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After setting forth the rights of the first-born in regard to the birthright, Moses turns to a related topic, what to do about a rebellious son. This law does not apply to minors, but to fully grown sons who were responsible and fully accountable to God for their behavior. (Young children were to be disciplined in other ways appropriate to their age.) Deut. 21:18-21 says,
18 If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise [yasar, “chasten, discipline, instruct, admonish”] him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20 And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.
In those days each tribe had a land inheritance and a prince of the tribe as its ruling elder. Within those tribes were subdivisions—family inheritances, each ruled by its patriarch. As the generations passed, each subdivision included more and more individual families, each governed by the father. This was the structure of government in Israel.
It was important, then, that each family member should be obedient to the law of the land and to the rules of each household. But if one of them became rebellious and continually refused to be obedient to this governmental structure, then he was to be treated as any other criminal. He is called a rebellious “son,” not on account of youth, but because he had living parents or grandparents who ruled the family.
The specific examples given by Moses, “he is a glutton and a drunkard,” should not be taken to mean that the punishment for gluttony and alcoholism is the death penalty. In those days it is not likely that they had treatment programs for such conditions, but Moses certainly would have approved such treatments if they had been available. In typical Hebrew literary style, Moses was talking about the general mayhem that might accompany too much partying (i.e., feasting and drinking). Continuous feasting and drinking would also waste the assets of the family estate, and if done without the permission or approval of the head of the family, these would be acts of rebellion.
In those days, sons had opportunity to leave the family and colonize some other part of the earth. So if a son did not want to submit to the governmental structure in Israel, he could leave and go his own way. In fact, many Israelites did this, particularly the tribe of Dan, whose allotted inheritance was occupied by the Philistines for the first few centuries (Judges 18:1). In the Song of Deborah, she complained that many (or most) of the Danites did not help their fellow Israelites in the war against the Canaanites. In Judges 5:17 she asks, “and why did Dan dwell in ships?”
Many of the tribe of Dan had joined with the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon and had become a seafaring people. Wherever they went, they named the rivers and territory after their forefather, Dan, as seen in Judges 18:29,
29 And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of their father who was born in Israel; however, the name of the city formerly was Laish.
And so we see that many Israelites left Canaan and came to be known by other names. In fact, in Greece the leaders of the city of Sparta discovered from their records in the second century before Christ that they were descended from Abraham. Areus, the king of Sparta at the time, saw fit to write to Onias, the high priest of Judea in those days, saying,
“We have met with certain writing, whereby we have discovered that both the Jews and the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] are of one stock, and are derived from the kindred of Abraham.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII, iv, 10)
The letter bore the seal of Sparta, “an eagle with a dragon [or serpent] in its claws,” which was the sign of the tribe of Dan (Gen. 49:17). Josephus also records Onias’ reply, where the high priest claims to have known about this kindred relationship beforehand.
The point is that any Israelite, including rebellious sons, had the option of leaving the family and following whatever rules he wished to create in another land. So the law only applied to those sons who refused to leave but who wanted to maintain their rebellion while remaining under the governmental structure of Israel and enjoying the benefits of the family estate.
Such rebellion threatened not only the family, but ultimately the stability of the tribe and even the nation itself. For this reason, the law allowed such a man to be executed as a last resort.
Even so, we are given no actual biblical examples of such executions, although it is plain that Moses meant to link the law of the rebellious son to the previous law dealing with the first-born son of an unloved wife. The connection is in the fact that a first-born son could not be disinherited until he first proved his unworthiness.
Obviously, a rebellious son could be disinherited, even if he were the first-born son of a beloved wife. If he became angry, he could leave his tribe for other parts of the world and start his own ethnic group. But if he chose to stay and remained in persistent rebellion, he stood in danger of being executed for treason or criminal behavior.
The main object of this law was to establish a system by which godly government might continue in each generation. Indeed, the political arrangement was maintained, but Israel’s contact with the Canaanite culture altered their moral standards. They forgot the law of God partly because few families had their own copy. Moreover, as Paul says, the flesh prefers to follow the law of sin (Romans 7:23-25). Moral degeneration, then, is inevitable for those who are not led by the Spirit.
The prophets present Esau as a prime example of a rebellious son. Malachi 1:2 and 3 says,
2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How hast Thou loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; 3 but I have hated Esau…”
Jacob and Esau were twins and therefore came from the same mother. So the problem was not that Esau’s mother was unloved. Nonetheless, the law dealing with the son of an unloved mother gives us the principle that a first-born son cannot be disinherited except for legal cause.
The law of a rebellious son adds further meaning to this, showing how a rebellious son might not only be disinherited but also executed in an extreme case. Esau was such a son.
Though he was the first-born, it was prophesied from the beginning that his younger twin, Jacob, would be given the birthright. I do not propose to get into the issue of the sovereignty of God in this study, because that is outside our present scope. Yet we see that Isaac knew the prophecy even before the children were born which designated Jacob as the birthright holder.
As the first-born, Esau was protected by the law of God, because much of God’s law was known prior to Moses’ legislation. In fact, we read in Gen. 26:5 that Abraham obeyed the laws of God that were revealed to him. And so Isaac, too, understood the laws of God well enough to know that he could not disinherit Esau on the basis of the prophecy alone. Esau could not be disinherited until he had proven himself to be unworthy.
The situation became complicated by the scheming of Jacob and his mother, who were worried that Isaac might give the birthright to Esau and cause the prophecy to fail. Their lack of faith in the sovereignty of God caused them to lie and cheat in order to cover God’s apparent deficiency. In other words, they used the prophecy to justify their fleshly motives and to hide their lack of faith.
