Surely you can’t take this verse seriously

You teach the importance of taking the laws as a whole.  But verses  like Deuteronomy 22:21pronounce you must stone a woman to death in the door of her father’s house. 

If you cannot pick and choose what to follow, and you cannot say that it isn’t to be taken literally, what must I say about this contradiction?

This is perhaps why people pick and choose…


Dear Meta,

We have a feeling you are asking a question that many share. We certainly do think the Bible becomes meaningless if we only follow verses with which we agree or understand. You are mistaken, however, in believing that we, or other Bible-believing Jews, follow the Bible’s English translation literally.

In 2007, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible was published. While it was a clever marketing idea, the author did things that no observant Jew, from Abraham until today, ever did such as throwing pebbles at an adulterer. He also neglected to do things that are and have always been part of Judaism such as praying while wearing phylacteries every morning.  Unlike his year-long adventure foolishly wearing a white robe and sandals, we follow the vast body of ancient Jewish wisdom that explains the details, unpacks the mysteries, and makes sense of the written one.

While certain minor details vary among serious Jews according to their various traditions, there are many more that are shared. In our age of international communication we can see that Jews in Yemen and Poland, for example, separated for centuries and surrounded by completely different cultures, all followed the same general outline for kosher food. That outline is not detailed in the written Bible but is part of the oral transmission. It’s similar  for all our observances. One group might light oil lamps to welcome in the Sabbath while another might use candles, but both will mark the entrance of the Sabbath with natural flames.

At the same time as there is room for modernity in our life, we reject the idea that we know better than God. No modern psychologist can convince us that a current trend is wiser than the guidance of our Creator, for example by suggesting that gender is declared rather than birthed. For this reason, we can’t use popular “modern” ideas to permit practices that have always been forbidden.

When it comes to verses like the one you quote, you might find it interesting to know the following.  Although the Bible is full of actions that deserve the death penalty, never in Jewish history have those penalties been regularly carried out in practice.  The legal hurdles that must be overcome before a death penalty was carried out are immense. However, the idea that certain actions threaten the well-being of an entire society and so deserve a death penalty is immensely important, even if the violator will never actually be executed.

If we aren’t able to accept that the same God who says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” is the God who prohibits homosexual practice and requires us to rest on the Sabbath, then citing the Bible as the source of those ideas is manipulative rather than meaningful.

We hope this gave you some food for thought,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

13 thoughts on “Surely you can’t take this verse seriously”

  1. I think the question itself reveals a view of the bible that is different from mine. I do not see the bible as a rule book, like the rules of baseball for instance, but more like a book of principles that must be applied collectively. In baseball, you look up the one rule that defines how many “strikes” makes an out – and that’s it, that’s the answer (3 of course). It is an absolute rule, a definition of how the game is played, and almost totally independent of the other rules such as four balls is a walk. The bible is not this kind of rule book. Unlike baseball, the individual rules are not independent of each other. And the full meaning of the rule requires contemplation and thought – not a wooden or superficial reading. I’m not suggesting that we water-down the (individual) law or otherwise weasel out of it to make things more comfortable, but rather that the laws were intended to be read together as principles in both concert and conflict in order to judge wisely. Reading the laws together is what provides a comfortable answer (and I suspect why so few were ever punished in this way – not out of refusal to follow this law but out of the following of the law as a whole). The question from Meta goes to this fundamental premise: are the rules independently absolute (as in baseball) or are they pieces of a whole that must be considered in rendering judgment? I think it is the latter and that view largely answers or renders moot the question posed by Meta. Criticizing one law without exploration of other laws (upon which interdependence was intended) is unfair to the bible law. For instance, the law also commands us to love, even to love the strangers (Deu. 10:19). That kind of consideration might change how we perceive and enforce Deu. 10:19.

    I also think the collective approach to law is extra-difficult for an American because of how our legal system usually works. If you broke the rule, you are guilty. But my friends in the EU are familiar with treating laws as principles or guidelines, which often frustrates me as it feels more like the pirate code (well not quite that liberal). To them, offending the words in one law is not the end of the inquiry. Other laws, principles, and consideration are brought to bear. Again, I think this was how the biblical laws were intended to be read. When we read them with our American view of law, it creates unnecessary consternation.

