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Michael Avioz





The Law of the Disrespectful Son and Daughter





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Michael Avioz





The Law of the Disrespectful Son and Daughter








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The Law of the Disrespectful Son and Daughter

Deuteronomy’s law of the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18–21) poses numerous problems. Like the rabbis, Josephus interprets the law, but his conclusions are quite different.


The Law of the Disrespectful Son and Daughter

123rf, adapted

From Historian to Parshan: Rethinking Josephus’ Contribution

A Roman portrait bust said to be of Josephus

Titus Flavius Josephus (Yoseph ben Matityahu Ha-Kohen) was born in 37 CE and died around 100 CE. He started as a Jerusalemite priest and ended as a Roman citizen, surviving the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. He has long been recognized as a historian and as a military commander. Less well known is that he was also a significant biblical interpreter (parshan).[1]

Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews

Josephus wrote Antiquities of the Jews in 93/94 CE: twenty books, of which the first part (books 1-11) rewrites the biblical narratives from the creation until the Book of Esther. Josephus’ intended audience, be it Jewish, pagan, or both, probably spoke Greek rather than Hebrew. He could have relied on the Septuagint which had already been completed, but he didn’t do so. Moreover, he deviates from the Septuagint in many places, adding, omitting, changing, and reorganizing the text. These changes relate to both the halakhic and narrative materials.

Josephus as a Parshan

A romanticized engraving of Josephus

The biblical texts contain various problems that every interpreter must deal with: the meaning of the composition, chronological problems, grammar, syntax, difficult words, inconsistencies, etc. In halakhic matters, commentators must also take into account their own community’s practice. In studying Josephus’ discussion of a legal passage in the Bible, it is important to consider the Tannaitic traditions preserved in the later rabbinic literature as well as earlier Qumran texts, since chronologically, he stands between these two corpora.[2]

I shall examine one of the biblical laws Josephus rewrites, that of the rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Law of the Rebellious Son

Before looking at Josephus’ interpretation, it is important to look at the biblical passage to see what problems or questions it raises;[3] many of Josephus’ interpretations may stem from these problems or questions.[4]

דברים כא:יח כִּֽי יִהְיֶ֣ה לְאִ֗ישׁ בֵּ֚ן סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמוֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֣נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֔עַ בְּק֥וֹל אָבִ֖יו וּבְק֣וֹל אִמּ֑וֹ וְיִסְּר֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ כא:יטוְתָ֥פְשׂוּ ב֖וֹ אָבִ֣יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְהוֹצִ֧יאוּ אֹת֛וֹ אֶל זִקְנֵ֥י עִיר֖וֹ וְאֶל שַׁ֥עַר מְקֹמֽוֹ׃ כא:כוְאָמְר֞וּ אֶל זִקְנֵ֣י עִיר֗וֹ בְּנֵ֤נוּ זֶה֙ סוֹרֵ֣ר וּמֹרֶ֔ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ שֹׁמֵ֖עַ בְּקֹלֵ֑נוּ זוֹלֵ֖ל וְסֹבֵֽא׃כא:כאוּ֠רְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁ֨י עִיר֤וֹ בָֽאֲבָנִים֙ וָמֵ֔ת וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּ֑ךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל יִשְׁמְע֥וּ וְיִרָֽאוּ׃
Deut 21:18 If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, 21:19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. 21:20 They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21:21 Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid (NJPS).

The main difficulties and questions arising from the biblical text are:

  1. Is the context of the law and its position in the law collection (סמיכות פרשיות) significant? (The law of the rebellious son follows that of the son of the hated wife and immediately precedes the proper treatment of the corpses of executed criminals.)
  2. Is the law only about sons, or also about daughters? (Hebrew בן could refer to a “son” or a “child.”)
  3. What is meant by “disciplining (ויסרו)” him?
  4. What does סורר ומורה mean? What exactly is the sin of the son?
  5. Does זולל וסובא denote something different than סורר ומורה, or are they synonymous?
  6. What is the place of the elders in the legal procedure narrated in these verses?
  7. Isn’t the law too harsh?

