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
- 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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