You keep using that verse…


Proverbs 23:13  Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.

This is one of those issues that the more I study the Old Testament from a Messianic/Hebraic perspective, the more frustrated I become.

When I am teaching about  Grace-Based Discipline it is inevitable that “not spanking” will be discussed.  People who believe in taking all of the Bible literally as translated in the King James Version love to bring this verse up – but it is not literally true. People have beat their child to death – there are several deaths attributed to Michael Pearl’s teachings that have been in the news in the last 5 or so years.

Proverbs are Proverbial

The book of Proverbs is, well, proverbs. Wisdom sayings.

“If you give a man a fish he eats for a day; if you teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime.”

That’s a proverb. No one is out literally teaching people to fish in most cities across the country. The book of Proverbs contains similar teachings – with wisdom, yes, but not always to be taken literally.

And the really fascinating thing about studying Proverbs is that many sayings contradict themselves within the same book. “A wise man has lots of advisors” is balanced with “don’t listen to everyone with an opinion.” (I’m totally paraphrasing here, but if you look at Proverbs with an eye to contradictions, you will see them in several places). Why? Because context is KING!

Ultimately, no one who wants to use that verse to spank their children is going to grab a knife and stab their throats the next time they are tempted to over-indulge in chocolate or some other treat – and that is the idea given for curing gluttony in this Book of Wisdom.

Where were instructions given?

God’s instructions for how to live are spelled out in the first five books of the Bible. Now, there can be debate for centuries to come about whether these still apply, are for Israel only, should be done, could be done, whatever. Makes for lively and rousing discussions. BUT –that is where the instructions are given.

And in those instructions there is not one single suggestion, let alone a command, to spank a child. There are no instructions for how to spank a child. There is no suggestion that a child will be spanked. It’s just not there.

But what does it mean?

The thing most often referenced when you attempt to take the discussion back to what is actually in the Law reflects the lack of understanding our modern Church has of what was actually in the Law.  For instance, some people want to bring up the “parents stoning children.” Except, that’s not what is says and never how it was understood.

In a culture with voluminous records of how court cases were handled, there is not one single case of parents wanting to, much less actually, stoning their children.

For one thing, the context is very specific. The child must be

  • Gluttonous
  • A Drunkard
  • Disobedient to parents
  • Disregard his parent’s instructions

Each of those criteria had certain elements to establish what they consisted of. The child must be over 13 and the parents are, by doing this, essentially saying to the entire community, “We failed this young person and we need them put to death before they inflict hardship on the community.”

This was not at all about the child – and said everything about the parents. It was understood as instructions to parents about how important it is to parent well – the alternative is that your child would end up a Lawbreaker and worthy of death.

The Rod Verse no one mentions

There is a “rod verse” that does not often get mentioned, when people are discussing the use of the rod for punishment.

And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. – Exodus 21:20

The “rod” in question is the very same staff or shebet referenced in Proverbs, and the Law is clear – if you strike your servant with this rod, and he dies – you are responsible and there are consequences. The reason this is important is that God has acknowledged in His Law that “beating with the shebet” can and often does result in death. And, when it does, the person who did the literal beating is liable.

What’s a na’ar, anyway?

Interestingly, the word for child (na’ar) speaks to a male adult child and is used to reference young men from ages 13-30. There are two times where it used of a male child younger than 13, and that is because the meaning is “ripped away” within that context. It speaks to being ripped away from the mother and moved to the men’s camp.

The two times it’s used of younger males are Moses, who was ripped away from his mother when she put him on the Nile, and Samuel, who was taken by his mother at the age of completed weaning, and given to service in the Temple.

It’s key here to understand that it was illegal and punishable to strike an adult male in Jewish community without a court order to do so. The very words used in this verse in Proverbs contradict each other – you would not have been allowed to strike a na’ar and YOU would have been violating the Law to do so.

Not what you think it means

The idea of attempting to read this verse literally in the English ends up just being silly, when you examine it in the light of the rest of God’s word, and the cultural context in which it was written.

It doesn’t mean what they think it means, because it doesn’t say what they think it says… and it can’t mean what they want to argue.


