Q: I totally understand the idea of the rod on verses like “he who spares the rod, hates his son” but what about Proverbs 23:13-14 where it actually says “for if thou beat him with the rod…” ?
A: I’ve addressed this verse in the context of other articles but as it is one I’m asked most often, I thought I’d answer it separately. I’ve also learned a lot more about the Hebraic mind and life since I wrote the earlier articles so I’m sure there will be ideas that didn’t find their way into previous articles. I actually get excited when I study these things because the way most people are told to think about them goes so against the character of God as revealed in Scripture that the God people are being taught is not even the God of Scripture. As people come to understand Grace they find that their entire understanding of salvation and justification, sanctification and holiness deepens because they finally love God—they don’t just do what he says out of fear. If Scripture says we love him because he first loved us, this is a dramatic and important paradigm shift.
1 John 4:10; 19
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins.
We love him, because he first loved us.
Let’s start with a quick recap of what the shebet is. A lot of people mistakenly dismiss me because they believe I consider the shebet a purely symbolic reference in Scripture. This would be naieve of me, if I did believe it, and reflect a lack of study on my part. The fact is, the shebet is a very real stick. It’s more like the trunk of a young tree and it was most often the shepherd’s staff, the staff held by the head of a family (this is most easily pictured by many as the stick Moses held up at the parting of the Red Sea), or as the king’s sceptre (which let’s remember, with regards to Queen Esther’s story, when it was extended to her it brought life, but had it been withheld/spared/set aside it would have brought death). At the same time, there are parts of Scripture that use “shebet” symbolically, as when the “rod of Jesse” that springs up speaks in prophecy of the coming Messiah. This does not mean that it would be appropriate exegesis to assume everywhere that we find “shebet” we can insert “Messiah”, but the Hebraic minds understanding of the shebet and its purpose reveals why it can be used to speak of Messiah. If it were an instrument intended for striking and destruction then we would need to see Messiah as coming to destroy, not redeem. In other words, while “Messiah” is not the idea we can infuse into every use of “rod”, we need to understand “rod” with the awareness that it is used to speak of “Messiah”.
The meaning of words in Hebrew is not only defined by the dictionary definition. There is an idea infused into the meaning of every word that expresses the understanding of the mind that heard the word. Hebrew is a very Eastern thinking language and cannot be understood with a Greek/Western thinking mind. To illustrate this, there are 4 words in Hebrew that translate into Rod in English, but only one word in Greek. To the Greek mind a “rod” was a stick with a powerful and destructive purpose. The gods on Mount Olympus who weilded their staff did so with ill intent and out of their anger. Just read Greek Mythology and you see the Greek understanding of God. It is appropriate for Paul to correct the Greek thinking mind’s expectation of an Apostle with the question in 1 Corinthians 4:21, “What will ye? shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and [in] the spirit of meekness?” The context for this question reveals that Paul’s teaching is being dismissed for the teaching of those who come with harsh demands on the Corinthians. The Corinthians understand harshness, they understand demands. It makes greater sense to them than Paul’s message of love and he must remind them that God’s message is one of love which is why his approach is the one they should heed.
The shebet, to the Hebrew mind, would not contain this Olympic/Zeus connotation. It was foreign to them. Rather, “they rod and they staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 The good shepherd would guide the sheep and use his rod to protect them by beating off the wolves and enemies that would come to steal them. The idea that a shepherd would use a rod to break his sheep’s legs is actually myth. If a shepherd did that they would certainly not be a good shepherd as a lamb with a broken leg is as useless as a horse with the same. As for what a good shepherd would do with a lamb that wandered off, let us look to Jesus’ parable which reveals he would leave the 99 to go in search of the 1.
So what was the shebet? It was the staff held by a man that symbolized his authority.
