Some groups of Christians use the scriptures to oppose Sue Bradford’s bill which seeks to repeal Section 59 of the Crimes Act. The waters have been further muddied by the media’s tying of the name ‘anti-smacking’ to it.
What does the bible really say, and how is a Christian to both understand and interpret it? Proverbs 13:24 is the text most invoked: Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.The phrase ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is often incorrectly attributed to the Christian bible. It does not appear there. It was first written in a poem by Samuel Butler in 1664.
The footnote to the NRSV goes on to say that ‘the sages oppose cruelty even against animals, but take physical punishment for granted as a necessary means of discipline.’ In 22:15 we have Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy, but the rod of discipline drives it far away.Proverbs 23:13-14 follows similar lines: Do not withhold discipline from your children; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol.26:3 continues in the same vein: A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.
The wider moral context
Unless we see the purpose of such texts, we remain locked in a mindset that continues to act without understanding the purposes of God hidden in such texts. Human actions and language, whether just or unjust, wise or foolish, have a direct impact not only on the perpetrator but also on the created order and social structure.
The righteous people create and extend cosmic, social, and individual order, whereas the wicked subvert order in creation, society, and individual life. Obviously then such proverbs as quoted can only refer to reasoning beings who can contribute to the good or ill of society in a morally responsible or irresponsible manner. Quite clearly, small children are in no position to be covered by these strictures, meant for reasoning and morally responsible adults, which in the Jewish world referred to 12-year-olds who were legally bound to observe any vows taken at that age.
For good or ill
Furthermore, in a society that was strongly influenced by the theory of retribution that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, consequences follow behaviour. Divine control of retribution as the means of rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked resides at the heart of this theology.
The theory of retribution should be familiar to us through the New Testament where the disciples ask Jesus, ‘Who sinned, this (blind) man or his parents?’ (John 9). Or those whom the Tower of Siloam fell on and killed, or those whose blood was shed by Pilate’ (Luke 13:1-5). The reaction of Jesus is always to negate such a way of thinking.
Those who would play the role of God in reward or punishment in the name of God would do well to remember the woman taken in adultery (John 8) and the challenge to be without sin before striking the first lash, or was it to throw the first stone? If we are so keen to take up the rod, are we just as keen on Jesus’ words, ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away’? [Mt 5:29, 30]. The difficult task of using a rod after taking a literal approach to that text presents an interesting spectacle!
Of course, those were the days when you might be put to death for striking a parent, so we are obviously meant to take the bible’s advice as affirming serious responsibility rather than a literal observance.
The way of the wise and the way of the wicked
One could emphasise the practices of the righteous wise; they are found in contrast to those of the wicked fool. Chapter 11 of Proverbs lists both of them.
But if you find your children using false balances in business, practising treachery that will bring down the nation, destructive speech that undermines the integrity of your neighbours, lending money at interest that leads to the crippling of another family, perhaps the awareness might come that the texts refer to the irresponsible adult rather than the child! But adults are protected by law and beating them would not be allowed to happen.
So where does this leave us with regard to interpreting these texts? We need to go to other works in scripture: Deuteronomy, and the Prophets. Deuteronomy 8:5 speaks to the children of Israel, Know that in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.
A direct command is made in 4:9 with regard to the commands and work of God in history: But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget these things that your eyes have see nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.
The consequences of failing in this vital area of handing on the truth of God’s love and care for Israel are well caught in Hosea’s complaint in 3:6 – My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
When Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord in 2:30, In vain have I struck down your children; they accept no correction,can anyone possibly interpret the text as referring to other than irresponsible adults who have failed to uphold the word of God and teach it in its entirety to their children? However, every child needs to learn right from wrong, and it this principle that is insisted on in the scriptures.
The positive note
‘A child is one of the most lovable and beautiful things on earth, ‘the flower and adornment of the human race’ (St. Macarius). A child is a field God has given you to cultivate, a tender sprout, a weak plant who will one day become a great tree loaded with the fruit of all the virtues, casting far and wide its glorious shade. In a word, a child is the whole human race, all of humanity; a child is humankind, no more, no less. A child is entitled to respect, and must show respect to others’ (St Marcellin Champagnat). Given such a high estimate of this ‘weak plant’, is it any wonder that, of the Jesus who took the little children in his arms, it could be said: He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick(Matt 12:20).
Interestingly enough, Ps 23 presents a rod in the caring mode of a shepherd’s crook. Ancient shepherds used this handy tool to reach over the flock and prod a wayward sheep back onto the path, to move brush and other obstacles out of the herd’s way, and, in extreme cases, to grab an animal by the neck or leg and tug it out of danger.
The prophets were saying that a parent should guide a child onto the straight path, clear away obstacles, and keep them from danger with the same loving vigilance a shepherd brings to the care of the flock. The crook was never used to beat the sheep!
At one level of interpretation, then, the real meaning of those passages in Proverbs would be the opposite to their apparent literal interpretation. The verses on the shepherd’s rod actually call on parents to abandon methods of child discipline which involve the inflicting of pain. Others feel that the author(s) of Proverbs did recommend that parents beat their children into submission with a rod.
They argue that these passages are merely a reflection of a very violent society which practised human slavery, stoned non-virgin brides to death, tortured prisoners, committed genocide, and acted in other ways which are considered profoundly immoral by today’s religious and secular standards . All of the latter practices have long since been abandoned. Thus we should reject the infliction of pain as a child-rearing tool as well. The bible is not a tool with which to justify the beating of children, but a call to fulfil a solemn and binding duty, to ensure the handing on of the way and truth that leads to a fullness of life through the One who stated he was the way, the truth, and the life.