The Bible, Spanking, and Hermeneutics


“‘Use the rod.  Beat the child,’ that’s my motto,” asserts Ms Trunchbull, Headmistress of Matilda’s school in Roald Dahl’s remarkable story, Matilda.

Sounds a lot like another motto, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” from another piece of literature.  The Bible?  Nope.  Good guess, though. The exact line is from a 17th century poem by Samuel Butler.  In the poem, a love affair is likened to a child, and spanking is commended as a way to make the love grow stronger.  I guess that’s for another post.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” may not be in the Bible but what’s in the Bible is close enough.

Proverbs 13:24 “Whoever spares the rod hates their children. But the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”

Proverbs 23:13-14 “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die.  Beat them with the rod and save them from death.”

Proverbs 10:13 “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of one who has no sense.”

Proverbs 20:30 “Blows and wounds scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.”  

Proverbs 22:15 “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”

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

Denise (my wife of 33 years) and I raised our two boys on a “modified” version of the above verses.  I say “modified” because the spankings were…
-on the bottom not the back.
-administered not by a rod but by a paddle on our boys – You remember the paddle with the ball attached to it?  Devin, one of our sons said, “It’s messed up when parents spank their kids with their own toys.”  He’s right.
-not close to “beatings. Though from the perspective of a child, it may have felt like a beating.
-limited to 2-3 smacks.
-not so severe that they left marks.
-not given beyond 10 years of age.

But this is not a post on parenting.  It is an invitation to think about how we interpret the Bible.

You see, each of the above characteristics of spanking were “modifications” of the Biblical instructions found in Proverbs.  Nope.  We didn’t follow the teaching of the Bible when it came to corporal punishment.  We modified them.  But, we didn’t make these modifications on our own.  They were suggested by the guru of parenting instruction in our day, James Dobson. If you look at the website of the organization Dobson founded, “Focus on the Family,” you will find an article with this title:  “The Biblical Approach to Parenting.”   The “Biblical” approach, it says, is to spank.  But, as is asked in the first paragraph, “What does it look like to spank in a way that obeys Scripture…?”  Their answer doesn’t sound very much like what the Bible actually teaches about “spanking.”  So, what’s up?

They have, according to Dr. William Webb in his book Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts, gone “beyond the Bible biblically.”

Abolitionists went beyond the plain teaching of the Bible concerning slavery (Exodus 21:20-21; Ephesians 6:5; 1 Peter 2:18; Titus 2:9-10) to a “better ethic,” an ethic that reflected the spirit of Christ (See Mark Noll’s book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis).   It appears that some of the “pro-spankers” have gone beyond the plain teaching of the Bible concerning corporal punishment.

I’m glad they did.  So are my sons!

Here’s something Denise and I are contemplating and discussing:  If Dobson and other “pro-spankers” have moved away from the clear, literal teaching of the Bible to an ethic that is more in line with the spirit of Jesus, is it possible that as we learn more about raising kids, we can move away from spanking altogether?  Every pastor and parent needs to read Dr. Webb’s book before either lifts a hand or teaches others to lift a hand.

Something else… What does this say about how to interpret the Bible?
Especially those tough to understand passages like slavery and spanking?
Are we moving toward an ethic that reflects the spirit of Jesus?

2 thoughts on “The Bible, Spanking, and Hermeneutics

  1. In the Spirit of Jesus? I believe you to be on a very right track. Sounds a bit like some of the tenets of Progressive Christianity. I wish you both growth and joy on your continued journey.

  2. What does this say about how to interpret the Bible?

    My “knee jerk” answer is that I believe it says that we interpret the Bible as a universal moral code. There are two issues with this, however. The first one is that we tend claim a moral and ethical monopoly (with terms such as “Christian Values”), because of our belief in a universal moral authorship. The problem is that this moral or ethics monopoly isn’t really there. One only needs to look back into history to realize that our stance on several codes of ethics has frequently changed over and over, most of the time with some Christian dominant societies kicking and screaming. Slavery of course, being the easiest example. On one end, you have the people who were biblically inspired to begin the abolitionist movement in Western Europe, and then on the other end you have the people who were biblically inspired to fight for keeping slavery. So which one was right? This is the case, over and over, where the two opposing views use the bible to justify the morals they believe are right, and statistically, those morals tend to be the ones they grew up with and have culturally submitted to instead of it being biblical morals they decided to submit to. This all sounds like it shouldn’t be the case, right? We should all look to the Bible and do exactly what it says, since God inspired it, and He is the author of a universal moral framework. This brings me to the second problem: Slavery and the treatment of women in the Bible. I have a really hard time accepting the authority of Levitical law as inspired by God. Why were they allowed to beat their slaves up to an inch of their lives? Why could they treat women like property, and were allowed to discard them if they were damaged goods? The apologetic response I frequently get is “they were living in different times and had to submit to that culture as a society”. So God, the Creator of the universe, gives Israel in Leviticus and Exodus a set of rules that are submissive to that day’s culture?

    You see the problem here? Christians frequently accuse each other of not standing up for family values, they create a movement called the “moral majority” who fights for Biblical morality, yet here is God, submitting to that day’s heinous practices for slaves and women. It is very difficult to claim a moral majority, or a universal certainty of right and wrong when God is commanding Israel to go along with whatever the rest of the surrounding cultures are doing. Granted, the one thing God does demand to change and “go against the grain”, is who and how they worship. There is a big focus on removing polytheistic practices, which the rest of the culture is heavily caught up in.

    So to answer the question, I think we interpret the Bible based on how we were raised, and what culture we’re in. If that is why slavery was Biblically condoned, then that is also why we (today) Biblically condemn it. Whether that’s right or wrong? I don’t know. But God seems to have done the same for Israel back in the day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s