A Biblical Perspective on Spanking, Part 3

Father and sonRead Part 1, Part 2.

Having previously considered some important hermeneutic principles, we return to our discussion of Proverbs 22:15:

Folly or foolishness (Heb., iuelet, feminine singular noun) is being bound (Heb., qasurah, verb passive participle) in the heart (Heb., beleb, preposition and noun) of a child (Heb., nayer, masculine singular noun), a rod (Heb., shebet, masculine singular noun) of discipline (Heb., musar, masculine singular noun) will cause it to be distant or far (Heb., yarechiyqenah, hiphil or causative verb, imperfect, third person singular feminine suffix) from him (Heb., mimenu, preposition with third person singular masculine suffix).

In the previous installment, we focused especially the meaning of the term translated in the NASB as child, the Hebrew nayer. We saw that the term, understood literally, can reference anyone from infants to teenagers (see Ex. 2:6, Judg. 13:24, Gen. 14:24). In this current installment, we address three questions about the remainder of this verse:

  1. What is a rod? (shebet)
  2. What is the purpose for using the rod?
  3. Does this verse indicate when one should stop using the rod?

The rod (shebet) is described here as the instrument of discipline, and seems not identical to the staff (maqel, e.g., see Gen. 32:10), an instrument that aided the shepherd in walking, and served as a weapon and a goad. Nonetheless, the rod was an implement, which if used too intensively, could cause death (Ex. 21:20), and so it was not to be used carelessly. Elsewhere the term is used to describe a scepter, or rod of ruling (Gen. 49:10), an instrument of judgment (Job 9:34), and an instrument of comfort (Ps. 23:4). And of course it is also a word used frequently in the OT as referring to a tribe. Rashi described the rod as both capable and incapable of killing, and noted that the manner of use (location on the body and intensity) was determinative.*  Rashi’s implication is that the rod would be applied to different parts of the anatomy for different purposes.

In Proverbs, Solomon employs the term as an instrument to be applied to the rear (Prov. 10:13, Heb., gew—a term that simply identifies the location at the back of a person, without reference to any specific anatomical aspect, e.g., see 1 Ki. 14:9, Neh. 9:26).

The context of Solomon’s application of the rod is discipline. In Proverbs 23:13, parental discipline and striking with the rod are synonymous: Do not hold back (al-timnah, adverb of negation and qal imperfect, second singular verb) from a child (mi-nayer, preposition and noun—referencing a child anywhere from infancy [Ex. 2:6] to teen [Gen. 14:24]) discipline (musar, noun, correction or reproof).

The next phrase is especially interesting: For though you cause him to be smitten or struck (kiy-tabenu, conjunction with hiphil imperfect verb) with a rod (be-shebet) he will not die (lo wa-mut, negative particle, with qal imperfect verb). Solomon uses intensive language to indicate that the parent is the direct cause of the smiting. The parent is to discipline and take responsibility for the child. Further, the discipline is done in the form of striking or smiting with a rod.

Solomon is very aware that the rod can be used for murder (Ex. 21:20). What he is mandating here is not that, but rather the appropriate application of the rod to a child. He argues that such an application is beneficial and not for harm.

Back to our first question: What is a rod? It was anything from a branch, to a stick, to a scepter. The term had some broad literal usage. Now, let’s give Solomon some credit for being the wisest man ever to live. Does the text indicate that Solomon is suggesting that a parent hit an infant on the back with a scepter? Is that what he is describing as an effective disciplinary tactic? While in the course of understanding grammar and syntax, we recognize that such a (rather absurd, from our vantage point) meaning is within the scope of a literal interpretation. But that Solomon is referencing a much smaller instrument to be used on the backside of (even) a small child is also within the scope of a literal interpretation. Our job as interpreters is simply to try to understand what Solomon was saying.

In order to be certain of what Solomon is saying about the application of the rod, let’s consider his stated purpose for using the rod in Proverbs 22:15: the rod of discipline will remove foolishness far from the child. The rod is not an end, but rather a means. It is Solomon’s prescribed means for removing foolishness from a child. This statement of purpose carries with it the answers to two questions I raised earlier:

  1. What is the purpose for using the rod?
  2. Does this verse indicate when one should stop using the rod?

The purpose is stated clearly enough. If the goal of disciplining with the rod is to drive foolishness from a child, then the manner in which the discipline is conducted ought to be grounded on that purpose—if Solomon’s intended result is indeed the desire of the parent. Also, because Solomon is fairly general in his prescriptions, I would suggest that the parent has a good deal of freedom in filling in the specifics, as long as the parent doesn’t disregard the specifics that Solomon does mention.

Discipline is for removing foolishness from children of unspecified age. To this end, Solomon prescribes an instrument of unspecified size be applied to an unspecified part of the child’s anatomy. The obvious implication of this is that physical pain (but not physical harm) is Solomon’s tool for removing foolishness.

Here are the “non-negotiables” from these passages (22:15 and 23:13):

  • Discipline is not punishment (retributive justice), but is instead didactic.
  • Discipline is the prescribed means for removing foolishness.
  • Discipline, if not always then at least characteristically, involves a rod.
  • The rod is to cause physical pain, but not physical harm.

