This popular verse cannot be found in the Bible because it’s neither a Bible verse nor a Biblical principle. It’s like that other non-Biblical verse, “The Lord helps those who help themselves” in that it’s quoted by people who know little or nothing about the Bible to elevate certain kinds of behavior from mere human tradition to spiritual truth.
So where does it come from? Well it turns out that it’s from a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler called “Hudibras”. In the poem, a love affair is likened to a child, and spanking is commended as a way to make the love grow stronger. The actual verse reads,
“What medicine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styled
Then spare the rod and spoil the child.”
The idea was that the absence of periodic spankings in the relationship will spoil it. Further on in the poem, women are said to desire a good spanking more than an assortment of lovely ribbons. But the practice of spanking is much older the 17th Century poem. It first came on the scene as a pagan fertility rite in ancient Greece. Women who were unable to conceive went to the temple of Juno where the priests of the Greek god Pan spanked them with goat hide whips in an effort to increase their fertility. A search on the Internet will reveal that throughout history spanking has been primarily associated with erotica.
Much later, the Catholic Church used spanking as a means of cleansing women of their sins. But whether for erotic reasons or as a form of punishment, the person being spanked was always an adult and always a willing participant. The notion of spanking children who were neither adult nor willing emerged in Victorian times, no doubt as an expansion of the Catholic tradition of punishment for sin.
What Does The Bible Say?
With that introduction, let’s take a look at what the Bible does say about spanking, or more appropriately, the proper disciplining of children. Probably the closest verse to our title is Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” The Hebrew word for rod in this proverb describes a scepter or staff. A scepter was a large ornately carved staff that was a symbol of authority. The first time the word appears is in Genesis 49:10.
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”
It was the symbol of tribal authority in the same way that “the White House” stands for the US Government’s authority. In fact of the 190 times the word is used in the Old Testament it’s translated “tribe” in 140 of them. Other times it’s translated rod, club, shaft or truncheon. The point is that it wasn’t just a little switch that a dad could pick off a tree to give his errant son a light whipping. It was a huge and heavy club. Are we to believe that God wants a father to club his son into submission? Of course not.
While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the word translated discipline in Proverbs 13:24. It appears 50 times and 38 of those it’s translated instruction or correction. It’s never translated punish.
So remembering that we’re talking about a proverb where things are often symbolic, and that the rod symbolizes authority, we should interpret this one as follows: “Whoever fails to exercise his parental authority hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to instruct and correct him.” It’s a warning to fathers that as the heads of our households it’s our responsibility to instruct and train our children. Our failure to do so is a sign that we don’t love them.
When the Plain Sense makes Common Sense …
Some advocates of spanking children point to Proverbs 23:13 for justification. It says: Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
The problem here is that they switch from a literal to an allegorical interpretation in mid sentence because a strict literal reading doesn’t make sense. The rule of interpretation is that when the plain sense of a verse makes common sense, seek no other sense. Does beating someone with a rod prevent them from dying as a literal interpretation of this proverb requires us to believe? The plain sense does not make common sense. In addition, the word translated child here is more frequently translated youth or servant. In Israel if you beat your servant with a rod and he did die, you were guilty of murder. (Exodus 21:20) If beating was a guarantee that the recipient would not die, why the law?
While many well intended people take the first half of the verse literally, the concept of dying is almost universally interpreted to be the spiritual death of a sinner even though the Hebrew word describes a physical death in every one of its 835 appearances. So why not be consistent and use the allegorical interpretation from Proverbs 13:24 to interpret Proverbs 23:13? If we do the verse would read: Do not withhold instruction from your child: if you discharge your responsibility as a father and correct him, you can save him from spiritual death.
To prove that Proverbs are not always intended to be taken literally, the first two verses of Proverbs 23 say:
“When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.”
Does this mean that anyone who overeats should slit their own throats? Of course not. The plain sense doesn’t make common sense. This is always the sign that we should seek an allegorical interpretation.
Here are two more examples. Proverbs 23:5 says: Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle. Obviously allegorical.
And Proverbs 23:17: Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the LORD. Makes sense as it is. Take it literally.
You might ask, “Are we supposed to dart back and forth from a literal interpretation to an allegorical one on a verse by verse basis? My answer is that especially in the Proverbs we should read each verse to determine if the plain sense makes common sense. If it does then we seek no other sense. But if it doesn’t then a word study such as we’ve done above will help us find the true intent of the verse. Thankfully, we don’t have to do this with every book in the Bible, but there’s a reason why the Proverbs are part of the so-called Wisdom Books. They’re meant for study and meditation to help us acquire not just knowledge but wisdom.
What’s The Point?
But let’s not lose sight of the point here, which is to show that the Bible is not as clearly in favor of corporal punishment as some would like you to believe.
The situation in Biblical Israel can tell us volumes about how God intended for families to work, and it’s hard to describe how different that is from our experience. There were two strong relationships at play and together they became the foundation of the civilization. The first was their relationship with God and the second was the family. They were inexorably intertwined. This promise from Deut. 7:12-15 will show you what I mean.
If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you. You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor any of your livestock without young. The LORD will keep you free from every disease.
Because of this promise, when they were faithful to Him there was health, prosperity, and peace. Peace in their nation, peace in their communities, and peace in their families. Families functioned because they prayed together and worked together. Everyone had a job to do and everyone did it. Children honored their parents, not because it was commanded, but because parents deserved it. Fathers provided for their families and instructed their sons. Mothers kept their home and instructed their daughters. Both parents held the Lord in high esteem and taught their children His way. They all worked together as a team and the Lord blessed their work. There was a mutual respect between parents and children that made the parents want to instruct and the children obey. Even as grown men sons did not lightly ignore their fathers’ counsel, nor grown daughters their mothers’.
This mutual respect didn’t require the artificial application of contrived punishment, or even the threat of such. That’s why the Hebrew word for discipline is translated instruction or correction but never punishment. After all, the root word for discipline is disciple, which means student. A course of study is often called a discipline. When did it begin to mean punishment?
Because they knew that life came from the Lord, there was no thought that children were born with intentions of evil and had to have it beaten out of them. That came with the Catholic Church and the Victorian Era. Through example and instruction Hebrew men “tamed” their boy children and turned them into men who could also set an example. Since the Lord held the father responsible for the sins of his children there was ample motivation on their parts to do this. (I’m told that in the Bar Mitzvah ceremony where a boy becomes a man, the father’s prayer is, “Lord thank you for giving me this son, and thank you for relieving me of any further responsibility for him.”)
In his two direct comments about a father’s role in his children’s lives Paul was no doubt drawing from his own Jewish upbringing when he wrote, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephes 6:4) and Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)
In summary then, the notion of inflicting physical punishment on children can’t be supported Biblically. Spanking began as a pagan activity steeped in eroticism, and was brought into the church as a punishment for sin during a time when the Church had forgotten that Jesus was punished for our sins. But even then it was related to sin, not behavior that’s arbitrarily labeled by parents as bad, when it’s often only a reflection of their incompetence as teachers. It has done untold emotional and psychological damage and is in direct conflict both Old and New testament doctrine.