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  1. THIS is great! Thank you. I so appreciate reading good research summaries like this…. This issue one of many instances of pervasive but just plan theology, and bad exegesis…and missing the Point entirely. I always hope I get a chance to engage parents who have taken this too literally, because I think a lot of them feel trapped by it. They want to be obedient to the Word, but they feel the breakdown inside them about how spanking and beating fit with love, even true discipline, Jesus, the Gospel, and so much else. There are, of course, so many arguments all over. But I am always grateful to read one like yours that is well-handled and concise! 🙂

    • How do I know I can trust your interpretation of this Scriptural topic and these Bible passages when you obviously do not believe that the Bible teaches that pastors should be “the husband of one wife” ? How do you explain those qualifications away?

      • Crystal Lutton says

        In the Greek it doesn’t actually have male gender assigned to the statement. It’s a phrase that speaks to being a devoted spouse. The whole list is actually about character qualities that should be observed before someone becomes an Elder, and not a checklist of things the way some groups in the modern church have taken it. For instance, the comment about the family isn’t about forcing PK’s to “look good” all the time in a way that drives many of them away from the faith. It is an admonition to look to the family, who knows the private person, and see how they respond to them. They will know if the person is a hypocrite or if they are worthy of respect. As for “me” not believing your interpretation of a particular verse in the Bible – my denomination ordained me. It is actually many respectable seminaries and denominations and organizations who disagree with your interpretation of that verse. If the fact that God made me with girlie bits so strongly affects your ability to accept my findings, I would invite you to visit Many of his posts are about the rod – as is his book that you can request a copy of for free – though, ironically, the current top post is about women in ministry based on an examination of the Woman at the Well in the Gospels.

        • I could spend a while talking through you points, but this present quite a good case against your logic here. And the word for “husband” is not gender-neutral (it is in certain cases translated that way, but not in this passage). The context is clear.

          • Crystal Lutton says

            I’m leaving the link to MacArthur’s video, even though I want to be very clear that I do not agree with his teachings. I am wondering if you put this in response to the wrong blog entry, though. I’m not talking about husbands or spouses her so I’m not sure how to reply. If you would like to clarify I would be more than happy to talk about translation issues.

  2. Ok. Really loved this post. Lots to think about! And really, this is such a totally different perspective that what I’ve always heard that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it.

    So…there are several other verses in the book of Proverbs that talk about using a rod on your child/son.

    Proverbs 13:24 – He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

    Proverbs 29:15 – The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left [to himself] bringeth his mother to shame.

    Proverbs 22:15 – Foolishness [is] bound in the heart of a child; [but] the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

    Are all these verses using the same Hebrew words for “rod” and “child”? And…if this verse (Proverbs 23:13-14) doesn’t mean what it appears to mean in English…what do you think it *does* mean? Maybe I’m being really dense, but the non-literal interpretation of this “general wisdom” is not coming to me right off…

    • Crystal Lutton says

      Great questions!

      Proverbs 13:24 does speak of the same shebet – but of a son without an age specified. It is speaking more to the relationship between father and mother as opposed to the age.

      Proverbs 29:15 uses shebet and na’ar

      Proverbs 22:15 uses shebet and na’ar

      What none of these verses actually speaks to is “using the rod *on* the child.” The opposite of “sparing the rod” is “holding the rod” (as sparing means setting aside, not utilizing). Since the appropriate use of the rod was to serve as a walking staff that signified the person’s role and responsibility in the family and community, sparing it would mean not taking responsibility for properly parenting your children. The opposite of that is *taking* responsibility for properly raising your children. The Proverb does not give details on what that is supposed to look like so any reading into it to try and create that detail is something being brought to the text.

      The statement “the rod and reproof give wisdom” doesn’t actually say “beating children and correcting their behavior” – it says the rod and reproof. According to the Lexicon (more important for understanding the use and meaning of words than the concordance which just tells us how the word was translated) the use of the word translated “reproof” in this passage speaks to verbal correction. So if the rod is the symbol of authority and speaks to the responsibility of the person holding it to actiely teach, and reproof means verbal correction, this is an admonition to actively teach and correct your children – rather than leaving them to themselves to figure out how they are supposed to live. You do not need punishments to avoid abandoning your child to figure out life on their own. You do, however, need a presence in their lives and the willingness to teach and instruct and correct.