There was often symbolism in the designs at the top of the shebet and they represented different levels of authority within a tribe or family. When a stranger would ride into camp they would look for the shebet of the highest authority and that is the individual who could grant them refuge for the night. He held the authority to speak for everyone under his authority. He also had the authority to ensure the training of the children in his family. Therefore, when a Hebrew man read reference in Scripture to their shebet they would know the purpose of the shebet and assume into the reading that purpose. A Hebrew man would not read a verse that referenced his shebet and assume he was to strike someone with it unless it was speaking specifically to striking with it. For example, Exodus 21:12 “He that smiteth a man, so that he die , shall be surely put to death.” This verse is very important in understanding our Proverbs passage because it was well understood, from within Torah, that it was possible to strike a man and cause his death—with the shebet. Exodus 21:20 “And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.” And Torah goes on to give specific instructions for how often a slave may be struck with a shebet and specific details on where. The importance of this is that no such provisions are given for striking children. If Torah allows for something that requires a boundary, otherwise it can lead to abuse or death, the boundaries are very clearly stated. No such boundaries are provided for the idea of striking children. Torah was the guideline for life in the ancient Hebrew world. It is God’s instruction—the Way to live that Jesus came to fulfill (interpret correctly). Nothing else in the OT is to be understood as a command from God except what appears in Torah. The Proverbs are most assuredly wisdom sayings and there is wisdom in them, but a Hebrew person would never confuse the Proverbs with Torah as instruction commanded by the Lord. It’s also important to realize that the word “spanking” does not appear in Scripture and was not a concept in the Hebraic world. This is why we must encounter the concept of “beat” which we will next move to.
The Hebrew word for “beat” is “nakah” and it means:
- 1) to strike, smite, hit, beat, slay, kill
- a) (Niphal) to be stricken or smitten
- b) (Pual) to be stricken or smitten
- c) (Hiphil)
- 1) to smite, strike, beat, scourge, clap, applaud, give a thrust
- 2) to smite, kill, slay (man or beast)
- 3) to smite, attack, attack and destroy, conquer, subjugate, ravage
- 4) to smite, chastise, send judgment upon, punish, destroy
- d) (Hophal) to be smitten
- 1) to receive a blow
- 2) to be wounded
- 3) to be beaten
- 4) to be (fatally) smitten, be killed, be slain
- 5) to be attacked and captured
- 6) to be smitten (with disease)
- 7) to be blighted (of plants)
At first glance this appears to be a mighty violent word, but at second glance we find that it can be used in a violent/death-inducing way, but is not always used that way. We have meanings like “clap, applaud, give a thrust.” Out of curiosity I looked up “smite”, the word we see repeatedly in the above concordance definition, at dictionary.com and two of the meanings, amidst all of the aggressive ones, are: “to affect mentally or morally with a sudden pang: His conscience smote him.”; and “to impress favorably; charm; enamor: He was smitten by her charms.” The question then becomes, which meaning did our author of Proverbs intend?
I recently found a very interesting article that spoke of the ancient world parallel proverbs to the one we find in Scripture. They are most assuredly aggressive and violent, speaking of beating children. But they come from the Greek world where the rod was a violent implement and where it would be appropriate for the mind to go to a violent intent. I find it very interesting that Solomon used this modern day (in his world) proverb but speaks not of a stick (choter), but of a shebet. As we’ve already discussed, the meaning of the shebet would have been very rich to his audience (especially his specifically stated audience, the son of a king who held a sceptre).
So let’s look at the entire Proverb in question and see if we can determine the context and the Hebraic meaning of the passage that was intended for Solomon’s readers. From the heart of the text in Chapter 23 of Proverbs we pull:
- Pro 23:12 Apply thine heart unto instruction, and thine ears to the words of knowledge.
- Pro 23:13 Withhold not correction from the child: for [if] thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.
- Pro 23:14 Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
- Pro 23:15 My son, if thine heart be wise, my heart shall rejoice, even mine.
- Pro 23:16 Yea, my reins shall rejoice, when thy lips speak right things.
- Pro 23:17 Let not thine heart envy sinners: but [be thou] in the fear of the LORD all the day long.
- Pro 23:18 For surely there is an end; and thine expectation shall not be cut off. Pro 23:19 Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way.
- Pro 23:20 Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh:
- Pro 23:21 For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe [a man] with rags.
