This is part two in a three part series. Read part one here.
What is “the Rod”? The Hebrew Shebet
The word “rod” that we see in the aforementioned proverbs is the Hebrew shebet. According to Strong’s concordance, shebet can be translated as a staff, stick, or rod “used for beating or striking…and chastening” but also as a shepherd’s crook (as translated in Psalm 23), the “scepter of a king” or ruler, and, oddly, the tribe of Israel (perhaps alluding to the idea of a branch).
In fact, you can see here that the term shebet is mostly translated as tribe, not a physical rod at all. So already, it’s clear that the word must be understood in its immediate context to make any sense.
In other passages, the word shebet is used to mean the scepter of a king, representing his authority to rule, as in Psalm 45:6-7: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The shebet of your kingdom is a shebet of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.”
In Job 9:34, shebet is translated as rod: “Let him take his shebet away from me, and let not dread of him terrify me.” Here, shebet and the subsequent fear are attributed to God out of ignorance; we know from the story’s prologue that the suffering of Job was from Satan, and therefore what Job thought was God’s punishment was, in fact, Satan trying to trip him up.
In the beloved Psalm 23, shebet is also translated as rod: “Thy shebet and thy staff, they comfort me.” This article explains that while the staff was used to guide and redirect the sheep, a shepherd’s shebet was used to ward off dangerous predators that would harm the sheep; the shebet was not used on the sheep. That explains why David chose to qualify it as a comforting object.
In 2 Samuel 7:14, you see a more similar usage to rod as that in the Proverbs, and interestingly, it is in reference to Solomon himself. In the passage, God is relaying a message to David through Nathan, and includes the following statement about Solomon: “I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a shebet wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you” (v. 14-15).
This passage is consistent with another oft used “prooftext” for physical discipline in Proverbs 3:11-12, which is also referenced in Hebrews 12:5-6: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”
The Hebrew Yacar
I take no issue with God disciplining those he loves. Scripture is clear on it, and that can’t really be argued. In English, the word discipline is derived from the word disciple; a learner or pupil.
The word “discipline” in Scripture, has its roots in the concept of teaching, instructing, correcting. In the Old Testament, it is the Hebrew yacar, which is most often used to mean “to chasten, discipline, instruct, admonish.” Strong defines it in this way: “to chastise, literally (with blows) or figuratively (with words); hence, to instruct:—bind, chasten, chastise, correct, instruct, punish, reform, reprove, sore, teach.”
There are times in which yacar directly alludes to physical punishment, for example 2 Chronicles 10:14: “King Rehoboam spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, ‘My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to it. My father yacar you with whips, but I will yacar you with scorpions.’ ”
Yacar is also associated with the anger and wrath of God, like in this particularly frightening excerpt from Leviticus 26: “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. And if in spite of this you will not listen to me, then I will yacar you again sevenfold for your sins…”
These are the passages that make me wonder if spanking my child truly is a microcosm for how God deals with me and my sin. As Piper mentioned, suffering is a part of the discipline of God, particularly in order to bring us back to Him. But there is much more to be addressed before we can come to that conclusion.
The Greek Paideuō
In the New Testament, to discipline is the Greek paideuō, which means, most simply, “to train children”, to instruct, to help learn, to correct, primarily by using words, or, as it is occasionally translated, with blows. Its noun form, paideia, means: “the whole training and education of children (which relates to the cultivation of mind and morals, and employs for this purpose now commands and admonitions, now reproof and punishment). It also includes the training and care of the body” and “whatever in adults also cultivates the soul, esp. by correcting mistakes and curbing passions.”
This is the term used in Ephesians 6: 4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the paideia and instruction of the Lord.”
It is the same in the Hebrews 12 passage: “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the paideia of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord paideuō the one he loves, and mastigoō every son whom he receives.”
The Greek Mastigoō
Troublesomely, mastigoō is translated as “scourge” the other six times it appears in the Bible. It is the same word twice used to warn the apostles that they may be beaten for following Christ, four times to describe Jesus’ scourging before his crucifixion.
This reference in Hebrews 12, according to Strong, is to be understood “metaphorically, of God as a father chastising and training men as children by afflictions.”
We know the Christian life is full of sorrow, for a life of sin causes suffering and death; on the other hand, a life of obedience to Christ requires consistent correction and denial of the flesh, which is painful in its own way. Jesus himself admonishes us to pluck out our eyes, cut off our hands if they cause us to sin (though I’ve yet to meet someone who has taken that text literally).
