Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter
[Excerpt reprinted from Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages; Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood; and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…”
One of the hot-button issues when it comes to discipline and children is, of course, spanking, and the more Christian and conservative the audience, the more hot the debate becomes. And yet there are no verses in the New Testament that support spanking, smacking, whipping, or otherwise hitting children.
In the Old Testament there are a total of five verses that have been interpreted to encourage, or even command, the use of physical punishment on children. All five of those verses are in the book of Proverbs. The word ‘proverb’ in the original Hebrew text is mashal and defined as a parable, prophetic and figurative discourse, symbolic poem, pithy maxim (i.e.a collection of wise metaphors and adages).
Of interest is that ancient Hebrew had many words for children, each denoting a specific stage of childhood and many a specific gender:
yeled or yaldah – newborn boy or girl
yonek or yanak – nursling baby
olel – nursling baby who also eats food (translated ‘young child’ in Lamentations 4:4 KJV)
gamal – weaned child (around 3-4 years old)
taph – young child, one who still clings to their mother
elem or almah – firm and strong, older child
na’ar (masc.) or na’arah (fem.) – independent child, young adult child (includes older adolescents and young adults)*
The word translated ‘child’ and ‘children’ in those Old Testament rod verses is na’ar, which when literally translated, means ‘young man.’
Let’s look, also, at the words translated ‘discipline’ and ‘punish’ and ‘rod’ and others:
The word muwcar is translated ‘discipline’ and means, literally, ‘verbal instruction and teaching.’ In Hebrew culture muwcar was vernacular for ‘let us reason with one another’ implying a mutual discussion for learning purposes. And towkechah is translated ‘reprove’ or ‘rebuke’ but also means ‘reason with, convince, prove, persuade.’ Neither of these words means to physically punish in any way, shape, or form.
The word nakah is translated ‘punish’ in most English translations of the Bible, though its literal translation is ‘beat’ as in “The sun beat down on his head,” implying a constant presence; or ‘hit’ as when beating back an enemy or punishing a slave or criminal; or ‘smite or smitten’ which can mean ‘hit or trigger the conscience’ or ‘be favorably impressed, enticed, or entranced’ as in, “He was smitten with the idea of a new bicycle.”
The word shebet is translated ‘rod’ and means, literally, ‘shepherd’s crook’ and, in Hebrew culture, was a means not only of guiding and protecting sheep, but also a symbol of leadership. The markings on the head of the shebet often identified the head of a family or tribe, letting everyone know who to go to for guidance and protection. The shebet, then, denotes wisdom, leadership, and protection.
The word muwth is translated ‘die’ and has several meanings related to death including ‘to follow a path of destruction.’
The word ‘ivveleth is translated ‘foolishness’ but also means ‘inexperience, naivety, silliness.’
And, finally, the Hebrew word sane is translated ‘hate’ and yet means ‘does not love’ or ‘does not choose or show a preference for.’
When we read the five ‘rod’ verses with the literal translations of the words above, the meanings become more clear.
So Proverbs 13:24 reads:
“He who spares his rod wisdom, leadership, protection hates does not love, does not choose or show a preference for his son, but he who loves him disciplines offers verbal instruction and teaching to him promptly.”
Proverbs 22:15 reads:
“Foolishness Naivety, silliness, inexperience is bound up in the heart of a child young man; the rod of correction wisdom, leadership, protection will drive it far from him.”
Proverbs 29:15 reads:
“The rod Wisdom, leadership, protection and rebuke reasoning with, convincing, proving, persuading give wisdom, but a child young man left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
And, the last two ‘rod’ verses, found in Proverbs 23:12-26 read:
“Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.
Do not withhold discipline verbal instruction and teaching, reasoning together from a child young man; if you punish guide, trigger his conscience, favorably impress, entice/entrance them with the rod wisdom, leadership, protection, they will not die follow a path of destruction.
Punish Guide, trigger his conscience, favorably impress, entice/entrance them with the rod wisdom, leadership, protection and save them from death following a path of destruction.
My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad indeed; my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak what is right.
Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.
Listen, my son, and be wise, and set your heart on the right path: Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.
Buy the truth and do not sell it—wisdom, instruction and insight as well. The father of a righteous child young man has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him. May your father and mother rejoice; may she who gave you birth be joyful!
My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways.”
Such a beautiful image of a father tenderly and diligently sharing his wisdom with his son, isn’t it? Clearly, applying these scriptures to small children is not in line with a literal interpretation. It actually makes more sense to apply them to the disciples, which is exactly what Jesus does with his twelve ‘sons.’
