Updated: Sep 20, 2020
The well-known phrase, which is reflected in the title of this article, is often used to “biblically” justify physical punishment or spankings of children, especially those that are harsh and done in anger. For many, this has included spankings with a switch, paddle, or other representative of the “rod.” However, this exact phrase is not directly biblical, and the associated imagery from the verse, to which the phrase is attributed, does not affirm physical discipline. As a general rule, people who believe this statement is from the Bible will point to Proverbs 13:24. Yet, careful reading of this verse communicates a different meaning.
The King James Version translates this passage as follows: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” The NIV, which is a more modern translation, states: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” The Amplified, which seeks to give the “richness of the Hebrew and Greek languages” (Preface) reads: “He who spares his rod [of discipline] hates his son, and he who loves him disciplines diligently and punishes him early.” Even when one looks at the verse in the original Hebrew, there is not a word in the verse that can be translated “spoils.” The verse does not say anything about a child’s reaction to discipline or the lack of it. It is all about discipline being a requirement for love.
So, what does the rod actually represent? During biblical times, shepherds generally carried two tools with them: a rod and a staff. In fact, these tools are highlighted in the 23rd Psalm: “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” How would one get comfort from a rod or staff that is used to hit that individual? The rod was actually a club, which was about four feet in length, and the shepherds used them to defeat wild animals that attacked the sheep or people who were trying to steal a sheep. Jesse, David’s father, asked him to leave his flock of sheep to carry some grain and bread to David’s brothers who were fighting the Philistines. When David told Saul that he would fight Goliath, he referenced two animals, a lion and a bear, that he caught attacking a sheep. David indicated that he chased down the lion and the bear and “struck it” (1 Samuel 17:35). It appears he used a rod to do just that. The staff is a long stick. Shepherds would put the end in water. Over a period of days, the water would make the stick bendable, thereby allowing the shepherd to gradually bend it into the shepherd’s crook. It is used to hold the sheep for sheering, or to guide them in the direction that the shepherd desires. If a sheep started to go in the wrong direction, the shepherd could put the crook around the sheep’s neck and guide it back into the flock. It would also allow a shepherd to pull an animal out of a thicket or recover it from a fall over the side of a hill.
If you spend any time with children or teens, take a moment to think about your interactions with them. Rarely do we need to defend a child from an attacking bear or lion. Yet, the dangers of our hypersexual, drug-infested, and overly permissive society are everywhere. How are you using your proverbial rod to defend children and teens from the dangers in our world? Do you use your proverbial shepherd’s crook to guide them back in the way that they should go?
The purpose of this article is not to open a debate about ways parents punish their offspring. It is to indicate that Proverbs 13:24 should not be used as proof that spankings are the required first step to “train[ing] a child in the way he or she should go.” As a parent, or a person in a different role that has disciplinary responsibility with a child, remember that your first responsibilities must be to lovingly protect and guide. Use your own creativity to explore ways to accomplish these goals without making a physical assault your first choice. Truthfully, the first known expression of the phrase, “spare the rod and spoil the child” occurred in 1662 when Samuel Butler included it as part of his satirical poem about the English civil war. The Word of God actually states to carefully discipline or guide your children as an act of love.