- Pro 23:22 Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old.
- Pro 23:23 Buy the truth, and sell [it] not; [also] wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.
- Pro 23:24 The father of the righteous shall greatly rejoice: and he that begetteth a wise [child] shall have joy of him.
- Pro 23:25 Thy father and thy mother shall be glad, and she that bare thee shall rejoice.
- Pro 23:26 My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.
The verses that come before and after can be included in this but are not necessary to see the intent of this section of Scripture. We begin with a call to apply the reader’s heart to instruction, his ears to knowledge. This is akin to stating “He who has ears, let him hear.” What is “instruction” and “wisdom”? To the Hebrew man this would be nothing but Torah. This is a call to the young man to live Torah in all his life—to understand it as wisdom and knowledge. To see it as the right path. This is an important context for what comes next.
“Withhold not correction from the child: for [if] thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
There are a few very relevant words here, the first being “correction”. The reference to “beatest with the rod” is the illustration of how to “withhold not correction”, so the meaning of correction to the Hebrew mind is vital in order to understand what it means to “beatest him with a rod.” “Correction”, in Hebrew, is the word “muwcar” and means
- 1) discipline, chastening, correction
- a) discipline, correction
- b) chastening
There is nothing physical inherent in this word. In fact, to the Hebrew mind it was so typically used of verbal correction that it carried the connotation of, “Come let us reason together.” Many of the parables of Jesus would rightly be called muwcar as they were offered to instruct and guide wrong thinking into right thinking. Punishment, to the Hebrew mind, was not the context of life as it was to the Greeks who were always afraid of angering the gods and goddesses. Rather, punishment was reserved for sin and those who aligned themselves with it. Curses were for the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hated God, but blessings were for 1000 generations of those who loved him and kept his commandments. The Hebrew man would be raising a son within Torah—raising them to know wisdom, knowledge and understanding. Having hearkened his ear to it in the first statement here, we go on to read that it’s important to correct thinking that is wrong. How important? So important that it is described with reference to the shebet. Since this represented a father’s authority over his son, we see that it was his God-ordained responsibility to correct wrong thinking. It was never to go unchecked.
Now, if we assume the reference is to the actual stick called a shebet we must discount the next passage as a lie—because Torah makes it clear that you can kill someone through beating with a shebet. And the penalty for it is death. Solomon would not be giving wise instruction, which we know the Proverbs to be, if he was informing parents they could discount the cautions in Torah given for slaves and believe that a beating to a son would never result in death. But if we understand the reference to the shebet as speaking to the father’s absolute authority to correct his children, we can see that if you continue to correct your child until you figuratively “beat it into him” you will be able to accomplish the guarantee of the next passage—saving his soul from an early grave. This type of a beating will bring a pang to his moral conscience and entice him to do what is right. He will be smited into right thinking. Unlike the Greek mind that believed if you learn something you will do it, the Hebrew mind believed when you understood something you would embrace it. Foolish choices in a child were understood to represent a lack of understanding, and constant correction would serve to bring them into right understanding, right thinking, and right action. This idea is upheld in the rest of the passage which speaks to the father living rightly and being the man he is enticing his child to become, admonitions to buy wisdom and not sell it, and the awareness that a rightly lived Torah-observant life would bring joy and pride to the parents being honored through their sons’ actions.
I believe it is clear, based on the understanding of the different ideas represented in the words of this passage, that “beat” is intended figuratively rather than literally. I know that this can cause a stumbling block for those who have been taught to only read Scripture literally but, in truth, there is much in Scripture that cannot be read, or is not intended to be, literal. Is the glutton in Proverbs being commanded to slit their throat? Is Jesus, referenced in prophecy as the “rod of Jesse” really a stick? Reading something literally is a good place to start, until it becomes clear that it cannot be read literally within the context of the passage. In Proverbs 23, in order to read “beatest” as a literal striking with a staff, the second half of the verse would need to be discounted as outright fallacy. Beating someone physically with a rod can lead to their death, and for this the penalty to the father would be to lose his life.