A Rioter and a Drunkard: A Look at Deuteronomy 21:18-21

It doesn’t take long for any discussion about God’s Law for society to focus upon specific case laws in the Old Testament. While parallel to the discussion of the general validity of God’s civil Law, discussions about specific laws are usually dealing with slightly different questions and presuppositions. When those who disagree with the general validity of God’s civil Law for today bring up a specific case law, it is sometimes done to say, “See, look at this law. Are we really supposed to follow this today? Your position would advocate putting to death rebellious children!”

Those who use specific case laws as an argument against the general validity of God’s civil law are clearly revealing an antipathy to the case laws of the Old Testament. Rather than delighting in God’s statutes (Psalm 119:16), it seems they are resisting them. Others, however, may just be so used to a “separation of state and religion” mindset that they have a hard time accepting God’s Law as the standard for society. I hope to briefly address this issue as it relates to the case law concerning a rebellious son found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

To begin with, the text:

18 If any man have a son that is stubborn and disobedient, which will not hearken unto the voice of his father, nor the voice of his mother, and they have chastened him, and he would not obey them, 19 Then shall his father and his mother take him, and bring him out unto the Elders of his city, and unto the gate of the place where he dwelleth, 20 And shall say unto the Elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and disobedient, and he will not obey our admonition: he is a rioter, and a drunkard. 21 Then all the men of his city shall stone him with stones unto death: so thou shalt take away evil from among you, that all Israel may hear it, and fear. (Deuteronomy 21, GNV)

Before delving into this text, I would like you to consider your initial reaction. Did you find yourself rejoicing in God’s good Law for his creation? Did you see this law as a wonderful act of mercy by God to preserve society and protect the family unit? Or, on the other hand, did you bristle at this command? Perhaps you had a mixed reaction. Whatever the case, my goal, despite my personal feelings, is to line up my thoughts with God’s Word, not with what a pluralistic society accepts. Just be aware of your reaction and consider what presuppositions you are bringing to the text.

So what is this text all about? Is this text advocating capital punishment for a son who defied a command to clean up his room? Is this text saying society should execute a son who doesn’t mow the lawn or milk the family cow when instructed to? Despite the fact that such sins are worthy of eternal death (cf. Exodus 20:12; Romans 1:29-31), that is not what this verse is talking about. (If, however, that was what God’s Word said, I would accept it because God’s Word is my authority, not autonomous reasoning. However, the Bible does not command execution for simple disobedience to parents.)

The first thing to note from verse 18 is that we are dealing with a son who is characterized as being stubborn and disobedient. The parents have “chastened him” consistently. Unlike many parents today who hate their children and spare the rod of discipline (Proverbs 13:24), these parents actually love their son and have been disciplining and chastening their son for years (a toddler cannot be “a rioter and a drunkard”). Parents who love their children, and more importantly their God, will not spare the rod. They will consistently and persistently discipline their son for disobedience. Despite that loving discipline, this son has rebelled not only against his parents, but against God. He has become a rioter and a drunkard.

The Hebrew word for rioter is zalal. It is used in the Proverbs in reference to a glutton (23:20-21, 28:7). It is also translated “vile” in Jeremiah 15:19. It describes a man who is worthless and abhorrent, lacking in all modesty and morality. Likewise a drunkard is one who lacks decency and the ability to control his passions. He is a slave to alcohol and destructive to the family and society. This man is a rioting drunkard who will not heed his parents’ godly admonition (v. 20). The weight of these sins (disobedience, stubbornness, riotousness, drunkenness, hardheartedness) is enough for God to command the society to execute such a destructive son.

Consider next the procedure advocated in verses 19-21. It is not the parents who execute their son. The appointed civil leaders/magistrates (in this case, the elders of the city), are the ones who “bear the sword” (cf. Rom. 13:4). These civil magistrates are to, according to God’s Word, make “diligent inquisition” to ascertain every case brought before them (cf. Deut. 17:4, 19:18). Parents have no authority from God to execute a riotous, rebellious son.

Ponder also the reason given for such a penalty in verse 21: “So thou shalt take away the evil from among you, that all Israel may hear it, and fear.” First and foremost, such a son is evil and an abomination to God. Any society that seeks to honor God will honor His Laws. For the glory of God, evil must be punished in accord with God’s Law. Secondly, this punishment is for the good of the society. Riotous drunkards are immensely destructive to society. Unfortunately, most parents today do not discipline their children (in which case, such a law would be so foreign as to be absurd to them). However, in a God-honoring society, such a civil punishment would cause others to fear and order their life according to God’s Word. This of course reminds us of one of the three uses of the Law the Reformers spoke of. The Law serves to keep sin and evil at bay in society. However, if God’s Law is maligned, as it is today, such a purpose falls by the wayside.