Perhaps the term mastigoō was used in Hebrews to remind us of the flogging Christ endured before the cross. Consider those verses with Jesus in mind: God clearly loved and received his Only Begotten. God himself did not flog Christ, but rather allowed him to endure suffering for the sake of a better outcome, one that Jesus willingly embraced.
We, too, as Christians, know that a huge result of following Christ is suffering. We, like Jesus, must accept suffering as part of a life. There will be times when we feel as though we’ve been beaten, whether it be through loss of a loved one, loss of health, loss of safety, persecution, plight, addiction, betrayal, whatever. But because we know that we are beloved children of God, that he is a trustworthy and good Father, that he is merciful, that his lovingkindness endures forever, we persevere through those sufferings.
The Hebrews text is not about spanking. It’s much more complex, sorrowful, and beautiful than that.
Reckoning with Shebet in the Proverbs
Back to Solomon. God loved him and saw him as his son. We know that God’s warning came true: Solomon strayed and was disciplined for his wrong actions.
But did God physically beat Solomon? No. It seems as though the “beating” Solomon received for disobedience were natural consequences for his behavior, not some lightning bolt from heaven.
Solomon, as king and wisest man around, surely knew of Nathan’s words to his father in 2 Samuel, knew God’s word. He knew the warning that if he, even as a king, disobeyed, he would be disciplined by God’s shebet. Did this, perhaps, inform his choice of words in the Proverbs? We can’t know for sure.
I do think the more reasonable and natural understanding of passages such as Proverbs 13 and 23 is to see the term shebet as metaphorical, a use of hyperbole as many of the proverbs are (more on that below). I personally believe the term shebet was meant as a symbol of authority, not a literal method of physical pain.
What would it look like to understand shebet as a symbol of authority instead of rod?
“Whoever spares [exercising authority] hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Proverbs 13:24
We have more to deal with, though.
The Hebrew nakah
“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.” Proverbs 23:13-14
This perhaps is the most commonly used “prooftext” to defend spanking. We now have a better understanding of the rod, but what of the word strike?
In Hebrew, it is the word nakah, most often interpreted as “smite” or “kill”. God uses the same word to describe what he did to humanity through the flood in Genesis 8:21: “Neither will I ever again nakah every living creature as I have done.” It is the same word to describe Moses’ murder of the Egyptian in Exodus 2:12: “[Moses] looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he nakah the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Indeed, the same term is used over a dozen times in the Exodus story to describe God’s acts against the Egyptians, and many times later in the Pentateuch to refer to those events: God nakah the river and turned it to blood, and he nakah the firstborn child of each Egyptian.
The idea here is that to nakah is a form of severe physical discipline or punishment, often associated with death; to nakah is exceedingly more severe than a spank on a “plump little bottom”, something that could never be justified against a small child.
If we were to understand this literally in the context of Proverbs, there would be a conflict with other parts of Scripture. Exodus 21:20, uses the same two Hebrew words as Proverbs 23: “When a man nakah his slave, male or female, with a shebet and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged.” How do we engage this text in the pro-spanking argument? Is it ok to beat a child to punish them, so long as he doesn’t die?
The famous “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” passage occurs verses later in Exodus 21, a part of the law that clearly was reinterpreted by Jesus during his famous sermon on the mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” (Matthew 5:38-39).
As Christians, we let that part of the law go and adopted Jesus’ model of gentle long-suffering. We know that things changed after Christ came. Paul tells us in Romans 7 that the law cannot save us, only Christ can.
What does this mean, then, for discipline? If our child slaps us on the cheek, do we offer him our other cheek?
Discipline is Necessary, but Smiting?
The need for discipline is crucial. Solomon would have seen this first hand with his brother, Absolom, who clearly did not respect his father, David. We don’t have a detailed account of David’s relationship with Absolom, but we can almost see through his behaviors that the scepter of David’s authority was not present. The result was a self-indulgent, violent, aggressive, selfish man who rebelled against his own father.
Like Solomon, we all have seen examples of undisciplined children resulting in calamity. As parents, we know discipline is a necessary part of parenting; it is an important part of loving our children, correcting them and helping them to learn from their mistakes.
But does God command us to smite them, as the text actually states, in order to do so?
Some argue yes. But I can’t buy that.
Read part three here.