In my last post on the topic of Proverbs and the issue of spanking, I concluded that regardless of your interpretation of the “rod” verses, spanking is not a salvation issue. Proverbs is not a book of law or of absolute promises, but is rather a book of truisms and wise sayings. Proverbs is also full of many different literary tactics – including symbolism, hyperbole, and poetry – that are intended to impart its wisdom to readers.
When interpreting a text, it is of extreme importance to understand the cultural context. This is especially important if a text is more than a few hundred years old and if a text was originally written in a different language.
Languages change very quickly and English has not been an exception. The English that was commonly used in Chaucer’s time (1300s) was vastly different than the English used in Shakespeare’s time (1500s) which is once again vastly different than the modern English that I speak and the text-speak that is becoming ever more popular in my society.
This is why I think it is so important to look at the original language, to look at other places where the words in question were used, what contexts they were used in, and what those words might have meant to the people for whom the text was originally written.
Also, as we delve into the original language and context of the “rod” verses, I will briefly discuss what the modern English translations seem to say if they are taken at face value. I am using the English Standard Version for the first quotation of each verse, but I will follow with a paraphrase that includes all the different words I can find that are used in the various English translations.
“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
Anyone who spares or withholds the (or his) rod hates or is unkind to his son. He who loves his son is diligent, hastens, or is careful to discipline/correct/chastise/chasten/punish him betimes or early on.
The God’s Word translation does include the word “spank” in the first half of the verse instead of “rod,” but the word does not appear in any other translations – nor does it occur in the original Hebrew. No versions that I have found so far contain the word “spank” in the second half of the verse where the type of discipline is outlined a bit more clearly.
At face value, it’s fairly easy to see how people can take this verse to mean that they must spank their children if they love them. If one assumes that the “rod” in question is in fact a spanking implement and that “son” is referring to a small child of either gender, the meaning of the verse is clearly that a parent who loves their child will certainly spank them.
So, what does the Hebrew say?
The key words, from my perspective, are “rod,” “son,” and “discipline.”
The word “rod” is translated from the word shebet which means a scion, for example: literally a stick (for punishing, writing, fighting, walking, ruling, etc.) or figuratively a clan. (from Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon)
The most likely definition of the word in this context is a staff (shepherding stick), scepter (ruling stick), or punishment stick. I will address the possibility of it meaning a stick to punish someone with when I look at Proverbs 23:13.
If the word means “shepherding stick” then it would seem to indicate guiding and protecting. Contrary to some teachings, shepherds do not beat their sheep. Sheep need a lot of guidance and protection for which the shepherd’s rod serves them well. The shepherd can use the stick to protect the sheep from enemies and to guide them towards their destination. I actually like this interpretation of the word “rod” in this context. It makes a very nice picture of a parent gently guiding their children to greener pastures. However, since the shepherd doesn’t punish, discipline, or chastise the sheep, I’m not sure how that would reconcile with the second half of the verse.
The definition I prefer (might as well be up front about my bias) is scepter which would also make sense when considering that Solomon probably wrote this. I believe that we are given authority over our children and a great responsibility to “bring (our children) up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Someone with authority over someone else would discipline, disciple, chastise, correct, and maybe even sometimes punish those under their authority.
In fact, if you look at all the other places that the word shebet is used in the Bible, the vast majority of them are symbolizing authority of some sort, whether God’s or man’s, and the verse still makes sense if you substitute the word “authority” for “rod.”
The word translated “son” here is na’ar. This is a very interesting part to me because people tend to spank very young children and yet, the specific Hebrew words (at the bottom of the linked page) for children who were still nursing (probably under around 4 or 5 years of age) are not used. There is a specific female version of this word that is not used either. Instead, na’ar is used which means young man, servant, youth, lad, and retainer.
Certainly, one can spank older children, but the vast majority of parents stop spanking well before their children are teens or “young men.”
