What Christians Get Wrong About Sparing the Rod

Trivia: Where does the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” come from? If you said the Bible, you’d be dead wrong. In fact, when you learn where it’s actually from, you’ll probably not want to use that phrase anymore.

“Spare the rod” is a line from a 17th century poem called Hudibras by Samuel Butler that mocks Judao-Christian values. (Check out Part 2, Canto 1, line 844.) In this erotic poem, a man is trying to woo a woman who encourages him to submit to aphrodisiac flagellation. The “rod” serves a double purpose, both referring to the whipping and to his penis.

Jokes aside, I figure that’s not what most people intend when they use this humorous phrase. They’re probably referring to Proverbs 13:24 which reads, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (NRSV) There has been much pushback from scholars who have conducted word studies on this passage. In short, reading this verse in its original language clearly indicates that the “rod” is a source of guidance and protection rather than punishment. Dr. Stacey Patton provided a fantastic overview via Facebook in 2016 and others have done similar work. This wonderful sermonette describes the purpose of the “rod” for a shepherd.

I won’t belabor this perspective, as it has been well covered elsewhere. The purpose of my piece is to talk about why Proverbs exists in the first place, with all of its apparent contradictions. For instance, in one place, we see what looks like an admonition to beat children with the rod of correction, while another verse declares that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NRSV). So, which is it? I’m glad you asked!

The book of Proverbs is the second book written by King Solomon, which is chock full of practical advice. Each piece of wisdom is intended to be thoughtfully considered and wrestled with. It is not enough to accept the surface meaning. Insightfully, Torah.org explains of Proverbs, “Much can be learned about the human mind by thinking about why two particular ideas were placed next to each other; why this verse would have been just like the last one… except for that small, almost insignificant difference and what the words actually mean. One can learn how to decide logically between two choices, how to make use of experience to avoid repeating mistakes and from what to stay away while chasing after a goal.”

The underlying mission of Proverbs is to communicate the wisdom of King Solomon, who is referred to as the wisest man to ever live and who still inexplicably fell victim to foolishness. Proverbs illustrates how futile it is to try to put God into a box or to claim wisdom unparalleled for ourselves as though we are not prone to the same faults that plagued King Solomon. Verses in Proverbs are juxtaposed in order to draw out the essence of truth, not just the literal meaning of the words. And, King Solomon utilized the same exaggeration and figurative language in Proverbs that we see throughout the Bible. These rhetorical devices serve the purpose of highlighting degree of importance, and it takes careful consideration to discern just how literal of a read we should be applying to any given verse.

It’s especially important to understand that truth and accuracy were not synonymous at the time Proverbs was written the way they are today. Take the example of the two competing creation stories in Genesis, both of which were intentionally placed together and both of which serve humanity’s understanding of the “why” behind our creation. Critics of Judao-Christian faith point to seeming contradictions throughout the Bible as evidence that the Bible is unreliable, not understanding the spiritual value imbued in these differences. Modern Christians must become comfortable with biblical truth not necessarily coinciding with a literal reading. If we fail to do this, we miss important contextual cues that the Hebrews would have instinctively understood through cultural conditioning.

If we’re going to take Proverbs seriously, we have to do so on the terms of its originating culture, which means we must consider what the Rabbis said. And, we know what the Rabbis said because we have a book of oral tradition: The Talmud. The Talmud is a compilation of rabbinic discussion on the Torah, and it is composed of two parts. First, there is the Mishnah, which is a compendium of oral law. Second, there is the Gemara, which comes in the two versions (Babylonian and Jerusalem), and is a record of rabbinic discussions around topics in the Mishnah. The Mishnah was standardized over the course of many centuries.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz of JewInTheCity.com elucidates the relevance of the Talmud in any discussion of spanking that references Proverbs 13:24. He explains:

…are people taking this verse too literally? How do the classical commentators explain it? Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, most of the commentators understand that it isn’t a metaphor, it literally refers to disciplining one’s child. But that still doesn’t mean that one should strike one’s child with a stick. In fact, it very much doesn’t.

You see, the Torah was written to be understood by the audience that received it. It speaks about loading donkeys, oxen treading grain, and women delivering babies on birthing stools – things to which most of us cannot relate. It doesn’t talk about DNA or black holes or flatscreen TVs because these are concepts that would have been incomprehensible to the original recipients. Similarly, if King Solomon (the author of Proverbs) wanted to discuss disciplining children, he was going to use corporal punishment as his illustration because time-outs didn’t exist, and I suspected that neither did grounding or docking allowances.

This is not just wishful thinking on my part; let’s examine the sources.

First of all, striking another person is seriously frowned upon in Judaism. Deuteronomy 25:3 tells us that someone sentenced to the penalty of lashes may not be struck more than the designated amount (a maximum of forty lashes). First the Torah tells us that “the wicked one deserves lashes” (25:2), but then we are told that we may not exceed the court-imposed amount because if we do, “your brother will be degraded.” The Sifre, quoted by Rashi on 25:3, demonstrates that before the punishment is administered, the offender is considered “wicked.” After he has paid his penalty, he is once again called “your brother” and it is forbidden to strike him. If we’re not allowed to strike a convicted criminal more than absolutely necessary, it should go without saying that we may not strike someone who was not so sentenced by the courts – not even if their behavior bothers us!

