Be careful of the "Tip of the Iceberg" theological thinking
We may not realize it so well on the surface, but we, I think are all aware of what I am talking about here.
It is those good old Bible teachers and even well intentioned lay people who use those wonderful phrases like:
"Just tell me what the Bible says!"
"I am a Biblical guy. I just like the plain and simple, straightforward meaning of Scripture."
"I prefer a literal interpretation of the Bible!"
"The Bible means what it says!" (one of my favorites)
"The Bible interprets itself"
"If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"
These are just a few phrases that I have heard over the years (and regularly continue to hear) from well intention brothers and sisters in the Lord who really mean well, but these types of statements can represent a very dangerous approach to the Bible.
Let's see this in a practical sense.
I was engaging recently in a discussion on Facebook and a person said the following talking about what the Bible "says" in Proverbs 13:24:
"This is what it says in Proverbs 13:24 "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." (quoting the King James Version here) However you discipline your children is up to the parents. Interpret the scripture any way you desire, it’s not my words."
It is clear from this comment that this dear friend in the Lord simply just reads the text as his beginning and ending point of attempting to develop any understanding of what the text may mean. How unfortunate this is. How simplistic this is. How almost disrespectful this. Yet how widespread and common this approach is.
What I am going to suggest is that well intentioned people who take these approaches to Biblical understanding are potentially riding on the spiritual Titanic and they do not know what they are doing and how damaging it might be. We all remember what happened to the Titanic. It hit an iceberg.
Now, iceberg's often are very small and inconsequential if looked at just from the top, but get underneath them and there is a whole different picture. Here is where I think we can have some teaching about what I call "Tip of the Iceberg" theological thinking.
So, let's see a very specific example to this issue of "Tip of the Iceberg" theological thinking. It is an extreme example, but if you were to Google this idea, you would come up with hundreds of examples of people pointing to this text and interpreting it literally.
The text we are going to focus on is that found in Deuteronomy chapter 21:18-21. It concerns the so-called “stubborn and rebellious” son.
The text reads: “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of the city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.”
Now, this text seems so clear and simple to understand. This is what so many people think. This text is quoted constantly by many people I come into contact with showing that we need to be tough with children in particular. Look at how someone might understand this. Here is something I just found on Google which is a good illustration of what I am talking about.
"My son is 16 years old and he has been acting rebellious lately. I've asked him to do his chores yet he refuses to do them. He's even been drinking alcohol at parties. I read the Bible a lot and I'm a very devoted Christian. So I get my morals from the Bible. As a god-fearing man I'm scared because the Bible says that I should stone my son to death for not obeying my commands in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. I'm really scared because I don't want to have to kill my son. I love God more than anyone else though so I try my best to follow his laws."
Pretty extreme that in this day and age that someone would entertain such an idea, but in fact, these ideas are widespread and one could see how such an idea could possibly get out of hand and even be used by some to justify very serious (even violent) acts against a child.
This is what I call "Tip of the Iceberg" theological thinking. It just looks at a little "tip" of something which is so much bigger, so much broader, so much deeper, so much more substantial than many may have ever considered.
So let's take a look at this text and see how big, broad, deep and substantial it is.
Point Number One - The Death Penalty in Judaism
Now it is clear in this text that we are talking about the death penalty. A capital offense! Pretty serious stuff. Not something to be undertaken without some very serious consideration and deliberation.
Now, here is a quote about this issue from my own "Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy" from page 134:
"First, the death penalty was imposed only when the Temple in Jerusalem was in existence. “Under Jewish Law capital punishment was imposed only when the Temple was still in existence, when the offerings were still brought to the altar, and when the Sanhedrin still sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stones (in the Temple). 346 This means that no matter what this text says, following the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Romans, this text has never even once been applied to anyone."
Another point that we have to understand concerns the rarity of the death penalty itself in Judaism:
"Second, death sentences were not every day occurrences. We need not to rely on the images of colorful Hollywood films that perpetuate historical inaccuracies. We need to examine the historical documents to teach us what was indeed taking place based upon eyewitness testimony. Note the following: “the death sentence was imposed only after much investigation and deliberation on the part of the court of justice. The judges made every effort to avoid imposing capital punishment. Circumstantial evidence was not accepted in trials for a capital offence and once the defendant in the such a case had been acquitted, he could not be brought to trial again for the same offence, even if direct evidence had turned up in the meantime to prove his guilt.” (ibid.)
Point Number Two - This text only took place in a court environment
If we refer back to the text above where the father is taking it upon himself to interpret the Bible himself, we will see, if we look more carefully at this matter, that this text is not to be understood as something that one could take into his own hands. It only is to be understood as taking place in a clear legal environment! This after all is a law and laws are only understood to be administered by courts and under the control and auspices of legally mandated authorities. To think that people in ancient times just simply took wayward children out and stoned them to death simply because dad thought junior was a little out of control is just absolute ridiculous nonsense, yet such ideas (as I said earlier) are so widespread and common beliefs among some well intentioned (but misinformed) Christians. (Let us also be clear. Christians don't just come up with these ideas on their own. Often such information is transmitted by well-intentioned but seriously misinformed religious authorities.)