Beyond translations and interpretations, though, and of far greater import, what seems to get lost in the spanking debate is that Jesus brought grace and mercy as his methods and message for a reason. The purpose of the law in the Old Testament was to highlight the need for a Savior because humans simply cannot live perfectly.
Jesus came to fulfill the outward requirements of the law that highlighted man’s sins and replace them with an inner heart change. He demonstrated in many ways that the law (outer governance and control through fear of punishment) was no longer to be a rigid yoke with its heavy burden of cleansing and rituals and sacrifices and punishments, but instead was to be a kingdom of the heart, of mercy not sacrifice, because the sacrifice was Himself.
Jesus stopped the people from stoning the prostitute (John 8:2-11) which was a requirement in the Old Testament. (Deuteronomy 22:21-22)
Jesus healed people and traveled on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14) which was punishable by death in the Old Testament. (Exodus 31:14-17 and Numbers 15:32-36)
Jesus consorted with ‘sinners’ and ate with them (Luke 15:1-2) despite the admonitions in Proverbs 13:20. (the same book in the Bible with the ‘rod’ scriptures)
Jesus showed again and again that if we accept him as our Savior, we are called to be “ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
We accept that Jesus brought a new and better way, a way of the heart, “Not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3b), but don’t seem to want to acknowledge that better way with our children. We accept God’s grace and forgiveness for ourselves, but often don’t share those gifts with, and model them for, our children. But we are our children’s first taste of God. Is it any wonder people have such a hard time understanding grace and mercy and unconditional love when they may not have been taught those things by their earthly parents and don’t exercise them with their own children?
Through Jesus’ sacrifice, he tore open the veil dividing man from God and brought a new kingdom, a kingdom of inner governance through the Holy Spirit whose fruit is “peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Nowhere does Jesus say to follow him except when it comes to our children. He doesn’t say to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness to everyone except our children. The Bible doesn’t tell us to show the fruit of the Spirit to everyone except our children.
If we truly believe that, based on five verses in the Old Testament with disputable translations and debatable interpretations, we are being disobedient to God’s commands if we don’t spank our children, then we must take that belief and walk it out fully.
In other words, if we must obey that supposed command, then we must obey all the other commands such as,,,
- an “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) and stoning adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) …but didn’t Jesus bring forgiveness?
- we shouldn’t feed the homeless because “if a man doesn’t work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) …but aren’t we supposed to be the heart and hands of Jesus?
- we shouldn’t give Christmas shoeboxes to prisoners’ children because “the sins of the father are visited on the children” (Exodus 20:5) …but isn’t the “kingdom of heaven made up of such as these?” (Matthew 19:14)
My point is summed up in this verse:
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)
In other words, if you feel bound by those five verses, then you must be bound by all.
If you truly believe that those five verses have been interpreted correctly and that “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Note: There is no verse in the Bible that says ”spare the rod, spoil the child.” That phrase is actually from a satirical poem called Hudibras by Samuel Butler first published in 1662.) refers to an actual physical rod (instead of a symbol of guidance and loving correction…i.e. discipleship) and that the word used for ‘child’ refers to a toddler or small child instead of the actual linguistic translation meaning ‘young man,’ then so be it.
But do you really believe that Jesus’ New Covenant is for everyone except children? That grace, mercy, unconditional love, and forgiveness are for adults only?
The disciples made that mistake, and Jesus said to them,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Luke 18:16)
Five verses with questionable interpretations versus following Jesus’ example…no contest. [end excerpt]
*Note: Hebrew is a very descriptive, picturesque (i.e. visual) language. In describing something that is out of the ordinary, words were often used to convey a deeper meaning using word pictures. That is the case with the word na’ar which means, literally, ‘independent male’ and refers to a young man, but is also used as a word picture in rare circumstances to convey an unnatural independence when referring to an infant or young child who has been ‘ripped away’ or become unnaturally ‘independent’ from the nurturing presence of a parent. This is the case with Moses as he was placed in a basket and sent away from his mother as an infant (yeled in Hebrew throughout the text of the Exodus account except for one word picture, na’ar, indicating the baby’s separation from his mother) and with Samuel who was left at the temple by his mother at a young age. In those unique instances, the word picture of a male made independent by unnatural circumstances is conveyed by the use of the word na’ar. In every other instance, na’ar literally means a male of independent age, a young man.
Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.