God scourged Jacob as a son, using Laban as His rod of judgment, in order to bring him to the place where he recognized the sovereignty of God, and when he did, God gave him a new name, Israel, “God rules.” When Jacob-Israel was finally able to see God in the face of Esau (Gen. 33:10), and understood that God was sovereign even in the life of Esau, then he was able to enjoy the blessings of the birthright.
But the truce between Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33) did not end the long-standing family feud. Esau’s descendants still coveted the land of Canaan, which they believed had been unjustly taken from them. They never lost the belief that the birthright was rightfully theirs, and this became the source of much prophecy in later years.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they were attacked by Amalek even before they arrived at Mount Sinai (Exodus 17:8). Amalek was the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau (Gen. 36:15). The main tribe of Esau was known as Edom (Gen. 36:1). Edom refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land on the way to Canaan (Num. 20:18), and so they were forced to take the long road around Edom.
Such was the animosity and mistrust between Edom and Israel. Many centuries later, when Israel and Judah were each deported from the land on account of their lawlessness, Edom rejoiced to see them judged (Ez. 35:15; Obad. 12-14). But God also prophesied judgment upon Edom on account of its violent, bloodthirsty character (Ez. 35:6) and its arrogance (Obadiah 3).
Edom was conquered by Judah in 126 B.C., at which time they ceased to be a nation separate from Judah. They were forcibly converted to Judaism at that time. This event merged the religious hypocrisy of Judah with the violent character of Esau-Edom. The first-century historian, Josephus, tells us that Judah “subdued all the Idumeans” (the Greek word for Edom) and forced them to convert to Judaism. Hence, he says, “they were hereafter no other than Jews” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, ix, 1).
The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1903 edition, under the section of Edom, says,
“From this time the Idumeans ceased to be a separate people, though the name ‘Idumea’ still existed (in) the time of Jerome.”
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia (1970 ed.) says under Edom,
“The Edomites were conquered by John Hyrcanus who forcibly converted them to Judaism, and from then on they constituted a part of the Jewish people, Herod being one of their descendants. During Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, they marched in to reinforce the extreme elements, killing all they suspected of peace tendencies. Thereafter, they ceased to figure in Jewish history.”
In other words, they ceased to be distinguished as Idumeans, or Edomites, because the Romans treated them as any other rebellious Jew after destroying Jerusalem. Many were killed, but many were enslaved as Jews and were thus fully integrated into the Jewish community in the diaspora.
Although Edom ceased to exist as a distinct national unit, their character and aspirations were integrated with the Jewish people—that is, with the “evil figs” of Jeremiah 24, who refused to submit to the captivity of the four beasts which God had imposed upon Judah. If the prophet wrestled with these rebellious religionists in his day, how much more did Jesus have to wrestle with the “evil figs” of both Judah and Edom in the first century!
The destruction of Jerusalem empowered the more moderate and peaceful “Hillel” faction in Judaism to gain credence and influence among the surviving Jews. It was settled that Jews really were under divine judgment, and that they should not attempt to return to the old land to establish a Jewish state until the Messiah had arrived.
Contrary to this long-established principle of Judaism, the early twentieth century saw the rise of political Zionism, which convinced many Jews to immigrate to Palestine prior to the Messiah’s arrival. The movement quickly took on the violent character of Edom, largely through the efforts of Vladimir Jabotinsky and his successors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who were the Jewish terrorists of the 1940’s.
With the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, Zionism succeeded in its goal, even though the majority of the Jews denounced it as a Jewish heretical movement. Many Christians, however, who had been influenced by the Dispensationalist ideas of the previous hundred years, lauded the Israeli state as the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and a herald of the Messiah’s imminent return.
They did not know the history of Edom and its merger with Judah, nor did they understand the prophecy of the hated son. If they had known these things, they might have had opportunity to know how God’s law was being fulfilled as the prophets had foretold.
The tribe of Judah itself was forbidden by the law of tribulation to return to the land unless they repented (Lev. 26:42-44). However, because Isaac has prophesied that Jacob would have to give back the birthright to Esau on account of the unlawful manner in which Jacob took it from Esau, God allowed the Israeli state to be established. This state, therefore, exists because of the rights of Esau as the firstborn.
Esau had to be given the opportunity to prove himself unworthy before being stripped of the birthright. Since Edom was absorbed by Jewry in 126 B.C., the only Edomites remaining in the world today are within Jewry. So the Israeli state has provided Esau’s descendants with the opportunity to prove themselves. But their violent behavior toward the Palestinians has proven the rebellious character of Esau, setting the stage for the fulfillment of all the biblical prophecies against Edom.
Malachi 1:4 says that Esau-Edom “will return and build up the ruins,” but that God would eventually “tear down” what they have built. Isaiah 34:5-8 says,
5 For My sword is satiated in heaven, behold it shall descend for judgment upon Edom, and upon the people whom I have devoted to destruction. 6 … For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Edom… 8 For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause [legal controversy] of Zion.
Ezekiel 35:6, 7 says of Mount Seir (another name for Edom),
6 “Therefore as I live,” declares the Lord God, “I will give you over to bloodshed, and bloodshed will pursue you; since you have not hated bloodshed, therefore bloodshed will pursue you. 7 And I will make Mount Seir a waste and a desolation, and I will cut off from it the one who passes through and returns.”
In other words, Esau, the firstborn son, will not only be disinherited but also executed as a rebellious son who refused to leave. Edom has become entrenched in Judaism and claim the birthright as the chosen ones of God. They might avoid the judgment of the law if they would but renounce their claim as the representatives of the tribe of Judah, but prophecy indicates that they will not do so as a nation.
With the Israeli state in danger of divine judgment, we suggest to individual Israeli citizens that they leave before judgment turns Mount Seir (the Negev) into “a waste and a desolation.”
For a fuller account of the controversy of Zion between Israel and Edom, see my book, The Struggle for the Birthright.