This post is one of many editorial letters that we have written in response to a particularly zealous and outspoken atheist who lives near Lynchburg. He’s another Village Atheist who parrots the hate-filled verbiage so common with popular level writers, such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. In many of his letters, he’s not been above calling Christians and Christianity “a virus that is infecting our species.”
The introductory paragraph offers some context, so I hope you find it helpful.
The following is another response to a past letter submitted by David Mcloughlin. The dilemma he proposed in that letter was that Christians are inconsistent in maintaining that Exodus 21:17, for example, which reads, “Whoever curses his mother or his father shall be put to death,” is an inspired word from God, and yet at the same time aren’t killing their children for—as he puts it—“talking back.” Nevertheless, is this a true dilemma?
Mcloughlin’s challenge, in large measure, depends on a wrongheaded understanding of the term “curse,” taken to mean “talking back.” Indeed, especially in modern English parlance, “curse” can denote verbal abuse; however, this verse is simply a negative expression of the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and mother...” (Ex 20:12). In this case the term “curse” is the opposite of “honor,” which is surely not meant to convey mere verbal honor. Rather, “curse” means to repudiate, disesteem, despise, disregard.
This meaning of the term is clearly evidenced by a statement made by God in I Samuel 2:30. Therein the same Hebrew words behind the English words “honor” and “curse” are used in an ancient literary devise known as a parallelism: “[F]or those who honor (same Hebrew word used in the fifth commandment) me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (or “disgraced,” the same word for “curse” in Exodus 21:17). The force of the statement depends on “honor” and “lightly esteemed” (“curse” in Exodus 21:17) being antithetical, contrary to one another; and “lightly esteemed” and “despise” being synonymous. Therefore, the term “curse” has to do with one’s attitude toward and treatment of one’s parents, not merely “talking back.”
We see that a right understanding of the term “curse,” as how one treats parents, not what they say, eliminates half of Mcloughlin’s argument. But what about the seemingly difficult penal stipulation, “Whoever curses...shall be put to death”? What are we to make of this?
It first needs to be recognized that the temporal, retributive action of this command is part of a larger covenantal framework, were God has become the King of the new theocratic nation Israel, by means of his graciously delivering them from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 20:2). After the peoples’ voluntary agreement to the terms of the covenant, it was ratified by blood and became the law of the community, under their new King (Exodus 24:7—8). Secondly, with the exception of first degree murder, there is evidence that there were “ransom/redemption” options available for those who committed crimes worthy of capital punishment under the covenant (e.g., Exodus 21:30; Numbers 35:31). Moreover, the “cursing” child was not subject to the whimsical disposition of the parents, for there was a due process. This is clear from the “rebellious son” section in Deuteronomy 21:18—21.
This passage indicates three important points. The first is that it is adult children that are in view. In both Jewish and pagan cultures official right and responsibility under the Law (or laws in pagan contexts) came at an age which inaugurated manhood (e.g., the bar mitzvah in Jewish tradition). Therefore, the breeching of this commandment entails much more than sassy talk from a small child. Moreover, in the ancient Near East, the eldest son of the household was given full rights over the family’s estate long before the death of the parents. It was then the responsibility of the “firstborn son” to insure the provision and well being of the parents and the whole family. This is largely what is meant by “honoring” the parents; with “cursing” its opposite. This is exactly how Jesus himself interpreted both Exodus 20:12 and 21:17. He quoted them in order to demonstrate that the Jewish leaders of his day had “left...rejected...made void the word of God,” namely the two commands we are considering, in order to hold on to a tradition that prevented adult children from caring for their aging parents (Mark 7:1—13).
Secondly, there was a due process in which the entire community was involved, because the foundation and structure of the entire community was in jeopardy through such flagrant disregard of the covenant which bound them to one another and their covenant King, Yahweh. Last, and thirdly, titling a son of the covenant “a glutton and a drunkard” was an official and legal charge that warranted death. This much is clear and is important for understanding certain words of Jesus himself.
The Old Testament Law was not merely a legal code, it also pointed to something progressive, something beyond itself. Jesus, in Matthew 5:17 said that he came to “fulfill” the Law. Now in Matthew the term “fulfill” always has prophetic connotations; that is, the Law pointed forward to something greater, namely Jesus himself. So also in Matthew 11:13 Jesus states: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John (the Baptist).” In 11:19 Jesus indicates what law he had in mind—Deuteronomy 21:18f—the ‘rebellious son’ passage. For he quotes his opponents as laying against him the official, legal charge of being “a glutton and a drunkard,” presenting it as further justification for their desire to put him to death. Jesus’ radical deeds and claims failed to “honor” the Jewish elders’ traditions and disrupted the Jewish community. Thus, Jesus was declared the “rebellious son.”
This part of Deuteronomy (21:15—23) was crucial for the New Testament authors’ understanding and exposition of Jesus’ work and function in God’s unfolding plan of redemption. Verses 15—17 concern the inheritance rights of “the first born.” Something important for understanding Jesus’ relationship to both the Father and his creation/new creation (see: Psalm 89:26f, Romans 8:28; Colossians 1:15—20; Hebrews 1:5—6; Revelation 1:5, etc). Then just after the “rebellious son” passage is the law regarding hanged criminals (Deuteronomy 21:22—23). These verses became precedents for understanding the Cross of Jesus, for Paul cites v. 23 in Galatians 3:13 saying, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Hence, Deuteronomy 21 helps to interpret even the vicarious, atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for all who believe him.
Finally, in one historic confession of the faith it is recognized that while the judicial penalties of the case laws (Exodus 21—23) were for the theocratic structures of ancient Israel, they still have “general equity” applicable in the modern world (WMC XIX:III). For instance, our topic is expressed as such in I Timothy 5:3—8. Here Paul says that children and grandchildren should demonstrate their godliness by caring for their widowed mothers, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Paul is simply understanding and applying the “general equity,” that is, the principle meaning of the Old Testament laws we have been considering, and taking them from the temporal realm to the eternal, in light of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ.
This has shown that Mcloughlin’s hope of exposing Christians as living with contradictory beliefs is absurd. The term “curse” has next to nothing to do with “talking back.” Adult children rightfully caring for their aging parents is what is in view with regard to the punitive statutes. Because of Jesus’ atoning death on the cross and his resurrection, those who trust him alone for their redemption can consistently live out the principle equity of such laws in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Mcloughlin’s challenge has no bearing upon the Bible’s inerrancy or Christian life and practice. In other words, it is irrelevant to the discussion of both! Nevertheless, surly the question is reversible.
Mr. Mcloughlin, given your perspective, the evolutionary process of time and chance acting upon “eternal” matter, what justification do you have for even questioning parents killing their young. What is the basis for morality in the context of your view of the world? If “survival of the fittest” is the case, then it seems that both the “reality” and logical consistency of your worldview would demand the death of the younger and weaker, in order to eliminate their competition for food, mates, etc. Perhaps you should deal with the “beam” that is stuck in the eye of your own worldview before questioning the “speck” in that of others!
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4