For many Christian parents, their view of corporal punishment centers around the “rod verses” in Proverbs. But how should we interpret these verses? Are they literal or figurative? Do they contradict modern science? in this post, I’m going to dig deep and try to answer all of these questions. But first, a disclaimer:
This post is NOT intended to cover the vast and multifaceted subject of Christian parenting (for a great book on that subject, check out Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kid’s with the Love of Jesus” by Fitzpatrick & Thompson). Although I may blog more on that subject in the future, in this post I am exclusively focused on the debate over corporal punishment.
Ok. Let’s get started.
Is spanking helpful? Or harmful?
If you had taken a survey 50 years ago, most people would have agreed spanking was a helpful form of discipline.
Fast-forward to today, and that agreement is a thing of the past. Depending on who you are talking to you could hear anything from a horrified “all spanking is abusive and harmful” to a religious “the Bible clearly says spanking is necessary to raise godly kids” to a traditional “if that boy don’t start behavin’ I’m gonna whup his a** for him”. With this wide diversity of opinion, many people turn to science for a solid answer. But the science isn’t as clear-cut as you might think.
What science has to say…(Hint: It’s complicated)
It’s impossible (and unethical) to design a truly randomized study on this subject. You can’t grab a bunch of random children, assign them to random parents, and separate them into groups who are required to administer different types of discipline. So although studies can attempt to control for many variables, they aren’t perfect. And, unsurprisingly, they don’t all agree.
There are some well-designed studies that indicate mild spanking, when combined with reasoning and not relied on as the only discipline method, has no harmful effects. This 10-year study by Dr. Baumrind, for instance, was extremely comprehensive. (I recommend reading the whole study though, because the parameters for “safe spanking” are so strict that most people I know aren’t even close to staying within them.)
On the other hand, many other studies have come to the opposite conclusion. And although critics claim some of these studies are flawed (because they don’t control for enough variables, including severity), anti-spanking advocates argue the accumulated data is overwhelming. This article covers the accumulated data, with plenty of footnotes and references.
The point is, you can find a scientific study to back either view, if you look for it. Science is not infallible, and it has a history of proving itself wrong (check out the history of health food recommendations, if you don’t believe me). Faced with all of this, many Christian parents declare that they must “obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), and stand firmly on scripture, ignoring the shifting sands of societal norms. Although this is a fine stance in theory (I absolutely agree that we must obey God rather than man), it’s very important that we make sure we are truly obeying God, not just insisting on personal preferences or traditions that we have propped up with some out-of-context bible verses.
In other words, we don’t want to insist dogmatically that the earth MUST be square simply because Isaiah 11:12 says God will “collect the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” Right?
In the rest of this post, I’m going to dig into the scripture passages that most Christians use to argue that spanking is biblical, and look at whether or not corporal punishment is truly commanded by God. Whether you agree with my final conclusion or not, I hope you will at least stick with me to the end of the article, and be like the Bereans, searching the scriptures to see if what I am saying is true.
What the Bible has to say… “The Rod Verses”
In case you are still under the impression that “spare the rod, spoil the child” is a bible verse, let me clear that up for you. It isn’t. The first written record we have of it comes from a satirical 17th century poem called ‘Hudibras,’ in which a love affair is compared to a child: “Love is a boy by poets styled/Then spare the rod and spoil the child.”
The actual bible verses that mention using a rod on your children are:
Proverbs 13:24 – “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but the one who loves him is careful to discipline.”
Proverbs 22:15 – “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.”
Proverbs 23:13-14 – “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.”
Proverbs 29:15 – “A rod and a reprimand import wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother.”
In addition, because of the above verse that says “folly” or “foolishness” is bound up in the heart of a child, some people believe two other Proverbs talking about “fools” would apply to their children as well:
Proverbs 10:13 – “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of one who has no sense.”
Proverbs 26:3 – “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools!“
I would argue that neither of those necessarily apply to children, since in the rest of Proverbs, a “fool” seems to be an adult character who has moved well past the stage of direct parental control.
(And as a side note, the last verse also says “a whip for the horse”, but I’ve never heard any Christians argue that verse proves regular whipping is God’s mandated method for training a colt. It’s pretty much universally accepted that the best horses are those that are gentled and trained with love, NOT punished into submission. This verse shouldn’t be used to insist on corporal punishment when training children any more than it should be used to insist on whipping when training colts.)
