Underhanded characterizations of the Bible have become a cottage industry, capitalizing on a very profitable market for the products and services of the atheistic purveyors of an antipathy that is viciously targeted at Christians. Sam Harris is one example of an individual who relishes every opportunity to maliciously mock what he cynically refers to as the “timeless wisdom” of God. As he irreverently argues in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, “The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book … we must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.” His intentionally gross misrepresentations of the Bible belie any objective endeavor to get at the truth. Moreover, Harris makes absolutely no effort to conceal the central purpose of his book, which he describes in no uncertain terms as a deliberate attempt “to arm secularists in our society” and to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” Those sound like the belligerent fighting words of a hostile man who has gone on the offensive against anyone of religious faith.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Harris and other anti-Christian “big guns” have leveled their provocative charges against the Bible. They have become the new “bitter clingers” and “God-deniers” who with an iron grip hold tightly to a dogma every bit as closed-minded and intolerant as they falsely accuse Christians and conservatives of being. The homosexual Inquisition against Duck Dynasty‘s patriarch Phil Robertson, Fox Sports college football analyst Craig James, former heavy weight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, “The Bachelor” contestant Juan Pablo Galavis, gospel music singer and ex-sodomite Donnie McClurkin, and myriad others provide excellent examples of the metastasizing effect of the virulent anti-God ideology. Considering the accusations of Harris, one of the favorite and often misappropriated Bible verses of the rehashed “new atheism” is found in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which states the following:
“18If 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.”
Interestingly, there is not even a single recorded incident in the Bible of a rebellious prepubescent son ever being executed by stoning in adherence to this law. The absence of any such instance in the Old Testament is quite telling, especially since the Bible does provide several other examples of the strict enforcement of Mosaic Law violations. Moreover, if, as critics are inclined to assert, Deut. 21:18-21 was actually intended to be consistently applied in every case of your typical youthful assertions of independence, then not only would Israel have had numerous sons to bury, there should have also been at least one documented case. But we find nothing of the sort. Such an eye-opening fact obviously reveals to us that there is much more to consider as we attempt to understand the intended function of this punitive statute.
One thing is for sure, the historical context reveals that this passage never pertained to a son who is guilty of nothing more than today’s typical childhood temper tantrum or teenage turbulence. Rather, what it does describe is an extreme and recidivistic pattern of egregious immorality and unrestrained indulgence despite repeated parental reproof. The filial insubordination detailed in this situation would be of such a severe nature that it endangered the societal order and structure that was so crucial to the preservation of Israel’s patriarchal system, especially if such behavior remained unchecked.
First of all, upon closer examination of the text at hand, it must be noted that the son in question is not actually a young child as many Bible-haters deceptively imply. The “drunkard” label combined with rabbinical teachings regarding the age of moral culpability certainly rule out a little boy. In actuality, the descriptions of extreme decadence definitely indicate an individual who is morally accountable for their behavior. Second, there are several components of this verse that prohibit its capricious implementation. The parents, who would obviously have a natural propensity to spare their own child, were the only permitted plaintiffs, and to pass legal muster, the two were required to concur in the complaint. Third, this law also necessitated ratification by the town elders. Thus, the Mosaic Law surpassed the burden of proof that is currently utilized in modern jurisprudence. This explains why a Jewish son was most likely never executed for violating this capital offense, and, as mentioned earlier, helps us understand the absence of any recorded cases. The purpose of such a seemingly harsh regulation was primarily to support the authority of the community elders, indicate the severity of the legal infraction, function as a compelling deterrent, and maintain national cohesiveness. As the biblical record and historical evidence uniformly indicate, the modern knee-jerk portrayal of Deut. 21:18-21 as a draconian Old Testament provision is based upon an intentionally faulty premise. Many countries, past and present, with rudimentary criminal justice systems tend to codify severe penalties for particular unlawful acts, relying upon the strictness of the letter of the law to maintain civil order and discourage injustices from occurring. In practice, however, the sentencing was/is usually quite lenient. Ancient Israel was governed by the same basic principle in order to restrain detrimental behavior despite their limited law enforcement resources.
Old Testament scholar Dr. Walter Kaiser notes that “the key text in this discussion is Num. 35:31: ‘Do not accept a ransom [or substitute] for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death.’ There were some sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty in the Old Testament…[and] only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a ‘ransom’ or a ‘substitute.’ This has widely been interpreted to imply that in all of the other fifteen cases the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a ‘ransom’ or ‘substitute.’ In that case the death penalty served to mark the seriousness of the crime.”
There is additional biblical support for Dr. Kaiser’s conclusion. For example, Exodus 21:29-32 dictated the stoning of an individual if, due to negligence, their ox gored another person to death. However, verse 30 states that “if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded.” Again, in 1 Kings 20:35-43, a disguised and unnamed prophet duped King Ahab into unwittingly declaring his own death sentence for the unwarranted release of Israel’s arch-nemesis at the time, the Syrian King Ben-Hadad (“Your life for his life” v. 39). The exact same verse also illustrates the practice of allowing for the payment of a monetary alternative by which one’s life could be spared (“a talent of silver”). While literally calling for the death sentence, each of these texts also designated financial compensation as a ransom.