Note the following:
"It must be pointed out here that we are speaking about a Jewish cultural background. This quote refers to “judges,” the Court of Justice,” “defendants,” and a “case.” These terms must be understood as referring to courts that were in existence to adjudicate matters of law and in this case we are talking about matters of Jewish religious law. In addition, on reading this quote, some may be reminded of the concept of “double jeopardy” which is a component of our modern Western judicial systems. Jewish legal scholars have known about “double jeopardy” for over 2000 years and it was applied in ancient times." (ibid. pgs. 134-135)
The Death Penalty was so serious major efforts took place to avoid it
When you read the text about the Stubborn and Rebellious Son it comes across as so every day and so commonplace and something which people were seemingly doing on a regular basis. Yet this is so far from the truth. Note the following also:
"We find other sources making even stronger cases against the death penalty. Note the following: “Should the court find that the homicide was deliberate, sentence of death was passed; but there was great reluctance to resort to capital punishment and every endeavor was made to avoid it. Indeed, it was remarked: ‘A Sanhedrin which executed a person once in seven years was called destructive. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, ‘Once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarphon and Rabbi Akiba said, If we were members of a Sanhedrin, never would a person be put to death.’” So, we see that the death penalty itself had very strict rules and regulations associated with it." (ibid. pg. 135)
Point Number Three - The Stubborn and Rebellious Son - How Old?
Now in the example above given by the father, he refers to a 16 year old son as meeting the criteria in his mind for the designation "Stubborn and Rebellious Son". But isn't it interesting. The text does not indicate an age. So who decides according to the Bible? The father? The mother? Hardly.
"Next, what constituted a “stubborn and rebellious son?” There is no age mentioned in the text, so who decides? Rabbi Chill shows that “who is considered a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’? Any young man three months past bar mitzvah age…” This means that this punishment was never inflicted on anyone below the age of 13 years three months."
This matter has been established by authorized legal authorities and is to be understood as a part of interpreting this law.
Point Number Four - Death Penalty for the First Offense? No!
So, if we refer back to our father whose first thought that comes to mind is taking his son out and stoning him to death, how does this square with practice in ancient times? It really doesn't make any sense at all. Here's why:
"Rabbi Chill points out that the death penalty was not the first solution to a family choosing to apply this law to their child. “The first offence reported by the parents made the boy subject to flogging; if he repeated the offence and was again brought to the court by his parents he received the death penalty – execution by stoning.” So, we can see that ancient Israelites were not taking their children out and stoning them to death every time a boy ate too much or drank some wine. There was strict due process involved and those accused of these crimes had legal rights before the law." (ibid.)
Point Number Five - Mitigating Circumstances
When we look at this approach of this dad to the 16 year old and we review similar ideas held by many people today, we feel there is a very simplistic, one size fits all approach with no rhyme or reason, no individuality and certainly no exceptions. But wait a minute? How does this square up with historical fact? Let's see:
"Not only that, if one of his parents was lame, blind or deaf, or if one of his parents was unwilling to have him brought to court, the offender was exempt from the death penalty. This meant, in effect, that the death penalty for a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ was very rarely carried out.” (ibid.)
Yes. You heard it correct. VERY RARELY CARRIED OUT. Why? Mitigating circumstances!
Point Number Six - Who is to really to blame? Only the child? Again No!
When we once again go back to the dad of the 16 year old, we get this feeling that this guy is absolving himself of all responsibility. A child going and drinking alcohol and parties? And where is dad? Apparently not running after his son!
Biblical authorities will have none of this. A death penalty sentence on a child will never happen unless it can be demonstrated that the son is really himself a "bad apple", but for him to be shown to be a "bad apple," the parents have to demonstrate that they have done everything right in the eyes of a court. Note this idea:
"We also find that the child himself was not the only one on trial. The great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides placed some of the blame for “stubborn and rebellious sons” squarely on the parents. “How does a son become ‘stubborn and rebellious’? Through the fault of the parents who are too permissive and permit him to lead a life of irresponsibility.” Parents who did not guide their children were a part of the problem and contributed to their children becoming “stubborn and rebellious.” Two giants of Jewish scholarship further echo this idea. Rabbi Moses Al Sheikh said: “He explains why the Torah insists that parents personally bring their ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ to the court of justice. In this manner, he says, the parents acknowledge that they are to blame for the way in which their son has turned out. No child becomes intractable from one day to the next. The process begins when the child is at a very early age when many parents, unfortunately, tend to view such behavior as ‘just a phase.’ This is a mistaken notion, and the parents are now asked to face the fact that they failed their child when he was in the greatest need of their guidance.”
Rabbi Ibn Ezra puts it a little bit stronger placing some of the blame on the parents: “He is not prepared to place the burden of responsibility entirely on the child. The son can be justifiably tried and punished for his behavior only if the conduct of his parents themselves has been beyond reproach. If they did not provide a good example for him to emulate, they have no right to bring him to court for ‘stubborn
and rebellious’ conduct.” So what we find is that not only the son is on trial, the parents as well have to demonstrate that they did the right things. If not, no death penalty will ever be inflicted." (ibid. pg. 138)
So, were I one of the judges for the 16 year olds' dad above, the first question I would ask is: "Where were you when your son was allegedly out drinking alcohol? Seems were you taking a bit more care, he would be at home where most 16 year olds' belong, especially in this day and age."
To conclude, clearly, this dad (and many others out there) needs to rethink his approach to not only Deuteronomy chapter 21:18-21, but also to how well he is connected to his 16 year old. Perhaps were he to do that, he'd be thinking more about the hand that draws near rather than the hand that pushes away.
Finally, let me close with a comment that I got on my blog in response to a post I did which is linked here:
The person commented the following:
"Sam, I really am enjoying your book. It makes me realize how ignorant I am to the real depth of Scripture."
Here was my response at that time:
"Your comment about your understanding how ignorant you are to the real depth of Scripture is an important one. Join the crowd."
We all have weaknesses and flaws and need to correct these. We also have incorrect understandings of Scripture which we also need to correct if we can. To do this, we need to do the following:
"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." (II Timothy 2:15 ESV)