Many Christians and Christian authors point to the "rod verses" as evidence of God-sanctioned corporal punishment of children. These five verses, all found in Proverbs, include the following:
He who spares his rod hates his son,
but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.
Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;
the rod of correction will drive it far from him.
Do not withhold correction from a child,
for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.
You shall beat him with a rod,
and deliver his soul from hell.
The rod and rebuke give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
There is also a sixth "verse" frequently referenced: "Spare the rod, spoil the child." This saying, however, is found nowhere in Proverbs nor anywhere else in the Bible. It actually comes from a section of the satirical poem Hudibras written by Samuel Bulter in the 17th century, where he describes a widow suggesting that her suitor could prove his love by whipping himself or letting her whip him.
"Now if you'll venture, for my sake,
To try the toughness of your back,
And suffer (as the rest have done)
The laying of a whipping on,
(And may you prosper in your suit,
As you with equal vigour do't,)
I here engage myself to loose ye,
And free your heels from Caperdewsie.
But since our sex's modesty
Will not allow I should be by,
Bring me, on oath, a fair account,
And honour too, when you have done't,
And I'll admit you to the place
You claim as due in my good grace.
If matrimony and hanging go
By dest'ny, why not whipping too?
What med'cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets stil'd;
Then spare the rod and spoil the child."
Clearly, this bawdy line is in no way intended to be applied to children. (For further context, the entire text can be read here.)
The "Biblical Model" of Corporal Punishment
Returning to the verses which are found in Proverbs, we will now consider the practical application commonly derived from their literal interpretation.
Popular Christian culture uses these verses to support corporal punishment of children. Numerous Christian parenting authors declare this practice to be not only acceptable, but biblically mandated. There is much hedging about only carrying out this corporal punishment in a "biblical manner". Typically, this "biblical method" of corporal punishment includes the following:
- Spankings should only be administered on children between the ages of two and twelve.
- Let the child knows that a spanking will be the consequence for disobedience. When said disobedience occurs, tell the child that you must now spank him in order to help him do better in the future. Be sure he knows why he is going to be spanked.
- Never spank in anger. The spanking should be carried out in a calm and controlled manner.
- Administer the spanking promptly. The spanking should be applied to the child's bottom. Use only an open hand so that you can be sure you are not spanking too hard or too soft (according to some); use only an implement so that the child will not fear your hand (according to others).
- The child should be repentant and grateful after the spanking. If the child remains recalcitrant or cries for too long afterwards, another spanking should be administered.
- After the spanking is over, reconcile with the child. Pray with him and reconnect through a hug.
With only minor variations, those Christian parenting authors who promote corporal punishment follow this general model, including Michael and Debi Pearl, Gary Ezzo, Tedd Tripp, James Dobson, Chip Ingram, Roy Lessin, Bill Gothard, and more.
Interestingly enough, this "biblical model" is nearly identical to the Spencer Spanking Plan. At first read, one would assume this was yet another set of instructions on child discipline...until reaching the part about wives and husbands. Yes, the Spencer Spanking Plan is in fact instructions for domestic discipline. It was drawn up by Mrs. Dorothy Spencer in the early 1900's and was never intended in any way to be used on children, and yet much of the "biblical model" is drawn directly from it.
The "Biblical Model" and the Rod Verses: Comparing and contrasting
Returning to the proverbs themselves, what would it look like to take them literally, at face-value, and how does that line up with this "biblical model" of physical chastisement? We will go through the "biblical model" step-by-step and examine these questions.
What the model says: 1. Spankings should only be administered on children between the ages of two and twelve.
What the rod verses say: Only strike young men.
The word "child" in these verses refer to a role ("offspring") rather than a particular age. The Hebrew word used in these verses is "na'ar" and is most frequently translated as "young man" throughout the Bible. While the "biblical model" typically recommends that parents stop spanking their children somewhere around 12 years old, the rod verses, if taken literally, would instruct a parent to begin physical chastisement at that age, likely as a last resort to bring a wayward son back in line for his soul's sake.
There is in the Law descriptions of grown men being beaten with a literal rod ("shebet"). Boundaries are given regarding the use of a rod on slaves. There is no such example anywhere in Scripture of a young child being likewise struck with a rod, nor are any instructions or boundaries given to ensure its judicious use.
What the model says: 2. Let the child knows that a spanking will be the consequence for disobedience. When said disobedience occurs, tell the child that you must now spank him in order to help him do better in the future. Be sure he knows why he is going to be spanked.
What the rod verses say: Nothing.
There is no reference to this step in any of the verses in question, nor can the "biblical model" be found anywhere in the Bible. Common sense would instruct a parent to be sure a child is aware of any consequences that will be applied as a result of their actions, but the verses themselves have nothing to say on the subject.
