Jonathan Merritt (the author) has no biblical rationale for verbally spanking Jonathan Merritt (the parent)

According to the latest article from The Other Merritt (TOM), I’m “hell-bent on hitting” my kids— and without any moral rationale.

I assume most unenlightened (i.e. conservative) Christians found TOM’s article objectionable on a number of fronts. For my part I can deal with the condescending attitude; the categorical association of spanking with hitting, beating, slapping, and violence; and the arrogant presumption that I can’t be trusted if I claim to spank “compassionately & rarely.” The enlightened progressives castigate the unenlightened conservatives. {Yawn}

However, I was shocked to read that my rationale for spanking rests on a one word in one verse (Prov 13:24) whose interpretation is authenticated by one author in one theological journal—The New York Times. {Now I’m awake}

If TOM had spent as much time investigating Scripture as he did gleaning the immutable truths of sociology he might have discovered that the issue is more complex than a one-off proof text. Maybe he’d have learned:

1) that the Hebrew word shebet, translated as rod in Prov 13:24, occurs approximately 190x in the OT and w/ two meanings: (i) rod, staff, club, scepter and (ii) tribe

2) that the very first entry for shebet in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon reads “rod, staff (evidently common article), for smiting [emphasis added]

3) that shebet occurs 8x in Proverbs and one is hard-pressed to find any shepherding metaphor let alone the sense that the rod is for verbal(?) guidance/discipline

Proverbs 10:13 On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.

Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

Proverbs 22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.

Proverbs 22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

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

Proverbs 23:14 If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

Proverbs 26:3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.

Proverbs 29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

4) that multiple times the Lord himself uses a shebet to do more than coax & nudge little lambs

2 Samuel 7:14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men

Psalm 89:32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes

Isaiah 10:5 Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!

I don’t know TOM but I’d wager he’s a decent guy (they don’t hand out the Merritt surname to just anyone!). I’m sure that he’s written many pieces where deadlines & a lack of available sources don’t permit him to investigate as thoroughly as he’d like.

But speaking as a parent who believes he has a biblical (and moral) rationale for spanking, maybe he could spare me the condescension until he does a little more homework.

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 3)

The “rod of discipline” isn’t a comfortable shepherding analogy in Prov 22:15 [see #1 in “A time to coax…” pt. 2]. That the rod is meant to be painful is confirmed by the stated objective (i.e. to drive away folly) and by the other uses of “rod” in Proverbs most notably in verses like 10:13, 23:13, and 26:3. Two broader observations should be mentioned:

(2) The broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity. Christian parents will find greater motivation for loving, faithful discipline when they consider the alternative(s) detailed in Proverbs. Folly that freely festers in a child’s heart will corrupt him into a fool. The failure to draw the Proverbial connections between folly and fools obscures the indispensable role of parental discipline. We wield the “rod of discipline” because abdicating this God-given charge is a catalyst for moral & spiritual disaster. Even a casual examination of what Proverbs has to say about the condition and fate of a fool Proverbs depicts the battle with folly as a matter of life and death.
5:23 He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is led astray.
19:3 When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.
26:11 Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Ironically, some corners of Christian culture will recoil at the sight of vomit-slurping, godless rebels destined for death even as they proclaim their aversion to spanking.

(3) The broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing.
When the remedy for the evil of a rebellious son is public stoning (Deut 21:18-21), a spanking seems like a bargain! Small wonder that the OT people didn’t balk at the notion of corporal punishment during the child rearing years. But the bigger issue is whether or not we’re able to discern and emulate the Father’s heart in discipline. On this point I would turn to several OT passages where God employs corporal punishment on His children (Deut 8:5; 2Sam 7:14; Isa 10:5; Jer 2:3) and follow those passages by the acknowledgment that divine discipline is still a model for parental discipline in the NT era (Heb 12:4ff; Rev 3:19).

Make no mistake, godly discipline is as unpleasant as it is necessary. But until He comes we affirm the goodness of painful discipline even though we flinch (Heb 12:11-13).

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 2)

The previous post acknowledged a growing disagreement in Christian circles over the value and necessity of physical discipline for children. Proverbs 22:15 was proffered as a focal point in the debate, specifically in how we should understand “the rod” of discipline: is this an allusion to corporal punishment or not? I think an honest evaluation would answer that question in the affirmative for three reasons: (1) the use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain (2) the broad context of Proverbs asserts that physical discipline is a necessity (3) the broader context of the OT only affirms the place of corporal punishment in child rearing. For the sake of time I’ll expand on #1 now and return to #2-3 in a post to follow.

1) The use of “rod” in Proverbs implies a striking that produces pain.

First, the OT Hebrew word for “rod” in Prov 22:15, shebet, has a variety of uses depending on the context: rod, staff, club, scepter, and even tribe. However, in the 191x that shebet occurs in the OT only twice(!) does it clearly refer to a shepherd’s staff (Lev 27:32; Micah 7:14 – both verses speak of shepherds and sheep). Further, shebet occurs 8x in Proverbs (see below) and none of these occurrences contain a shepherding analogy. “Rod” is a better English rendering than “staff”.

Second, occurrences of shebet in Proverbs leave little doubt that the rod is a fearful thing:
10:13 On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.
13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail.
22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
23:14 If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
26:3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.
29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

Third, in 22:15 the rod doesn’t coax and draw in. It strikes and drives away. Even if a shepherding analogy was to be seen here the fitting analogy is a shepherd fighting off dangerous predators that will harm the sheep, not a shepherd trying to draw a sheep in. As will be demonstrated later, Proverbs portrays folly is a predator that kills. If folly isn’t killed, the child is. How then will folly be destroyed: with coaxing or cudgeling?

A time to coax and a time to cudgel (pt. 1)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. {Proverbs 22:15, ESV}

I take it as a truism that a generation (or two?) ago the Christian consensus on Prov 22:15 understood “the rod of discipline” to mean corporal punishment (i.e. spanking). I don’t know whether we could point to a Christian consensus today but I do know that, for various reasons, spanking is not as prevalent as it once was. My father use to tell us how my grandmother would send him outside to requisition the switch she would then use for his painful correction, and can I still remember a paddle hanging on my (maternal) grandparents’ wall in Maryland with a rhyme that went something like: Appeal to the intellect, Appeal to the Pride, When all else fails, Apply to the hide.

But times change and the spirit of the age incessantly seeks to shape the Christian mind. The serious Christian knows he must respond to verses like Prov 22:15 if he is to abandon the prudence of physical discipline with any legitimacy. The only recourse for such a conscientious objector is to demonstrate that phrases like “the rod of discipline” are misinterpreted by advocates of corporal punishment which brings us to the point of this post.

A young mom who, along with her husband I’m sure, is “not considering doing away with the belt” has questions about how to defend the position that spanking is biblical. The counter-argument that she’s encountered runs something like: (a) “the rod” in Prov 22:15 refers to a shepherd’s staff or stick (b) the rod/staff was used to pull/direct/coax sheep back into position but not to inflict painful punishment and/or (c) the rod/staff was used to strike and fend off predators but never to strike the sheep themselves.

Coax or cudgel–which is biblical? I’ll try to address this on multiple fronts (in multiple posts) but let me conclude here by observing that even if we limit ourselves to Proverbs, the Bible has more to say concerning discipline than just what we find in 22:15. How might these additional proverbs shape our understanding of the intended meaning of 22:15?

13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

19:18 Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.

23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.

29:15 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.