If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.
Some contend that that this passage commands the courts to execute small children who swear at their parents. Given such a command would be harsh and disproportionate, it is inferred the Old Testament here teaches something unjust and absurd.
There are several assumptions behind this reading of the Old Testament. First, it assumes the text is referring to the actions of children. Second, it assumes that the word “curse” refers to “swearing” at someone. Third, it assumes that the text constitutes a command to the courts to execute those who do this, which it is intended that the courts will carry out.
In a previous series, Capital Punishment in the Old Testament, I have addressed the third assumption; I noted that capital sanctions in the Old Testament were probably not intended to be carried out by the courts, rather they served an admonitory function and in practice the courts substituted capital punishment for a monetary fine to be paid to the victim. I also think the first assumption is questionable, though in this post I will not pursue this line of argument, instead I want to address the assumption at hand, the idea that “cursing,” when this word is used in the Old Testament, refers to swearing at someone.
The Hebrew word translated “curse” here is qalal which basically means to “despise or treat with contempt.” By itself this is somewhat vague and context is needed to determine what exactly it refers to. In their commentary on Exodus, Jonathan Walton and Victor Matthews note, “Contrary to the NIV translation, studies have shown that the infraction here is not cursing but treating with contempt. This is a more general category and would certainly include the prohibition of 21:15 which forbids striking a parent.” They go on to note that the commandment is intended to ensure, “that each subsequent generation provide their parents with the respect, food and protection they deserve.” The studies Walton and Matthews refer to are comparative studies of the Pentateuch with other ancient near eastern legal codes, which provide interesting information about the cultural and legal context into which the Old Testament spoke. Walton and Matthews note how “contempt for parents” was understood in ancient near eastern codes such as the Code of Hammurabi and various Sumerian laws. According to the case law of the time, contempt for one’s parents involved such things as disowning them when they were old and physically assaulting them; it was considered a serious legal matter.
This understanding of the word “curse” is borne out by its use elsewhere in scripture. In the proto-history flood story God states, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done.” Here “curse” is clearly not God swearing at the ground; the idea is that God treated the land with contempt by flooding it.
In Gen 12, God tells Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Here again the issue is not merely swearing; the word curse is antithetical to the word bless and the context tells us that Abram will bless all nations, this blessing involves bring salvation to the Gentiles. When the word “curse” is being used here then the idea is of people who express contempt for Israel by trying to harm them.
Perhaps the clearest example is seen in a similar context which occurs only a few verses before the one in Leviticus 20:4, this is the use of the word “curse” in Lev 19:14, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” Here cursing the deaf is condemned; the word translated “curse” is the same word used in Leviticus 20:4 and the context, grammar and genre are sufficiently similar to suggest the word is being used the same way. Yet it is evident, I think, that the word “curse” here does not mean swearing; the reason for this conclusion is that the command to “not curse the deaf” occurs alongside another command to not “put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” Given a blind person cannot see, putting a stumbling block in front of them could cause them to trip, fall and injure themselves. Hence, what is being condemned is an attempt to cause a person an injury. Hence, the command to “not curse the deaf” occurs alongside a command to not attempt to injure the blind.
What makes this significant is that, frequently in Hebrew literature, writers will use a method of parallelism whereby two clauses are placed side by side that have a similar meaning. It is clear from an examination of Leviticus 19 that a type of parallelism is being utilised in this chapter, consider the following examples from the immediate context,
10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.
12 Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.
13 Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him. Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.
15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.
18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
In each instance above what is prohibited in the first half of the verse is the same type of action which is prohibited in the second half. In fact, in most cases what comes in the second half explains and illuminates what is forbidden in the first half. In v 10 what occurs side by side are gleaning and taking all the grapes from ones field leaving none for the poor. In v 13 defrauding is a kind of robbing and it is evident that the issue is withholding pay. In v 15 showing partiality to the poor is condemned then favouring the wealthy is too. In v 16 spreading slander is condemned alongside endangering a neighbours life (the concern with slander relates to the bearing false witness in a capital crime, which allows us to see the parallel here). In v 18 bearing a grudge and taking revenge are juxtaposted. The immediate context then suggests that when two commands occur side by side in the manner they do in v 14 that the commands address the same basic fundamental issue. Treating the disabled with contempt (cursing them) involves actions such as attempting to injure or harm them.
Two other lines of evidence suggest this; the first is the command in Leviticus 20:9, which is a repetition of the same command in Exodus 21, “If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.” It is interesting to see the context that this law occurs in,
Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death. Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death. Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death. Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. “If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed. “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his silver.” If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. (Ex 21:12-26)
The command to, “put to death” a person “who curses his father or mother,” occurs in the midst of a series of commandments that all deal with violent assaults on other people. All the immediate verses deal with contempt expressed in violence in the form of assault, kidnapping or homicide. Clearly, the kind of contempt being expressed here is, if one takes the context seriously, more than simply a verbal insult.
The second and perhaps for Christians, more important line of evidence is that Christ himself cites this passage. In Matthew 15 Christ is challenged by the Pharisees as to why he does not follow certain oral traditions about washing. His response is to go on the counter attack,
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father ‘ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:3-6)
Here Jesus cites the command about not cursing one’s parents and applies it not to swearing but to attempts to escape the duty to provide for one’s aged parents by devoting the money to the temple. Jesus contends that traditions that sanction such subterfuge violate the command to not curse one’s parents. He clearly understands the command in terms of contempt and in terms of the kind of case law Walton and Matthews refer to. It is worth bearing in mind that in an ancient society like this, with no state superannuation, failure to provide for one’s parents in their old age could have terrible results. Hence, far from being unjust or absurd the commandment is quite understandable.
 Jonathan Walton and Victor Matthews “The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis Deuteronomy” (Downers Grove Il: Intervarsity Press) 112.
 Ibid 113.