      As for Proverbs 22:15, it is not the heart that is bound by foolishness – it is foolishness that is bound (tied up, rendered inactive) in the heart of a child – and I believe this speaks to the fact that God reveals several times that He does not hold children accountable for their sins until 21. There is a time, while the person is a child, that the teaching and correcting received from parents can literally drive away the risk of them becoming a fool. A fool, in Jewish understanding, was someone who knew and understood better but chose to live against God’s instructions. If you take advantage of the fact that foolishness is bound up during the ages of childhood, and you actively parent and correct, then your child will have the best chance of growing up to embrace God’s instruction and not abandon it. Sadly, many young people have walked away from God because of the harsh parenting that they experienced as children in the form of corporal punishment. It is a very sad legacy for the church to have 🙁

      As for what I believe this verse does mean – the word translated “correction” in “withhold not correction” is muwcar and means “come let us reason together.” So if you take your son, starting from the age of 13 and continuing into his adult years, and you reason together with him (especially considering that 14 years old is when they develop reason so at 13 they are developing pre-reasoning skills) in a way that helps him internalize things you have been teaching him from birth, and giving him room to make mistakes as well as learn from them – and talking with him about what he is learning – you are not withholding correction. This is, after all, the responsibility of the person who would have held the shebet.

      The idea of “beating” does seem to perhaps give a punitive tone to this verse, but it is also the word used when the sun beat down on Jonah – it was a constant presence, bringing about God’s purposes. Yes, he was hot, but God wasn’t striking him. Your son might not appreciate being reminded of God’s Laws, and might not want to always do what is right – but if you keep them as a constant presence in his life – as you reason together with him about them, you can save him from the path that leads to death. You can help him avoid actions that result in death. Looking at the word in Hebrew and how it is used – you can help your child grow in understanding so that he avoids the need for the death penalty according to God’s Law.

      Since beating with a large staff can and has led to death, it can’t be a literal promise that God won’t let your child die while you strike him with a tree trunk. But you really can help your child avoid the sins that hold a death sentence by intervening during their adolescence with both teaching and correction and reasoning together. The discipline approach that I advocate is very involved and hands on and I’m so proud of my teenagers as they navigate life experiences with sound minds and intentional choices that they are embracing for their own – not just doing because they fear my response.

      • Thanks for the response Crystal. Your original post presented me with a surprising framework for a new idea, and now you’ve roughed in the roof and walls for me. 🙂

        It struck me as I was pondering your original post, that in my mind the “rod” that the Bible speaks of is more like a switch. But it doesn’t say switch. And even if we’re just flatly looking at the English word used, rod does not equal switch in English. So there was a clear case of superimposing what I thought it meant over what it actually was saying.

        Personally, I’m not seeing a Biblical *prohibition* against *all* spanking or punishment in any of this. Beating kids with walking sticks? Well, nobody in their right mind thought that was actually Godly behavior. Or even just descent human-being behavior. And you’ve cleared away the fog pretty nicely over that little bit of craziness.

        It’s really pretty freeing to see these verses in a different light. Thank you for sharing!

        • Crystal Lutton says

          I’m so glad! I tell people all the time that the tools they use in their parenting are between them, their spouse, their children, and God. None of my business, really. I just hope to clear up details like these and offer so many alternatives that people might not see or feel the need to spank. And for those who don’t want to but don’t know what else to do, I want to equip and empower them. 🙂

    • The rod like giving rules, not to spank children with it, shepherds used their rod to guide misguided sheep not to whip them with it.

  3. See, I have difficulty with your interpretation. Just because Proverbs is, well… a book of proverbs, doesn’t mean that it is actually only to be taken proverbially. Indeed, context is king, but you must also take the context of the entire Scripture if you’re going to say the the Bible does not support spanking. For instance, if we say that Proverbs is speaking proverbially, then what proverbial message is being imparted in this passage? Even proverbially, it is that at least teenagers need to be beaten sometimes (take this with the context elsewhere which commands that things not be done in a spirit of anger and you see it’s not the beating talked about in the “killing with a rod” passage). God chastens us, which is not a pleasant experience. Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, using a whip made of chords, so you can’t play the “pacifist Jesus” or the “I can’t imagine Jesus doing something like spanking” card. In short, the Bible admonishes loving punishment but at times severe punishment for wrongdoing, and thoughout the Scripture, the punishment for sin is severe and sometimes (in our human view) harsh.

    • Crystal Lutton says

      It was illegal to strike a Jewish adult (male over the age of 13) without a court order so I’m not sure how you come to your conclusion about “beating teens” – especially given that most teachers of spankings would say that you should be done spanking long before the age of 7-10. The word translated “chasten” means “come let us reason together” and, yes, God sits down with us and exposes our foolishness to us and shows us how we have brought hardship on ourselves – while also instructing us in how to change our direction and get on track with Him.