    Additionally, I suggest that knowing the words of a law in the bible is not the answer – it is only the beginning of the answer. We need to understand why these words were used (what context, to whom, why would this be important to God, etc.) in order to start understanding the principles God wanted us to understand from these words. In the baseball rulebook, the meaning is self-explanatory (knowing the words is knowing the answer) and no such contemplation is necessary. But in the bible, when we are shocked by a law like Deu. 22:21, the response is (should be) to invite exploration of “why would God say this?” Why would this offend God and why does God seem extra mad about it? How would this behavior hurt anybody else? This kind of depth of understanding that can be drawn out from a bible verse cannot be drawn out from a rulebook (even one as fun as baseball). That is the second difference, deeper meanings and principles are embedded in the bible but not in ordinary rulebooks. And answering those questions will lead, I think, to a better understanding of (in the words of our Rabbi) “how the world Really works.” And isn’t that the point of biblical law?

  2. Rabbi,
    First of all, I want to thank you and Susan for all you do! I feel immensely blessed to have found you on TCT. We tape you every day and watch your shows at our leisure so we can stop and actually ponder what you are teaching. As a Christian since 1968, I TRULY want to Thank You! My faith is strengthened and fortified by your teachings. Because now I can see it from the perspective I was always MEANT to see it from. The Jewish perspective.
    In the Christian faith, ALL were Jews and ALL QUOTED The Torah and/or the Prophets (Isaiah, Etc,,,) in ALL of their teachings! You have really strengthened us in that NOW it is so much easier to understand the Torah and Prophets, But our Christian faith as well.

    That being said, let the firestorm begin!
    As someone who has been in the faith for 50 years now, I am speaking for myself, and have REALLY tired of the “Is God so powerful that He can make a rock so big, that He Himself can’t lift it?” (George Carlin) line of questioning. I know as our Rabbi that you must entertain the possibility that this is a serious question, But in my reading of the Bible and in my OWN experience, This TYPE of question is ALWAYS used as a “trip up” question. Jesus, the Christ was ROUTINELY asked similar questions.
    I want to give the benefit of the doubt, But my instincts say otherwise.
    In my OPINION, questions should be for actual knowledge and/or clarification. I know there can be subsets of this, but, of all the things???
    As I read the Torah, there are laws and a system to ENFORCE said laws. Such as the “cities of refuge” would be a similar point.
    Well, I will leave it at that for now. I COULD go further, but I feel I should stop. I just wish for more honest questions.

    I pray Gods blessings upon you and your family and ministry Rabbi.
    Again, THANK YOU for all you do!

  3. My view of this my be different from the Rabbi’s because I am viewing this from a Christian perspective. When dealing with Old Testament Law you need to be mindful of the purpose and context of the Law that you are dealing with. First you must ask yourself, “Is God Just? Is God perfect?” If you’ve answered yes to that then you must think deeper as to why there were certain Laws put into place?
    First any Law or practice which was used to make a person declared clean was done away with by Jesus at the cross. Never did keeping of any Law declare one Just with God. The purpose of the Law was to be a school master (according to Paul). It was supposed to say, “These are the requirements to enter into heaven”. When you look at this one would say, “No one can keep all of that perfectly. Who then can be saved from the wrath to come?”.
    The Law was never meant to save, it was put before you to teach that you needed someone to do what you are unable to do. Mankind fell from grace in the garden and sin nature entered into his DNA and was passed down through all of his offspring. That’s why it took a Messiah (100% God 100% Man) with no sin nature to redeem man. So to the redeemed man Laws dealing with cleanliness and temple worship and rituals are null.
    Dealing with Moral Law (The Ten Commandments), these remain in effect. These Laws don’t “save” but these Laws tell you how your are supposed to behave. No other Gods before ME, honor your parents,don’t kill, steal, lie, these are the behaviors you are supposed to do. You will not keep these perfectly but, if they are followed a majority of the time by a majority of the people, then society will be decent and not in chaos.
    Finally the Judicial Laws, if you do “X” then “Y” is the penalty. These Laws were given to the nation of Israel on how to govern themselves. These Laws set the Israel apart from all the other nations. People often mention the Separation of Church and State, not realizing that it was God who first did this. Moses and the Judges handled the Law and Aaron and his sons handled the priestly duties. Now, is it extreme or unlawful to stone an adulterer? If you say “yes” then you are stating that God isn’t lawful, because why would God command the people to do something wicked? So the question is do we now stone all Adulterers? The answer is No. Why? Because the Church wasn’t given that authority. That authority is given to the State. Can the state pass laws that are contrary to what God commands? Sure, and that state will pay the price for it.
    Would it be okay the State to pass a law that would stone Adulterers? Yes. It doesn’t exceed the blueprint laid down by God. I would be unlawful to pass a law that exceeded God’s law. For example, cutting off the hands of a thief is far more than God commanded. God said pay two-five times the amount back of what was stolen. (depending on what the situation demanded)