Josephus’ Description of the Law

Although Josephus is, without doubt, reworking Deuteronomy’s law about the wayward son, his description of the law and the procedure is quite different, both in what it adds and in what it omits. I will highlight some of the main differences as annotations on his rewrite (the numbers follow the Niese edition):[5]

Annotations Josephus’ Rewrite
Josephus expands on the meaning of “not listening” to parents, stating that the son disdains and dishonors them. 260 In cases in which young people[6]disdain their parents and do not grant them their honor—whether because of shame or lack of understanding —demeaning them,
Josephus discusses the meaning of parenting and marriage; the Torah has no such discussion. let the parents first of all warn them with words, for they are autonomous judges over their sons, 261 saying that they came together with each other not for the sake of pleasure, nor of increasing their wealth by placing in common what the two of them had, but in order that they might have children who would tend them in their old age and who would have from them whatever they needed:
Josephus spends the most time describing what the parents should say to the child; this speech is not found in the Torah.

The Torah has the parents describe the son as a glutton and a drunkard; Josephus makes no mention of either of these behaviors.
“When you were born, we raised you with joy; and giving the greatest thanks to God we reared you with devotion, sparing nothing of what seemed to be useful for your well-being and education in the best things. 262 Now, however, for it was necessary to grant pardon for the failings of youth, you have sufficiently disregarded the honor toward us. Change to the more reasonable way, considering that God is also annoyed with those who commit an outrage against parents, because He Himself is also the father of the whole human race. He thinks that there is dishonor at the same time for those who have the same title as Himself when they do not obtain from their children what is fitting for them; and there is the implacable law, the punisher of such acts, which you should not put to the test.”
Josephus mentions a daughter; the Torah says “בן,” which generally means “son” but could also refer to a daughter. 263 If the rebelliousness of the youths is cured by such means, let them be excused from the censures for things they did not know, for thus the lawgiver would be good and the parents fortunate, in seeing neither son nor daughter punished.
The Torah describes the parents going to the elders; Josephus mentions nothing about elders or a trial of any sort. 264 However, should these words and the teaching from them about moderate behavior seem worthless, and should one make the laws implacable enemies for himself through such constant boldness toward his parents, let him be brought forward by them themselves outside the city with the masses following, and let him be stoned.
Josephus has the law of the corpse as part of the wayward son law; the Torah treats this as a separate law. After remaining during the whole day in the sight of all, let him be buried at night.265 Thus let those who in any way whatever have been condemned by the laws be put to death. But let even the enemy be buried, and let not even one corpse lie without a share in the earth, paying a penalty beyond what is just.[7]

Differences between Josephus and Deuteronomy

The above annotated differences can be understood as expressions of Josephus’ exegetical approach; each is in response to one of the questions outlined above.

1. What Context may Imply about the Law

One way to interpret laws is based on their placement in the corpus. Why were apparently unrelated sections juxtaposed?[8] Later interpreters often offered aggadic interpretations for the juxtaposition of laws.

This is true in the case of the wayward son as well. Rashi, for instance, following Midrash Tanchuma, explains the connection between the three main laws found in Deut. 21:10-23 (the captive woman, the son of the hated wife, and the wayward son) as follows (21:11):

ולקחת לך לאשה – לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע… אבל אם נשאה, סופו להיות שונאה, שנאמר אחריו (פסוק טו) כי תהיין לאיש וגו’ וסופו להוליד ממנה בן סורר ומורה, לכך נסמכו פרשיות הללו:
“You may take her (=a beautiful woman from the enemy camp) for yourself as a wife.” – The Torah is speaking only against the evil inclination…. But if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives-one beloved and the other despised]” (v. 15); [moreover] he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see v. 18). For this reason, these passages are juxtaposed.

Josephus was likely also influenced by the immediately preceding law about the eldest son born to the man’s hated wife. This may explain part of the parents’ speech Josephus wrote; specifically, the claim of the parents that “they did not come together for pleasure” may reflect the knowledge that this may be the child of a “despised” wife and not a “loved” wife.

It should be noted that, in addition to the above derash-based point, Josephus adds a characteristically Roman twist. He states that marriage is purely for procreation’s sake; this point comes from the phrasing in Roman law (Codex Iustinianus 5.4.9): “liberorum procreandorum causa“: marriages were concluded, “in order to beget children.” Thus, in this case, Josephus’ description of parenting can be understood as a blend of Roman culture and homiletic technique.

