Exodus 21:17 Surely be Put to Death
Exodus 21:17 is a difficult verse. If applied literally today as most understand it, many children would die. But was that the actual meaning or the intent?
Let’s look at some other examples of this term to help us with the meaning.
“And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely (H4191) be put to death (H4191).” (Exodus 21:17)
The translation issues involved with “shall surely be put to death” are discussed on this page. Here we are looking at it from the perspective of the family involved.
How could such a penalty (being put to death) possibly benefit anyone in this circumstance? Father and mother were upset because their son cursed them but now that he has been executed, they feel better! That is absurd!
And God feels better! How could it be true?
“Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Eze 18:23)
“Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Eze 33:11)
The following verses bring out that putting the offender to death would end the possibility of them repenting and receiving pardon:
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isa 55:7)
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
People who believe that God means that children who curse their parents must be killed are not thinking clearly! But that is the sort of thinking that happens when the words (as written in our English Bible) are taken literally, without even questioning whether there might be translation or other issues involved. God says:
“Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa 1:18)
Now some might want to link Exodus 21:17 to this verse:
“And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses.” (Lev 24:23)
It is not exactly the same situation as that person had cursed, blaspheming the name of the Lord. However, it is very similar. See the page on stoning (coming soon) to understand Leviticus 24:23 and help with the issue of stoning.
The directive in Exodus 21:17 was included in the list of judgments given at Sinai and was not a reference to a specific incident. A similar direction was given a few verses earlier:
“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” (Exo 21:12)
That brings to mind the story of Cain and Abel.
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” (Gen 4:8)
According to the judgments given in Exodus 21, Cain should have been put to death. God’s action, however, after what was likely a call to repentance (“… Where is Abel thy brother? …” – Gen 4:9), was to grant Cain protection from death:
“And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Gen 4:15)
So, it is possible, in the light of what the study on the meaning for “surely die” showed:
“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” (Exodus 21:12)
could be understood as:
- a warning against a wrong action,
- a call to repentance and
- a plea to not be separated from God,
and could have been properly translated as:
“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall surely die.” (Exo 21:12, adapted)
and be paraphrased and expanded as:
“He that smiteth a man, so that he die, has separated himself from me (God speaking) and if he does not repent and return to Me, the eventual, inevitable and natural (not imposed) result is that he shall surely die.” (Exo 21:12, adapted)
The same reasoning could be used in the following and probably other verses:
“And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.” (Exo 21:15)
“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.” (Exo 21:16)
“Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death.” (Exo 22:19)
So, parents, if your children curse you, you are not required by Exodus 21:17 to stone or otherwise put them to death. However, the verse is a warning to them, and to you, to guide them in the right direction. This verse indicates that the “surely” does not exclude the possibility of repentance:
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
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