But whether we accept the last 2 as relevant or not, there are still 4 verses that seem to recommend corporal punishment of children. Let’s look at them more closely and see how Christians should apply them.
How should we interpret the book of Proverbs?
It’s important to note that ALL the verses listed above are contained in the book of Proverbs. So it’s important to assess what kind of literature the book of Proverbs is. The Bible is made up of many different genres of literature. Narrative, poetry, letters, wisdom literature, apocalyptic, prophecy, etc, And they must all be read/interpreted differently. (We don’t read apocalyptic prophecy, which is full of exaggerated symbolism, in the same way we would read historical narrative, for instance).*
The book of Proverbs actually falls into two categories: Wisdom Literature and Poetry. And each of those genres has some unique and important features that we need to keep in mind when interpreting them.
- Is complex to interpret and sometimes lends itself to multiple different interpretations.
- Uses hyperbole, metaphor, parallelism, and other poetic devices to express truth in a non-literal way
- Is usually NOT intended to convey clear doctrine and theology (and therefore shouldn’t be used alone to build a theological view without reference to other scriptures)
- Does NOT contain (or appeal to) God’s authoritative commands
- Does NOT claim to be a prophetic word from the Lord
- Helps people learn what wise decisions look like in various life situations
- Does NOT contain promises, but rather principles that are generally true about the way the world works (Or in some cases, like Ecclesiastes, wisdom literature might question why the world DOESN’T always work the way it’s supposed to)
- Requires discernment to figure out how/when to apply those principles (i.e. discerning when to answer a fool according to his folly, and when not to, since both are sometimes appropriate)
With the above info in mind, let’s think about how we should properly read/apply the Proverbs.
Are the Rod Verses commands from God?
This one is easy. ABSOLUTELY NOT.
As stated above, wisdom literature was never intended to express direct commands (and never claimed to). Furthermore, if we start treating these verses as direct and literal commands, it would require us to be consistent and treat ALL the Proverbs as direct and literal commands. So we would be obligated to literally put a knife to our throat if we struggle with gluttony (Proverbs 23:2), take a man’s clothes away if he has put up security for a stranger (27:13), never speak a word if a fool happens to be listening (23:9), etc.
These verses are all phrased as imperatives, but that doesn’t mean they are commands from God. However wise or applicable they may be, we should NEVER say something like “God commands us to…” when citing a Proverb. The Proverbs at NOT God’s direct commands.
Should the Rod Verses be taken literally?
Not necessarily. Remember, the Proverbs are written in poetic language, which uses “hyperbole, metaphor, parallelism, and other poetic devices to express truth in a non-literal way.” Therefore, to insist the passage MUST refer to literal corporal punishment ignores the poetic language obvious throughout the book. We all know that the lips of a forbidden woman do not literally “drip with honey” (5:3) and slothful people don’t literally eat raw meat because they are too lazy to cook it (12:27) Proverbs is full of verses that, while wise and true in a poetic sense, would be ridiculous if we insisted they be taken literally.
On the other hand, there are also some very literal Proverbs. For instance, “Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause” (24:28). Clearly, Proverbs contains both literal and figurative verses. Which means we can’t automatically place the rod verses in either category, simply because they are in Proverbs.
So then the question is…do the Rod Verses fall into the “literal proverb” category? Or the “symbolic proverb” category?
I would argue that they fall into the “symbolic proverb” category, at least to some extent. And I think most folks who use corporal punishment would actually agree with me. Let me prove it.
1. The literal meaning of Son/Ben and Child/Na’ar
First, let’s look at the word translated “son” or “child” in these passages. Prov 13:24 uses the Hebrew word “ben“, a masculine noun that most literally means “son” (i.e. not daughter). The other three verses use “na’ar”, which is also exclusively masculine in it’s most literal use. Both these words can be used symbolically to refer to a broader group, but if you are going to be truly literal, these verse only apply to MALE children. When read literally, the passages say nothing at all about females.
Also, the word na’ar usually implies a “youth” not a small child. It can also be translated “armor bearer” or “servant.” Using it to refer to a younger child or toddler/baby is extremely rare, and the two clear cases in scripture are both ones where the young children/babies are prematurely separated from their mothers (Samuel and Moses). This might indicate that na’ar was used to symbolically emphasize they were independent from their mothers in a manner not usual for their age. Either way though, if we are going to assume these words mean in Proverbs what they usually mean in scripture, then they would most likely be referring to a “youth” or “young man” or perhaps “servant.” And in that case, the passages only give instructions for disciplining teenage sons (or maybe young male servants/armor bearers??).