Moreover, this very word, na’ar or “young man” is used to refer to Joshua in Exodus 33:11. According to many commentators, Joshua would have been at least 30 or 40 years old at that point – not exactly a toddler.
Why would God have allowed this specific word to be used if He was talking about young toddlers who would have still been nursing in their culture? I believe that God is very specific with wording. Why would he not be? He’s all-powerful and all-knowing! Therefore, I reject the idea that “son” in this verse means a toddler or young child of either gender. The very end of the verse does talk about starting early on with discipline, but again, nothing about physically hitting a young child.
We come now to the word translated “discipline” which is the word muwcar. This can mean discipline, correction, or chastening.
I have to interject a bit here because I think that many people conflate the terms “discipline” and “punishment” – these words do not mean the same thing. You can discipline someone by punishing them, but punishing someone is not always an act of discipline and disciplining someone does not have to include punishing them.
I believe that it is of great importance to instruct my children – which often involves correcting or chastening them verbally. Those are just two of the many discipline tools I have at my disposal. I believe that discipline is very important when raising children – I just disagree that this discipline should automatically involve physical punishment. The only definition for the word muwcar that could indicate physical punishment is “chastening” which can just as easily be used to convey verbal chastening as physical.
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
Folly/Foolishness/foolish ways fill up/are deep-seated/firmly attached/bound up/bound in the heart of a child/youngster/youth, but the rod of discipline/correction/punishment will drive, send, or remove it far from him.
Taken at face value in the English, this is not a difficult verse to understand. A child’s heart is full of folly and, if one continues to assume that “rod” means an implement for administering punishments such as spankings, this verse clearly states that spanking will remove this folly far from the child. As with the last verse, the God’s Word translation places our current cultural perspective on the verse and uses “spanking” in place of “rod of correction.”
So, what does the Hebrew say?
Once again, we have the word shebet which is more likely to be a scepter or a shepherd’s crook than a stick with which to beat someone – an issue I will address very soon! We also have the issue of muwcar which, according to the Hebrew Lexicon, does not mean “punishment” even though several English translations have chosen to translate it as such. In many other places, the word muwcar is translated as “instruction” or “teaching” in English such as in Proverbs 23:12.
In fact, it seems more logical, to me at least, that correcting, instructing, or teaching a child (or young man since the word na’ar is used in this verse as well) and guiding him in the way he should behave would drive more foolishness out of his heart than hitting him physically would. I fail to see how hitting someone would ever teach them wisdom – the opposite of foolishness.
Do not hesitate, withhold, hold back, or fail to discipline/chastise your children/a child/a youth; if you beat/punish/strike/smitest him with the rod he will not die.
Beat/punish/strike/smitest him with the rod and save/rescue/deliver his soul from death/Sheol/Hell/the underworld.
These are probably the most obvious of all the verses that seem to be in favor of corporal punishment if we are taking the English-translation of the verses at face value. Once we’ve already assumed that “rod” means a stick with which to punish someone by hitting him, the rest just falls into place nicely. Or does it? Let’s go with the punishment stick definition of shebet now.
Let’s assume that the stick is a punishment stick such as is used for the backs of fools (Proverbs 10:13 and 26:3). The main problem I see with using this definition is that, on at least one occasion in the Hebraic Law, it is mentioned that a death can occur as a direct result of using the shebet on a grown man or woman (Exodus 21:20).
The conflict with Exodus 21:20 is very clear. How can the shebet cause a death in an adult servant, something that apparently happened frequently enough so that God saw fit to include in His law, and yet be said to save a young man from death?
In an effort to not reinvent the wheel as well as to keep this article to a reasonable length, I’d like to point you to this wonderful article that explores in some depth the likely Hebrew meaning of these two verses. The woman who wrote that article is much more learned than I am about this issue and I am happy to be able to point you in the direction of someone who has studied this issue in great depth.