Numbers 35:31 clearly presumes that the ransom principle was so widespread in ancient Israel that levitical law had to explicitly prohibit such an option in the case of premeditated murder. No other capital offense in the Bible includes a similar provision. Many of the death penalty laws in the Torah were therefore formulated as a rhetorical device that thwarted immoral and/or anti-social transgressions of God’s commands. The Old Testament Law and the Lawgiver were astonishingly more merciful than the skeptics are prepared to admit. Also keep in mind that it was Jesus who granted a reprieve to a woman condemned to death by stoning for a Judaic capital offense (John 8:1-11). Likewise, this all comports quite well with the following words of God, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23).
Some have wrongly argued that if the Jewish people were not executing their sons as prescribed in Deut. 21:18-21, then this can only mean that they were basically violating the law all throughout the centuries. However, that is absolutely not the case because the Mosaic Law clearly provided for two options, and the vast majority of Israelites presumably chose the less severe of the two legally authorized alternatives. This is no different than the minimum and maximum sentencing guidelines in our modern judicial system. In this instance, to be precise, the Torah provided for a maximum sentence of death or a minimum sentence of paying a ransom.
Another significant point concerns the fact that in the New Testament there was an innocent Son of Israel wrongly accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34), exactly as described in Deut. 21:20. His name was Jesus, and he was gruesomely executed on a cruel Roman cross as a sacrifice on our behalf. Jesus died for our sins that we might receive a pardon and eternal life through faith in him. Regardless of how one interprets Deut. 21:18-21, Jesus ultimately fulfilled the role of being the perfect, archetypal substitute for every rebellious son and daughter, and that includes anyone who is willing to receive His life-transforming gift.
Furthermore, as Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute strongly asserts, “For modern skeptics to claim the moral high ground over the ancient Scriptures is the height of hypocrisy. Rather than the civility of the Mosaic Law, our culture reflects the carnality of Israel’s neighbors who sacrificed their sons and daughters. Indeed, for over three decades Western society has sanctioned the systematic slaughter of children, guilty of nothing more than being unloved.”
Unlike the precautionary and legal protections that are prescribed in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, today’s abortion industry has consistently and zealously fought any type of limitation when it comes to their horrific, infanticidal holocaust, the likes of which is unrivaled in world history. Oddly enough, when people “play God” and capriciously decide who lives or dies, it’s euphemistically called a “choice,” but when God plays God, it’s called a “moral evil.” Such individuals have perpetrated a perilous role reversal by erroneously dethroning God and assigning divine prerogatives to themselves.
A brief review of the other supposed “child-killing” Bible passages reveals the following:
1. Ex. 21:15, 17 – The same basic responses that were given to Deut. 21:18-21 apply in this case as well.
2. Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53, Jer. 19:9 – These scripture verses serve as an extremely serious warning against apostasy. They provide a vivid description of the exact consequences of Israel’s abandonment of God. Numerous prophetic warnings about the removal of God’s hand of protection and ominous threats of militaristic attacks by Israel’s aggressive national neighbors were intended to motivate Israel’s obedience to God. These scriptural citations also depict the shocking behavior of starving individuals confined within the besieged cities of Israel, but in no way, does God ever remotely condone such conduct. Although it is true that after centuries of unrepentant rebellion, foreign powers were divinely appointed to bring devastating judgment upon Israel, but God subsequently punished the ruthless adversaries of the Jewish people for their excessive barbarity and sadistic atrocities (Isa. 47:5-6; Jer. 50-51). And the cannibalistic actions that are described in these texts are eerily evocative of the macabre work of today’s abortion profiteers. Most importantly, everything that happened during the invasions of Israel was foretold and could have been easily avoided by a repentant response to the patient and persistent admonitions of God.
3. Ps. 137:9 – The happy “one/he” who “seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” is not God, but the cruel Medo-Persian conquerors of Babylon. This foreboding warning was issued to the Babylonians, who would receive a punishment that was commensurate with the ruthless brutality that they themselves had earlier inflicted upon Israel and their other vanquished foes. If anything, this passage serves as an indictment of the historically-documented, sadistic brutality of Israel’s adversaries, not God. As hard as it is for some nonbelievers to understand, there are ramifications for rebellion against God, and their petulant protestations notwithstanding, nothing will ever be able to counter that unalterable fact. What they unfortunately fail to acknowledge is the holiness of the one true God who does not tolerate sin.
For those of us who hold to a “natural law” point of view, we believe that individuals who harbor such animosity against the Bible most certainly know in the deepest core of their being that they are wrong about God and his divinely inspired truth. Yet, in an obstinate attempt to justify their immoral lifestyles, they desperately strive to deceive others into accepting their vein-popping notions in what undoubtedly amounts to a vicarious effort to convince themselves and appease their own troubled consciences. The internal struggle between what they know to be true and what they want to be true has essentially made them privately miserable. The coordinated attacks on the Bible by the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Savage, Richard Dawkins, and Bart Ehrman, just to name a few, certainly illustrate the age-old adage first diabolically uttered by Mephistopheles to the soul-peddling Dr. Faustus: “Misery loves company.” And sadly their sin-promoting, malevolent agenda has succeeded in luring many people to join them in their miserable pit of self-absorbed existence. Therefore, it behooves us to inoculate ourselves with the truth so that we do not fall prey to the Dawkinesque anti-God delusion!