A stubborn child

A lot of our conversations around church the last few weeks have been about how troubling the Old Testament can sometimes be. And it’s true; when we hear stories of wholesale slaughter and violence, we are easily – and rightfully – put off. But I want to complicate things a little bit, and offer another reason why reading these (sometimes terrible) stories might be very good for us, and speak directly to us in ways we don’t often like.

One of the most alarming passages we’ve so far read was this one, from chapter twenty-one of Deuteronomy:

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town . . . and say, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all of the mean of the town shall stone him to death.”

Yikes. I know what you’re thinking, because I think it too: What sort of people were these Israelites? Now read this:

“If a man have a stubborn or rebellious son of sufficient years and understanding (namely, at least sixteen years of age) which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shall his Father and Mother being his natural parents, lay hold on him and bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court and testify unto them, that their son is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes; such a son shall be put to death.”

This is the Massachusetts Stubborn Child Law, instituted by the Bay Colony in 1646 and subsequently in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, all in the late seventeenth century. Not an ancient culture three thousand years ago. Our culture, only three hundred years ago. And if that’s not too close for comfort yet, get this: this law remained valid Massachusetts law until 1973. So not even three hundred years ago. Forty years ago. Probably during your life time you lived in a land where punishment by death was a legally authorized form of parenting.

There are a couple of conclusions I think we can and should draw from this. I’d imagine that somebody looking over our books in three thousand years and seeing this particular law will think something like what we think when we read it in Deuteronomy: they’ll imagine we were a pretty barbaric culture, that we routinely and gruesomely murdered disobedient children. But of course we never did. This law was never carried to its end. I daresay that for most people during the majority of the time this law was on the books here in Massachusetts, the idea itself was entirely reprehensible. So, I think it’s fair to assume that sometimes what’s written in the books doesn’t tell the whole story. People are people, and my guess is that ancient Israelites loved their kids just like we love ours, and that their kids drove them crazy then just like our kids drive us crazy today. I daresay very few – if any – ancient Israelites ever actually acted upon this law, just like few New Englanders ever did (no children were ever put to death under this law, though many were sent to prison).

ImagePilgrim parenting

So here’s where things get kind of tricky for us: if what’s written down doesn’t tell the whole story, then how do we figure out what the story really is? What do you think is the real story in this case? If parents didn’t actually want to kill their children – which they didn’t in Massachusetts at least, because no parents ever did kill their children because of this law – then why write this down in the first place?My guess is that the threat of punishment is what parents wanted most of all. Maybe if you could threaten your troubled child with something extreme, you might get through to them. This is probably not the best parenting either, but at least it’s a lot less horrifying than murder. And anyway, we can see how recognizing what’s really going on demands looking a bit deeper than the words on the page.

So part of the task of reading the bible is reading between the lines. Another example is the frequent and repeated command of God in these books to slaughter all the inhabitants of Canaan, leaving no man, woman, or child alive, and to slaughter any worshiper of another god. Again: yikes. (By the way, I could easily link some contemporary Christian comments about Islam that – while perhaps not advocating wholesale slaughter – are not much different. So again, we should be cautious of throwing stones in our glass Church.) But let me read between the lines of the Old Testament a little bit here for you.

Based upon historical records of contemporaneous kingdoms and archaeological studies, scholars believe that the nation of Israel developed somewhat differently than the way it is described in the story we’ve read so far. Probably, a small band of slaves escaped Egypt in the time of Ramses. Maybe some chariots chased them and got bogged down in the mud, and so the slaves made it north to the land of Canaan. Not a miracle like the dividing of the Red Sea, mind you, but to those slaves it was miracle enough. So a story was born, and began to grow. This band of folks wandered around Canaan, trying to survive. Gradually, the met and mingled with the people already living there, the Canaanites. Over a few centuries, these people – the escaped slaves and the people of the land whom the slaves gradually came to live alongside – became indistinguishable from one another. They probably carried different traditions but they shared communities and those traditions mixed into each other quite a bit too. As the population of the region grew, the politics of a new kingdom developed and eventually a particular family from around Jerusalem, the House of David, came to power and began to consolidate power. From these many, diverse tribes and peoples, it established a kingdom. Still, for many, many years after David, people were diverse in their religion, practices, customs, traditions, etc.

