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.
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
Hello, dear readers! I hope you’ll enjoy the lineup I have for you from the frozen North. I realized the other day I must truly have acclimated because I walked outside in 5 degree (Fahrenheit, AKA -15 Celsius) weather and had to remove my hat because I was warm. Wow. Anyway, some diverse reading for you, which includes posts on a graphic novel reviewed from a Christian perspective, some analysis of Flood Geology, reasons to go to church, an upcoming book I’m super excited for, and how to be a Christian on Facebook.
A Sneak Peek at What’s Inside My New Book– Natasha Crain at “Christian Mom Thoughts” is one of my favorite bloggers. She constantly has great advice for Christian parents and how to integrate apologetics into young lives. This is something extremely valuable. She’s also writing a book! I cannot wait for it. Check out this sneak peek at the book and be sure to follow her site.
Review: Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang– I love graphic novels but it is hard to find those which I’m willing to invest time into. After reading this review and commentary on worldview, I think I may have to pick these two up from Gene Luen Yang.
To Church (COMIC)- Why even bother going to church? Here’s a pretty interesting look at some reasons why it is a good thing for Christians to go!To Church (COMIC)- Why even bother going to church? Here’s a pretty interesting look at some reasons why it is a good thing for Christians to go!
Jesus Christ and Mr. Spock– Was Jesus a myth, like Spock? Some mythicists have been running with this absurdity since the death of Leonard Nimoy. Check out this post which acts as a piece of tribute to Spock while also refuting the ludicrous claims of Jesus mythers.
How to be a Christian Presence on Facebook– Some good advice on interacting on Facebook.
Forams and Diatoms: Testing Young Earth Flood Geology Hypotheses– Does Flood Geology–the Young Earth Creationist’s scientific answer to most questions–succeed when tested? Check out this post for just one test it fails.
Alright, maybe I’m stretching it when I call myself a “youth” (I’m 23 now), but I grew up with Harry Potter. Harry was my age when the books came out, and I’ve followed them throughout.
The popularity of the Harry Potter books is undeniable. Few in my generation don’t at least know about the series. The movies are consistently blockbusters, and surprisingly well made.
Christian parents rightly wonder whether these books–which are filled with sorcery, witchcraft, curses, hexes, and the like–are suitable for their children. Let me preface the rest of my discussion with my conclusion: the Harry Potter books are enjoyable literature which will build vocabulary, expand minds, and get children excited about reading.
The series follows Harry Potter through 7 years of his life, starting when he is 11. It is set in modern day England. There are two worlds in the series: the world of “muggles”–those who can’t use magic–and the world of wizards. The wizards go to great lengths to keep their world a secret from any “muggles” who are unrelated to wizards (or in important positions like the Prime Minister). Thus, when the series starts, Harry Potter knows nothing of his wizarding past, having been raised by his aunt and uncle, who hate everything having to do with wizards.
Despite his lack of knowledge about the world of wizards, Harry Potter is himself hugely famous to wizards. He is known as the “Boy Who Lived” because when he was but a baby, an evil wizard known as Lord Voldemort (frequently referred to as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) attempted to kill him and failed. Harry’s parents were killed in the scuffle, but when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, the killing curse rebounded and killed Voldemort instead. Thus, Harry is seen by many as the defeater of the greatest evil wizard of all time. Everyone knows his name; there is a monument to him at his old home; he has a lightning-bolt shaped scar which clearly identifies him, and he knows nothing about this.
Then his life changes when, at age 11, he is invited to attend Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Thereafter, the books follow Harry’s growth as a wizard with his friends, as well as the rumors of and eventual rise to power of Voldemort. It culminates in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, when Harry races against time with his friends to destroy Voldemort. (For a more in-depth synopsis, check out the page here. Check out the links for each book’s plot synopsis on the same page.)
The question which has been asked repeatedly within the Christian community is “Are these books appropriate for my children?”
