Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is Spanking Biblical? Part 1: Proverbs

Let me begin by saying that each and every one of us parents before the Lord. Read what I say with open ears and a grain of salt, bring it before God, study the Bible for yourself. In this post, I will discuss what my husband and I have learned through our study of the Bible. In later posts, I will discuss other reasons why my husband and I have decided never to use spanking as a tool.

Proverbs 23:1-2 reads: "When you sit down to dine with a ruler, Consider carefully what is before you, And put a knife to your throat If you are a man of great appetite." I would ask you to ask a few questions about these verses:
  1. Is this verse meant to be taken literally? Or are we supposed to gain a tidbit of inferred wisdom from reading it?
  2. Is this how we as Christians are told to deal with sin in our own lives? Are we to hold a knife to our throats, literally or figuratively, when confronted with temptation?
    •  The answer to this question is found in Romans 6-8. The way a believer avoids sin and escapes temptation is by realizing that we are dead to our old sin nature, and that we have a new nature that is alive because of our co-crucifixion with Christ. The Holy Spirit empowers our new nature to stand against sin.
    • I will let these verses speak for themselves: "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence....Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry." (Colossians 2: 20-23; 3:5).
So, what is my point with this? I am not saying that the book of Proverbs is not inspired wisdom. However, we need to keep in mind when reading Scripture the dispensational context of any given passage. Proverbs was written by King Solomon, who was living under the law. Christ had not yet come, died for sin, and given every person the opportunity to trust Him, be born again, and be empowered by the Spirit in their new natures. As believers, we do not deal with sin by exerting self-control to resist temptation--we realize that we are free from sin (though we can still choose to walk in it), and alive to God, and that we must walk by the Spirit. We read Proverbs the same way we read Deuteronomy: we realize it is inspired wisdom, we see God's character through it, but we also read it knowing that we do not have to follow the laws/prescriptions in these passages.  It is not that God has ever changed, it is just that we are under grace, whereas the people in the Old Testament were under law.

Here is a bit more context that is important to understand when you read the book of Proverbs: First, Proverbs was written with a specific audience in mind. King Solomon was addressing his son. Verse 8 says: "Hear, my son...". As you continue to read Proverbs, you will be able to guess at the age of King Solomon's son: he is clearly not a little boy. He is at least a teenager/young man, as Solomon instructs him regarding harlots!

Let me get a little more technical. The passages in Proverbs that Christians hold to as advocating spanking (Proverbs 13:24, Proverbs 23:13,14), are not talking about a young child, but a young man!! The Hebrews used specific words when referring to the different ages of children. I am going to quote from a book by Samuel Martin, who has a BA degree with a special focus on Middle Eastern studies, and who has worked closely with two Hebrew professors in Israel on an excavation trip and a survey trip. That is to say, he has studied Hebrew culture and language extensively. Here is a quote from his book concerning the the number of Hebrew terms for child, each describing a certain age/stage (nursling, young woman, weaned one, etc): "...As mentioned earlier, the Hebrew terms that refer to the phases of life are “yeled,” “yonek,” “olel,” “gamul,” “taph,” elem,” “na’ar,” “bthulah,” “bachur,” “ish” and“ben.”" (Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me). The specific stage "the rod" verses in Proverbs are focused on is "na'ar." Now, Proverbs also uses the word "ben" in some verses. "Ben" refers to a boy of any age. Considering the context and the specific use of the term "na'ar," however, one can infer that where "ben" is used it likely refers to a teenage son. "Na'ar" refers to a young man, who is ready to be free of his parents, a teenager approaching adulthood. Here is what Samuel Martin points out: "The word that we find used in three of the verses that advocate smacking in Proverbs is “na’ar.” The phase of life associated with the “na’ar” (which means the“one shook lose”) is that of young adulthood or the teenage years. This is significant. Based on this evidence, it is safe to say that all of these texts in the book of Proverbs have no application to anyone less than about ten to twelve years of age." Woah! Shocking, considering most parenting gurus advocate beginning spanking at toddlerhood, or even before!

Another interesting point to consider: the terms used to describe small children are not used in the book of Proverbs in reference to the rod. It would be a stretch to say that Proverbs advocates spanking small children.

So what has been my husband's and my conclusion? Proverbs was written in the Old Testament. That means that its writer was writing as one under the law, and we need to be careful to read Proverbs with that focus in mind. If you are going to follow the Proverbs explicitly as a believer, you had better hold a knife to your throat, or at least threaten yourself, when you are eating with a ruler! Furthermore, if you are going to follow the book of Proverbs as though it is a book of commands for believers, you had better also follow the other laws in the Old Testament. Let me quote one here for you. Deuteronomy 21:18,19;21a: "If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown...Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death...". When I read this, I wonder if that is perhaps what Solomon meant when he said that if you beat your son with a rod, you will save his soul from Sheol (or death). Perhaps he had in mind a rebellious teenage son (his sons certainly were!), and he was thinking of beating his rebellious sons to keep them from being stoned to death!!

When Christian parents approach the book of Proverbs, I hope that they will pay attention to historical, dispensational context, as well as to the intended audience of Proverbs, including the age of the "child" that is referred to in the book, as they prayerfully consider whether or not Proverbs is telling them that they must spank their young children. I will address the New Testament passages commonly used to advocate spanking next.


  1. This is a helpful post.

    I'm still trying to gather my thinking on this matter. Until recently I'd never heard anything but the pro-spanking arguments.

    I think it's also helpful to recognize when the Scripture speaks figuratively, which I believe to be the case in the example of putting a knife to your throat. It is also clearly the case when Jesus speaks of cutting off our limbs if they cause us to sin. (Certainly our limbs do not have power over our souls and cutting them off won't change our sinful hearts.) I'm beginning to suspect that the use of the term "rod" is also in many cases figurative, calling to mind the image of a shepherd with his sheep, leading and guiding (not beating). Shepherds don't beat sheep. They direct, perhaps even poking or prodding here or there to move them where they need to go or to keep them from danger. I've never heard of a shepherd beating his wandering ones.

    1. I know you posted this a while ago but I have just found it and want to give a bit of insight about the rod and shepherd Laurie. Shepherds common instruments of the trade was a staff/crook, and a rod/mallet. They would use the staff.crook every day guiding their sheep from pasture to pasture. However sometimes there will be a sheep that runs off on it's own and gets into trouble, falling into ditches, trapped in bushes, etc and the shepherd has to leave the flock and go an find the one. If a sheep continually runs off on its own and jeopordizes the whole flock, a shepherd will take the continually wayward sheep and use his rod/mallet on it to break one of it's legs. This break, while causing discomfort to the sheep, forces the sheep to stay with the flock for protection and by the time the leg heals, the sheep has been trained to stay with the flock. So when it mentions using a rod in scripture, it is usually symbolic of causing a reliance on something until the habit is broken and not the continual beating of said young man like is typically viewed.

  2. Yes, Laurie! Proverbs is a poetic book...I am going to add a bit to my post, showing that rod was often used as a figurative picture of authority in the old testament. No matter how you look at the Proverbs passages--figurative or literal--I believe that they do not support spanking.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts and post. I am going to link to this from my blog, which deals with a similar subject (though it has grown from the original subject).