1824) Don’t Get Stoned (part one of three)

   

The elders at the city gate.

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  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, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town.  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.”  Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.  –Deuteronomy 21:18-21a

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     Do you like that passage?  Neither do I.

     Our ninth grade confirmands will soon select their Confirmation Day Bible verse for their Confirmation service in May.  In all my years of ministry, I don’t recall anyone ever selecting this verse to be their Confirmation Day Bible verse.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever before quoted this passage for anything, anywhere.  I have always known it was there, but this is a passage that needs some explaining, and I never had an explanation.  It has always seemed a little harsh to me.

     That doesn’t mean these verses are never used.  These verses are often brought out by those who want to ridicule, mock, and discredit the Bible.  This passage (and others like it) are quoted, and then it is said that no one would ever do such a thing because it is so obviously wrong.  Who is going to have their son put to death for disobedience?  Therefore, the mockers say, the Bible is hopelessly outdated and cannot be trusted for anything else either.  Case closed.  These verses have often been used by those who want to create doubts about the Bible.

     Long ago I learned to live without knowing all the answers to all my questions about the Bible, because there are some bigger over-arching truths that provide a larger context.  I will get to that later.  This is one of those verses that has remained troubling, and, one that I never looked into.  Until this past week; and then what I learned answered my troubling questions.

     As is often the case, the key is in understanding the context.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is describing how the people should live together as a new nation in the Promised Land which they are about to enter.  His words, therefore, are spoken into an already existing society; one that was filled with savage and ruthless injustices that were just taken for granted.  Life in most ancient societies was brutal, especially for slaves, and the Hebrews were just emerging from centuries of slavery.  As you recall from earlier in that same story, when Pharaoh thought the male population of slaves was getting too large, he just issued a decree that all baby boys should be thrown into the Nile River and drowned.  Rulers could, and often did do that sort of thing.  What you may not know, is that in the ancient world fathers usually had that same absolute rule over their family, even to the point of being able to kill a disobedient child, with no questions asked and without accountability to any other authority.

     So actually, what we have in this passage is the brand new addition of the legal right to due process for the protection of a son from an abusive father (if that is what was going on).  The father is required to take the son before the elders, where it is implied that they would make a fair judgment.  The verse just says that the son will be stoned, but one of the duties of the elders at the gate was to hear and judge these matters.  That is why the verse commands that the son be brought there, implying that this would be for a fair hearing.

     But, you might say, the elders could pronounce the death sentence and that is still pretty awful.  In theory, yes, that could have happened.  But there is not one recorded instance in the Old Testament of this ever happening, even though there are many stories of rebellious sons.  The most famous was Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, who caused trouble right from the start.  Absalom eventually was disobedient to the point of conspiring against his own father, taking the kingdom away from him, driving his father from the capital city, and sitting on David’s throne.  But even then, David did not want his son Absalom killed, but told his loyal generals to be careful not to kill Absalom, even in battle, but bring him back alive.  When Absalom was killed in battle, David was deeply grieved, even wishing that he himself could have died instead.  It is clear that this Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 21, which sounds so primitive and harsh to our ears, was already having the effect of softening the brutality of life in the ancient world.

    I tell you this as an example of how doubts are created, and what we should do when we have doubts about our faith.  Doubts can come from unanswered questions, and you have probably noticed there are a lot of unanswered questions in this life.  I grew up in the 1960’s when the revolutionary spirit proclaimed ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty,’ ‘question authority’ and then ‘question everything else.’  Of course, we should encourage questioning.  That is how we learn and grow.  But for many in the 60’s that came to mean not only question, but also throw out everything and start over, creating a new world built on the solid foundation of ‘drugs, sex, and Rock and Roll.’  Our society today staggers under the profound loss of authority, morality, and stability since that crazy time.  (continued…)

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“Everybody must get stoned…”  –Bob Dylan, 1966 song Rainy Day Women.

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II Samuel 18:33  —  The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went, he said:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you.  O Absalom, my son, my son!”