Deuteronomy 21.18-21: “Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not listen to the voice of his father or mother. They discipline him, but he does not listen to them. Then his father and mother are to grab hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city—to the gate of his place. They will say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious—he does not listen to our voice. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city are to stone him with stones to death. So you will purge the evil from your midst—and all Israel will hear and be afraid.”
This is a passage that critics love to use to ignore the Bible. But that seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are simply too many insightful life-changing verses that prevent us from discarding the whole book because of one passage (or a few) that throws us for a loop.
What would be your reaction if you heard Dwight Widaman, the publisher of Metro Voice, wants us to take our rebellious and stubborn children to the elders of the city for stoning? I know what I would think. You must have misunderstood. It is not in Dwight’s character to desire that.
As one of my favorite apologists, William Lane Craig proclaimed: “It is impossible to understand a passage of Scripture in isolation, and it is exegetically irresponsible to do so.” Thus, the instructions of Deuteronomy 21:18-21 must be understood in light of the normative expectation of numerous texts stating that godly parents ought to love and take care of their children.
This passage emphasizes individual responsibility for one’s own actions and highlights the principle of justice. God’s instructions were given to guide His people in righteous living, and disobeying these instructions had the potential for serious consequences.
It seems this Deuteronomy 21 passage was meant as a deterrent to children. We know there is no example in Scripture of the elders stoning a child. So, it seems the deterrent was incredibly effective. With such a punishment hanging over their heads, either the children cleaned up their act, or the elders, after hearing the evidence, determined that a stoning was not appropriate. As the last line of the passage notes, the children were “afraid.” This fear helped to deter rebellion and maintain order within the community.
Mentioning a harsh penalty seems to be used in Scripture to point out the significance of sin and to serve as a deterrent. Two other examples come to mind that illustrate this. Instructing us to gouge out our own eye if causes us to sin (Matthew 18:9) and to cut off our hand if it causes us to sin. (Matthew 5:30)
Some commentaries state that the passage is not meant to be taken literally as a command to stone disobedient children to death. Instead, it may be understood as a metaphor or symbolic language to emphasize the seriousness of rebellion and the importance of parental authority.
Before using this passage to harshly judge God or His Word, we must consider the incredible love and mercy of God expressed throughout Scripture. We know that the will of the Father is that none should perish but ALL have everlasting life. (2 Peter 3:19). We do not get what we deserve because of God’s unending mercy. Scripture is filled with 100’s of examples of God’s incredible love and mercy, but critics often jump on a few verses taken out of context of the entire Bible.
Here are a few more examples of the love and mercy of God:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Jeremiah 31:3
“God is love.” 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16
“…his steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 138:26
“…love one another: just as I have loved you” John 13:34-35
“But God was rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us. Even when we were dead in our trespasses, He made us alive together with Messiah. (By grace you have been saved!) Ephesians 2:4
The well-known parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31) expresses God’s heart towards rebellious children—forgiving them, welcoming them back with open arms, and celebrating their return. This parable depicts the stark contrast of God’s unconditional merciful love to the grim stoning notion from Deuteronomy.
In one of my favorite Scriptures, Jesus tells those about to stone the woman caught in adultery: “He who has no sin, cast the 1st stone.” (John 8:7)
We might misjudge a loving parent if we only heard them say to their rowdy child “if you don’t stop that right now, you’re done for!” Similarly, it can be easy to get a skewed view of God’s character by looking at one verse in isolation. When viewed through the entirety of Scripture, however, we get a clear portrait of a loving Father who cares deeply for our well-being—and yes, deters us from dangerous behavior. God loves us so much He wants to make sure as children we are not rebellious because He knows our eternal salvation could be dependent upon it.
This article originally appeared here and is reposted with permission.