Consider also the faithfulness of the parents. These parents love their God, their community, their family, and their son too much to ignore such a good law. What would their negligence toward God in regards to this law demonstrate to their other children? In our individualistic, narcissistic age we tend to think of everything in reference to ourselves. We forget that our children will either bless or curse others. Parents who faithfully discipline their son for years, only to have him become a riotous, destructive drunkard, ought to continue to obey God by following the civil law as it applies to their evil son. In our society, we are not blessed with a civil magistrate that honors God’s Law. Of course, such a change in laws will only come about when the people voluntarily embrace God’s Law as good and just. However, getting professing Christians to even accept God’s Law, let alone embrace it, is like pulling teeth at times.

In summary, this text presents a loving law for the glory of God and good of society. Only a parent who truly loves God and loves his son (demonstrated by not sparing the rod) would have the strength to do what honors God by giving his son over to the magistrate for the just application of the sword. Such a commitment to the glory of God is sorely lacking in the Church today.

Now, let’s consider the real issue here. Despite what the Bible says about God’s Law as being good and just (Rom. 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8), and the clear reason for such a law found within the text itself, some people still insist that this law is not to be followed by societies today. Do we have a basis for rejecting God’s Law here? (Furthermore, why would we wantto?)

If we say that God’s Law is not our standard for civil punishments, then what standard are we going to use? On what basis can we say any civil execution in unjust? For example, let’s say a state decides that the crime of theft if punishable by death. On what basis could we say this is wrong? Unless we appeal to God’s Law, we cannot. If God’s Law is abandoned when it comes to civil punishments, there is no longer any basis to distinguish between murder and capital punishment. To abandon the Law of God in civil matters, and appeal to an arbitrary standard, gives every civil government a free pass to execute any sort of criminal they wish. That is tyranny.

The problem with insisting on some sort of “natural law” instead of God’s revealed Law is that it erroneously posits two contradictory standards. God does not give one standard in His Law and then another standard “through nature.” The “law of nature” cannot be from God if it is contradictory to God’s revealed Law.

But what’s really at the heart of this? Given the fact that the Bible describes the law in Deuteronomy 21:19-21 as good and just and holy, why are so many Christians reluctant to say, “That’s a good, just law”? Perhaps it is because we have elevated the zeitgeist above God’s Law: “Our ‘modern’ society is far too civilized to put adulterers or practicing homosexuals too death.” Actually, if we were using God’s Law as our standard, we would say that our society is too sinful to follow God’s Law. The most troubling aspect of this is that Christians think God’s Law is harsh—they relegate the civil laws of the Old Testament to a bygone era of extremism and severity. This understanding fails to embrace the biblical understanding of God’s Law:

To say that the penal sanctions of the Old Testament are “too severe” for a period of “common grace” is to overlook at least two important points: (1) Israel of old enjoyed God’s common grace (at least as defined in Gen. 8:22), and was still required to enforce His law, and (2) God’s political laws serve to preserve the outward order and justice of a civilization and thus are a sign of God’s “common grace”—rather than detracting from common grace. If “common grace” really conflicts with God’s law, then the critic will need to demonstrate that what he means by “common grace” is actually taught in Scripture and logically implies the law’s abrogation. This has yet to be done. The parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) teaches that the general execution of unrighteous unbelievers awaits the Final Judgment, not that civil magistrates ought never to execute those individuals guilty of civil crimes (more specific than general unbelief)—or else there would be no penal sanction of death (even for murder), and the specific purpose of the state (the power of the “sword”) would vanish. (By This Standard, Greg Bahnsen, p. 234)

To set aside God’s Law for civil magistrates is to adopt a smorgasbord approach to civil punishments. As Dr. Bahnsen also noted, “Those who restrict the validity of the Old Testament law to Israel may not realize it, but their philosophic outlook is that of ‘cultural relativism,’ where what counts as justice is adjusted from culture to culture.”

If execution is not the just and proper civil punishment for a rebellious son who is a riotous drunkard, then what is? Any alternative answer you give will be outside the realm of God’s Law. In fact, if you reject God’s Law for society, you have no basis to say that a child should not be put to death for a far less serious crime. The choice is clear: God’s Law or tyranny. I pray the magistrates govern according to God’s good Law, not their own arbitrary opinions.

Why is it that one person can look at the Law of God in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and say, “What a good, just, and loving law given for the good of society and glory of God,” and another person can look at the same law and say, “This is harsh, strict, and severe. I am glad we are not living in a society like that”? The difference is a different standard concerning what is good. I’ll agree that if we abandon God’s Law and embrace “current consensus,” then this law is harsh. But I will not elevate man’s autonomous thinking above God’s holy and just Law. I hope you won’t either.

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