Crime and punishment is so complex, messy and often frustrating. The third season of the podcast Serial does an excellent job exploring the nuances of the criminal justice, as seen through the lens of Cleveland, Ohio. It likely comes as no surprise to you that we humans have a conflicted history of dealing with crime. In this series on Deuteronomy 21 it has been no different for the ancient nation of Israel. Through it all we have seen God’s heart for purity. Even when a crime is committed and they don’t know who the guilty party is, Israel still needs to atone for it. Purity in the land, and purity in his people is vital before God.
This theme continues in verses 18-21. Here again we have another one of those passages that is hard for us to hear with our modern sensibilities. Parents were to take extremely disobedient kids to the town elders, who will stone them to death. Whew!
I think it is important to note that this is not just a regularly disobedient kid. We all can remember when we were kids and didn’t do what our parents wanted us to do. How many of you have stories? I do. There was the time my parents gave me 50 cents before church one Sunday. I was to put it in a Sunday School class offering. But I kept it in my pocket instead of putting it in the offering plate. After church, my family went home, and at some point that afternoon, I went outside to play. I waited a few minutes, came back inside, and told my parents I found two quarters on the sidewalk! I then asked if I could go around the corner to the local convenience store to buy a pack of baseball cards. In high school I once lied to them about which movie I was going to see with some friends, and at the theater, the whole way through I couldn’t enjoy the movie because I felt so awful. Maybe you know what I mean.
That is disobedience, but it was not all out rebellion. What we are reading here in Deuteronomy 21 is all out rebellion. It’s not just a few instances, or even a lot of disobedience. It is far worse, and there is no stopping it. Also, we read that it involves drinking and drunkenness. So we’re not talking about a child, but at the youngest, a teenager, and perhaps more likely a young adult. The word “profligate” is used to describe this person, and that is not a word I use much or hear much. The Hebrew word used there is sometimes translated “gluttonous”, sometimes translated “despicable.” It refers to a person who is out of control. So this is way more than disobedient. This is a criminal. The person is not just disrespecting or disobeying their parents, but all of society. And the punishment is death.
Again I say, Whew. Death? The ultimate punishment! The death penalty. Like the war passages we studied in the previous series, it is hard to know how to react to this. Isn’t there some other way to respond than the death penalty? Is there a possibility for rehabilitation? Why such decisive, final action? We know that God dearly values human life, but here we have an instance where he commands them to take life away. Is God inconsistent?
When compared to the holy war passage we studied last week, this command to give the death penalty to a profligate son is entirely consistent. Last week we saw God’s heart to keep Israel pure by eradicating the land of nations that were declared evil. That was evil outside Israel. Here God is purging the evil from within. God wants purity in the land.
Take a look at that last statement in verse 21. He says that when they give rebellious people the death penalty, it will serve as a deterrent for the rest of the nation. Implied in this command is that other people will be afraid, and thus those others will want to be pure.
We hear these kinds of arguments made for the use of the death penalty in our nation, that it removes evil and provides a deterrent for others, supposedly motivating them to be pure. As with the disagreement about war, there is among Christians major disagreement about the death penalty, and about crime and punishment in general. In any church, I’m sure some support the death penalty, and I’m sure some Christians do not. I’m sure we have people who are for jail and imprisonment and those who would like to have significant prison reform. These are conflicted issues that we will not solve in this post. Instead I’d like to try to seek God’s heart in this passage. First, we see that God desires that children obey their parents. Second, he desires that evil is dealt with and restrained, and third, he desires that his people to live lives of purity.
This theme will continue in verses 22-23. The situation of the evil son in verses 18-21 means that there will be some who are put to death by the death penalty. The situation in verses 1-9 relates as well, because if the murderer is eventually found, murderers are to be put to death too. Now here in verses 22-23 what we read is a death penalty that was enacted by hanging. But similarly to the unsolved murder in verses 1-9 this hanging presents a problem. What do you do with the body?
God says, don’t let it hang overnight, bury it the same day. Those hung, he adds, are under God’s curse. Why would he say this? Practically speaking, there could be a physical side to this as the body would start to decompose. In fact, one scholar says, “A dead body is the primary source of ritual impurity in the Bible, and if it were left to decompose, its parts would eventually be scattered by birds and animals, spreading the impurity.”
What is the principle behind it? Once again: Do not desecrate the land. What does this teach us about God’s heart? Purge the evil from you. God is a God of purity and holiness. In part 5, we’ll consider the implications of these principles for our lives.