Then in around 600 BC, a man named Josiah became king. (If you went to the lecture we had on the bible before Easter, you might remember Josiah). Josiah, as I said, came to power in a diverse kingdom, widespread and not very unified. He was threatened by other nations around his borders. So he decided that, in order to retain his own power within his kingdom and to project power to his neighboring kingdoms, his people had to be more unified. They needed to be one people, with one religion, and one political and religious authority. So they initiated a reform. No more worshiping other gods, only one temple for one God in Josiah’s hometown of Jerusalem. What a coincidence, then, that his priests discovered the book of Deuteronomy in the Jerusalem temple, a text supposedly written by Moses himself! And what a stunning, second coincidence that this discovered book advocated exactly all the reforms Josiah wanted to implement!

Actually, scholars believe Josiah’s priests wrote the book and claimed they found it in order to serve exactly the interests their king Josiah wanted served. At the time, Israelites were a mix of ethnicities, they claimed lots of casual ancestries. But Josiah said: No, you are one people. We didn’t intermingle and mix with all those others. We eradicated them. God told us to. According to Moses, you are one people. With one God (and one king). We inhabited this land entirely, it is ours.

At the time, Israelites worshiped many gods, the gods of the Canaanites with whom they’d come to live, and Yawheh too. But Josiah said: No, you have one God (and again, one king). We have never worshiped any other and any one who does is a traitor. Our religion is about one God. All the other temples and gods are false.

The Israelites had not warred their way into Canaan, or at least not primarily. But there were now nations near Judah pressing upon its borders. War was looming. Israel had difficult relations with nearby kingdoms with names you might recognize like Ammon and Moab and Edom. So Josiah said: No, we are a powerful people, who took this land by force and have the power to do it again. The history Josiah generated made what had primarily been a peaceful little nation look like an invincible, ruthless force. This gave the people confidence, and perhaps gave rival nearby kingdoms some pause. Remember, there was no official history at the time, no history books, no rival accounts. It would have been fairly easy for Josiah and his advisers to parlay this story among the people.

In other words, it’s not likely that most of the egregious acts of genocide that we read in this book were actually ever committed. There were certainly wars and conflicts, just as there always are, but the level of slaughter here documented is not probable given the archaeological and historical evidence. If we look between the lines, what we’re reading here is not the story of a people commanded by God to do terrible things, but the story of a people readily willing to take God’s name in vain in the name of questionable things like greed and power and corruption and conflict.

Sound familiar? I hope so, because if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s our story too. We have done and continue to do a lot of bad stuff in God’s name, or at least to use God as our excuse. We moderns are as greedy and power hungry and corrupt and belligerent as any of our ancestors have ever been. And guess what: the stories we tell about ourselves usually cast us in a very nice light. When we tell our own stories, God usually ends up on our side, doesn’t he? It’s okay to be troubled by the content of the Old Testament, but I’d caution against condemning the ancient Israelites too much, of seeing them as somehow less civilized or rational or moral than good old us. First of all, because it’s historically probably just not the case. But more importantly, because if we do we miss what I believe is the fundamental message of all of scripture.

If we’re not learning an accurate history, then why read the Old Testament at all? Because there is a deep truth hidden between and behind these lines, I think. Even if we don’t accept all the history, it still becomes clear that the people of Israel were conflicted and stubborn and difficult and greedy and complicated – as well as devout and generous and kind at times too. In other words, they were just like us. And as stubborn a child as Israel was, God chose them, just like God has chosen us as children too. We are broken vessels, stubborn children, and yet we are the ones who have been asked to carry’s God’s goodness into this world. That means we’ll fail at times, just the God’s people have always failed at times (scan any page of Deuteronomy for evidence). But our repeated and inevitable failure does not change the fact that we still belong to God. We didn’t earn God’s favor because we were holy, and so we won’t lose it because we’re not. We didn’t cause God’s election by doing right, and God will still love us when we do wrong. Which is good news, because we will do a lot of wrong in our lives. This is good news – in fact, it’s THE Good News. It’s what the whole book is about.

This is the takeaway from the Old Testament: sinners and weaklings and doubters and cowards are the ones God has chosen to be the broken vessels of his goodness. And there isn’t a better message for God’s people to remember, three thousand years ago, three hundred years ago, and today.

