When I begin a workshop on the Bible with an “Is It in the Bible?” quiz, the only entry for which I receive push-back is “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Invariably, at least one participant searches and fails to find the verse. Then when I explain that it is from the 17th century satirical poem, “Hudibras”, and has nothing to do with children, they challenge me with texts in Proverbs to support corporal punishment of children. The commitment to corporal punishment seems so sacred to some folks that I wonder if I’d encounter less resistance were I to suggest that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. But the book of Proverbs is about instruction of young adult males and therefore the practice of supporting corporal punishment of children through recourse to its texts is completely invalid.
Hebrew has more than nine different words to describe stages of the human life cycle from birth to old age. The book of Proverbs is directed to na′ar (1:4), the Hebrew word for a young adult male (1:4). Unfortunately, many translations use “youth” here, misrepresenting the focus of the book. Of the six Hebrew words for children only two—gamul (a weaned male child) and elem (a pre-adolescent male)—appear at all in Proverbs, and none appear in texts commonly used to support corporal punishment. All texts that refer to striking or using the rod have na′ar (young adult male), kesilem (fools), bahar (young warrior), or ben (generic for son, but always preceded by na′ar). English versions of these verses often read child, children, boy or yout— poor translations with terrible consequences for children.
The outstanding question of how to interpret texts that refer to striking or the rod in relationship to young men is beyond the scope of this discussion; however, 2 items of note are in order: Proverbs is poetry, a genre that uses imagery to communicate concepts; and the Hebrew, beto, is most commonly used in reference to the work of a shepherd as in “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” It is also often translated as tribe or clan.
April is “Prevention of Child Abuse Month,” an ideal time to teach some of what the Bible does say about children such as:
- Children are created in God’s image (Gen 1:27).
- Children belong first to God (Gen 30:20; Ps 127:3).
- Children participated in the covenant with God (Ezr 10) and were encouraged to engage in theological deliberations (Ex 12-13; Jos 4:5-7).
- Children are ordained to praise God (Ps 8:2).
- Children are innocent victims of adult choices, so God has special concern for them (Jer 19:4-5; Lam. 2:11-12; Mt 2:6-18).
- God entered the world as a child (Lk 1:16-56 and 2:1-12; Mt 1:18-25).
- Jesus’ first act after the glory of the transfiguration was to heal a child (Mt 17:14-18; Mk 9:15-29; and Lk 9:37-43a).
- Children model greatness (Mt 18: 1-5; Mk 9:33-37; and Lk 9:46–48).
- When we welcome a child, we welcome Jesus and the One who sent him (Mt 18:2-5; Mk 9:33-37; Lk 9:46-48).
- Children exemplify and belong to the kingdom of God (Mt 19:13-15; Mk 10:13-16; Lk 18:15-17).
- Jesus was recognized and proclaimed by children as the Son of David (Mt 21:15-17).
- A child provided the means for Jesus to reveal his divinity when adults, including his inner circle, failed to do so. (Jn 6:1-15).
Rev. Cassandra Carkuff Williams, EdD, serves as National Director, Discipleship Ministries, with ABHMS. “Gracious Parenting,” #603 from ABHMS’ Workshops for Church Life and Leadership is a free, downloadable workshop for parents and other primary caregivers.
Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash