Deuteronomy 21:18-21 describes a legal case of a mother and father with a rebellious son who will not listen to them. When the parents take their son to the city elders, they announce that the son is not only rebellious but also a glutton and a drunkard. At least that is what English translations tell us. The son is then sentenced to death by stoning, so that the evil may be purged from the community and that all Israel may hear and fear.
This English rendering of “a glutton and a drunkard” for zôlēl wəsōbē’ (Hebrew: וסבא זולל) has largely been assumed without investigating the food and drink consumed by the rebellious son in the text’s particular cultural context. The severe punishment appears to those of us in the modern West to be at odds with the alleged crime. What did the rebellious son do that was so threatening to the community that stoning was required?
To understand this, we must examine the foodways of the ancient Israelites. Foodways are the aspects of food and drink that broadly inform about a culture. They include diet, farming and agriculture, food preparation and cooking, special consumption occasions such as feasts, and the social relationships of meal participants. Foodways show what is considered normal and acceptable in a specific culture, which in turn communicates information about its technology, social structures, gender roles, rituals, and many other aspects of a society.
The rebellious son appears to have engaged in a deviant consumption activity, something running counter to the accepted norms. To understand this, we must first establish what was considered normal. Archaeological remains from ancient Israel, coupled with biblical texts, can inform us about normative foodways—what was eaten by whom and the social and religious roles of food and eating.
At ancient Israelite and Judahite settlements, archaeologists have found large quantities of animal remains, particularly of goat, sheep, and cattle, as well as botanical remains. Based on these, the main sources of food for ancient Israelites and Judahites were dairy and grain products, supplemented with seasonal legumes and fruits. Meat was eaten rarely.
Cattle were used to plow fields for planting grain crops, but because they required large amounts of resources, such as feed and water, they were not kept in large numbers. Keeping a minimum number of cattle meant that wheat and barley could be grown while limiting pressure on the available resource base. Sheep and goats were valued primarily for their fleece, which could be made into cloth, and for their milk, which could be consumed fresh or processed into storable products such as cheese and yogurt.1 Animal dung was also a vital resource, as it was an ideal fuel for cooking and baking bread.
The ratio of sheep to goat bones is typically two-thirds goat to one-third sheep in Israelite and Judahite sites.2 This mixture enabled farmers to maximize their resource base. Sheep will graze on grass, while goats will browse on bushes. Goats were hardier animals during times of disease, famine, and drought, but sheep provided higher-quality milk and wool. The ratio of animals was purposefully implemented to reduce the risk of losing the entire herd during a time of lack, but also allowed for better quality products in times of security.
The lifetime products of the animals (dung, milk, fleece, and plowing power) were the primary reason for keeping animals in ancient Israel and Judah, and it therefore was not resourceful to slaughter animals frequently for meat. Instead, meat was eaten when it was necessary to cull the herd to ensure the best use of the resource base. For example, young males were killed, so they did not consume the milk that humans wanted to process, but some females were kept, as they would produce offspring and milk in the future.
Because famine and drought were frequent, scarcity was the norm. So every decision made by the farmer aimed to reduce risk and create as much security as possible for the household. Such a strategy is termed a survival subsistence strategy.
Grain could be stored year round and was used by the women of the household to grind into flour, cook in stews, or brew into beer. The main grains in ancient Israel and Judah were wheat and barley.
Unlike wine production, beer brewing did not require large pieces of equipment or installations, because it could be made in a single vessel in the home. Beer was a cost-effective beverage by comparison to wine, which required a lot of labor, land, storage space, and time—from growing the vines to harvesting and processing the grapes. Further, beer was made from the grain of the previous harvest, making it a secure source for producing alcohol. Because of its accessibility, virtually all Israelites and Judahites would have consumed beer as their main alcoholic beverage. Wine was a rare commodity reserved for special feasts—unless the household was wealthy.
Brewing beer increased the nutritional value of the grain and also, being low in alcohol, was a safe source of drinking water. Beer had to be boiled during the brewing process, which killed most of the bacteria, parasites, and other disease-causing organisms found in untreated water. Because beer would have contained grain sediment and husks, it was consumed through a straw with a filter on the end. These straw filters—made from metal or animal bone—have been found in the archaeological record. We also have iconographic artifacts that depict the consumption of beer from large communal jars via straws. Excavated jars containing carbonized crushed wheat further indicate the presence of beer consumption in ancient Israelite society.
Biblical texts mention beer repeatedly, but English versions misleadingly translate the Hebrew word shēkār (שׁכר) as “strong drink” (e.g., Leviticus 10:9; Numbers 6:3; Deuteronomy 14:26; Judges 13:4). Of particular interest is the use of beer as an offering to Yahweh in Numbers 28. In this text, we see beer accompany both the daily offering to Yahweh and the Shabbat offering (Numbers 28:9-10), while wine is provided only at the monthly offering (Numbers 28:14).
