Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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The rod in Proverbs is not metaphorical

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8 minutes to read It is increasingly fashionable to argue that corporal punishment is uncivilized and out of step with a God of love. It’s not, and it isn’t.

I’ve had the misfortune to be involved in several debates on this topic lately, with people who take their cues on parenting more from liberal blogs and behavioral research than from God.

For example, I was recently told:

Spare the rod, spoil the child actually means the rod as in God’s word, not a stick!

What is most notable about these sorts of claims is how difficult it is to get any kind of substantiation for them. Exegesis or word studies just aren’t on the radar. But as the saying goes, what is freely asserted can be freely denied.

Still, just because someone refuses to argue for their position doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. So are there any good reasons to think the rod in Proverbs 23:13–14 et al must be physical? Is there any reason it cannot be a figurative rod, representing discipline in general; rather than a literal rod, representing corporal punishment?

The Hebrew terms

The term “rod” in the Hebrew is shebet, which means, simply, a rod, staff, branch, offshoot, club, sceptre or the like (see for example the NAS Hebrew lexicon). The meaning of the word is physical, just as the meaning of “stick” in English is physical; unless there is some contextual clue that a metaphorical sense is intended, or unless we have some overriding presupposition to preclude a literal interpretation, the presumption should be that a physical stick is in view.

Similarly, in Proverbs 23:13–14, the verb nakah is used twice; it means to strike or to smite. Again, this can carry a figurative sense—so 2 Samuel 24:10: David’s heart struck him after he had conducted the census. But when joined to a simple, physical noun like shebet, and absent any indication of metaphor or the like, there can be no doubt that what it means is a literal striking with a literal stick; as in Exodus 21:20:

When a man strikes [nakah] his slave, male or female, with a rod [shebet] and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.

Even the most determined liberal would presumably agree that this passage is saying precisely what it appears to be saying. Yet when it comes to the rod of Proverbs, which uses very similar phrasing, we are supposed to believe a metaphorical interpretation is best. Yet look at the language:

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you will beat him with the rod, he will not die. As for you, with the rod you shall beat him, and his life you will save from Sheol. Proverbs 23:13–14, LEB

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. ESV

Do not withhold discipline from a child; even if you strike him with the rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will deliver him from death. NET

Even the NLT, which gets a lot of stick (believe it; I went there) for being a paraphrase rather than a “real” translation, renders this passage as follows:

Don’t fail to discipline your children. They won’t die if you spank them. Physical discipline may well save them from death.


What proponents of a figurative rod need to do is demonstrate that the terms shebet and nakah are used together elsewhere in Hebrew literature—and particularly in the writings of Solomon—to refer, in the same kind of context, to something like the discipline they envisage; whether that is having God’s word impressed upon the child, or using timeouts, or whatever—rather than hitting with an actual stick. These are straightforward terms in Hebrew, with straightforward physical meanings—is there any evidence whatsoever that they are being used metaphorically here?

If not, the prima facie weight of evidence is squarely on the straightforward reading: that hitting one’s children with a physical stick is an appropriate way of punishing them.

Biblical parallels

In fact, there are obvious parallels between the rod of Proverbs and other passages in the Bible; but these illustrate a very hands-on, physical approach to discipline. Such an approach gels well with a physical interpretation of punishment in Proverbs, but clashes with the kinds of gentle, attachment-parenting discipline methods advocated by those who read the rod figuratively. Take for instance Deuteronomy 8:5, where God explains the purpose of making his people wander in the desert for 40 years:

And you should know with your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so Yahweh your God is disciplining you. Deuteronomy 8:5; cf. Proverbs 3:11

Or consider what Hebrews 12 says about discipline, starting with the cross:

For consider the one who endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you will not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood as you struggle against sin. 5 And have you completely forgotten the exhortation which instructs you as sons?

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, or give up when you are corrected by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves, and punishes every son whom he accepts.”

