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Thou Shalt not Destroy the Family
By Rev. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Our God is a God of the family. At the heart of God's plans for man lies the family. It is the oldest and most basic institution God has created among men. This morning we come to a text that has two laws related to the family.

According to the outline of Deuteronomy which we observed earlier in our series, this passage is located in the section which gives an exposition of the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill". Previously in this section we studied Moses' expansion of the Sixth Commandment in regards to capital punishment and war laws. These very obviously fit the pattern.

But in light of that outline, the passage before us would seem at first glance to be misplaced. These laws would appear to be more relevant were they in the previous section dealing with the Fifth Commandment, "Honor thy father and mother". After all, this section deals with a matter obviously concerned with family relations.

But as is so often the case, the laws of God overlap and intertwine themselves around one another as a seamless garment. The two laws that we will consider in this message do, of course, relate to the Fifth Commandment. But in the form in which they appear in our text, they consider the family in terms of its protection and succession. These, then, are laws designed to protect the family from destruction, from moral and spiritual death. As such, they expand on the Sixth Commandment: they forbid that which would kill or destroy the family line. The first law is a purely moral law. It is not a civil law backed by governmental authority. It contains no criminal sanctions. There is no punishment mentioned for breaking the law. The second law differs from first in that it is not only a moral but a civil law.

Let us consider these family protection laws. Let us do so by consideration of their covenantal purpose. How do these laws protect the covenant family? Let us begin with the first one:

1. Covenantal Succession and the Godly Child.

First, before we actually get into the express purpose of the first law, an important point needs to be briefly made regarding verse 15a: "If a man have two wives".

Some have wrongly assumed that this law (and others like it) established polygamy. Such is not the case. They often use this type of law to discredit the continuing validity of God's Law today.

It must be noted that the law simply says, "If a man have two wives". It does not say, "A man should have two wives." In the Old Testament era, God tolerated polygamy. He did not command it. By this statement we do not mean that God tolerated moral evil. Obviously, polygamy is not intrinsically immoral, for God did allow it in that day. And He never allows moral evil: "The Lord is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13a). In the New Testament era, however, polygamy is forbidden.

Due to the specific purpose of this case law, we will not delve into the whys and wherefores of its tolerance of polygamy in the Old Testament era. That is an interesting and important study in itself. Suffice it to say, for our present purposes, that the Law does not here command it! Its presence in the Law does not ipso facto invalidate God's Holy Word!

Second, as we prepare to consider this law, it needs also to be noted that this law does not have as its intention the establishing of the right of primogeniture. That is, it is not given for the purpose of establishing the legal rights of the first-born to receive a double portion of the inheritance. This is so in light of at least three factors:

(1) This had long been the practice of the patriarchs, at least since the time of Abraham over 500 years previous to the giving of the Law. The way in which the first-born is mentioned here shows that the law of the first-born is assumed as in existence already. It is assumed that a double portion inheritance will go to the first-born. This law exists to establish which of the first-born in this unusual situation has the right.

(2) The phrasing of the passage makes it clear that the specific purpose of the case law is to protect the legal rights of the son of the hated wife:

"If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated: then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved first-born before the son of the hated, which is indeed the first-born."

The reference to the double inheritance of the first-born is brought in by way of illustration to set up a set of circumstances. To illustrate the importance of the protection of family inheritance rights, the law cites the case hypothetically. The point of the case law is that family inheritance rights are so important that even the wishes of the father may not supercede the standing right of the first-born son. (We will deal with this more momentarily.)

(3) The place of this passage in the structure of Deuteronomy is helpful to the proper understanding of its purpose. It is found in the portion of Deuteronomy which is applying the Sixth Commandment which teaches, "Thou shalt not kill" or "destroy". In the larger context, then, this is given to prohibit the destruction, the disinheritance, or the economic death of the innocent child. The well-known right to a double-portion is mentioned so that the particular issue can be dealt with: The right is maintained even if the father does not like the child! v This law, then, has a singular purpose: To teach "Thou shalt disinherit the godly child." Taken for granted in the case law situation is the obvious assumption that the child protected is a godly son. By way of contrast the very next passage speaks of the ungodly child and how to deal with him.

The moral lesson we must learn is this: The family is under the headship of the father, by creational order and Biblical Law. But the father is not God. He cannot be a tyrant. He cannot autonomously determine anything he chooses in regard to his family. He is obligated to follow the pattern of God's Law. The male headship of the home is legitimate and right only if the father righteously reflects God's rule. This law insures that this is understood.

We live in an age characterized by superficiality and emotionalism. What strikes our fancy.... What makes us feel good.... Such things determine how we conduct our affairs. This is tragic.

The godly father is one who acts toward his children, not in terms of emotional feeling or some such thing. He is one who governs his family in terms of God's holy Law. Even though emotionally he may love his second wife and her first-born child more than the other, he may not selfishly choose to honor that child over the other. Rights are God-given and must be maintained in terms of a godly order.

The basic principle of this law is that the godly child cannot be disinherited. Not emotional feeling, but moral law was to determine the father's conduct toward his family. God's Law governs in the family life. God is concerned with the continuance and succession of His covenant in family generations. Man cannot interrupt them with impunity.