Striking someone outside of the context of court-ordered whiplashes is actually considered evil. In Exodus 2:13, Moshe asks “the wicked one,” “Why will you strike your friend?’” The Talmud in Sanhedrin (58b) points out that the person is called wicked just for raising his hand, even though he has not yet delivered a blow.

The Talmud in Moed Katan (17a) prohibits a parent spanking an older child, based on the principle that we may not do something that will cause others to sin (lifnei iver). The child might respond by cursing the parent or striking back – both serious sins – and the parent would be responsible for provoking that reaction. The Ritva (13th century) says that “older child” isn’t exhaustive. For sure one may not strike a child above the age of bar or bas mitzvah but, additionally, one may not even strike a younger child who is likely to retaliate in words or deeds. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (20th century) suggested that the cut-off for spanking would be age three.

Rav Wolbe’s position is not a mere concession to modern parenting. Peleh Yoetz (1824) says that even in the case of a young child, if the parents know that his nature is not to accept authority, they should discipline him using calm, soft tones.

True, the Rambam writes that a teacher may strike a student (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:2) but that very same halacha specifies that he may not use a whip or a rod, but only a “small strap.” (So much for “rod” literalists!) And how big is a “small strap?” The Talmud in Baba Basra (21a) says no larger than a shoelace.

He goes on to explain that the Talmud dictates the strict use of the “gentlest form of effective discipline” and points out that there is no Torah obligation to use corporal punishment on children. None at all. The Torah simply does not condone spanking as punishment for children. King Solomon knew that.

A weak argument can certainly be made that Bible allows for the corporal punishment of children (largely by omission of the topic in the Law), but it is a gross misinterpretation to claim that the Bible prescribes it. What Proverbs demands is that parents coach and correct their kids, so that the children are brought up with values that orient them toward God. Now that we have substantial evidence that spanking is extremely harmful, Christians should honor the book of Proverbs and exercise the wisdom that King Solomon called us to. If you are still unconvinced, consider carefully Christ’s warning about leading a child to harm.

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7 NRSV)

Woe to the adult whose treatment of a child leads that child to hate their parents, their life, or their God!

But, there’s good news. We can bypass the pitfalls inherent in controlling children through violence by rejecting our modern culture’s fixation on punishment and working instead toward fostering the “pleasant words” that are “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 NRSV). After all, Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that what we teach our children about godliness is what guides them for life… not how effectively we hit them.


Recommended Readings on Gentle Discipline:

Punishments, Consequences, and Limits

Peaceful Parenting Won’t Work on My Child

Self-Assessment on Childism:

The Anti-Childism Scale

Rights Versus Freedoms

Inherited Frustration: How One Family Found Peace After Crisis

Following my post yesterday, I received an extraordinary message from a mom who had a story to tell about her family’s journey from authoritarianism to foster parenting to Peaceful Parenting. With her permission, I am so grateful to be able to share her story here.

I have enjoyed reading these posts on positive parenting and today’s post really resonates with me and within my family dynamics. My husband and I are both in our later 40s, and when we met, I was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter. By this time, I was co-parenting quite nicely with my ex-husband. (There was certainly an adjustment period to that though). 😬 And I had also been doing Foster Care with “High Risk” teens for 6 years at the time. (I hate that term. Always have. But the reasoning for that is because most…not all…had come into foster care due to some kind of neglect/abuse parental death or other forms of trauma). In order for my husband to move in and join our Family (anyone living in the household had to do the same) a background check, several interviews with workers along with parenting classes needed to be taken through our state.

He was in the military, had never been married or lived with anyone and had no Children of his own. He knew from the beginning (once we were serious) that my ex-husband was a very active father. The two of them had many conversations about our daughter. Although he was about to become a very important part in her life, they wanted to work together in helping raise her and they both made a conscience effort to do so. (The same happened with our daughter’s new step momma. So, she ended up with 4 parents that love her).

In Foster Parenting classes they give many conflict resolution techniques, teach about the importance of respecting and fostering the needs of each individual child, working alongside their parents (if they were trying to reintegrate…most teens were in independent living, so reintegration wasn’t common) in partnership parenting in order to help that process, and help the family and children succeed when they went back to their family or eventually moved out on their own. We were taught what normal age appropriate behavior looked like, and were encouraged to have honest and open dialogue with the children about their thoughts, feelings, emotions and needs. There was absolutely NO corporal punishment of any kind allowed or involved by state law. (As it should be). Since I was a foster parent before we had a child of our own, that’s also how we raised our child. “Peaceful Parenting” probably before the term was even coined. Lol

Anyway, our families live in different states, and I knew the first time I met his family that my daughter and I were valued and loved. This started even before we met them actually! They included us and my foster children in every aspect they could! He and I had both been raised in the Christian Faith, and many other aspects of our childhood were the same. Going to church every Sunday (or anytime there was a function) and our families socialized with other families in our Churches. It was just part of our daily lives growing up. The one difference there was that his parents were fundamentalist (meaning “old school” or law oriented) and mine were not and were/are very grace (new testament) oriented. That’s rather important in this long story. Lol.

