Sometimes skeptics of the Bible tell us that the Bible teaches child abuse and therefore is not relevant to the 21st century. In this day of concern about violence and child abuse, they say the Bible is just an abusive, male-dominated book. The passage usually cited is Proverbs 23:13-14. In the KJV it says, “Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” Proverbs 29:15 adds, “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” There is no question that these passages have been used by angry parents to justify whipping or even beating a child–sometimes brutally. Is that what the Bible tells parents to do?
The answer to that question is definitely “no.” The first point is that Solomon wrote the passage in Proverbs to the people of his day. It was a society in which a man had many wives and many children. In Solomon’s case the number was in the hundreds, but virtually all Old Testament characters had a multiplicity of children. The basis of the society both religiously and politically was the father and his rule.
When Jesus came, he changed things. Jesus said that what God had allowed was “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8). He reinstituted God’s original plan which was: “A man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” The structure of the family changed under the teachings of Jesus, and the basis of raising children was love, not control. Ephesians 6:4 told fathers, “Provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Colossians 3:21 added, “Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger lest they become discouraged.”
Does the passage in Proverbs tell fathers to beat a child into submission? Again, beating a child is not what the passage says, and we need to do a word study to see that. There are two different Hebrew words translated as “rod.” One is the Hebrew “matteh” which refers to a piece of wood used as a club, a staff, or a weapon. An example is Exodus 4:2-4 where Moses threw down his rod which became a serpent.
The word for rod that is used in Proverbs is “shebet” which is never used destructively. Isaiah 11:1 is an example: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.” Rod is used this way many times in Isaiah such as “the rod of his mouth” in 11:4, and “tool of freedom” in 10:15. Jeremiah 48:17 translates “shebet” as “beautiful rod.” Job 9:34 uses “shebet” as “discipline” in modern translations but as “rod” in the King James.
What Solomon is saying is that a child needs discipline, not brutality. The fact that the word normally associated with discipline and promise is chosen in proverbs and not the word that conveys violence and abuse should clarify what Solomon is saying. Proverbs 29:15 would perhaps be more accurately translated “Discipline and reproof give wisdom, but an abandoned child will bring his parents to shame.” Verse 17 of that passage goes on and says, “Correct your son, and He will give you rest, yes he will bring delight to your soul.” Beating a child never accomplishes its purpose and is not a part of God’s plan for raising children.
–John N. Clayton © 2018