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” is in English; unless there is some contextual clue to hint that it is not intended in a physical sense, or we have some overriding presupposition to preclude that 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 term shebet is used elsewhere in Hebrew literature—and particularly in the writings of Solomon—to refer, in the context of punishment, to something like the kind of discipline they envisage; whether that is having God’s word impressed upon the child, or using timeouts, or whatever. Similarly, is there any example of the verb nakah being used with respect to these kinds of things, rather than a physical 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.
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 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 penal substitution? Yet without penal substitution, there is no gospel to save us.
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 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. And in 2 Samuel 2:16 it refers to a child who most commentators take to be an infant. All this to say, 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:
- The Bible only tells us about three of Solomon’s children: Taphath and Basemath, his daughters, and Rehoboam, his son. 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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 Gods 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, and denying the inspiration of the Bible.
* I don’t use the term “attachment parenting” derisively, necessarily; there are many good things that most Westerners could stand to learn from it (the value of co-sleeping, for example). But the attachment approach to discipline is not one of those things.