In the 70s it was a very common “idea” that children were to be seen and not heard. Spanking (or BEYOND spanking) was never questioned. It was usually the “go-to” form of discipline. Spank first…ask questions or talk about it later (if at all). And for those of us who were involved in church (remember…that’s who all the families socialized with so it’s really all we knew) “spare the rod, spoil the child” was preached. Without any further advice or explanation that the term was actually about the shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd’s staff (rod) was used to GUIDE the sheep in the right direction in order to keep them safe…not to physically punish the sheep for “misbehaving”.

In my family, I recall being spanked as a child a few times. My mom was the “disciplinarian” of the family, but neither of them were “yellers” and she usually just talked to us if there were issues. The few times I did get spanked, she still talked and validated our feelings…but AFTER the spanking. Lol. I never have felt any anger or resentment towards her, and in truth I probably would have been the same way with my children if it hadn’t been for the parenting classes I took. It’s just how I thought it was “done”.

In my husband’s family, (he also went to private schools his entire life) getting spanked with a paddle both at home and even through high school IN the school with family members present sometimes to watch…is just how it was “done”. Not only was it acceptable…it was encouraged. The last paddling my husband remembers was at 17. (It’s called a paddling because it’s a literal paddle board). In both cases our parents absolutely believed they were doing the right thing both socially, and in the eyes of “God”. Who was and continues to be a major part in all of our lives. (My husband and I are now both Grace oriented). 😮

And in both of our cases, our parents absolutely love their children with everything in them. And that love is returned.

My husband was medically discharged shortly after we got together, and we soon found out that he has PTSD. He’s always been one to “react” to stress or certain situations in a negative way. It’s usually by yelling, “demanding” that one “complies without question” (that was partially because of the military) and generally the “just do as I say” without questioning why that certain behavior or situation was even happening. “I’m the boss…you will listen” type thing.

I’ve always been really good at setting boundaries and bringing issues up as they were happening, and I stick to those boundaries while trying to figure out the reasoning behind “it” whatever it is. I was the one that helped our older children with any major issues. If there was a high stress situation happening, I took care of it, while he would exit the room and entered again when things calmed down. I was the “defense” person trying to stop escalation before it happened. In those times of stress, many times things would escalate very quickly and extremely irrationally. Sometimes on the verge of emotional/verbal abuse towards me. For those of you who are familiar with PTSD, this is a fairly common thing. That said, PTSD is a reason…not an excuse (There’s a difference). Nobody is responsible for trauma that’s been inflicted onto them or mental illness. NOBODY. (I suffer with depression and anxiety). But it is our “responsibility” to recognize, take responsibility for and to learn to change patterns of behavior that are harmful to others.

After our second child came unexpectedly in our 40s, (we had been out of FC for several years at this point. Our last children went to college, and had started families of their own) and things went really well until our son started becoming an independent little human. When he started getting into things, walking, talking and all that comes with growing up (Our son is high needs. He has ADHD, sensory issues and is in the evaluation process for autism. Life with a high needs child can be challenging on top of typical everyday growing up that all children go through) so those “high stress” incidents started happening more and more out of frustration.

One day in a high stress situation, he snapped. There was screaming and no rational thinking process in sight. And this happened in front of our son. It was one thing for me…an adult who can speak for myself and has extensive knowledge in how to de-escalate/manage certain behaviors…but it’s entirely different when a child is subjected to that kind of behavior…if its intentional or not. So, I made the decision that day and told him that if this behavior continued, I would divorce him and would do WHATEVER it took to protect our son. Protect him from thinking this was “normal”. Protect him from thinking that this is how we treat those that we love etc. Abuse is abuse…if its intentional or not.

My husband knew that wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t just some kind of manipulation to get him to stop. He knew I was absolutely serious because of my boundary setting and following through. Thankfully he took me seriously and chose to do whatever it took to LEARN different behavior.

So, for the past several years I’ve witnessed him researching developmental stages and age appropriate behavior in children. I’ve seen him take charge of his mental health and seek out different strategies on how to unpack issues in his own life, and learn how to cope in productive ways. I had bought an extensive online course on Positive Parenting, and he took the time to go through all of it. (Sometimes more than once). I’ve witnessed our family becoming a cohesive unit that tackles challenges together. There’s no more “running defense” on my end. I’ve witnessed the relationship between son and father go from frustration and overwhelming…to a relationship of understanding and peace. Naturally there are still challenges and high stress situations…there always will be. That’s life. But life looks and IS so much better for all of us now.

So, I completely understood what was written here in this post. Going against what we knew as “normal” and learning a different way to handle issues within the family unit…and hopefully our children won’t have to “reprogram” themselves later in life like we’ve done. Has it been easy? Absolutely 100% no. Was it worth it? Absolutely 100% yes!! ♡ So thank you for sharing this with us so we don’t feel so alone in our parenting journey.