The case of the rebellious son

How Orthodox Jews read tough Bibical passages: Part II —The case of the rebellious son August 29, 2018

This post is the next installment in what will hopefully be a series on traditional Jewish interpretations of tough biblical passages. Today’s issue is the “Law of the Rebellious Son.” Here is the complete Biblical passage below:

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.”
(Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Sounds pretty harsh. According to the passage, a son who falls into both of the following categories:
1. Rebellious and stubborn
2. A drunkard and a glutton

deserves to be put to death.

When Christians (especially Protestants) read passages like this, they are often tempted to wave them away as examples of the “harsh Old Law” that was fulfilled by Christ. Indeed, Christians say, the very harshness of these laws indicates how impossible it is for anyone to actually follow the law, and thus how much we really need grace. Jews, as it might be expected, approach morally problematic Biblical laws with a different perspective.

The most important teaching about this law in rabbinic Judaism comes from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) and is striking in its bold simplicity: “[the law of a rebellious son] never happened and never will happen. Why then was this law written? — That you may study it and receive reward.”

The rabbis came to this surprising conclusion after offering numerous interpretations of the Biblical verses that radically qualify and limit the cases in which this law could be applied.

For example, just a couple pages earlier, the Talmud says this law would only apply to a boy aged 13 years of age, because we know from elsewhere that minors are exempt from all Biblical commandments and punishments.

Additionally, the Bible says the son must be a drunkard and a glutton. But who qualifies as a drunkard or a glutton? A glass of wine a day, a three martini lunch, or is it totally up to the parents? The Talmud steps in and declares that a rebellious son must consume an enormously vast quantity of wine and meat in order to qualify as a drunkard or a glutton.

Finally, in a reasonable interpretation of the Biblical verses, the Talmud (in that same section I mentioned earlier) states that a rebellious son can only get the death penalty if both his father and his mother agree to bring him before the city elders to be tried.

This requirement is ironically egalitarian, given that in other ancient societies the father/head of the house was the one with supreme authority to do anything he wished to his children. In Rome, the “pater familias” had an absolute right over the life and death of his children. On the other hand, the Bible is relatively egalitarian, commanding that mothers be included in this decision making process.

That innovation also has another important effect. Including mothers also limits the odds that the son will actually be killed. Because indeed, what are the odds that a mom will agree to kill her own child? Perhaps that very point is what tipped off the rabbis of the Talmud that this law on the books is meant to teach us general, abstract lessons and values as opposed to being intended to be practically implemented in daily life.

So in a strange twist, the law of the rebellious son actually shows that the Bible wanted to limit the power of parents over their children. It does that by requiring parents to bring their child to the elders of the city, and has them ultimately decide the case. Parents do not have a right to deal with their children as they please, and the Bible protects the rights of children against excessive abuses by parents. That’s why the elders, cool headed and wise, are tasked with deciding the case. They will probably find a reason not to kill the child, and convince the parents to pursue a different course of action.

So what can we learn from this law? Based on all that I wrote, maybe it has two messages for two different audiences:
1. parents
2. male teenagers.

For parents, the message is that you don’t own your children. You can’t just punish them in your backyard without a trial; they’re people too and have all the rights everyone else does. And maybe that very attitude of treating your kid as your personal property is what made him become bad in the first place! It’s the authoritarian parents who end up with rebellious sons.

For male teenagers, the message is to be careful. You think your disobedience and drinking is cool and part of becoming independent, but it’s also risky and dangerous. Repeatedly refusing to listen to your parents while at the same time engaging in binge drinking and reckless partying is a recipe for future disaster. Read this passage, understand that the path you’re on is self destructive, and change course before it’s too late!

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  • Christine Orich

    In the New Testament, Luke and Matthew write that Jesus was referred to as a ‘glutton and a drunkard.’ Mt 11:19; Lk 7:34. So, in light of your post, a rebellious son whose case is to be tried to the elders. Cool.

  • Christine Orich

    Continuing on my train of thought (and going way off on a tangent wrt your post), but Jesus was not brought in front of the elders but rather “the crowd.” So who was in the crowd? Suppose it was mostly the Sadducees, who favored a more literal interpretation of the Torah (or so I’ve heard). What if his fate were decided solely by the Pharisees, from whom the sages of the Talmud descended, in terms of approach (as I understand it)?

  • Christine Orich

    Also, as a non-Jew new to all of this, the Talmud kind of seems like a body of case law, in which the biblical laws are interpreted and applied. Is there a concept of stare decisis, or is there a hierarchy among the sages? Or are varying positions offered up by the sages mainly for debate without authoritative resolution? This would seem in contrast to the Vatican, where, if there is any debate among the clergy about how to interpret a writing promulgated by the Vatican, those debates are not accessible to the lay people – rather catholics are supposed to accept the catechism without question.

  • Steven

    Excellent question!! And I think that’s a good characterization of the Talmud.

    This topic gets deep very quickly. I think there are some great books on Jewish jurisprudence that give
    your question more of the lengthy attention it deserves. If I can
    recall some good references I will message you. There’s a very cool new
    book coming out next week (!) by Prof. Chaim Saiman called “Halakhah:
    The Rabbinic Idea of Law” that is not exactly responsive to your
    question, but it’s close enough and I think you’d probably enjoy it.

    One feature of Jewish law is historical transition from the centralized supreme court in Israel (the Sanhedrin) to a more decentralized life in exile. Legal authority became more decentralized as well. The Sanhedrin could potentially overrule earlier decisions (so writes Maimonides). Post-Sanhedrin, although you will generally not see a later (Orthodox) Jewish authority “overturning” earlier accepted legal rulings, instead you will see a plethora of disagreements about interpretation and application. Disagreements from an earlier period may linger on and never be fully resolved. Different communities develop traditions following one or the other view — but all may be considered within the pale of legitimate Halakha, if there was a respected authority as the source for each tradition.

  • Christine

    Thanks very much! So then, how does one become a ‘respected authority’ such that his/her(?) traditions and interpretations can be considered within the Halakha?

    I found the online introduction to Prof. Saiman’s new book, which you suggested, very engaging and enlightening. I’m looking forward to continuing that read.

  • Steven

    “how does one become a ‘respected authority’…”?

    Academia (“the Academy”) is a decent analogy, I think. Established scholars recognize new peers, and so on. Publications, and their critical reception by peers, are important.

    Some publications became so widespread — so heavily referenced by others and relied upon in further scholarship — that their impact on Halacha was truly profound and lasting. Examples include these classic halakhic codes/restatements: Maimonides (his Mishneh Torah), Arba Turim, and the Shulchan Aruch,