From the article – if you don’t wish to read it yet:
But if we understand the reference to the shebet as speaking to the father’s absolute authority to correct his children, we can see that if you continue to correct your child until you figuratively “beat it into him” you will be able to accomplish the guarantee of the next passage—saving his soul from an early grave. This type of a beating will bring a pang to his moral conscience and entice him to do what is right. He will be smited into right thinking. Unlike the Greek mind that believed if you learn something you will do it, the Hebrew mind believed when you understood something you would embrace it. Foolish choices in a child were understood to represent a lack of understanding, and constant correction would serve to bring them into right understanding, right thinking, and right action.
Thus, “beating” would be more like the beating down of the sun – a constant sort of thing – except a beating down of parental authority and wisdom. This certainly makes sense when I consider how constantly I have to be redirecting and reminding my children what they should and should not do. I’m constantly teaching them and helping them to gain greater understanding of God’s love and Word as well as the world around them. Very constant – like the beating of the sun on a hot summer day.
The other issue I see with these two verses being taken “at face value” with our current cultural assumptions leading the way, is that if spanking truly does save our children from Hell, why do they need Jesus? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross at all if beating with a literal rod of punishment could save souls? I suppose we could take this verse to mean that if we hit our children, they will find Jesus and be saved in that way, but that’s not what the verse says.
Keep in mind that if something in the Old Testament contradicts the New Testament, an interpretation is probably off somewhere because God is unchanging.
So, the word translated “Hell” or “death” or “Sheol” is the word she’owl which has quite a few different meanings. I’m particularly interested in the last one:
sheol, underworld, grave, hell, pit
Sheol – the OT designation for the abode of the dead
place of no return
without praise of God
wicked sent there for punishment
righteous not abandoned to it
of the place of exile (fig)
of extreme degradation in sin
Of all the definitions, there are only a couple that I think really seem to fit without contradicting a good deal of the New Testament. By instructing your children and constantly correcting their thinking and behaviors by your authority as a parent, you can help ensure that they will not be “without praise of God” and that they will avoid “extreme degradation in sin.” They will still sin and they will still need Christ’s death to save them from destruction in the end, but they will have the knowledge and discipline they need to praise God and maybe even to avoid the more degrading types of sin.
And finally! The last of the “rod” verses:
“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
The rod/rod of correction/discipline and reproof/warning/sharp words/(correction – from “rod of correction”) give, produce, or impart wisdom; but a child/youth who is left to himself/his own, gets his own way, is undisciplined, is unguided, or is let away causes/brings shame/disgrace to his mother.
Here, again, for the fourth time, if we assume that the “rod” in question is a tool for hitting someone, this verse clearly speaks highly of spanking a child lest he bring shame and disgrace to his mother. Again, the God’s Word translation makes this assumption for us and reads: “A spanking and a warning produce wisdom.”
A problem I see with this – aside from the other issues with assuming that shebet means a punishment stick – is that spankings do not, in fact, produce wisdom. Spanking as a frequently used discipline measure is very behaviorist which I find fascinating – its history, likewise, is very interesting.
Spanking doesn’t teach wisdom, but rather sets up a situation in which a child will (hopefully) be averse to doing again what they were spanked for doing. It’s all very Pavlovian and there are some issues with “training” children using behaviorist methods because children are not animals, but that’s another post.
If we go back to the verse, we see that verbal warning or chastisement is also mentioned, but after the “rod” bit which we could assume means that spanking should come first and explaining or teaching afterwards.
The last half is pretty self-explanatory when taken at face value. If you give your child whatever they want and don’t actively parent them, they will disgrace you. No permissive parenting!
So, one last time, what does the Hebrew say?
“Rod” is, of course, shebet which we’ve covered enough at this point. “Reproof” is translated from the word towkechah which means rebuke, correction, reproof, punishment, chastisement, argument, impeachment, and chiding. The only definition which would seem to indicate a spanking is “punishment” and the English translations that I know of did not see fit to use that word at all. Only the God’s Word translation made the leap to “spanking” from shebet and towkechah.