Happy reading,



4 thoughts on “A stubborn child

  1. So, Matt, what’s all this about covenants? Did God give up on them? Did they ever exist and what meaning do they have for the new testament and how we believe in JC? Additionally, I am giving thought to what life like at that time. I imagine some people were fairly worldly and sophisticated. How was it that nocturnal emissions would have been viewed unclear or sinful? Where would this have been discussed? Did they have psychologist – seasoned? How would they have know? From confessions? Or self experience of the priest? Funny, but sad for would happens to a woman interceding on her husband behalf during a fight with another man,should she grab the testicles of her husband’s challenger. Hands cut off for defending? Yikes! These kinds of manifestations make me wonder who wrote the bible and might it have been a form of control out of greed or … Maybe I am a little silly even if there seems to be nothing new under the sum.


    P.S. I do not expect an answer but just letting you know that my mind isn’t idle when reading even if much of it can be dull.

    • Hi Ambrose. So, I don’t know if you read the earlier post about how sin was understood at the time, but here’s a short answer to the emissions question. Christians today tend to think of sin in moral or psychological terms. I did something immoral, and so I sinned. But for ancient Israelites, it had more to do with being ritually clean or unclean. There wasn’t as much of a moralistic component to sin. So, a menstruating woman or a person who’d come in contact with a dead body or a man who had had a ‘nocturnal emission’ wasn’t sinful in our sense, he was unclean in a ritual sense – before approaching God, they had to clean up. Kind of like you put on a nice shirt before going to church. That’s probably too trivial an analogy, this was more crucial than that, but you get my drift. Clean and unclean were different than moral or immoral. So it wasn’t like these things made a person evil or impure. On the contrary, becoming unclean was just a part of living.

      So when you see the words ‘impure’ or ‘unclean,’ they’re usually refering to this specific, ritual sense. There are moral commands, too – prototypically, the ten commandments, but the one about grabbing testicles or the one I talked about in this entry which endorses the killing of stubborn children. It’s harder to say what was going on here. Certainly, the culture was less tolerant and more draconian than ours. But the gist of today’s post is that it’s also not necessarily true that all or even a large portion of these laws were ever significantly enforced – sort of like the Massachusetts stubborn child law. Something else was going on.

      As for covenant: I referred to that in an earlier post too, but not at great length. The word for covenant in Hebrew is ‘berit’ which has several related meanings, but was most often used to indicate a treaty between sovereigns or between sovereign nations. If two warring nations made peace, they would make a covenant. Or if one nation became a vassal state to another, there would be a covenant. Yahweh makes five covenants with the people in the bible: The Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic covenants, and then the new covenant in Christ. The Noahic covenant, the one with Noah, is when God promises he will never send another flood. The Abrahamic is when God promises that childless Abraham will father nations. The Mosaic is about deliverance from Egypt, the Davidic is about establishing the House of David. The new covenant in Christ is that we are redeemed in Jesus.

      So, a straightforward way to think about it is that these are just the promises God has made in scripture. But the covenant language can be helpful because, in the Old Testament, the covenant – like any treaty – is usually a two way street. I scratch your back you scratch mine. E.g., if you keep my commandments, I will deliver you. (Although the Noahic covenant is an exception here – God promises never again to destroy creation without condition.) And this tit-for-tat treaty structure is one the prophets will use to explain why bad things were happening to Israel. If the Assyrians massacred them in a battle, the prophets would say, ‘Look! We broke the covenant! We weren’t keeping the commandments well enough! That’s why God let us be defeated!’

      The thing about the new covenant in Christ, though, is that it’s completely one-sided. Sort of like the Noahic covenant, all the mercy and promise comes from God. It is a free gift, not an exchange. God makes promises to us he will always keep, no matter how bad we are at keeping our promises to God.

      Hope this was helpful. I wish I could say my mind was never idle while reading the bible . . . some of these passages can get rather long . . . .

      • Matt – thank you for taking time out of what must be a busy and sometimes hectic daily grind to respond to my questions. I have taken time to visti in some cases for the first time and re-visit in others your eariler post. I had missed the one on sin, uncleaness and ritualistic requirement. There is much more going on with my thoughts than concern for idelness. I find myself challenged around cocepts such as devine inspiration, devine inspired scripture and leaving things opern for interpretation. Is our faith, trust, belief that of an innocent child vs. is it arrogant to question that that is devinely inspired. Does man speak for God or do we trust and believe that God speaks through man (in gerneric sense not gender)? What’s real?
        You now have me wanted to give serious thought to how we view ritual in the evolutionary approach to understanding animal behaviour and its causation …
        Again, thank you and I can only imagine what it might would be like to examine our humaness from theological perspective , let alone, ‘I got religion’ practice. All the very best Professor, Potts.

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