Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Spare the Rod?

One of the adult classes our church is offering this quarter is The Case for Kids, a video-based curriculum on parenting by brothers Paul and Tedd Tripp who respectively authored Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens and Shepherding a Child's Heart. Unlike so many approaches to parenting that concentrate on controlling behavior, the Tripps focus on Christian parents' responsibility to minister to the hearts of our children out of which their behaviors flow. They also highlight how our parenting reveals what, besides God, governs our own hearts on a functional basis. It is, in my estimation, an excellent resource that I enthusiastically recommend.

Knowing that the topic of spanking was on the horizon, the couple leading this class asked me to look over and respond to an article called "Spare the Rod" by Crystal Lutton, author of a book titled Biblical Parenting. This couple told me of a family member who found her argumentation against spanking very persuasive and wanted to get my take on it in preparation for their teaching material that sees spanking as a biblically legitimate aspect of corrective discipline. Pastor Lutton tries to make her case by showing why references in the book of Proverbs to the rod as a means of discipline are not intended as endorsements of spanking.

I spent a number of hours last week studying Mrs. Lutton's article and related material and thought I'd post the fruits of my labor here. My purpose in doing so is not so much to convince anyone of the merits of spanking as to hopefully model some sound methods of biblical interpretation and critical analysis of proposed biblical interpretations. One should never simply accept an argument because the person presenting it has the title of pastor and appears to have some familiarity with the original languages. As I read through the many references to Hebrew words and lists of lexical definitions in Mrs. Lutton's essay, I understood how easily someone with no background in biblical languages could be convinced that her case is solid. Fortunately, however, numerous resources, like concordances and dictionaries (some of which are available online), make it possible for anyone who knows how to use them to evaluate various claims.

So, here's an edited excerpt of the email I sent to the couple who asked for my feedback. Naturally, it will make better sense if you read Pastor Lutton's essay first.

Pastor Lutton gives only three possible meanings for the Hebrew word (shebet) translated as “rod” in English: the large walking staff held by the head of a family, a shepherd’s crook, or a scepter. However, in checking a standard Hebrew lexicon, one finds other definitions such as club, shaft (i.e., a spear or dart), and tribe. Given the wide range of possible meaning, it’s necessary to pay close attention to the context of each usage of the word to determine which meaning is most likely.
Pastor Lutton argues from the fact that Solomon was a king and therefore it is most likely that when he used the word in Proverbs it was a scepter he had in mind. This would make sense if the book was intended only for royalty but that’s not the case. Solomon makes it plain in the introduction to the book (1:4-5) that he has a broader audience in mind than just the son to whom many of the exhortations are addressed. Therefore, since Proverbs was written to a wider audience that consisted of more than royalty, it’s improbable that the rod in the verses he cites is a scepter.
According to Pastor Lutton, the child referred to in Proverbs 23:13 is between 5 and 21. She claims that had the author wished to refer to a child under 5, he would have used another Hebrew word. Unfortunately, she doesn’t indicate what that word is. Regardless, her claim that the Hebrew word na’ar refers to a child of at least 5 years of age is simply not true. The same word is used of Moses when he was an infant in Exodus 2:9: “And Pharaoh's daughter said to [Moses’s sister], ‘Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed him.” Note that the child mentioned was still nursing, in which case, according to Pastor Lutton's position, another Hebrew word used only of nurslings should have been used. Na’ar is used with reference to children clearly under the age of 5 (newborns, even!) in Judges 13:5 (Manoah’s wife is told that she will bear a son; the word is also used in vv. 7, 8, and 12) and 1 Samuel 1:22 (used of Samuel before he was weaned). This is a fact easily enough verified with the use of a concordance.

