There are five verses in the Book of Proverbs that have traditionally been interpreted as instruction for parents to spank their children, but many modern Christians have accepted a different view of these verses.
The five verses in question are:
Proverbs 13:24 - "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."
Proverbs 22:15 - "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him."
Proverbs 23:13-14 - "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell."
Proverbs 19:15 - "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame."
At first glance, these verses seem to be a fairly straightforward set of recommendations encouraging parents to spank their children, but that seemingly straightforward view has been brought into question lately. According to gentle parenting advocates (gentles), the wisdom found in these verses has been largely misunderstood due to a translation error that permeates our English Bibles. They claim that two key words from these verses have been mistranslated and that a proper understanding of these two words will change our view of spanking.
Should “na’ar” be translated as “child”?
The first word that the gentles say is mistranslated is the Hebrew word “na’ar” which is translated as “child” in the above verses. According to the gentles, this word “na’ar” does not refer to people that we would consider children, but rather, it refers to young adults in their upper teen years and older. The gentles usually support this claim by pointing out that Joshua is called a na’ar in Exodus 33:11 even though he was a grown man and not a young child. The gentles claim that the verses used to support spanking are actually referring to the interactions between parents and their adult children.
Unfortunately, this insistence that the word “na’ar” does not refer to young children is made in direct contradiction of several uses of this word in Scripture. For example, Exodus 2:6 tells us that baby Moses cried when his basket was opened by the daughter of Pharaoh, and verse 7 tells us that he was not even weaned at this time. Should we conclude from this use of “na’ar” that Moses was a young adult when he was put in the basket and that his mother had been nursing him for fifteen or twenty years? Of course not. What this reveals to us instead is that the word “na’ar” can be used to refer to an infant and that it does not necessarily refer to young adults.
This idea that “na’ar” only speaks of adult children can be further refuted by considering that this same Hebrew word is used four times in Judges 13 in reference to Samson. The first two occurrences (13:5 and 13:7) use “na’ar” when speaking of Samson as a child in the womb. The next two occurrences (13:8 and 13:12) use “na’ar” to speak of Samson as a newborn. Are we to conclude from these verses that Samson was born fully grown, or would it be more reasonable to conclude that the word “na’ar” can be used to refer to very young children?
Additional uses of the word “na’ar” to refer to very young children can be found throughout Scripture. For example, it is used in I Samuel 4:21 for a newborn child, in I Samuel 1:22 for a child that is still nursing, in Isaiah 7:16 for a child who is too young to know the difference between good and evil, and in Isaiah 8:4 for a child who has not started speaking yet. The claim that the word “na’ar” only refers to adult children is just plain ridiculous, and it reveals that the gentles do not understand the biblical languages nearly as well as they think they do.
Should “shebet” be translated as “wisdom, leadership and protection”?
The second word that the gentles say is mistranslated is the word “shebet” which is translated as “rod” in all five of the above verses. According to the gentles, this word isn’t really talking about a physical rod of wood that was cut from a tree. What it’s really talking about, they say, is wisdom, leadership and protection. They base this claim on passages like Psalm 23:4 where David said that he is comforted by the rod (shebet) of God just like a sheep is comforted by the rod of a shepherd. They also point to verses like Genesis 49:10 where the word “shebet” is often translated as “scepter” and speaks of authority. Relying on these kinds of symbolic uses of the word “shebet,” the gentles then claim that Solomon used a similar symbolism when he wrote of using the rod. If this is correct, then the verses above would not be teaching that parents should apply a physical rod to their wayward children but rather that they should give their children wisdom, leadership and protection.
But what if we were to apply that claim to some of Solomon’s other uses of the word “shebet”? If Solomon’s use of this word really refers to giving wisdom, leadership and protection, then that would mean that Solomon was only speaking of imparting wisdom, leadership and protection when he said that the rod (shebet) should be applied to the fool’s back in the same way that a whip is applied to a horse (Proverbs 26:3). In contrast with Solomon’s instruction to parents, however, his instruction for how rulers should deal with fools is crystal clear.
In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon repeatedly advises us not to waste our time with attempts to teach wisdom to fools. We are told that “fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7), that they “hate knowledge” (1:22), that “it is abomination to fools to depart from evil” (13:19), that “a fool despiseth his father’s instruction” (15:5), that “the instruction of fools is folly” (16:22), that “he hath no heart to [get wisdom]” (17:16), that “a fool hath no delight in understanding” (18:2), that “he will despise the wisdom of thy words” (23:9), and that “wisdom is too high for a fool” (24:7). There is not a single verse in the Book of Proverbs that would support the idea that anyone should impart wisdom, leadership and protection to fools.