2. The literal meaning of Rod/Sebet
Now let’s look at the word translated “rod.” It’s the Hebrew word “sebet.”
Sebet doesn’t exactly just mean “stick.” And it certainly doesn’t mean paddle, wooden spoon, glue stick, belt, or open hand. It doesn’t even mean “switch.” A sebet carries more of the connotation of a thick walking stick or even a club. It can also be translated as a king’s scepter or a shepherd’s staff. Which means that these verses can’t be used literally to support any kind of corporal punishment short of whacking somebody with a walking stick.
3. So. Does anyone actually takes the passages “literally”?
Nope. At least no one I’ve ever met.
You can’t insist you are taking them “literally” when you punish your kids with a paddle, a belt, a glue stick, or your hand. Sebet doesn’t refer to any of those things. You also can’t claim to be taking them “literally” when you are spanking a toddler or a girl. Ben and Na’ar don’t refer to them at all when taken in the most literal fashion. Basically, if you apply these passages in any way other than using a walking stick to wallop your teenage sons (or your armor bearer, if you have one of those around), you already aren’t taking them strictly literally. Which means…
Whether they recognize it or not, pretty much everybody agrees these passage aren’t literal.
That being the case, the argument shouldn’t be over whether they are meant “literally” or not. Rather, we should be asking: How should Christians apply these poetic/symbolic pieces of wisdom? Do the verses use male teenagers and walking sticks to symbolize many kinds of corporal punishment on many different ages and genders of children? Or is the symbolism even broader? Could it be referring symbolically to the overall concept of discipline, without giving specific instructions for corporal punishment at all?
To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at how Sebet is used in the rest of scripture. Especially in other poetic passages.
How is Sebet used in the rest of Scripture?
According to this entry in the Blue Letter Bible, sebet is used 190 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. In 140 of those instances, it is translated symbolically to refer to a “tribe.” Some claim this is because the patriarch of a tribe/clan would use a special walking stick denoting his authority.
Of the remaining uses, the KJV has “rod” 34 times, “scepter” 10 times, and “staff” twice. Since it’s fairly certain these Proverbs were not referring to a king’s scepter (and the two “staff” verses clearly mean a weapon used in hand-to-hand combat) we’re going to focus on the places where it is translated “rod.”
If we set aside the 4-6 verses in Proverbs that we are already debating, and look at the other places sebet is translated “rod,” it turns out 4 of them are clearly literal, 22 of them are symbolic/poetic, and about 3 are nebulous.
Think about that for a moment. That means that when the word sebet is used in scripture, it is intended to be understood symbolically AT LEAST 85% of the time! Furthermore, of the four places it seems to be literal, (Ex. 21:20, Lev 27:32, Is. 10:15, Is. 28:27), NONE of them are found in books that are exclusively Wisdom Literature or Poetry.
It is also very important to note that in the one other place sebet is used in Proverbs, it is clearly symbolic:
Proverbs 22:9 – He that soweth iniquity shall reap vanity; And the rod of his anger shall fail.
Notice that “rod” is here paired with “anger” in a symbolic fashion. It doesn’t mean a literal rod. It might be translated more literally as the “power” or “strength” of his anger. Sebet is paired symbolically like this in several other poetic passages (see Lam. 3:1 or Is. 11:4) where it symbolizes something like power or strength or action. In fact, it is even used in this way in one of the Rod Verses in question. Proverbs 22:15 refers to “the rod of discipline” driving away folly. Given how these pairings are understood in other poetic verses, I it’s pretty clear this verse was not intended to necessarily reference a literal rod. It is referring to the “power” of discipline to drive away folly, not specifying exactly what form that discipline must take.
And what about the other 3-5 rod discipline verses that just use “sebet” without making a symbolic pairing? Well, aside from pointing out once again that sebet is ALWAYS used symbolically in other poetic passages (usually to symbolize a non-physical punishment or attack of some kind) I think it’s instructive to look at this particular scripture:
Psalm 89:31-32 – “If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments, then I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.”
Just like the Rod Verses is Proverbs, this passage uses rod/sebet. And just like the Proverbs, it is a poetic passage talking about discipline. But do we understand it as referring to literal corporal punishment? Is God going to show up with a stick and start laying on physical “stripes” to get his people back in line? Of course not!
So why would we insist that the very similar passages in Proverbs MUST refer to literal corporal punishment?
