Spare the rod, spoil the child
I was spanked and no harm came of it
The Bible teaches spanking
Recently, I was involved in a discussion about Christian parenting. An article was shared that showed findings from 5 decades of research (!) that demonstrate spanking causes harm. Some of the first responses immediately appealed to a biblical view of disciplining children, including one comment that said if we accepted this study as Christians we’d have to cut the verse that says “Spare the rod, spoil the child” out of the Bible. What follows is my response, with some expanded comments.
Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?
There is no such verse, so I guess that’s not a problem.
When people use this phrase and claim it is biblical, they are probably referring to what that common saying alludes to, Proverbs 13:24. Therein we see that the word for “rod” is the same word in Hebrew used for the shepherd’s staff in Psalm 23:4, there bringing comfort. Indeed, the shepherd’s crook/staff/rod is probably what is being referenced in Proverbs as well, there showing that correcting children is proper–just as we correct the path of the wandering sheep. But we don’t beat the sheep with the staff, it is used to turn the sheep back to the right path. Thus, the meaning is, I think, more aligned with saying that we ought to correct our children when they stray, just as a shepherd corrects the straying sheep.
We can’t rely on the English translation to make a point over against the Hebrew. The same word used for a shepherd’s staff is the one used in Proverbs. It’s the same word, shebet, in Proverbs 23:13, another text often referenced to support the notion of spanking or “spare the rod, spoil the child.” It reads:
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. (NIV)
Further, if you compare Exodus 21:20, which speaks of beating with a rod causing death, to Proverbs 23:13, which assures the reader that the child will not die, there is a difficulty in taking the latter literally, because otherwise death is a distinct possibility which is even legislated against in the former. Indeed, Proverbs 23:14 makes the context clear- correction is saving the child from Sheol. But if that’s the case, then how could it be read as striking in a way that could cause death (Exodus parallel) while also explicitly being intended to save from death Proverbs 23:14: “Punish them with the rod and save them from death” (NIV, ESV reads “save him from Sheol”)? It doesn’t make much sense to save someone from death in a way that causes death.
The Hebrew of Proverbs 23:14 for “strike” is nakah in Hiphil, thus meaning it is causative and, again, seems to point to the same metaphorical meaning I drew out above for 13:24. Strong’s notes the common figurative use of “nakah” in the OT. That is reinforced in Brown Driver Briggs which shows both intensification of the word (slaughter/etc.) as well as less strong meanings (clapping hands, hail).
Are other readings possible? Sure they are. But corporal punishment is not the only possible translation, and it seems to yield a contradiction. We can’t rely on the English translation to be the end-all-be-all of how we read the Bible. It comes with the assumptions of the translators. I’m not saying they’re wrong–just that it is simplistic to appeal to the English as the final say.
I was asked to explain what alleged metaphor is being employed, as well as the reference to Exodus 21:20. I was also countered by saying the words for rod and staff are being used together in Psalm 23 so why did I draw the conclusion I did.
The metaphor that is employed is fairly straightforward: just as you use a rod to correct the sheep–guiding them with strikes–so we should correct the wrong paths our children take. The metaphor is not that we should strike children–that is the literal reading, and one that I think I’ve shown is not even necessary–but rather that like shepherd we guide children on the right path.
The appeal to Exodus 21:20 is to show that beating with a rod was known to kill people and that was punished. Yet in Proverbs the use of a rod for the child has no implication of death and indeed a direct denial that death is even possible. If we read them both literally there is a contradiction: striking with rod causes death; striking with a rod will not cause death. Use of the words metaphorically, as outlined in the preceding paragraph, clears up this apparent contradiction.
Psalm 23- I’m not so sure about the confusion here. Sure, both words are used inclusively, but that doesn’t change the Hebrew word being translated as rod is also translated as shepherd’s staff and is the word used in each verse presented so far. Nothing in this relies on the word being separated out from context in Psalm 23. Instead, I am appealing to the Hebrew to show that the word is the same as the one used in Psalm 23:4.
Spanking and Anecdotes
One final point I’d like to bring forward is that anecdotes are not arguments. Very often in this discussion (and others), one cites a study or makes a comment, and then someone else responds saying something along the lines of “Well I was spanked [had this happen to me, etc.], and I turned out okay” as if this is a counter-argument. It isn’t. Having incidents that don’t cohere with the general trend is to be expected, and appealing to an anecdote doesn’t invalidate such general trends or rules. The study linked above is in no way discredited by the, I’m sure, many thousands of people who were spanked but turned out “okay.” That doesn’t undermine the mounting evidence that spanking is not the best option.
I have shown in this post that texts or sayings commonly cited in support of spanking do not necessitate or even condone the act. The Bible does not necessitate spanking as a way to discipline children. It does, however, teach that parents are to correct wrong behavior, and, like the shepherd, turn their children back to the right path. Given the increasing evidence that spanking is a poor option, Christian parents ought not feel they must use it to discipline their children. Those who choose not to spank may do so with a clean conscience.
For more reading on the psychological studies behind spanking, see Psychology Today as well as the summary article linked above (or here).
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