7 Endure it for discipline. God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, in which all legitimate sons have become participants, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we have had our earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them. Will we not much rather subject ourselves to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a few days according to what seemed appropriate to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we can have a share in his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems for the moment not to be joyful but painful, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness for those who are trained by it.

Notice the emphasis on physical suffering, starting with the crucifixion of Jesus. The author of Hebrews tells his readers that they have not yet been disciplined to the point of shedding blood; yet should they not welcome even that, since Jesus was willing to take punishment on our behalf to the point of death itself?

Indeed, given that Hebrews 12:3 compares the rod of God against Jesus on the cross to the discipline we receive as sons, isn’t a denial of the appropriateness of physical punishment ultimately a tacit denial of Jesus’ representation of us? Yet without that representation, there is no salvation.

I don’t use the term “attachment parenting,” above, derisively; there are many good things that Westerners can learn from it (the value of co-sleeping, for example). But the attachment approach to discipline is not one of those things.

Other parallels

One of the interesting things about Solomon is how many wives he had. And one of the interesting things about his wives is that one of them was an Egyptian princess (1 Kings 3:1). Since the Egyptians had proverbs of their own, you will sometimes find some parallels in Proverbs to Egyptian wisdom literature. (Indeed, you will sometimes find village atheists ineptly claiming that Solomon copied from the Wisdom of Imhotep, as if this disproves inerrancy.)

With respect to the rod of Proverbs, there is an Egyptian proverb that says:

Boys have their ears on their backsides; they listen when they are beaten.

Though this statement is not directly mimicked in Proverbs, it illustrates that other cultures also had sayings about how to direct children’s behavior—and, most usefully, is explicit about the way in which to do so. I should be genuinely astounded if anyone were to try to take this proverb figuratively. But if it is similar to the proverbs of Solomon on the same subject—as it obviously is—why, then, should we take his figuratively either?

Moving the goalposts

Often, when I reason through this kind of evidence with people who oppose corporal punishment, they are forced to agree that their interpretation of Proverbs really was wishful thinking.

But then, they do something remarkable.

Rather than acknowledge that their views about corporal punishment were mistaken, they will start moving the goalposts. Here are three common ways this happens:

1. Proverbs isn’t talking about hitting children

The Hebrew word for “child” in Proverbs 23:13 is na’ar—and some anti-smacking advocates will try to claim that it refers only to youths around the ages of 14–24. This is flatly false. It is used of unweaned children in Exodus 2:6 and 1 Samuel 1:22, for example. In Isaiah 7:16 and 8:4 it refers to a child who is too young to choose good from evil, or speak his parents’ names. The word na’ar, rather like our English word child, can refer to a baby, or to a young man, or to anything in between.

2. We shouldn’t listen to what Solomon said, given how his children turned out

In effect, the argument is that since Solomon did use corporal punishment, and his children were rebellious, we should view that as a mistake on his part, and avoid making it ourselves.

It’s hard to know where to start in listing the problems with this, but here is a sampling:

  1. The Bible only tells us about three of Solomon’s children: his daughters Taphath and Basemath, and his son Rehoboam. Rehoboam was certainly no saint, but we know nothing about Solomon’s daughters. So this argument relies on a sample size of one—it is, at best, a gross assumption; at worst, an argument from silence.
  2. We know nothing about Solomon’s child-rearing practices. Did he practice what he preached? Going by Proverbs, we’d tend to think he was a chaste and faithful man—yet he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. As any Christian is acutely aware, knowing what to do is a far cry from doing it.
  3. Proverbs are not hard and fast rules; nor are they guarantees. It should be obvious that many children disciplined by corporal punishment don’t turn out well. Proverbs are guides; principles that generally hold true. Often they require discernment to properly employ (cf. Proverbs 26:4–5).
  4. At the most basic level, this is simply a denial of the inspiration of Scripture. The objection amounts to either, “God was wrong,” or “This part of Proverbs wasn’t written by God.” Needless to say, that is not a Christian response, but a faithless one. If your views on child-rearing are leading you to deny the authority of the Bible, then you are at best deeply confused and in need of repentance—and more likely not a genuine believer at all. Genuine believers conform their lives (including their parenting) to the Bible; not vice versa.