The ideas of covenantal succession and leaving an inheritance are very important to the Christian. Covenantal succession ties family generations together. It stresses the labors of the past shall be sent via covenantal inheritance into the future to our children. "Children (godly children) are an heritage of the Lord" (Ps. 127:3).

2. Covenantal Cessation and the Ungodly Child.

In the second case law we have presented to us an opposite situation. Rather than the insuring of covenantal succession, we have the call to covenantal cessation. This law is just as important as the preceding one; they logically occur together to govern against extremes. Deuteronomy 21:18-22 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 his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders 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."

Again, opponents of God's Law try to make this law something that it is not. They try to disestablish God's Law by appealing to the alleged cruelty of this passage. But let us notice a few things in response to such allegations:

First, this law does not apply to a young child. The text clearly presents the actions of an older child, not an adolescent: He is one who is a "drunkard" and uncontrollable. This is not calling for capital punishment of a ten year old.

Second, this law does not call for capital punishment for mere drunkenness (as evil as drunkenness is). What is presented here is a complex of evil characteristics inhering in one person: He is "stubborn", "rebellious", a "drunkard", and a "glutton." These are expressive of dangerous unruliness and incorrigible criminality. This is not one act or occasional acts. It is a settled lifestyle of dangerous behavior. As a matter of fact, it is public misconduct that is provable in court: "Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place...." The parents have tried to chasten and correct him, but to no avail: "And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice" (v. 20a).

Third, the opponent of this law who alleges that it is immoral has put himself in an uncomfortable situation. Not only is it God's Law, but Jesus Christ affirms it in the New Testament. Matthew 15:1-4 has Jesus citing this law as it is recorded in Leviticus 20:9:

"Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, 'Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.' But he answered and said unto them, 'Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honor thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.... Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of your, saying, this people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.'"

The fundamental teaching of this law is that the family must align itself with God and His Law, rather than with blood ties or emotional attachment, as is so often the case. God and His Law must have priority over feelings and sympathies.

Jesus spoke of the overriding of natural sympathies in the family in Matthew 10:34-38:

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother -in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."

Obviously our Lord is not demanding the undermining or the destruction of the home. He is calling for a recognition of a fundamental priority: The Lord must be first in life. That is the whole idea of His being "Lord"!

How often in the news do we read of mothers and fathers calling for mercy for their sons that have committed murder! This sets them directly contrary to God and His Law for man. Every man has a mother and father! Shall every murderer be set free? The godly parent is the parent who follows God and His Law wherever they may lead. This is what is meant by "the fear of God" which is so often spoken of in both the Old and New Testaments. The godly parent is one who will cut off his child when he is in dangerous, settled rebellion against God and man.

Not blood, but faith should rule us. Not pity, but God's Law must govern our conduct toward those who have set themselves against God--even if they are our own children.

A humanistic refusal to follow such a concept as here found in God's Law has caused serious problems of national consequence in the past. How often have the monarchs in Europe been scoundrels afflicting the citizenry with barbarities and neighboring nations with unprovoked war. And the monarchies were established along family lines. Almost invariably the bad kings and queens were known to be evil before they were crowned. They could have been cut off by godly parents. They could have been disinherited and the nation would have been spared much grief.

Consider also God's actions toward His firstborn, Israel. Exodus 4:22 says, "Israel is my son, even my firstborn." Yet Jesus teaches in Matthew 8:10-12 that Israel will be cast out: "Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." God cut off His firstborn son, Israel, because Israel rejected and crucified Jesus Christ. And He then adopted us!

There are several conclusions that may be drawn from this law of our God. Some are conclusions related to the family; some are conclusions related to the government:

(1) The family is under a moral obligation to cut off the ungodly child by disinheriting him. If God's Law urges the parent to turn the evil child over to civil authority, clearly it would encourage the refusal to subsidize the godless child in life. Any wealth that we have comes from God. It must be used for God and His kingdom work. It must not be allowed to pass into the hands of the ungodly, even if they are our own children.

(2) In the rare cases where parents are faced with a situation wherein one of their children has been proven to be a criminal, the parents should stand for righteousness. They should not side with the evil child against law and order by pleading for mercy. This is may be hard to do emotionally, but it is proper to do in light of God's holy Law.

(3) The law endorses a high view of the home and of parental control in the home. The godly parent disciplines the child. And where the discipline does not work, and when the child becomes dangerous, the godly parent turns him in to the authorities.

(4) There are limits to parental authority. In Roman law the father had the right to slay his own children if he saw fit. But in Biblical law the parent's disciplinary authority is limited to chastisement. He cannot slay the child. That authority is vested in civil government.

(5) An obvious application of this law would be that the civil government should have laws that call for capital punishment for the incorrigable criminal. In the case presented the unruly son is clearly incorrigable. He is a menace to society who constantly is involved in criminal conduct. Instead of housing and feeding the debased criminal at taxpayer's expense, the government should put the criminal to death.


Our God loves the family. The godly parent cannot disinherit godly children. He must provide an inheritance for his godly children.

However, our family is not our God! God's Law must rule in all of life, even in the difficult situations where parent is set against child.

We should let our children know how much they mean to us. We should let them know that our love is governed by God's Law. They must rest assured in the knowledge that we will do all that God requires of us. We will leave them an inheritance if they are godly. But we will also disinherit them if they do not follow after God.