A handful of verses that mention the Rod, have been touted as teaching the modern day practice of spanking. In fact, I often get emails from people who have visited my site and want to ask me why I don’t know that the Bible teaches parents to spare the rod and spoil the child.
First of all, that isn’t Scripture — it’s a poem by Samuel Butler called “Hudibras” . Not only that, but in the poem he is referring to the topic that provides the background for the modern day practice of spankings, namely corporal punishment between adults in the bedroom.* I can imagine the shocked look on your face. Before you write me off as a loon, please hear me out.
Proverbs does speak of the rod, but what exactly is the rod?
In Hebrew there are three main words that are translated into English as “rod” and the one used in Proverbs is “Shebet”. The Shebet was the large walking staff held by the head of a family, the shepherd’s crook, or the king’s scepter. Considering Proverbs was written by King Solomon, it makes sense to assume that of all the meanings we are reading a reference to the one held by a King. Reading in the book of Esther, we see that when the Shebet is extended to someone that they find life, but when it is spared, or set aside, it brings death.
Make no mistake, the Shebet is a very real implement. The next question is: “What does it mean when King Solomon speaks of the Shebet?” Let’s examine the verses.
Proverbs 23:13-14 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.
“Correction” is the Hebrew word “muwcar” and means 1) discipline, chastening, correction a) discipline, correction b) chastening. It carries the connotation of “Come let us reason together” and speaks to verbal correction.
The “child” is “na’ar” and is a boy, lad or youth and the “child” is between the ages of 5 and 21. There is a different word for children under age 5 that speaks to them as nurslings and at 21 they are adults.
“Beatest” does speak to striking, but is followed by “he shall not die”. “He shall not die” is “muwth” and means 1) to die, kill, have one executed a) (Qal) 1) to die 2) to die (as penalty), be put to death 3) to die, perish (of a nation) 4) to die prematurely (by neglect of wise moral conduct) b) (Polel) to kill, put to death, dispatch c) (Hiphil) to kill, put to death d) (Hophal) 1) to be killed, be put to death a) to die prematurely.
*What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets stil’d;
Then spare the rod and spoil the child.
A Persian emp’ror whipp’d his grannam 845
The sea, his mother VENUS came on;
And hence some rev’rend men approve
Of rosemary in making love.
As skilful coopers hoop their tubs
With Lydian and with Phrygian dubs, 850
Why may not whipping have as good
A grace, perform’d in time and mood,
With comely movement, and by art,
Raise passion in a lady’s heart?
It is an easier way to make 855
Love by, than that which many take.
At this point, it must be stated clearly that within the Law there is a penalty for the man who strikes his slave with his Shebet and kills him. Therefore, this Proverb cannot be literally stating that if you strike your child with your rod you will not kill him. That would not be true. For this reason, I would suggest this Proverb need not be taken any more literally than the one found in 23:2 that reads “And put a knife to thy throat, if thou [be] a man given to appetite.” This is especially important because the second half of our lesson, in verse 14, tells us that through beating with the Shebet we can save our child’s soul from death.
“And shalt deliver” is “natsal” and means1) to snatch away, deliver, rescue, save, strip, plunder a) (Niphal) 1) to tear oneself away, deliver oneself 2) to be torn out or away, be delivered b) (Piel) 1) to strip off, spoil 2) to deliver c) (Hiphil) 1) to take away, snatch away 2) to rescue, recover 3) to deliver (from enemies or troubles or death) 4) to deliver from sin and guilt d) (Hophal) to be plucked out e) (Hithpael) to strip oneself
His “soul” is “nephesh”1) soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion a) that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of man b) living being c) living being (with life in the blood) d) the man himself, self, person or individual e) seat of the appetites f) seat of emotions and passions g) activity of mind 1) dubious h) activity of the will 1) dubious i) activity of the character 1) dubious
A literal reading of this passage would read: Make sure to reason together with your child because if you strike him with your staff of authority he won’t die prematurely. If you strike him with your staff you will pluck the seat of his passions from the grave.
Let me point out a few obvious discrepancies. Reasoning together with someone has nothing to do with physically striking them. Striking them can kill them. Furthermore, striking someone with a staff will not save someone from death. Even if you elaborate on the second verse to mean that you will teach your child to live a life that won’t lead to premature death, you are still left with the reality that striking someone with your staff can kill them, so you cannot take this as a promise of any kind.
Looking at this the way it’s been taught in many church circles brings even more problems to light. First, there is nothing you can do as a parent to save your child. Jesus did that on the cross — and if it were a matter of beating someone with a staff, then we can save a lot of money on missions and just buy some big sticks. Second, there is a parallel drawn between correction from the Hebrew word expressing “come let us reason together” and the use of the Shebet. You cannot simultaneously beat someone and reason together with them. Third, this verse, however you understand it, does not apply to a child under the age of 5, or to a female child. Simply acknowledging the limited scope of this verse undermines the entire teaching of punitive circles within the church today.
Once you embrace the reality that many, if not most, of the Proverbs are, in fact, not to be read literally, you are free to ask what the spirit of this passage is. Just as the point of telling a glutton to put a knife to his throat is to warn a young man against becoming a glutton, so we are reading a father’s words of wisdom to his son. Remembering that the Shebet is the staff of authority, in King Solomon’s case the King’s scepter, we are free to read this passage as being about true discipline. Reason together and teach correct ways to your son. Let your staff of authority be a constant presence in their lives and you will teach him the way that does not lead to death. Be a constant presence of discipline and teaching in his life and you will save him from his passions that would lead to death.