From the archaeological evidence, we can conclude that for many Israelites and Judahites, life was one of scarcity and lack rather than plenty. Having abundant food and eating until satiety, or engorgement, was regarded as a blessing of fertility from Yahweh. For instance, Psalms 22:26 and Psalms 132:15 describe Yahweh blessing the poor with engorgement, and in Isaiah Yahweh repeatedly says he will bless his people with rich food and feasts (Psalms 26:6; Psalms 55:1-2; Psalms 58:1-11).
Alcohol drinking is encouraged for the majority, as it is a source of joy (Judges 9:13; Isaiah 16:10; Ecclesiastes 10:19; Psalm 104:14-15). However, for people with special responsibilities, such as kings, priests, and prophets, drunkenness is discouraged lest theybecome impaired in their duties (Proverbs 31:4-9; Isaiah 28:7-8). And although wealthy people are often criticized for having luxurious feasts, the concern in these texts is the neglect of the poor and vulnerable who live in lack (Amos 6:4-7; Jeremiah 5:26-28; Ezekiel 16:49). Overall, excessive consumption was more frequently celebrated than condemned, particularly as feasting was a vital occasion for creating social bonds and community cohesion.
Since nothing suggests that consuming large quantities of food or drink per se was seen as detestable or deserving death in ancient Israel, the crime of the rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 could not be gluttony and drunkenness as we know them today. To understand what he did wrong, we must look at the contexts in which food was eaten and the socioreligious customs associated with food and drink.
Biblical texts command the Israelites to sacrifice to Yahweh the firstfruits of the harvest and the firstlings of the herds and flocks at a single, specific place that Yahweh will choose (Deuteronomy 12:17-18). Yahwistic sacrifice, according to Deuteronomy 12, is to be carried out only by priests at that central chosen place. This idea of offering sacrifice at a single site rather than in multiple villages and cities is known as the ideology of centralization. It is, however, difficult to know if the population ever fully embraced centralization, as four-horned altars used for sacrifice have been found at various Israelite and Judahite settlements.a
Nevertheless, we know that part of the proper socioreligious treatment of foods involved sacrifice, whether this was the ritual slaughter of an animal, the pouring out of alcohol, or the sacrificial burning of flour or bread cakes (Leviticus 2:1-10). This sacrifice was shared by Yahweh and the offering person or priest, which created a sense of commensality between divine and human participants and strengthened their social relationship.
In many biblical texts, there is concern about consuming food sacrificed to other deities. For example, in Numbers 25:1-5, the Israelites begin to participate in the consumption of sacrifices to Baal Peor, and Yahweh kills them as punishment. Similarly, in Isaiah 65:11, Yahweh complains about the Israelites setting a table for a deity named Fortune and pouring wine for a deity named Destiny. In Exodus 34:13-16, Yahweh warns the Israelites not to worship other deities and eat their sacrifices because Yahweh, “whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”The biblical authors were at pains to ensure that no deity, other than Yahweh, was worshiped, and in Deuteronomy stoning to death is the punishment for worshiping other deities (Deuteronomy 13:6-11; Deuteronomy 17:1-7).
Food sacrifices were a major part of worship, as they acknowledged that a successful harvest was a result of the deity’s blessing of fertility, and thus a part of that fertility was given back to the deity. To secure allegiance to Yahweh, it was necessary to control the preparation and consumption of food via sacrificial regulations. Laws such as the centralization of sacrifice in Deuteronomy 12 and the law of the rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 were likely created in response to the widespread sacrifices to other deities across the land.
Thus, the rebellious son was likely not guilty of simply eating too much food or drinking too much beer and wine. What concerned the biblical authors was that all consumption be carried out in the correct context, in the company of followers of Yahweh, and alongside the worship of Yahweh alone. The foodways that the rebellious son fails to follow are those relating to socioreligious practices that accompany food consumption, rather than the quantity of food consumed. The parents of the rebellious son likely did not claim that he was a mere glutton and a drunkard, but rather that he was a religiously deviant consumer, eating against the societal and ritual norms of his Yahwistic community.
The Hebrew word zôlēl (זוֹלל), commonly translated as “glutton,” in this passage is difficult to render in a way that conveys its socioreligious meaning, as there is no real equivalent in English. This is also the case for the word sōbē’ (סבא), which is frequently translated as “drunkard.” Perhaps a better translation of this passage would be,“This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a deviant eater and a deviant drinker.” This translation would place the rebellious son’s actions in the clearer context of non-Yahwistic worship—specifically the accepted foodways—a crime that is repeatedly proscribed in the Bible and carries the penalty of death.
In Deuteronomy 21:18–21, a delinquent son is sentenced to death for being rebellious, as well as a glutton and drunkard. A close look at the foodways of ancient Israel suggests a better interpretation for the son’s crime.