“A Wisconsin trial court judge denied a motion to dismiss charges against a convicted pastor who instructed his church members to use wooden rods to spank misbehaving children, some as young as two months old.”
The previous installment discussed three questions and their answers in Proverbs 22:15. (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?
Proverbs 29:15 provides important additional information regarding the use of the rod: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother”(NASB).
The purpose of discipline is to give wisdom (yiten chakmah). Importantly, Solomon defines wisdom in Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10 as the fear of the Lord. Biblical parental discipline is designed to instill the fear of the Lord in our children. To some readers, that might sound awful (putting the fear of God in our kids is so 20th century, right?), but either we are operating from a biblical platform or we aren’t. The fear of the Lord is a centerpiece of what God demands of His children (1 Pet. 2:17), and without it we can’t begin to think or act properly.
It is not enough to understand fear as simply respect. The word is much stronger than that—the Hebrew is yirah, and is often invoked when people fear for the lives (e.g., 2 Kings 10:4). The Greek is phobos, and is used in the same way (e.g., Matt. 28:4). I would suggest the idea is that we should have the proper, lofty, perspective of God—understanding who He really is (in all His greatness, His ability to execute judgment, His sovereign rights over His creation, His holiness, etc.)—who He reveals Himself to be. This is the goal of biblical parenting.
Proverbs 29:15 describes two tools that work together—interdependently, it seems—to help achieve that end: the rod and reproof. The rod without reproof seems cruel (could that be what Paul was warning against in Ephesians 6:4? Notice his inclusion of the two terms discipline [paideia] and instruction [nouthesia]). Reproof (Heb., tokahat) correction without the rod may be totally ineffectual. Ever watch a parent try to reason with an angry, willful, impertinent child? It is a sight to behold—and a mournful one at that.
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:
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.
Previously we examined Proverbs 13:24, a passage from which we understood three powerful principles: (1) proper discipline is associated with the use of the rod, (2) proper discipline is associated with love, and proper discipline is not described here in terms of abuse or causing harm, nor is it described as punishment.
While 13:24 is clear in regard to these principles, there are some important details that are not so easy to discern from that passage alone. Among them is the exact nature of the rod itself. Is the rod to be taken literally as referring to an implement for inflicting physical pain as a part of discipline, or is it instead a metaphor for general (non-physical) guidance and correction? Proverbs 22:15 is a helpful verse for helping us understand the meaning and application of the rod in Proverbs: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” (NASB)
Before discussing the specifics of the verse there is some important hermeneutic (interpretive) groundwork that must be considered. On this and other challenging passages we often see two competing methods of interpretation employed. On the one hand, is the literal grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This approach is literal, in that it seeks to understand the natural or literal meaning. It is grammatical, in that it follows the rules of grammar of the language used. And it is historical, in that it recognizes the importance of historical context of the grammar and other aspects of the writing. The literal grammatical-historical approach seeks always to find the intended meaning by looking for the plain sense of a passage. This methodology recognizes there is figurative language used in the Bible, but waits for the text itself to announce when figures are being used.
On the other hand is allegorical interpretation or spiritualization. Allegorical interpretation often either seeks a deeper meaning or seeks to resolve perceived conflicts in the text by interpreting in a non-literal way. This approach is not as concerned with rules of grammar and context, but gives the interpreter instead more influence in determining the meaning.
In order to understand this (or any other) passage, it is important to first agree on a set of interpretive principles, otherwise we find ourselves speaking different languages (I say bad, but mean good; you say bad but mean bad—we won’t get very far without defining our terms). I find that most theological disagreements are rooted in interpretive method, and if we aren’t aware of our interpretive presuppositions and assumptions, then we are inviting irreconcilable differences.
Especially in light of increasing public pressures not to spank children, parents are legitimately questioning whether or not spanking should be a part of their repertoire. As parents who seek to train up our children as God has prescribed, we must look to His word as our authoritative source for parental training. Thankfully, the Bible has much to say regarding parental discipline. But can it bring clarity to the question of spanking? Does the Bible teach that parents should spank their children?
I believe yes, and yes—but with very specific parameters and limitations. The Bible is quite clear about disciplinary method, purpose, and results. Biblical discipline is always to be conducted in love and for the purpose of the growth and godliness of the one being disciplined. It is never punishment, and never abusive. It is painful, yes, but should never be harmful. Over the course of five articles I will consider in detail five very direct passages pertaining to the physical disciplining of children: Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, and 29:15, and Hebrews 12:5-13.
As this series begins, I must preface it by noting that many events of the Hebrew Bible take place under the economy of the Mosaic Law, and because that Law governed Israel as a nation and not church-age believers of today, we need to be cautious to properly understand Old Testament context. We certainly don’t want to misapply a principle or a mandate. But the book of Proverbs makes things relatively simple. Proverbs is filled with universal truths not restricted to any particular era or economy, but broadly applicable to God’s people in any age. So, we begin there.
He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (NASB, Prov. 13:24)
The Hebrew shebet, references a rod or staff, used typically in the pastoral setting as a physical restrainer and teacher for the governing of a flock. The one who hates his son is withholding (Heb., cho-sek, participle) the rod from, or refraining to use the rod on his son.
Hate (Heb., sane) is a prominently used word indicating a disposition one might have toward an enemy. In a literal grammatical-historical understanding, the meaning of the phrase is crystal clear: withholding the rod of discipline is simply hateful toward a child.
Once upon a time Father knew best, and once upon a time we allowed Him to teach us how to parent. In Deuteronomy 8:3, God acknowledges humbling Israel and allowing them even to go hungry (of course, only to a point), calling it parental discipline (Hebrew yaser, LXX Greek paideusai) in Deuteronomy 8:5. Solomon counsels his reader not to reject the Lord’s discipline (same Hebrew and Greek roots as in Deuteronomy 8) and reminds that the Lord reproves those He loves, “as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:11-12). Solomon suggests. further, “reproofs for discipline are the way of life” (Prov. 6:23b), “whoever loves discipline loves knowledge” (Prov. 12:1), and “a wise son accepts his father’s discipline” (Prov. 13:1a).
Not only does Solomon communicate the importance of discipline, but he also relays an important method, saying, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Prov. 13:24), and “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Prov. 22:15). He adds, “Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you beat [or smite] him, he will not die” (Prov. 23:13). From these contexts it is easy to see that Solomon is not advocating cruelty and physical damage. Rather, in no uncertain terms Solomon portrays physical discipline as an expression of love for the purpose of training and fostering growth—and according to Solomon, it has to hurt.
In addition to discussing purpose and method, Solomon also expresses the urgency of parental discipline: “Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death” (Prov. 19:27); “You shall beat him with the rod and deliver his soul from Sheol” (Prov. 23:14). Solomon contends that if a parent is not disciplining forcefully (causing pain) and intentionally (with love and for growth), that parent is sentencing his child to walk a path endangered by stupidity (Prov. 12:1b), poverty and shame (Prov. 13:18a), self loathing (Prov. 15:32a), straying from knowledge (Prov. 19:27), foolishness (Prov. 22:15), and even premature death (Prov. 19:18; 23:14).