Juxtaposition also explains the final difference between Josephus and the biblical text. Since the legal section following that of the wayward son concerns the proper disposal of bodies.

דברים כא:כב וְכִֽי יִהְיֶ֣ה בְאִ֗ישׁ חֵ֛טְא מִשְׁפַּט מָ֖וֶת וְהוּמָ֑ת וְתָלִ֥יתָ אֹת֖וֹ עַל עֵֽץ: כא:כגלֹא תָלִ֨ין נִבְלָת֜וֹ עַל הָעֵ֗ץ כִּֽי קָב֤וֹר תִּקְבְּרֶ֙נּוּ֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּֽי קִלְלַ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים תָּל֑וּי וְלֹ֤א תְטַמֵּא֙ אֶת אַדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָֽה:
Deut 21:22 If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, 21:23 you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that Yhwh your God is giving you to possess.

The Torah presents the law of the corpse as an independent law; ostensibly, it would apply to the wayward son and any other executed criminal. Josephus, however, incorporates it into the passage about the wayward son, telling the readers that despite the child’s sinful behavior, no bodies may be left overnight according to Jewish practice. Apparently, Josephus believed that the juxtaposition of the two laws was meant to tell the reader to apply the law specifically to the wayward son case as the paradigm for all others.

2. What About a Rebellious Daughter?

According to the rabbinic sources, the law of the wayward son applies only to male children:

“כי יהיה לאיש בן” – בן ולא בת, בן ולא איש…
“If a man has a son” – a son and not a daughter, a son and not an adult… (Sifre Deut. 218).
“כי יהיה לאיש בן” – ולא בת
“If a man has a son” – not a daughter (m Sanhed. 8: 1).

Josephus understands בן generically, explicitly applying the law to daughters in paragraph 263 “in seeing neither son nor daughter punished.” This interpretation is logical, since a daughter may also rebel against her parents.

Josephus is likely connecting this law to the law in the Decalogue about honoring parents, since he emphasizes lack of “honor” as opposed to disobedience. Thus, he assumes that here, as in the Decalogue, both son and daughter are included.[9] This is supported by his phrasing of this law in his Against Apion (2.206), which combines elements of the Decalogue and the law in Deuteronomy:

Honor to parents the Law ranks second only to honor to our God; and if a son does not respond to the benefits received from them— for the slightest failure in his duty towards them—it hands him over to be stoned.[10]

Finally, it is also possible that Josephus was familiar with the parallel Roman law where no distinction is made between a son or a daughter who rebels against parents.[11]

3. ויסרו אותו: Lashes or a Warning?

The NJPS translates this as “they discipline him.” The root יסר has various meanings in the Hebrew Bible. In some places it means physical punishment whereas elsewhere it refers to verbal rebuke (Prov. 1:8; 8:33; 19:27).

The rabbis understood this verb to refer to “lashes/flogging” (מלקות; b.Sanhedrin 71a) and some modern commentators also understand יסר this way. Josephus, however, interprets it to mean a warning with words,[12] an explanation advocated by other ancient commentators (LXX, Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan). He thus adds a dialogue between the son and his parents, where they explain to him what they have done for him and try to convince him to repent. Thus, Josephus fills in details that help the reader grasp the spirit of the biblical law.

4. What is the Meaning of סורר ומורה?

The compound סורר ומורה is usually understood as hendiadys (i.e., two words that mean one thing), and this appears to be how Josephus understands it as well, since he describes the sin of the wayward son by essentially saying the same thing twice, “young people disdain their parents and do not grant them their honor.” Josephus’ understanding of the phrase seems to be in line with modern interpretations, as connoting the violation of the duties towards his parents in general.[13] Contrary to the rabbinic approach, Josephus does not feel the need to fill in specific violations such as stealing from his parents (m. San. 8:3; b. San. 71a).

5. De-emphasizing זולל וסובא?

The phrase זולל וסובא that describes the son’s actions is enigmatic. It is most commonly understood as a complimentary pair of terms, “glutton and drunkard.” The Septuagint translate it as συμβολοκοπῶν οἰνοφλυγεῖ, “Being disposed to feasting, he is a drunkard.”