The idea of your authority causing you to be a constant presence in your child’s life is not new to the topic of discipline in Scripture. When God gave the Torah/Law to the Israelites, he admonished them to “teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Deut. 6:7. This is the responsibility given to every Israelite parent and one’s authority is to exercise your responsibilities.
As we dig even deeper we must examine the role of a father in the life of his sons during King Solomon’s day. Before the age of 5, when the child was still a nursling, he was the primary responsibility of his mother. At age 5, his play would take him to the feet of the men where he would begin to bridge the gap — playing while they worked, helping where he could, and learning Hebrew while memorizing all of Torah by the time he was 10.
At the age of 13, a boy would become a young man in the community, but not fully a man. It is best understood as an apprentice man — he becomes his father’s disciple and would be learning directly from him. This path of life works beautifully with the way that we now understand the brain to work.
Between the ages of 5 and 10 the child is in the Grammar stage where they are able to learn vast amounts of information and retain it-what better age to memorize Scripture; at age 10 they develop logic and between 10 and 14 they are in the Logic stage where they are learning how it all fits together — what better age to make a commitment to your faith; and at age 14 they develop reason and from age 14-18 they are in the Reasoning stage — what better stage to be the disciple of your father and interact with him in a style of “come let us reason together”.
What is so beautiful to me is that the book of Proverbs is this very idea in action. King Solomon is writing the book of Proverbs to his adolescent son to teach him the wisdom of living a life of Torah — of living according to Scripture! He is not beating him, he is reasoning together with him. He is not beating him, he is exercising his authority, as symbolized by his scepter, to parent his child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to teach him diligently the things which the Lord commanded.
Proverbs 29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left [to himself] bringeth his mother to shame.
“Reproof” is the Hebrew word “towkechah” and means rebuke, argument, chastisement. It means “punishment” in one Psalm where the righteous are exercising it against the heathens. Otherwise it speaks to correcting and arguing or “reasoning together”.
This verse is beautiful — exercising your authority, as symbolized by your shebet, and reasoning together and teaching your child will instill him with wisdom; failing to do so will produce a child who brings shame to his mother. I have no argument with that.
Proverbs 22:15 Foolishness [is] bound in the heart of a child; [but] the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.
This verse is the one used to argue that the verses that speak of fools are to be applied to children and that opens an entire can of worms where Scripture speaks of the rod for the back of the fool and others as I’m sure you have heard. But, that is not what this verse says. When I really dug into it, I was surprised to realize that it reads the same in Hebrew as it does in English. It wasn’t until I read it in the Hebrew that I realized what it was really saying in the English. It’s not that the heart is bound (tied up) by foolishness as the punitive teachers would have you believe; the heart is not full of foolishness; but foolishness is what is bound (tied up).
Within the heart of a child, foolishness is tied up and when something is tied up it is rendered powerless. In the KJV the words in parenthesis are not present in the original language but have been offered to help the reader. This means there is no “but” in the original. Rather, the rod of correction will drive that bound up foolishness from from your child. And not the rod “and” correction, but the rod “of” correction. We again encounter “muwcar” which is best read as “come let us reason together” and this is the shebet of reasoning together.
In other words, while your child is a child foolishness is tied up in their hearts and rendered powerless, so while they are a child you have time to exercise your authority and teach them so that folly is driven far from them. What encouragement!
And, finally, we return to our Butler reference to spare the rod and spoil the child within the context of adult sado masochistic relationships. Sadly, this is the real history of spanking, not Scripture. At the turn of the previous century there was a very popular little book called “The Spencer Spanking Plan” that taught men and women how to employ spankings within the marriage bedroom in order to “even the score” and not allow disharmony in day to day life to interfere with the sexual relationship.
Before you ask what this has to do with spanking children, let me tell you that the tag line for this book was “spankings should always be done in love, not in anger” and it was the first book to outline “the right way to spank”. The way outlined is identical to the method offered today by punitive experts ranging from Lessin to Ezzo to Pearl. They cannot show you in Scripture where this right way came from, but “The Spencer Spanking Plan” is the book in which that right way was first outlined.
What concerns me the most about the issue of spanking is that the Church has taken it up as not only an issue of proclaimed persecution, as though any attempt to outlaw or restrict corporal punishment is striking right at the heart of Christian parenting, but in many circles this idea supported through prooftexting a handful of Scriptures has also become a means for challenging the very salvation of a parent who chooses to not spank. This is not a salvific issue!
There is not even a mandate to spank. Within the entire Law, or Torah, where God outlined what He required of His people, there is NO instruction whatsoever to spank. For an issue proclaimed as so important, there is no instruction within Scripture of how or when or where to spank, or even who to spank. And for such a vital and important topic, Jesus has nothing to say. Rather, He warns us that the Kingdom of God is like a little child, and as we do to the least of these we are doing to Him.
In light of that teaching, let me also share another meaning for Shebet in the Hebrew. In one passage from prophecy the word Shebet is used to speak of the Messiah, Jesus. So not only when striking a child are you striking Jesus, but if you claim to do it with the rod/Shebet, you do it with Jesus.
I hope that the weight of this is as convicting to you as it is to me. And I hope that you will read more of what I have here on the site to learn about some effective discipline tools that you can use. These tools will result in well-behaved children, and as you use them on ‘the least of these’, you can have no concern about doing to Jesus.