The word translated as "correction" or "discipline" in Proverbs 23:13-14, according to Pastor Lutton, “carries the connotation of ‘Come let us reason together’ and speaks to verbal correction.” Again, I don’t know how she draws this conclusion from the various ways the word is used in the Old Testament. I believe that the majority of occurrences do refer to verbal reproof (especially in Proverbs), but not all uses fit that restricted meaning. For example, Isaiah says that Judah whispered a prayer to God in her distress when his discipline was upon her (26:16). This is a reference to God’s sending Babylon against the southern kingdom on account of the people’s sin. Obviously, therefore, discipline in this instance takes the form of punishment and not mere instruction or, “Come let us reason together.” Later in Isaiah, in describing the suffering servant, the prophet says “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5). The word translated “chastisement” is the same word and, here again, it is evident that whatever it means, it's more than verbal correction. Other uses of the word where it clearly involves more than reasoning together occur in the following passages: Jeremiah 2:30; 5:3; 30:14 and Hosea 5:2.
The Hebrew word, therefore, can be used of instruction/reasoning as well as of punishment or discipline. Pastor Lutton’s frequent error is that she insists upon a very wooden use of language, demanding that whenever a word is used, it must have one consistent definition. But this is not the way language works. Usage determines meaning.
Among the fallacious arguments Pastor Lutton offers in defense of her position is that of pointing to the penalty for killing one’s slave by beating him or her with a rod (Exodus 21:20) and concluding from it that Proverbs 23:13-14 cannot be referring to actual corporal punishment because “you are still left with the reality that striking someone with your staff can kill them so you cannot take this as a promise of any kind.” This fails to take into consideration a point that virtually all commentators agree upon, namely, that none of the Proverbs are to be taken as absolute promises but are instead maxims or statements of general principle that do not apply absolutely across all cases.
No one I’m aware of who takes the verses in question as references to physical punishment believes that spanking their child will result in their eternal salvation so Lutton’s comment about how we could save lots of money on missions if we could beat people into the kingdom is ludicrous. The reference to saving the child’s soul from death is most likely dealing with preventing premature death by means of foolish behavior. This is, interestingly, one of the definitions she lists for the phrase translated “he shall not die” in v. 13: “to die prematurely (by neglect of wise moral conduct).” So, it is possible (though not certain) that this verse is not stating that the child will not die from the beating but rather will not die as a result of folly left to grow by the lack of discipline. The latter halves of vv. 13 and 14, in this case, would be parallel with each other. Bruce Waltke, a distinguished Old Testament scholar, agrees with this interpretation, writing: “The elaboration of the proverb pair’s outer frame of v. 14b shows that he will not die (see 5:23) signifies that because of the flogging he will not die, not that from the flogging he will not die (i.e., he will survive it)."
Though Lutton refers to spanking as a “modern day practice,” it would seem helpful to investigate the historical and cultural context of ancient Israel to determine what means of child discipline were employed. R. N. Whybray, in his commentary on Proverbs, cites an Egyptian proverb very similar to Proverbs 23:13-14: “Do not spare your son the rod, or you will be unable to save him from wickedness. If I strike you, my son, you will not die, but if I leave you to your own devices you will not live.”
As for Pastor Lutton’s take on Proverbs 22:15, I doubt one could find anyone knowledgeable of the Hebrew language who would agree with her interpretation. In saying that folly is bound up in a child’s heart, the author is asserting that a child’s natural inclination is toward foolishness. Lutton would have us believe that foolishness and sin lie dormant in a child until some later stage of life but this is foreign to the biblical witness. Beyond that, the notion that foolishness is rendered inoperative in a child’s heart is disproven time and time again by anyone with children.


Anonymous said...

That's a great analysis and a well-reasoned rebuttal; very christianly done.

Unknown said...

You are apparently not versed in Hebrew thought nor language. It would be wise to not argue points you do not understand. You can't possibly grasp the concept of Hebrew scriptures when you don't even understand Hebrew culture, language or thinking. Crystal Lutton is a Messianic Rabbi and knows Hebrew scripture and customs. Her breakdown of the scripture is accurate.

KP said...

scoochi, am I to understand you as saying that Crystal Lutton's interpretation is correct simply because she is a Messianic Rabbi? Instead of dismissing my rendering wholesale on the grounds that it opposes that of a Messianic Jew please offer a sound argument and not merely an appeal to authority as though that settles the matter. It doesn't. Thanks.

Scott said...

To understand Lutton's view on corporal punishment, you must first understand her theology in regards to original sin and the total, utter depravity of mankind. She doesn't hold to the the biblical view of original sin (we are all born in original sin). Here is the heart of the issue.

The McCains said...

I've been looking for something like this for a long time. Pastor Lutton's argument is so appealing, because no one really wants to spank. However, I've always thought it so strange that I don't see this interpretation supported by anyone else. And, as one who adheres to a complementarian view, have always been a little uncomfortable that this comes from a woman pastor. I really appreciate having this other analysis to consider and pray over. Thank you.

Melanie said...

I used to follow Crystal Lutton's philosophies and was a member of her website, and Scott's comment is accurate. The community she hosts there is a dangerous one. They believe that anyone who does not follow their philosophies is abusing their child. I am not just talking about those who spank, but anyone who does not follow Lutton's prescribed methods. Lutton is not educated in child development at all as far as I know, and I believe her pastoral congregation is founded solely on her beliefs about parenting. I am using the word loosely, but I find her community to be cult-like.

Unknown said...

To provide a synopsis. The term Shebet is used to describe a variety of sticks and devices. From the sceptre and staff, which are figurative instruments of authority. As well as rods and clubs, which are instruments of corporal punishment.

Do you not think it fair to surmise that both the figurative and literal meanings are intended? I believe the term Shebet is used to describe the holistic application of authority and correction. Even to the inclusion of physical discipline, where wisdom would dictate that it be appropriate. There are times when the "Rod of correction" should include physical discipline and other times when it should not.

Parents might spank their children. But such punishments, when given in an undisciplined fashion, could not be called the Shebet. Because, the word dictates the manner of application, and not just the device itself. When physical discipline is given in an undisciplined fashion (through anger, unfairness or frustration) the results can be worse than not having disciplined the child at all.

Drew said...

Discipline is essential for a fulfilled life. Striking a defenceless child and calling it discipline is a societal illness.