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Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Proverbs 13:24

Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them

are diligent to discipline them — Proverbs 13:24

 

            One of the most unfortunate misunderstandings of Scripture concerns passages that refer to the necessity of using “the rod of discipline” in the training of children. These include:

            Proverbs 22:15 — “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”

            Proverbs 23:13 — “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.”

            Many well-intentioned Christians take these passages and others like them to mean that God is specifically instructing parents to spank children when they misbehave; further, that these spankings should be administered with variations on the general theme of “the rod”: belts, hickory switches, paddles, and the like. This misinterpretation is understandable, but reflects a wrongful application of the principles of Biblical exegesis, or critical interpretation and analysis.

            As is especially the case with the Old Testament, any given word or phrase in Scripture might have various meanings which are revealed by the context in which word or phrase is used. In other words, setting often determines meaning. Therefore, arriving at a proper understanding of any Scriptural term requires that the seeker carefully examine how that term is used in various contexts across the whole of Scripture, with an eye for contextual similarities.

            Applying this formula to the word rod one discovers two distinct usages: the rod and a rod. The difference may seem slight, but in fact the preceding article—whether the or a—determines meaning. The rod is always metaphorical, as in Lamentations 3:1—“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.” On the other hand, a rod is always with reference to a concrete object—a straight stick that might have been used as a tool of measurement (1Sa 17:7, Rev. 21:16), a symbol of authority (Is. 14:5), or a staff used in herding sheep (Lev. 27:32).

            In every case, when the word rod is used with reference to the training or discipline of children, it is preceded by the article the, connoting that the usage is metaphorical. To understand it otherwise results in irreconcilable confusion. For example, in Exodus (21:20), The Lord specifies that if a man beats his male or female slave with a rod, and the slave dies as a direct result, the man must be punished.

 

 

Exodus 21:20 "If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod

and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished…

 

 

 

Speaking in Proverbs (23:13), however, The Lord assures parents that if they punish their children with the rod, “they will not die.”

 

 

Proverbs 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child;

if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.

 

 

Reading these two passages, one should be moved to ask, if in fact these two rods are one and the same, how can something that can kill a strong adult slave hold absolutely no potential of being fatal to a child (remember that Proverbs 23:13 is a promise from God Himself!). The only way of reconciling the seeming contradiction is to understand that Exodus refers to an object (a rod), while Proverbs refers to a quality, an attribute (the rod).

            So what is this quality? What is rod-like discipline? Metaphors borrow their meaning from the concrete. So, for example, the metaphorical use of “slow train” as in “there’s a slow train coming” refers to a powerful, virtually unstoppable force with somewhat ominous significance. In other words, understanding the concrete nature of a train that is moving slowing, inexorably, down a track is prerequisite to comprehending the metaphor. Likewise, understanding the ancient uses to which rods could be put allows us to understand what is meant by “the rod of discipline.”

            In one context, a rod was used to insure that measurements were consistent and true; in another, it was a symbol of authority, a scepter; and in yet another, as a herding staff, it was used to herd domesticated animals in one general area and compel them to move from one place to another. Used metaphorically, therefore, rod-like discipline (a) is consistent and true, (b) emanates from a legitimate authority, and (c) establishes boundaries and compels action and/or change. Further understanding of the metaphor can be had by noting that “the rod” is also used to refer to God’s righteousness, as in Isaiah 11:4, where The Lord is described as smiting the earth with “the rod of his mouth.” Rod-like child discipline, therefore, is righteous. It is in keeping with the nature of God’s discipline of us, his children both adult and child, and consistent with His Plan for us.

            Don’t misunderstand me, please. I am not arguing against spankings per se. I happen to believe that a properly administered spanking can be an example of “the rod.” Spankings have their place, but they are not the be-all, end-all of discipline. In fact, no where in the whole of Scripture does God prescribe a specific form of discipline for children. He only emphasizes, time and time again, that discipline to be effective, discipline must embody certain characteristics and emanate from a legitimate authority figure who is acting with righteousness. Therefore, the mere fact that a parent spanks does not mean his discipline has been “rod-like.” A spanking delivered impulsively, in anger, definitely fails to meet the standard. The angry, out-of-control parent is not acting righteously. His impulsive outburst is self-righteous. It communicates his anger, but it is unlikely to do anything but cause resentment on the part of his child. That sort of spanking is an example of what Paul was referring to when, in his letter to the Ephesians, he exhorted fathers to not exasperate their children. A parent exasperates his/her children whenever he behaves toward them in an exasperated fashion, which certainly fits with spankings that are delivered impulsively and out of anger.

 

 

Eph. 6:4—Fathers, do not exasperate your children,

instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

 

            These understandings should serve to free parents from a narrow approach to discipline such as might result from a literal interpretation of “the rod of discipline,” and enable them to match their discipline to the specific nature of any given misbehavior and the context in which it occurs. Is it not inconceivable that God wants parents to spank in response to every instance of misbehavior? How could God in his infinite wisdom and mercy demand spankings for misbehaviors as disparate as a child belligerently refusing to clean his room and a child simply forgetting to clean his room? Both require discipline, but the same response to both events would reflect neither mercy nor good sense, much less wisdom. Understanding the difference between “a rod” and “the rod” also leads to the realization that discipline and punishment are not one and the same, that discipline is first and foremost leadership, not punishment-ship. Yes, punishment is part and parcel of discipline, but in the final analysis, it is but a relatively small part. In fact, parents who understand that effective leadership is conveyed primarily through authoritative speech (as in, “the rod of his mouth”)—speech that is clear, unequivocal, reflects steadfast commitment to a goal, and compels action consistent with that goal—will rarely have to punish their children. The effectiveness of their leadership will minimize the necessity. It follows that parents who punish a great deal are parents who have failed to properly assume the mantle of leadership in their relationships with their children. Unfortunately, that describes all too many of today’s parents, for whom the rod of discipline is sorely needed.

 

 

Copyright 2006-2009 John K. Rosemond.