      I find it interesting that you are responding for me (saying I’m going to play the pacifist Jesus card) based on no knowledge at all of me otherwise you would not make such an assumption. I have never played the pacifist Jesus card. However, I maintain that Jesus held the adults in the religious community accountable for where they were distorting God’s teachings – and that’s what I’m doing here. I also maintain that Jesus died for our sins so to argue that God requires punishing our children means that you are advocating for us to be the unforgiving servant. How do you reconcile that? Also, Jesus used that whip on the animals – had he used it on the people he would have been guilty of violating Jewish Law and, as we all know, any sin on His part would have disqualified Him from being the Messiah. So far from a pacifist Jesus card, I would respond with the Messiah Jesus card.

      God did not hold people accountable for violating His Law until they were 21. Until they their father offered their sin offering, they were allowed to go into the Promised Land, and they weren’t expected to understand – understanding being a requirement alongside hearing and obeying.

      When people in their 20’s and older who have embraced and understand the choices they are making choose to go against God’s instructions there will be severe consequences – they are not being punished by God in the way we understand “punishments” in English, but He removes His hand of protection and allows them to suffer according to the path that they choose. This can happen on a personal as well as a national level and, yes, the outcome is often harsh. This does not mean that God punishes us, and has nothing to do with how God would have us parent.

      1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear comes from punishment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.

      • angelsmom says

        When you say “It was illegal to strike a Jewish adult (male over the age of 13) without a court order,” is this a biblical law, or a Jewish law?

        • Crystal Lutton says

          It is found in Jewish law based on the courts’ interpretation of Scripture. There are limitations outlined in Scripture on when someone could be struck and how as well as the consequences of any injury caused. Deuteronomy 25:3 contains a caution against the person issuing court ordered punishment striking the individual even once more than the court had commanded.

  4. Hi Crystal! *waves* I just wanted to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for continuing to spread the good news that we don’t have to live as adversaries to our children. You taking the time to teach me over a decade ago has made our kids’ lives about a million times better than they would have been otherwise. All I knew was that I didn’t ever want to spank, but I had nothing else in my toolbox given my fundie upbringing. Your teaching gave us the understanding and Scriptural grounding we needed, and the tools to use too. Now that my oldest is almost 15, we can see that he’s super-awesome and GBD has really paid off. (Our younger three are super-awesome, too, it’s just that he’s the longest-running test subject. 😉 ) Our youngest was adopted from foster care and the insight your teachings gave into the way a child’s mind works was invaluable for getting into his traumatized little brain and helping him make new patterns in his life. So, anyway, if people choose to ignore what you’re saying because of their own prejudices, it’s their loss. Paying attention has been our entire family’s gain, and it’s had positive repercussions even up the generational line–my parents, who started spanking me when I was 9 months old because they were taught that was the way to produce a godly child, are now 100% on board with GBD because it’s created a revelation of God’s grace toward *them* as well as their grandkids! You’re the best and I appreciate all you do.

    • Crystal Lutton says

      Thank you so much! I appreciate you taking the time to share this and I’m so grateful that I had the chance to do something that blessed you. Your story makes it all worthwhile. Thank you!

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    • Crystal Lutton says

      Thank you! I’m going to pass the question along to my web designer and see if she has any suggestions for you 🙂

  6. Becky Mathew says

    I am so happy to have a great source of peaceful and gentle parenting information and opinions. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Crystal, thank you!! As I read this, I flashed on something that happened when I was a teenager as I read this:
    I decided to test the limits of the rules on bedtime. In the morning, my mom looked me over, & said, “You’re going to need a REALLY fast bath this morning; we’re leaving for school in 10 minutes”.
    I fell asleep in every class that day. (It is not fun trying to listen to a teacher when your head keeps falling forward into your book!)…..and I never, ever, even considered doing anything that crazy again. No yelling, much less spanking. Just, “You have 10 minutes to get ready for school”–and I knew she meant it.
    Now that was real discipline! She taught me that there is a set bedtime for a good reason,AND that, as an adult, nobody was going to give me the day off, just because I didn’t bother to go to bed the night before……..

    • Crystal Lutton says

      There is a concept called Piggy Backing which is when we “add to” the lesson that is built into a situation. Everything we do teaches us about life – and we get the lessons that we are ready to learn so sometimes the repeat of things someone else thinks we should “know” is because we are learning new things from it and do not yet “understand.” All punishments imposed by someone else Piggy-Back onto the real lessons and ALL Piggy-Backing blocks real learning. So punishments literally *hinder* a child from learning what they need to learn to know to not do things again.


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