What the model says: 3. Never spank in anger. The spanking should be carried out in a calm and controlled manner.
What the rod verses say: Discipline promptly. If you beat him, he will not die.
There is no caveat in the "rod verses" for not spanking in anger. Proverbs 13:24 says only to discipline "promptly". Parenting can be challenging and frustrating; our natural human reaction towards a disobedient child is often at least some measure of anger. And yet no allowance is given for taking time to calm down before administering the rod; it is to be done "promptly".
Proverbs 23:13 assures the parent that the child will not die from the beating. In contrast, Exodus 21:12-27 is clear that a man can indeed die from being struck with a rod. Taking this proverb literally results in a clear contradiction in Scripture.
What the model says: 4. Administer the spanking promptly. The spanking should be applied to the child's bottom. Use only an open hand so that you can be sure you are not spanking too hard or too soft (according to some); use only an implement so that the child will not fear your hand (according to others).
What the rod verses say: Strike the back. Use a rod.
The buttocks is never mentioned in Proverbs. Other verses that refer to striking a grown person with a rod refer only to striking the back (Proverbs 10:13, Proverbs 26:3). There is no biblical backing for striking a child on the buttocks (and for very good reason).
Furthermore, if a rod is what the verses specify, then a rod is what must be used. There is no permission given to substitute the rod with a wooden spoon, paint stirrer, paddle, dowel, belt, strap, switch, plumbing line, glue stick, or hand. A rod ("shebet") is a long, thick stick; this word is used throughout Scripture to refer to a shepherd's staff, a king's scepter, or a tribe. Other Hebrew words, including matteh and choter, are used elsewhere to describe smaller or thinner rods, such as branches or twigs, but the word used in the rod verses is "shebet". This is what must be used if these verses are to be taken literally. (Incidentally, the use of any implement whatsoever when spanking a child is illegal in Canada.)
What the model says: 5. The child should be repentant and grateful after the spanking. If the child remains recalcitrant or cries for too long afterwards, another spanking should be administered.
What the rod verses say: Nothing.
Again, the rod verses are silent on this aspect of the "biblical model". Scripture, however, validates the presence of many emotions; Psalms is particularly rich in a variety of emotions.
The "biblical model", on the other hand, recognizes happiness as the only acceptable emotion in a child. In his book "Shepherding a Child’s Heart", Christian author Tedd Tripp instructs parents on how to respond if their child remains angry or distant after being spanked (emphasis added): "If your child is still angry, it’s time for another round. ‘Daddy has spanked you, but you are not sweet enough yet. We are going to have to go back upstairs for another spanking.’" Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21, however, quite apart from recommending that a child have his anger spanked out of him, would suggest that a father not provoke his child to such anger in the first place.
What the model says: 6. After the spanking is over, reconcile with the child. Pray with him and reconnect through a hug.
What the rod verses say: Nothing.
Once again, there is no support for this aspect of the "biblical model" in the rod verses. Logic would suggest that the ideas of "spanking in love" and "reconciling afterwards" would set a child up for a very unhealthy dynamic in future relationships, but the rod verses have nothing to say on the matter.
What the model suggests: Corporal punishment is God-sanctioned and God-mandated.
What the a literal interpretation of the rod verses says: Ignore the Gospel.
Just rip the whole New Testament right out of your Bible. Proverbs 23:14 clearly states that striking the child with a rod will save his soul from hell. There is no need for a Savior. God's grace through Jesus Christ is not required for salvation. You and your rod can take care of that yourself.
Now that Jesus is no longer part of the picture, we must return to a life under Law rather than under Grace. As the Law states, rebellious sons are to be stoned (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This may be difficult for you as a parent to carry through with; however, the Bible demands it and we must be willing to do as God instructs.
After examining the "biblical model" of corporal punishment, we find no biblical support for any of the steps. The "rod verses" which are used to support this model are silent on most of the steps while contradicting others.
The "biblical model" instructs parents to promptly spank young disobedient children on the buttocks in love (not anger), using either the hand or another instrument, after which the child should be sorrowful and repentant (but not overly dramatic), at which point the parent and child should pray and reconnect with a loving hug.
The rod verses, conversely, if taken literally, instruct parents to strike a disobedient young man on the back with a long, thick rod, which will not kill him and which will bring about his salvation.
The "biblical model", while claiming to be a literal interpretation of the rod verses, neither teaches nor carries out these verses in a literal manner. Considering the vast difference between the "biblical model" and the rod verses, it may be wise to reconsider the meaning behind the rod imagery used in these verses. This will be explored in Part 3 of the series. The proverbs are full of wisdom and truth, and to insist upon a strictly literal interpretation (and pseudo-literal application) is to lose the rich meaning they hold.