3. The rod is actually a shepherd’s crook

Quoth one interlocutor:

The metaphor of sheep and shepherds is far more in line with God’s overall message than beating a child.

But this simply will not fly. Once you admit that shebet is a physical rod—such as those used for shepherding—you cannot get anything except corporal punishment from Proverbs 23:13–14, because it specifically speaks of beating your child with it!

No doubt there is a certain poeticism and romantic appeal in the notion of the rod as a crook; and no doubt that is biblical—“your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). But to assume that being comforted by God’s rod precludes physical punishment, is not only question-begging, but really is tantamount to sticking your fingers in your ears when shown Proverbs 23:13–14 and singing, “Lalala, can’t hear you!”

(It is also a classic example of the insulated, urbanized perspective of most liberals. Does a shepherd never smack an errant sheep to move it back into line? Have you seen how roughly farmers will handle sheep? They are animals. They don’t care.)


There is no contextual evidence, nor literary parallels, to suggest the rod of Proverbs is figurative. There is a great deal of contextual evidence and parallels to indicate that the straightforward reading is correct: physically hitting children is a good and valid form of punishment. To deny this is ultimately tantamount to making Scripture subordinate to modern secular parenting ideals, denying the inspiration of the Bible.


Kirk Skeptic

I’ve known a lot of public school teachers, and all seemed to be able to tell which of the kids in their classes were spanked vs those who weren’t. I wonder how…

We do have a number of wacko cultists whose use of corporal punishment is nothing but brutal, causing libtard do-gooders in the state and its allegiant media to cast aspersions upon Christians to whom Proverbs stands as it reads.


Let me just say that to properly understand individual words in Hebrew the starting basis is the two letter root. Hebrew language Parent-Child root relationships is the starting point, not just looking at a Strong’s. Your way and others of establishing the Hebrew meaning of rod is severely flawed.

Here is an example of what I mean when it comes to getting at the true meaning of words.

Proverbs 16:3 “Commit your work to the Lord…”
Strongs has ‘Commit’ as commit , remove , roll…. etc.

But when we look at the two letter Hebrew root we find it is ‘gal’
גָּלַ. which is something piled up… a heap of stones.

When you search it’s use in the O.T. you find it’s use in Gen 31 where Laban and Jacob pile up stones as an agreement or covenant to be a witness.
Use of piling up stones was a common practice to indicate such things.

This is how you get at a word(s) meaning… not just going thru a Strongs.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

When you can make an entire comment like this without connecting it to any point of agreement or disagreement with the post it is attached to, you know you’re stuck on a hobby horse, and need to dismount to evaluate your priorities.

Have you heard of the etymological fallacy? Sometimes a rod is just a rod.

Dan Mowrey

I was just reading the commentary on the rod by John K Rosemond. He contends that it is the article preceding the noun that suggests its true meaning, whether physical or metaphorical. “a” refers to an actual stick, whereas “the” refers to a metaphor. Sine all of the passages referring to the use of the rod to discipline a child use the article, “the,” the true message is a metaphorical one. Your response would be helpful.


The rod clearly has metaphorical use- representing the word of God and authority, spiritual rebuke. Here are just a few verses out of many where it is used in this way:

Ezekiel 20:37 And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.” KJV

Isaiah 30:31 “For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod” KJV

Isaiah 30:32 And as the LORD strikes them with his rod of punishment, his people will celebrate with tambourines and harps. Lifting his mighty arm, he will fight the Assyrians.

“The Lord’s voice crieth unto the city, and the man of wisdom shall hear thy name” hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it” Micah 6:9

Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes Psalms 89:32

Feed thy people with thy rod, the flock of thine heritage, which dwell solitarily [in] the wood, in the midst of Carmel: let them feed [in] Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old. Micah 7:14

How are these not metaphorical uses? Also, there are Proverbs about using the rod against adults but pastors never preach about how we should apply those in our society. They just ignore them.