Other things to keep in mind when interpreting these passages:
Ok, so now that we’ve established these verses are NOT direct commands and are NOT strictly literal, what else should should we keep in mind when interpreting poetic wisdom literature?
1. As Poetry…
Remember that biblical poetry is “complex to interpret and sometimes lends itself to multiple different interpretations.” We shouldn’t be too dogmatic in our interpretations of poetry. It uses symbolic language to express truth in a non-literal way, so there is often more than one theologically sound way to interpret it. For instance, take Psalm 144:12.
“May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace.”
Does it mean the sons will be strong and healthy like “plants full-grown”? Or does it mean they will be productive and fruitful? Does in mean the daughters will be strong and reliable like corner pillars? Or does it mean they will be graceful and beautiful like palace architecture? Any or all of the above could be true, right?
Of course, that doesn’t mean that ALL interpretations are equally valid. The Psalmist didn’t mean sons would wear only bark and leaves, and daughters would be cold, hard, and lifeless. But the fact that there are some interpretations that are NOT appropriate, doesn’t mean there can’t be more than one that IS appropriate.
Second, remember that biblical poetry “Is usually not intended to convey clear doctrine and theology.” Because of it’s symbolic nature, it shouldn’t be used to build a theological position on all by itself. We should not, for instance, argue that God must have a physical nose just because Psalm 18 says “the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.”
2. As Wisdom Literature…
Remember, wisdom literature is intended to “help people learn what wise decisions look like in various life situations” by giving them “principles that are generally true about the way the world works.” However, readers also “require discernment to figure out how/when to apply those principles.”
The Proverbs are not promises. Nor are they across-the-board rules that apply the same way in every single situation. There is no clearer proof of that than the seemingly contradictory proverbs recorded one right after the other in 26:4-5:
“Don’t answer a fool according to his foolishness, or you’ll be like him yourself.
“Answer a fool according to his foolishness, or he’ll become wise in his own eyes.“
If these were direct commands or even principles supposed to be true in every situation, the Bible would be be flagrantly contradicting itself here. But they are neither. They are simply wise general principles that require discernment to know how and when to apply them. The rest of the Proverbs must be understood in the same light. They are wise, general principles that require discernment and may be applied very differently in various real-life situations. (Unless of course they are referencing something that is an actual command of God elsewhere in the scripture.)
So how SHOULD we apply these “Rod Verses”?
The short answer: Humbly, non-dogmatically, symbolically, and with discernment.
Humbly: Because poetic passages often have more than one biblically sound interpretation, we should be humble in how we choose to apply them, and not assume our view is the only one that could possibly be correct.
Non-dogmatically: Furthermore, because poetic passages shouldn’t be used to build a theology all by themselves, we probably shouldn’t use these poetic verses to build an entire “theology of spanking” on. There are a few parenting commands in more literal parts of scripture, (Eph 6:4 and Deut. 6:7 for instance), but none of them mention corporal punishment. It is not wise to construct an entire theology based on a few poetic verses.
Symbolically: Since basically everyone agrees that the passages are not strictly literal anyway, and all other uses of sebet in poetic literature have symbolic meanings, the most consistent way to understand these passages is that they are referring symbolically to the importance of training and discipline when raising children. Insisting they support only one specific type of discipline (corporal punishment) does not fit well with the genre of the texts. (Though it doesn’t rule out corporal punishment as an option either, just to be clear.)
With Discernment: Because they are Proverbs (i.e. Wisdom Literature), we are required and expected to use discernment in how we apply them. Which means we should NOT assume they are universal truths that we must follow blindly without reference to our specific situations.
Why does all of that matter so much?
These principles are important because the alternative to applying these verses humbly, non-dogmatically, symbolically, and with discernment, can lead to some really bad side-effects.
If parents think that corporal punishment is unequivocally commanded (or recommended) by God, it’s very easy for them to slip into applying it in ways that are far from wise. Like…
- Treating it as a magic potion that will solve all parenting issues if you just use enough of it (which might lead to hitting harder and harder for longer and longer until you slip into something that is seriously abusive.)
- Assuming all the studies on the subject are completely useless and just designed to undermine God’s word.
- Telling other Christians who choose not to spank that they are directly disobeying God.
- Relying on spanking as your default method of discipline instead of considering other options.
OR (and this one I have definitely seen myself), blindly believing it works despite all evidence to the contrary. Like one mother I knew who told me she had to spank her toddler for the same misbehavior every day for 6 months before the problem resolved. Her interpretation of that experience was that she just had to “be consistent” until eventually it worked, “as promised” in scripture.