Josephus omits this pair of words from his rewriting. This omission may result from his not understanding these difficult words, or, perhaps, he thought they were simply synonymous with סורר ומורה. Alternatively, Josephus maybe have been aware of the meaning of the phrase, but felt that it would be best to leave it and focus on the main sin (in his view): a child disrespecting his or her parents.[14]

The rabbis take a completely different approach. They offer very specific interpretations for each term, saying that a glutton consumes semi-cooked meat and a drunkard drinks at least a particular amount of partially mixed wine, along with other strange demands (m. Sanhed. 8:2). Moreover, for the rabbis this sin is crucial; if the boy is not a glutton and a drunkard in exactly the right way, he cannot be executed!

The different approaches relate to a larger question about the law. The rabbinic Sages made great efforts to make this law inapplicable and absurd so that it could never be applied in practice. Josephus, however, treats this law like any other law and gives the reader no reason to think that such cases could not be prosecuted.

6. What is the role of the העיר זקני (Elders)?

The biblical text is missing significant details when it describes the parents bringing the son before the elders of the city; it never describes a trial or a verdict coming from these elders. Instead, immediately after the parents testify, the child is stoned to death by the community. Perhaps because of the amorphous position of the elders in the passage, Josephus cuts them out altogether and has the parents bringing the child directly to the mob for punishment.

7. Isn’t the Law too Harsh?

Josephus accentuates the seriousness of the offence, thereby justifying the harsh verdict against the rebellious son.[15] He does this by adding that the offence was not only against the parents but also against God, since God is also a parent to humanity. The rabbis make a similar point through a midrashic comparison of verses commanding the honor and fear of parents and those commanding the honor and fear of God (b. Kiddushin 30b).[16]

Josephus does not say where he gets this point, but his phrasing of the law in Against Apion (“the Law ranks second only to honor to our God”) implies that he is getting it from the fact that the law of honoring parents comes after the laws about worshipping God and keeping God’s Sabbath in the Decalogue.

In addition, it is noteworthy that the biblical law here is less harsh than the Roman equivalent, the Patria potestas­—the supreme judicial authority granted to the father of the family.[17] This rule seems to be in the background of Philo’s version[18] of this law (De Specialibus Legibus 2.41.232):

Fathers have the right to upraid their children and admonish them severely, and, if they do not submit to threats conveyed in words, to beat and degrade them and put them in bonds. And further, if in the face of this they continue to rebel, and carried away by their incorrigible depravity refuse the yoke, the law permits the parents to extend the punishment to death.

Whereas Philo essentially turns the biblical law into the Roman law, Josephus follows the biblical (and not Roman) description of the offended party as “parents” and not just “father,” implying that both parents have a say in the matter.[19] Moreover, in the biblical law, parents do not simply kill their wayward child, but bring him (or her) before the entire town for punishment. This requirement would give the parents a cooling off period before they did something irreversible, and implies that a child is an independent human being who cannot be dispatched privately. These differences—found in Josephus but not Philo—would have made the biblical law seem more lenient than Roman law in the eyes of Josephus and his contemporaries.

Reasons for Josephus’ Rewrite

What was Josephus trying to accomplish by rewriting Torah laws in his Antiquities? In the case of the wayward son, he seems to have had two main goals:

  1. Josephus wished to present Jewish law as enlightened and thus, not so different from—and favorably comparable to—Roman law.
  2. He wished to smooth over the problems in the biblical text.

Josephus picks up on many of the same issues the rabbis noted as well, but his interpretations often differ from rabbinic interpretations. Perhaps Josephus’ background and training reflects a different group than that from which the rabbis emerged. Perhaps the laws reflected in rabbinic literature had not yet developed in the time of Josephus. Josephus may have been influenced at times by Roman law.

Finally, we must consider the possibility that when Josephus wrote the Antiquities in 93/94 CE, he was living in Rome, away from the Jewish community of his youth, and his interpretations may reflect nothing more than his own personal attempt to understand the Torah and its laws.


August 25, 2015


Last Updated

June 7, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Michael Avioz is Associate Professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Bar Ilan University. Avioz’s books include Nathan’s Oracle (2 Samuel 7) and Its Interpreters, I Sat Alone: Jeremiah among the Prophets, and Josephus’ Interpretation of the Books of Samuel. His forthcoming book is Legal Exegesis of Scripture in the Works of Josephus (Bloomsbury).