It’s interesting because someone actually received rebuke from God for supporting a friend who accidently struck his child in the face with the object he was spanking him with when the child tried to move out of the way and ended up in jail. The friend told him on the phone while he was still in jail that he did nothing wrong and was simply obeying the Bible by striking his child. After that phone call the Lord rebuked him saying no, you are spiritually wrong as to what the rod means in those verses, go back into the scriptures, the scriptures revealed it represents the word of God. His friend, when he walked home from the jail, had received the same revelation from God while in jail. Interesting because they had never known about that interpretation before.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

I explicitly acknowledged that the rod can have metaphorical uses, so what is the purpose of your examples? What I proved is that Proverbs is not employing such a metaphorical use, as demonstrated by comparing with other similar passages like Exodus 21:20, and simply from the objections Solomon anticipates (“if you beat him he will not die” makes literally no sense under a metaphorical interpretation).

Your story about this fellow in jail sounds highly contrived, and even if I take it at face value, the better explanation is that he and his friend are self-deceived or lying because of guilt and a zeal for piousness that is not in accord with knowledge.


What do you say about the rod verses about adults? Do you support corporal punishment for adults based on these verses? I don’t know what you mean by contrived. They both were adament prior to the incident corporal punishment was necessary based on those verses and taught it to their church, counciled parents to do it and did it to their own kids until God corrected them that they were wrong and that the rod represents the word. Because the word of God is just as good for them for correction as adults. And that is how God corrects adults, through his Word, which can be harsh at times. No one taught them this, but other people have been shown the same which seems to lend credibility to it. Because the rod does represent the word in tons of bible passages. And back then in bible times they actually had rods which were huge to a representation in their houses. Striking a small child with it would likely result in internal injury. The rod is not random household items like spoons and belts. No one in those times would recognize the use of those as the use of the rod. And I don’t mean offense but your style of responses come across as a bit arrogant and self righteous. Just letting you know.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Do you not support corporal punishment for adults? The law of God is explicit that this is a just and good method of discipline:

If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, and the judges judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked. And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his wickedness, by number. Forty stripes he may give him, he shall not exceed; lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee. (Deuteronomy 25:1–3)

The term for beat here is the same as in Proverbs: nakah.

You haven’t given any argument that the rod in Proverbs is metaphorical. You have simply thrown out some red herrings and unsubstantiated assertions that don’t engage with the exegetical evidence at all. But the exegetical evidence is what matters.

If you have exegetical arguments to make, then I am willing to listen.


That was Old Testament law. So then how would you say we should apply the rod verses in proverbs towards adults in our society? Because you made a post about how it needs to be used against children, but not adults. This is very common in culture but doesn’t make a lot of sense to single out the verses regarding children. You obviously were not concerned about the ones regarding adults that I can tell.

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

The Old Testament law is perfect, holy, righteous, and good (Ps 19:7; Rom 7:12), and whoever relaxes the least of it will be considered least in the kingdom of heaven.

This article is specifically responding to objections to corporal punishment for children. Corporal punishment for adults was not directly relevant to that objection. Yet if you read the article, you will notice that one way we can know that the rod is not metaphorical here is because of it being derivative of God’s notably physical discipline of his people, who are also notably adults.

You seem to be all over the place. You go after any trail of thought you can to avoid having to deal with the one thing that actually matters: the exegetical evidence for my position, and against yours.


We are not under Old Testament law anymore. If we were, we would be under animal sacrifice, not mixing fabrics, etc. I am pointing out that you are pretty much ignoring the Proverbs on using the rod on adults but teaching on the ones regarding children. This is what most Christians do on this topic- but it is not right to cherry pick Bible verses. Since the Bible says to use the rod on both adults and children, how would we as a society go about making sure adults in society are receiving corporal punishment? Because virtually none are in the Christian world? And why didn’t you address it earlier? Are you having pain inflicted on you when you act foolish like Proverbs says adults should receive? If your children are subject to it, why aren’t you when you do wrong?