This mother deeply loved and cared for her children, but I think her belief that spanking is recommended by God as a parenting cure-all blinded her to a fact that was obvious from my perspective. If she had to use the same discipline technique 180 times over a period of 6 months before she got results, it probably was NOT the discipline technique that actually made the difference.
It’s more likely that the child simply grew out of the behavior, OR (since we are talking about a toddler here) her brain may have finally developed the neural connections needed to remember and plan ahead based on a punishment administered 24 hours ago. I’m not sure which it was, but I highly doubt it was the 6 months of spanking that made the difference. And I’d be willing to bet that if this mother had been testing some other discipline technique (like time-out, for instance), she would have seen it wasn’t working and switched to something else long before the 180th time. But because it was spanking, and spanking is considered the “biblical” form of discipline, specially sanctioned by God, she didn’t even realize it wasn’t helping.
So that brings us back around to the final verdict on my opening question…
Is it (truly) Biblical to spank your kids?
First, let’s define terms. When I say something is “biblical,” or “unbiblical,” what do I mean?
BIBLICAL: An action or belief that is commanded or taught in scripture. Often directly, but occasionally indirectly or by implication.
UNBIBLICAL: An action or belief that contradicts what is commanded or taught in scripture. Often directly, but occasionally indirectly or by implication.
Based on these definitions, I actually find it hard to put spanking in either category. After looking at the verses we covered in this post (and the other parenting passages in scripture) it’s hard to say that corporal punishment is biblical, since I don’t think it is directly or indirectly commanded or taught in scripture. (Mentioned, yes. But taught, no. And scripture mentions many things that it does not command.)
On the other hand, I don’t think you can make a strong case that spanking is unbiblical either. Some people point out “do not provoke your children to wrath” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as reasons that spanking is unbiblical. But I think that’s a pretty weak argument. Not all children get angry when they are spanked, and plenty of children DO get angry when you make necessary rules (like telling your 3-year-old that she can’t play with the shiny new chef’s knife). I don’t think this passage means that you must NEVER do ANYTHING that might make your child angry.
And as for “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” sometimes you have to take a more long-term view on applying that verse. Particularly if you are in a training position–like a sports coach, a parent, or a teacher–you can’t always do exactly what your child/student/player would prefer in the moment. (What if they want you to give them an A on a test they never took? Or stop insisting they practice their pitch between games?). You have to do what will benefit them in the LONG term.
The same applies to parenting. In fact, scripture does say almost exactly that in Hebrews 12:11…
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
So I don’t think you can make a strong case for spanking being either biblical OR unbiblical. Which means we need a third category. Perhaps “extra-biblical” would do? It generally refers to something that is “outside” scripture. Not necessarily against scripture, just not contained within it.
Alright then. There is my verdict. Modern spanking (i.e. swatting young children on the bottom with a hand, paddle, etc) is neither clearly biblical, nor clearly unbiblical. It is extra-biblical. And that means that Christian parents must prayerfully apply wisdom and discernment in decided whether to use it in their family (just as with any other extra-biblical discipline method). They should consider what both science and life experience have to say on the subject, as well as observing what is and is not working for them and their children.
Also. If a Christian friend of yours comes to a different conclusion than you, please don’t treat them like they are abandoning scripture and need to be won back to the orthodox fold. There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation and sharing why you’ve made certain parenting choices vs others. But keep it civil, and don’t assume your interpretation of these passages is the only one that might be biblically sound.
P.S. In case any of you are still wondering what my personal plans are on this subject, I do NOT plan to use corporal punishment on my kids. But since I have not yet had any children of my own, this is all just theory until the rubber hits the road. Which is why I focused on examining scripture in this post, not discussing practical pros and cons.
* If you are unfamiliar with the different genre styles in scripture and would like a quick overview in an audio format, you might check out the After Class Podcast. It features conversation between an Old Testament, New Testament, and Theology professor from Great Lakes Christian College. Their episodes on Poetry and Wisdom Literature were a great intro to the subject. (Full disclosure, I have no idea if the rest of their podcast is any good. I just stumbled upon them when I was looking for a good overview of the different scripture genres.)
Message to commenters:
I know this is a controversial subject, but I really don’t want to end up in an endless debate in the comment section. Feel free to comment, if you are doing so in a polite and civil manner, but be aware that I may or may not engage with the comment.