Corporal Punishment: The Biblical View

Cross Posted from Thus Said the LORD

Prov 13:24 Withholding his punishment is to hate the son; to love him is to seek his correction

Prov 19:18 Correct your son before it’s too late1)Literally, “while hope exists”; To do otherwise is to condemn him to death

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

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

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

For many Jews and Christians, the five passages above that advocate corporal punishment are very troubling. Howver, parental and cultural attitudes toward their children were very different in biblical times, no less so than say sixty years ago. And while the Bible manifestly supports corporal punishment, maybe we’re missing the forest for the trees. Let’s take a closer look.

To understand these passages, we must first reflect on what happens when we see a police officer pointing a radar gun at our car as we drive through a school zone. Most of us immediately check our speedometer and simultaneously ease off the gas pedal. But why?  Do we fear radar guns? No! Do we fear the police officer? No! We fear the consequences of getting caught speeding. The radar gun held by the officer symbolizes the authority to punish us for speeding. So we submit to [legitimate] authority because we fear the consequences of its exercise. In this example, authority and the threat of its consequences are what slow us down (Of course, cognitive dissonance plays a role here as well. The longer we live under [legitimate] authority, what was initially a rule with consequences, is more likely to  become a moral value. In other words, we obey the speed limit not because we will be punished otherwise but because, over time, observing the speed limit has become the right thing to do).

With this in mind, let’s examine two key words in these texts: First is the Hebrew word Ajb.viâ (shivto) often translated as rod. Now shivto, can certainly mean rod in the sense of a club or weapon, it also means staff — as something used to guide or point the way (e.g., a shepherd’s staff). Interestingly, shivto has a third meaning. It can also mean scepter — a badge of authority carried or worn by a court official.

Proverbs 22:15 is even more instructive in this regard. Many English translations of this proverb (including my own) use the phrase “shivto of correction” and “shivto of discipline” respectively. However, the words “correction” and “discipline” are translated from the Hebrew word rs’ªWm÷ (musar) which might be better understood as education or instruction. With this in mind, proverb 22:15b might be better read as…

… the exercise of authority in the education of your child will remove [foolishness] from him

Of course, the “exercise of authority” often meant corporal punishment, but not always. So, in general, these proverbs reveal that God expects us to use our parental authority to discipline and educate our children. To do otherwise and ignore a child’s misbehavior and mistakes in judgment can often result in harm. In addition, these verses reveal, among other things, that God views corporal punishment as a legitimate exercise of parental authority and is considered a consequential act of love (Prov 13:24b). But, notice that the texts do not tell us that we are obligated spank our children. Indeed, the exact manner in which parents choose to exercise their authority seems, in these texts, to be strictly up to the parent’s prudential judgment. God, it seems, is less concerned with how we exercise our authority and more concerned that we do. In this final analysis, parents are reminded that corporal discipline – when necessary and exercised justly – can be an act of parental love.

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