Case of the Rebellious Son

Deuteronomy 21:18-21: The commandment of the rebellious son is one of the more difficult commandments of the Torah. It says that a stubborn, rebellious son who refuses to obey his parents and is given to gluttony and drunkenness is to be tried in a court of law and, if found guilty, put to death by stoning.

The Sages raise several objections to the plain reading of the text. They point out that the boy must be of an age of accountability, i.e. past puberty, yet he must still be considered a ward of his parents. This could only be a young teen. Furthermore, he must be guilty not only of disobedience, but also of gluttony and drunkenness. To be guilty of gluttony and drunkenness, it is supposed that he must have stolen to acquire the food and drink. In short, he is a remarkably reprehensible teen.

The Sages’ interpretation on the law added further stringencies that made it impossible for such a case to ever be tried in a court of law. Thus it was said, “There never has been a case of a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ brought to trial and never will be.” (b.Sanhedrin 71a) Even without the Sages, we may reason that such a case would rarely go to trial because loving parents would hardly be able to testify against their own sons.

However, it is a law of the Torah. Surely the import of the law of the stubborn and rebellious son is a warning to all parents. It is a reminder that we are responsible for bringing up our children in a godly manner. If we do not, their inevitable end—whether before the court on Earth or the court in Heaven—is our own responsibility. Our tendency is to diminish bad behavior, look the other way, and hope that it improves over time. The Torah warns us not to take that route. Instead, we should hear this commandment and fear, lest we allow our own children to walk in iniquity. The intent of the commandment is that “all Israel will hear of it and fear.” (Deuteronomy 21:21)

We are reminded through this commandment that we are all “stubborn and rebellious” sons and daughters, wayward at heart and disobedient to our father. We have all merited the death sentence before the heavenly court. Yet in order that we might live, God has given His own son, His suppliant and obedient Son, to face that death penalty on our behalf. To us, the sentence against the stubborn and rebellious teenager may seem unduly harsh. Yet it is no harsher than the justice that brought the Innocent One to the cross.

published first fruit of zion edrash

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