The Bible Doesn't Endorse Spanking

Wisdom would say that discipline is important for children. Wisdom would not say how this is accomplished.

Many Christians believe that the Bible not only endorses corporal punishment, it mandates it under the clause of not hating our children. While I would never argue that Scripture forbids spanking, I believe that the four proverbs directly involved (13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15) are addressing the principle of discipline, not the method. Because we can't simply read the proverbial rod as a modern switch  when we know how the original audience would have understood it.

The time in which the Bible was written was a primitive one when justice was nothing more than a cold dish of vengeance served up on a ten-to-one scale. Meaning that even the rape of a rival clan member could earn you not only your own death, but the deaths of your entire extended family (Genesis 34). Slaves were treated as property, not people, and could be tortured or executed for any reason.

William J. Webb has noted that texts from the surrounding, ancient civilizations prescribed punishments for offenses of up to two hundred lashes (Corporal Punishment in the Bible, 84). What's interesting about this research is that the Old Testament law prescribed a significantly lower limit of forty lashes (Deuteronomy 25:1-3). Furthermore, a man could not beat his slave to death without punishment (Exodus 21:20), and revenge was replaced by "eye for an eye" (Leviticus 24:20). Compared to the time, this was downright progressive.

Still, it can't be ignored that by today's standards, the Bible was barbaric. We no longer count lashes, take slaves, or mete out judgment according to the crime. Because if we did, we would also have to follow up the spanking of the proverbs with the stoning of the Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Now, it's true that we are no longer under that law (Galatians 3:25), but the proverbs were. And this still doesn't explain why such a harsh ethic was instituted in the first place if it was not God's final word on the subject.

Consider Jesus' own words: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you... whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also" (Matthew 5:38-39). Paul, too, encourages slaves to remain in their condition but pursue freedom if possible (1 Corinthians 7:21), and he indicates that rebellious children don't reap their own destruction as much as disqualify their parents from service (1 Timothy 3:4).

If all of these things are true, then why did God ever condone stoning children, owning people, or a system of mutilative justice?

Webb explains: "Christians need to recognize that at one level biblical instructions do not always represent an ultimate ethic in their treatment of human beings" (85). God has historically met us where we are and made concessions along the way depending on the culture of the time (e.g. the person of Jesus). This means that the moral code given to Moses was a stopgap between the worldly wisdom of its day and the ultimate ethic that God would later reveal.

Thus, when we come to the book of Proverbs, we find that it was written during a time of ethical concession, not ethical completion.

Within the book, we find a series of comparisons: righteous versus wicked, wise versus foolish, disciplined versus undisciplined. We also find that these comparisons build on each other: righteousness comes through wisdom, which comes through instruction, which comes through the parent faithful in administering it. Thus, the emphasis is on the journey to righteousness, not specific applications. Just like the book is about principles not promises, it's also about contrasts not commands.

Proverbs is not the same book as Deuteronomy. And the spanking proverbs are not drafting moral code as much as making moral comparisons. In fact, "the rod of correction" is never mentioned apart from a word for instruction. It's not comparing the benefits of striking children versus not striking; it's contrasting not disciplining children with disciplining them. Which means that the rod was just an image for discipline common to its time.

The Bible may be neutral on the method of discipline. However, if things as primitive as slavery or "eye for an eye" can be refined, it follows that other things like corporal punishment are not above scrutiny (watch my wife awesomely scrutinize it here).

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