In considering Solomon’s stated purpose and the “non-negotiables,” the third question can be answered. Is there an indication as to when one should stop using the rod? Yes, there is. If the purpose is to drive out foolishness, and the foolishness has been driven out, then there remains no further purpose for the rod.

Allow me to illustrate this pivotal truth with a personal anecdote. My lovely bride and I have two daughters. At the time of this writing one is nearly ten and the other nearly six. There have been times during their childhoods when it seemed we had to physically discipline them very frequently (sometimes, though not often, even more than once in a given day). These were difficult times that required a great deal of patience, caution and love. In some instances we wondered if we would ever get through to them. However, as these two young ladies have grown, we see in them a growing (and very beautiful) godliness. Both of them are demonstrating, characteristically, hearts of wisdom (to know exactly what I mean, consider how Solomon defines wisdom in Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10). While they often make mistakes for which they need training and correction, only very rarely do they, anymore, show signs of foolishness as Solomon describes it. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time in our household that physical discipline was necessary. We remain willing to use it if needed, but we have found that (thanks be to God) to this point the rod has successfully served its purpose in our household.

Of course, my own experience is not a guideline for anyone, only perhaps a testimony or evidence that a biblical approach works. Nonetheless, we should be looking to the Scriptures to provide everything we need for our equipping (2 Tim. 3:16-17). God also provides and expects us to use wisdom in applying the truths there (James 1:5). In some cases—like physical discipline, the Bible doesn’t provide specifics beyond certain basic principles—some of which we have discussed in this article. In such cases where God has been unspecific, we have some freedom and room to apply wisdom.

How big should the rod be? Can I use a belt or other instrument, as Solomon wants his son to use the rod? Can I use a smack on the hand? Is there an appropriate time for non-physical forms of discipline? How old should a child be before I stop physically disciplining them? These are all questions regarding which there is not biblical specificity, and regarding which I suggest we employ biblical wisdom and common sense.

Biblical parenting is about first understanding biblical principles and employing those principles as God prescribes. He gives us a substantial amount of freedom in many areas, but commands us not to neglect those things He has communicated.

As we look toward concluding this series, the next installment ponders Proverbs 29:15, considering in more detail the purpose of parental discipline. The final installment examines discipline in Hebrews 12, so that we can better understand how our Heavenly Father relates to us.

Notes

* Rabbi Abraham Ben Isaiah and Rabbi Benjamin Sharfman, The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary: A Linear Translation into English (Brooklyn, NY: S.S & R Publishing Co., 1949), 240.

[node:bio/christopher-cone body]

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There are 3 Comments

Greg Long's picture

Thank you, Christopher, for your careful biblical exegesis and thoughtful, practical application.

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I appreciate this. I have yet to see what the arguments for restricting נער (often transliterated as na'ar, nayer or even n'r) in Proverbs to "young man" are (I see the assertion often, but not the support.) The biblical evidence is to the contrary. The idea that the שׁבט (shevet or shebet) must be a club or heavy cane is in the same category.

As a book about wisdom, the highly compressed statements in Proverbs have to be taken as words to the wise--they assume parents must exercise wisdom in the use of physical pain in discipline.

A big problem with the dynamic today is that we have parents being foolish with the "rod," to the harm of their children. Who doesn't look at that and feel an intense anger and disgust? So then the tendency is to think "we need a better method." But there is no method that can compensate for parental folly. When children are raised by fools, there are devastating (often deadly) consequences sooner or later--if if we take use of physical pain off the table.

Ironically, in some cases, parents become abusive because they refuse to use the rod. That is, what happens is that, working from a naive view of the child's nature plus lax discipline, kids are increasingly unresponsive and uncooperative. Parental frustration grows, and--adding parental character problems to the mix--there is eventually an angry outburst resulting in harmful violence. I've never actually seen this happen, but I've seen plenty of publicly (and loudly) frustrated parents begging and pleading (and insulting and threatening) with their children to do or stop doing some very basic thing (like grabbing items off store shelves) and they are clearly on the verge of, as we say, "losing it."
I have to wonder what happens in their homes.

It's far, far wiser (and less frustrating) to establish real control through consistent discipline and, when appropriate, thoughtful use of physical pain (rather than frustrated outbursts of violent talk or action). Once again, the simple, old wisdom proves to be the best.

JNoël's picture

Christopher Cone wrote:
How big should the rod be? Can I use a belt or other instrument, as Solomon wants his son to use the rod? Can I use a smack on the hand? Is there an appropriate time for non-physical forms of discipline? How old should a child be before I stop physically disciplining them? These are all questions regarding which there is not Biblical specificity, and regarding which I suggest we employ Biblical wisdom and common sense.

Biblical parenting is about first understanding Biblical principles and employing those principles as God prescribes. He gives us a substantial amount of freedom in many areas, but commands us not to neglect those things He has communicated.

I think these are some of the most important comments, especially considering all of the replies that have been posted in the first two articles. Physical Pain Parenting is scriptural. God is not specific in the manner in which it is employed (size and construction of the implement, frequency, amount of energy transferred to the subject), but it is unwise to think child-rearing is possible without employing physical pain.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

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