The next word is wisdom. What is wisdom? In this case, it’s chokmah which means skill (in war), wisdom (in administration), shrewdness/wisdom, wisdom/prudence (in religious affairs), and wisdom (ethical and religious). In other verses it is translated as skill(ful man), wisely, wisdom, and wits.
One thing that these types of wisdom have in common is that they all result from teaching someone something. A spanking does not make a child or young man more skillful at anything – except perhaps at resisting very specific temptations or lying in an attempt to get away with things to avoid being hurt again. Spanking does not help a child or young man become a good administrator or become shrewd – except perhaps in the artful and tricky definition of the word. Spanking also does not teach prudence (forethought and discretion) in religious affairs or ethical and religious wisdom.
Much of this is simply my opinion, of course, and I’m certain that many people will disagree with me about my conclusions. I would ask you who disagree with me to think back to your childhood days and recall what the spankings you received taught you. I can’t tell you what you were taught by your spankings, but I can certainly tell you what spankings (“properly” administered according to Dobson and Tripp) taught me:
I learned to fear my parents – especially my father, to lie whenever possible to spare myself the possibility of being hurt/spanked again, to not trust my parents, and to hide my innermost thoughts, feelings, and struggles from my parents because I feared and did not trust them. I did not seek out their wisdom and teachings at the times I needed it the most because I did not trust them to understand and not hurt me. I have friends who sought out their parents’ guidance about nearly everything in their lives during their teen and young adult years. Those were my friends who were not spanked regularly or at all as children.
I have a great relationship with my parents now – especially with my mom – but I don’t remember spanking ever teaching me anything truly beneficial past the immediate moment of, “I shouldn’t do that or get caught doing that ever again!”
The last part of Proverbs 29:15 is not as straightforward as it appears to be. The word translated “let go,” “undisciplined,” and “gets his own way” is shalach which means to send away, let loose, set forth, let down, put away, dismiss, to be sent off, divorced, and to stretch out.
The word translated “shame” is buwsh which is a root that means shame and is translated as “confusion” and “confounded” a few times in the KJV.
It would seem to me that those definitions suggest that alienating her child would cause a mother shame. Keeping in mind that the word na’ar is used once more for “child” and could, in all probability, indicate a teenager, this verse would seem to speak against alienating your young adult children lest they bring you shame. I know that many of the things I did as a young adult, when I didn’t seek out my parents’ wisdom, would have brought my parents shame if they had known of them. Maybe I’m putting too much of my own situation onto this verse, but I think that it’s a possible interpretation worth considering.
In conclusion, I believe that the Bible is very clear about the need for parental authority in children’s lives. I believe that we need to be constantly watching and guiding our children’s behavior and correcting their wrong-thinking while also teaching them right-thinking. I do not believe that there is any room for permissive parenting in a Christian home since that would stem from a lack of parental authority and little active parenting. I believe that we need to build trust with our children so that when they need our guidance as young adults, they will feel free to come and seek our wisdom.
I ask all who have read this to prayerfully consider the Hebrew meanings of the words and the alternate interpretations that I have suggested to you in this post. Please also consider what you want to teach your children, not just in the moment, but long-term. Do you want your children to obey you out of fear? Do you want your children to seek out your wisdom when they hit their teen years even if they know you’ll disapprove of their question and thoughts? Do you want them to obey unquestioningly now regardless of the possible future consequences? Do you want them to learn lifelong lessons that will help them attain chokmah? What do you want for your children’s future?
Naturally, most Christian parents also want their children to someday know personally the love and grace of God the Father, the amazing sacrifice of Jesus the Son, and the constant helping presence of the Holy Spirit; but those things are not ours to give. We cannot purge our children’s souls of sin by hitting them and we cannot force them to accept Christ’s love. Only by the Grace of God will they accept His love and salvation, not by a literal rod that literally beats a small child into submission.
Thank you for reading! I welcome respectful feedback from both those who agree and those who disagree.
Part Three in this series is now posted!