Instead of advising us to impart wisdom and direction to fools, Solomon instructs rulers to apply the rod to the fool’s back, and we can see from other verses in Proverbs that this entails corporal punishment and not mere instruction. For example, Solomon tells us that fools are destined for “the correction of the stocks” (7:22), that fools receive stripes (17:10), that a fool’s “mouth calleth for strokes” (18:6), that “stripes [are prepared] for the back of fools” (19:29), and that the punishment for a fool is similar to braying wheat with a pestle (27:22). All of these verses indicate that fools were to receive corporal punishment for their foolishness. Consequently, the statement in Proverbs 26:3 that a rod is to be used on the fool’s back must be speaking of a physical beating with a literal rod. Solomon was not just using a euphemism here for wisdom, leadership and protection. He was literally saying that fools should be beaten with a rod.
By the way, Solomon would have been intimately familiar with the use of physical correction since God Himself promised to give Solomon stripes if he did not do right (II Samuel 7:14, Psalm 89:32), and God actually used the word “shebet” to describe the instrument that He would use in giving Solomon those stripes.
To spank or not to spank?
Given the fact that Solomon used the word “shebet” to refer to the physical beatings of fools with a rod, and given the fact that “na’ar” refers to children of all ages, let’s reconsider the five verse listed at the beginning of this article starting with Proverbs 22:15.
"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him."
A proper view of this verse is critical to understanding the other four. The first part of this verse explains why physical punishment is needed. It tells us that the heart of every child tends toward foolishness. This is consistent with other passages of Scripture which tell us that each individual’s “heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), that “he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26), that “the heart of the sons of men is full of evil” (Ecclesiastes 9:3), that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” and etc. (Matthew 15:19), and that all sin comes first from the lusts within an individual’s own heart (James 1:14-15). Every single child in the world is born with this tendency toward being a fool, and it is this tendency which demands the use of the rod.
This verse ties together the punishment to be used with children and the punishment that is used on fools. Just as God prescribed the physical use of the rod for the punishment of the fool, so also has He prescribed the physical use of the rod to punish children who act foolishly. And this in turn explains the use of the rod in the other four verses.
The reason that the man who does not use the rod is described as hating his son in Proverbs 13:24 is that this failure to use the rod will allow the child to continue in his folly until he becomes a fool. The Bible tells us that God “rewardeth the fool” (Proverbs 26:10) and that this reward will be one of destruction (Proverbs 1:32, 10:14, 18:7). Thus, God warns parents that if they do not successfully drive out the foolishness that is in their child’s heart, God will eventually have to deal with that child Himself by destroying him. In other words, the father that fails to use the rod will condemn his son to destruction. That is not an act of love but of hate.
In like manner, the deliverance promised in Proverbs 23:13-14 for those parents who use the rod is deliverance of their child’s soul from hell. This promise is inseparably tied to the deliverance promised to fools if they would forsake their folly and turn to wisdom (Proverbs 1:7-33, 5:22-23, Psalm 9:17, Proverbs 3:21-22, etc.). And the shame promised in Proverbs 29:15 to the mother whose child does not receive the rod is the shame of having raised a fool (Proverbs 10:1, 15:20, 17:25, 19:13). When we compare Solomon’s instructions for applying the rod to children with his instructions for applying the rod to fools, we can see clearly that the reward of doing the former of the two is that the latter will not be necessary. In other words, the whole point of Solomon’s advice to use the rod on children is that those parents who use physical punishment while their children are still young will save their children from experiencing much harsher physical punishment later.
When we study the Hebrew words translated as “child” and as “rod,” we can come to two important conclusions about spanking.
The first conclusion is that the Bible does not place a lower limit on the age at which parents should begin spanking. There may be other factors to consider, but the text of Scripture is completely silent on the question of how soon a parent should start spanking his child.
The second conclusion is that the proper goal of spanking is to prevent future harm. According to the Bible, parents should spank their children with the intent of saving them from experiencing a more severe fate later in their lives. In other words, spanking should be like an inoculation for the soul (Proverbs 20:30, Hebrews 12:11). A physical inoculation exposes the body to a weak form of a disease in order to teach the body how to prevent a worse case of that disease in the future, and spanking should be used to expose the child’s mind to a weak form of physical consequences in order to teach the mind how to avoid more agonizing consequences in the future.
The gentles may disagree with these two conclusions. They may claim that spanking causes irreversible psychological harm. They may claim that children do not learn anything beneficial from physical pain. They may claim that it is impossible for a parent to spank without doing so out of anger. They will probably respond to this article with all of these claims and more, but they can no longer deny that the Bible actually instructs parents to spank their children. Those parents who refuse to spank do so in spite of what the Bible clearly teaches.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)