I started reading Harry Potter when I was 11 years old. As each book came out, I devoured it immediately (except for a brief hiatus before book 5). The books do have very scary, and even disturbing, moments. Voldemort is an evil wizard, and he is portrayed as such. He orchestrates murders and he and his cohorts murder with an attitude of nonchalance. The books also have many scenes of “kids being kids”. Harry and his best friend, Ron, often cheat off their mutual friend Hermione in order to complete their homework. Ron’s older brothers are pranksters of the highest level, whose very lives are dedicated to perfecting their antics. Rivalry between youths is also portrayed, as Hogwarts features four “Houses” which compete for top honors at the end of each year. The books also pull no punches in the realm of “magic”; the children are engaged in hexes, curses, charms, astrology, and the like.
Suggestions for Parents
So what should a Christian parent do with this series? It is impossible to issue a blanket statement that will apply to all parents. Instead, I want to offer several suggestions and comments.
First, there are few books which will keep children and youths reading as well as the Harry Potter Series. It has helped to increase literacy in a generation from which appreciation for books seems to be disappearing. (See the interesting article here for some insight on this phenomenon.)
Second, the Harry Potter books distinguish between good and evil to an extent that much other literature does not. There is no doubt that Voldemort is evil and that Harry and friends are the “good guys.” However, this leads me to the third point: the series acknowledges that no human is perfect. Everyone, from Harry’s father to Dumbledore (headmaster of Hogwarts) has things in their past they regret. I don’t think this is a fault of the series (though some people do–arguing that this diminishes the distinction between good and evil); rather, it brings to light something we–as Christian in particular–acknowledge is true: all people are sinners in need of salvation (this is not a theme developed in the books).
Fourth, despite the use of magic of all kinds, there remains a clear distinction between acceptable practice and unacceptable practice. Some have feared that Harry Potter would increase the interest in witchcraft and wizardry in youths. I personally think this is ludicrous. But that leads me to the fifth point.
Fifth, you as parents are responsible for teaching your children the difference between reality and fiction. My parents did a fantastic job on this. Reading Harry Potter never made me want to explore witchcraft, alchemy, or astrology. I knew such things were to be avoided. That is, I could distinguish between reality and unreality. I think that too often, Christian parents in particular underestimate the power of youths to make this distinction. Yet few parents would object to their children reading Star Wars. Perhaps it is the use of “witch” and “wizard” which makes parents leery. But, in my opinion as a Christian who grew up reading Harry Potter, there is no need to fear… unless children have not been taught to realize a difference between fact and fiction.
Sixth, parents need to be informed. When their children are interested in something like Harry Potter, it is too often that parents read only the negative sources. What better way to judge whether something is appropriate for your children than by reading the book yourself?
Kenneth Samples (cited below) argues that there are three major questions for parents to ask about Harry Potter (and other books). First: “How can Christian parents test their decisions in terms of Scripture, conscience, and reason?” Christian parents should always turn to these sources to figure out whether something is appropriate for their children.
Second: “Is it appropriate to use dark and occult images in fantasy literature to convey a narrative in fantasy literature?” Samples notes that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both use these images to convey their message. Are these appropriate usages? (I think yes, but the key here is that there is no quick and easy answer for everyone.)
Third: “Does the book use these images at literary devices to propel the broader story, or, rather to promote occult involvement?” Samples argues this is a critical question. If the Harry Potter books simply use the occult images as a literary device, then it seems like there is no problem. The Harry Potter books do seem to be in the former category rather than the latter.
Fourth, “What is the overarching worldview reflected in the books and how does it compare or contrast with the Christian worldview?” This can spur discussion on books and series that aren’t even intended to convey the Christian worldview.
I said earlier that there is no fast and easy way to say “yea” or “nay” for all parents to a series like Harry Potter. I hope that my comments will help concerned parents figure out where to stand on the series. I want to make my own view absolutely clear, here at the close. I think the Harry Potter books are fantastic. They feature memorable characters and exciting plots. Not only that, but they get kids interested in reading. They build vocabulary (I remember personally grabbing a dictionary once in a while when I was younger and reading Harry Potter). The books distinguish between good and evil while maintaining the reality no one is perfect. They will spur discussion. Ultimately, I recommend Harry Potter to parents, but with the qualifier that parents have taught their children about fact and fiction and that they are willing to engage their children in discussion, which may (probably does) require reading the books themselves.
Samples, Kenneth. “To Read or Not to Read: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Response.” Straight Thinking Podcast. 10/20/2009.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.