This week’s sedra includes a seemingly draconian law, with the Torah commanding the stoning of a “rebellious son” who, despite parental intervention, continues to behave as “a glutton and drunkard” (Devarim 21:18-21). As a paradigm of virtue and obedience, such laws would never apply to a dutiful son like me. Nonetheless: what does one do when faced with a Biblical law violating our moral intuitions?
One approach, favoured by the rabbis, is to interpret the law out of (practical) existence. For example, in Mishnah Sanhedrin 8.2, the rabbis define a “glutton” as one who consumes semicooked meat and a “drunkard” as one who drinks a specific amount of mixed wine. Consequently, a rebellious son would only be liable for stoning if they satisfy both highlytechnical definitions of gluttony and drunkenness. Such circumstances are almost inconceivable; the rabbis have interpreted the law in such a narrow (albeit not inconsistent) way as to ensure it could never be applied in practice.
A second approach, favoured by Josephus (a priest turned Roman citizen of the Second Temple period), is to heighten the sin and thus render the punishment proportionate. In Antiquities, Josephus explains that the rebellious son not only disobeys his (biological) parents but also HaShem, the cosmic parent of all humanity. A direct sin against HaShem is worthy of death, Josephus argues, and so - contrary to our initial reaction – stoning is not so disproportionate after all.
A third approach favourably contrasts Biblical law with other legal codes. Many modern apologists, for example, observe that the Roman legal principle of “patria potestas” gave fathers the right to degrade, enslave and ultimately kill rebellious sons. In contrast, Biblical law vests the authority of capital punishment in the community (Devarim 21:21), which minimally removes absolute power from the parental domain, ie. the private sphere, and may even imply the existence of a public tribunal.
Although all three approaches have their weaknesses (Josephus’ approach has particularly problematic elements), one can appreciate the desire to explain Biblical laws in a manner compatible with our own sensibilities.