    Before you are critical of Old Testament Law first examine our own system. If a guy goes into a store and steals a loaf of bread what happens? He is arrested, it’s put on his permanent record, he pays a fine to the state. That man’s life is completely ruined. He’ll always have that jail time on his record and never be employed. Life of crime for the rest of his life.
    Under Old Testament law he had to pay back twice the value of what was stolen. No public record, no jail time. What if he couldn’t afford to pay? He then works off the debt. Make auto plates or cut grass at the court house, pick up trash on the highway and the city pays the store owner the wage the man would have made. Also, there were no jails in the Old Testament system. You didn’t incarcerate people to be a burden to the rest of society. They either made restitution or were put to death depending on the law that was broken.
    There also wasn’t a welfare system. People were expected to take care of their own family members and those who had no living relatives had a system as well. The landowners were commanded by God to not work the corners of their fields and allow the poor to go and work them (Book of Ruth). This system allowed people to survive as long as they were willing to work.
    It’s a pretty good system and deserves to be studied and not just random Laws pulled out of the entire system to condemn it.

  4. Teacher I dont know how many times over the years I have said to myself: “This is the best thing Rabbi Lapin has ever written”!

    “Modern Judasim” is what I consider a false teaching from the “rabbis” of reform, reconstructionist, conservative, and humanisitic/progressive “judaism”.

    Although they have absolutely no case to make for the path they instruct to their unsuspecting congregants, who still drink the tasty kool-aid of “modern judaism”, these very “rabbis” will still continue in all pomposity, arrogance and stubborness to reject the truth of your teaching.

    1. Christ addressed this stoning in the law of moses ( john 8 vs 7) “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” Christ’s death for our sin did away with these ordinances. Read John 8 for the full impact.

      1. Dear Rabbi Lapin,
        GOD made a covenant with the children of Israel. These children promised GOD they would do whatever GOD said to do. But as they received the Law, time would reveal that no one was able to keep it. GOD required a blood sacrifice to clean oneself of breaking the law. Without a way to be right again, to be clean again, how does one justify himself as saved? The truth is, GOD provided for Himself the perfect unblemished lamb, His only Son, Yeshua, Messiah. Without the world even knowing what was going on, GOD, Emanuel slipped into our world as a baby, grew in favor with GOD and man, shepherded twelve men and woman besides, performed miracles; the blind were given sight, the lame started walking, the lepers became clean and demons were casted out. Then as it came upon the time of the Passover, Yeshua, Jesus, was brought to Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a skull and they crucified Him. It was the third hour. Darkness covered the land at the sixth hour till the ninth hour. Then Jesus cried out, “It is finished” and breathed His last. Then the curtain in temple ripped in half. A man named Joseph took Jesus down at evening time, and wrapped Him in fine linen and placed Him in a tomb and rolled a stone over the entrance. Now when the sabbath had passed, on the first day of the week, ladies who followed Jesus, arose early and ran to the tomb to anoint His body with oil. But, when they arrived the stone was rolled away. They went inside the tomb and saw a man in a long white robe sitting on the right side. He said to the ladies, “do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him.”
        The only answer to keeping the law and being human is by a relationship with GOD Himself. He made a way for His people to be with Him, because they could not and would not do it themselves. As a great blessing, He also included all the other nations of the world in this great salvation; extending a place of adoption to them to be His children too. It’s so glorious!
        Rabbi Lapin, thank you for your ministry to all people. You are a giver and a lover of people, just like GOD is.

  5. Dear Rabbi,

    I’m glad you mentioned the immense hurdles that would have to be overcome in order to sentence one to death but I wish you would elaborate, most people have no idea. To the initial inquirer I would ask this, If someone is found in adultery or suspected of it who is the convening authority to declare a person be stoned? Is your local pastor and board of deacons that group? Church attendance surely would plummet. Although true I said the last as a bit of humor.

    1. A quick response, Louis. There has not been a possible death penalty for a few thousand years. Even at that time, the restrictions on valid witnesses, on necessary warnings given to the sinner etc., made it almost impossible.

  6. In Christianity we divide the law into three parts. The governing theocracy laws were abolished by the Babylonian Exile, and many of the ritual and purity laws were fulfilled for us on the cross (which is why a heathen Scandinavian gentile was redeemed and included in the promise to Abraham).

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