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Shemot/Exodus 21:15 One who attacks his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
This is the second in a series of four commandments requiring the death penalty that are all interrelated. The first is "He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death" (Shemot 21:12, NJPS); the third, "He who kidnaps a man -- whether he has sold him or is still holding him -- shall be put to death" (v. 16, NJPS); and the last "He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death" (v. 17, NJPS). Apart from the penalty, what is the connecting thread that ties these together? The answer is that all four offences are considered to be forms of murder: killing, striking a parent, kidnapping and insulting a parent. All four commands end with the emphatic - a Qal infinitive absolute followed by a Ho'fal 3ms prefix jussive from the root , to die - translated "he shall surely" or "he shall certainly" be put to death.
The first command applies between any two individuals and uses the phrase "one who strikes/attacks a man and he dies". The verb is the Hi'fil ms participle of the root , to smite, strike; to kill, slay; to deride or taunt (Davidson). The attack is followed by death; the victim dies as a result of the attack. The second command uses the same verb but without the 'die' verb, so this is an attack that doesn't lead to death. In the general case, that is an attack on a man by another man, the assailant is required to pay for the medical expenses, loss of income and compensation for the victim. But this second command elevates the offence to capital status in the case of a man or woman attacking their own parent. The third command follows the line that kidnapping a person1 is tantamount to killing them - certainly as far as the person's family are concerned. The fourth then raises the case of simply insulting one's own parent - again, father or mother - to a similar capital level, requiring the death penalty.
In the last parasha, we had the giving of the Ten Words. The fifth commandment given there is "Honour your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that the L-RD your G-d is assigning to you" (20:12, NJPS); the only commandment with an attached promise - and hence, an implied penalty: if you do not honour your parents, you will not last long in the Land. Nahum Sarna comments that "the biblical religion attaches a high importance to the integrity of the family as the indispensable prerequisite for a wholesome society. There is also here the unassailable conviction that the dissolution of the family unit must inevitably rend to shreds the entire social fabric." By employing physical violence against parents or by insulting them, their reputation and standing within the community is destroyed: their name is killed.Hirsch comments that "whosoever strikes a man so that he dies, is guilty of death; if he strikes his father or mother, even if the wound is not fatal, he is equally guilty of death." Umberto Cassuto compares this command to the Code of Hammurabi, explaining that the Torah, which sets great "store by the precept of honouring father and mother, is stricter in its legislation, by including the mother as well as the father and by the penalty it imposes."2
The prophet Ezekiel is instructed to speak against the city of Jerusalem, including a list of the offences that the city and its inhabitants have committed: "Fathers and mothers have been humiliated within you; strangers have been cheated in your midst; orphans and widows have been wronged within you. You have despised My holy things and profaned My sabbaths" (Ezekiel 22:7-8, NJPS). It is interesting to see that humiliating fathers and mothers are listed in the same breath as abusing strangers, widows and orphans, and profaning the holy things and times. There is disregard and disrespect for the elderly in general and for parents by their own children.
Yeshua makes a remarkable comment about the relationships between people early in the Sermon on the Mount: "Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire" (Matthew 5:22, ESV). Once again we see significant penalties being attached to insulting others and hurling epithets at them. Although not present in the gospel text, we can extend the principle bykol va'chomer to say: if this applies between brothers, one's fellows, how much more so to one's parents who have raised you and brought you up. Yet Yeshua Himself refers to the Scribes and Pharisees as "blind fools" (23:17, ESV) because of their non-sensical interpretations of the grounds and criteria for oaths being binding. Craig Keener suggests that the former - between individuals - is a prohibition of acting in anger, while the latter is an example of "grieved indignation ... under appropriate circumstances."3
Another example that occurs in the gospel of Luke: "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them" (Luke 15:11-12, ESV). Darrell Bock reports that "since estates were not normally divided between the surviving children until the fathers' death ... some commentators suggest the son's request treats the father as he were already dead,"4 Certainly, the son is expressing significant disrespect for his father. As the story unfolds, not only is the inheritance wasted, but the relationships between the father and his two sons are placed under huge strain. For all that the father tries to effect reconciliation, something has died in the family.
In this modern age, a following generation can be very dismissive towards their parents - the previous generation - thinking that they know nothing and have no understanding of the the pressures and conflicts of dealing with life in their time. Especially in peer-group conversations and gatherings, it is very easy to openly criticise and insult one's parents, certainly without deliberately intending to and almost without noticing. Open criticism of budgets, curfews, clothing and hairstyles abound in every age. Every generation has its own particular trials and challenges, new manifestations of old issues that the previous generation have not seen, but it is very unusual for anything entirely new to arise that has not been seen in some shape or form before. In their turn, older generations have certainly struggled with issues and concepts that their children will not have to face due either to changed circumstances or to society moving on. The issue of how to manage one's finances and limited resources applied during times of war, times of shortage and rationing and today in times of apparent abundance and choice.
For all that they appear old-fashioned and out of touch, parents (generally) have a lot of wisdom from their experiences of being young themselves and bringing up a family. Children can often see through pretence and misunderstandings and are much less reserved about recognising and naming problems and attitudes. The generations are called to share and pool that wisdom, to respect and value each other. Children are told to "obey your parents in the L-rd, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1, ESV), while parents are told, "do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the L-rd" (v. 4, ESV). Both are to respect and work with each other - and no trying to wriggle out of it by saying that this refers to elders at church as "parents in the L-rd" rather than flesh and blood parents!
We insult others at our peril. Not only do we lose respect for those we insult so that it can become impossible for us to learn from them and have a meaningful relationship with them, to see past the insult, but we inflict at best a wound upon them, at worst killing them. Sometimes, in extreme cases, this can result in physical death from stress-induced conditions or suicide; more frequently it causes hurt and anxiety and spreads through out whole society and relationship groups tainting all those who learn from us or follow our model, our children being the most vulnerable, affected and damaged examples. Dangerous, therefore, for anyone, but most tragic when those insulted, cut off and hurt are our parents, those whose lives have often been invested (no matter how badly or ineffectively, it might seem from our point of view) in bringing us up and nurturing us, often at great personal cost and sacrifice to them. For then we have killed the generational link, spat in the faces of those we are called to honour and respect (no-one said obey or agree with, once of an age) and brought down their gray hairs to She'ol with sorrow.
1. - Here the clear implication is that the victim has been kidnapped in order to be sold, so will to all intents and purposes appear to die for his original family and context.
2. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
3. - Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009, pages 184-185.
4. - Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 ECNT, Baker, 1996, pages 1309-1310.
Further Study: D'varim 27:16; Proverbs 23:22; Psalm 78:3-4; Matthew 15:3-8
Application: How do things stand between you and your parents (or the memory of your parents)? Is there a level of honour and respect, even allowing for difference of opinion, or are they essentially dead to you because of argument or even insult? Is it time to repair those relationships before it is too late and to seek an honourable agreement to disagree while maintaining a respectful and caring stance towards each other?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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