Spare the Rod or Discipline

Proverbs 13:24 speaks of the sparing the rod (Shebet) is equivalent to hating one’s son. It is one of the most talked about verses when speaking of corporal punishment and raising children. The big question is what does this verse mean for today. For that answer, we must look at the usage of the word rod in context.

The etymology of Shebet originally references the scepter of a ruler. The Ruler would use the scepter as a sign of authority, showing that since he held the rod, he had the authority to correct, discipline, and care for his community. It does not mean that the rod was applied as a beating device, but was a symbol to be used appropriately in matters of disciplining the community.

Shebet in Proverbs 13:24 was used in this context to reference an instructor correcting a young man who had made a mistake. This would mean something as simple as quoting something incorrectly and being snapped with a small piece of wood so that he would correct himself. The use of this rod is not specified to be used as discipline for disobedience and rebellion against the teacher, but as a general indicator that a mistake was made and needs to be corrected, much like a shepherd taps sheep to correct their path.

Proverbs 10:13 is another verse with the word, but states that a rod is to be applied to the fool’s back (cf. 14:3). It uses the same word Shebet. The Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) states the classroom usage was used multiple times, and in the same way used above. Is this metaphor or literal? If we interpret 13:24 as literal, should we interpret this verse as literal too? If we use a literal lens on one specific verse of Proverbs, it would make sense that we apply it to all uses unless something directs our thinking in the direction of a metaphor. Good exegesis would also say that we must not use modern culture’s understanding of corporal punishment as a way to interpret the use of the word rod, but the usage most likely used at the time of the writing, which in this case would be historic Israel from King David’s reign to the acceptance of the Hebrew canon by the Jewish people (1,000 B.C. -90 A.D.)*

The interpretive problem is the question “Is the focus on a type of discipline or discipline itself?” If the type of discipline is key, then it follows that people who are God followers are able to use corporal punishment in general. This would mean that if a child starts acting up, we are able to strike him in order to correct him. It also means that if someone leaves his cell phone on in the church, we can correct him in the same manner. However, if discipline itself is the key, the goal is to reach a certain conviction in the heart and mind of the one receiving the discipline. The former model can be a type of legalismlatter is redemption oriented. As Christians, we are focused on redemption, which means that discipline is the focus and not a type of discipline.

We can see this fact by looking at Hebrews 12:9-10 and asking “What is the nature of Discipline?” Discipline here is any act of inconvenience and possibly suffering that can potentially result in being sanctified. Note here that the kind of discipline applied is not mentioned directly, but discipline itself is mentioned. Also, as with any act of God, the discipline is mysterious. No one can truly say how much of the inconvenience is God’s actions and how much is human actions. We can say at some level, God is somehow initiating an act of discipline in order to bring us back to him, whatever that discipline may be.

In order to be a Christian, we must focus on the discipline and correction while not being wrapped up in a type of discipline. There is no magic formula to change your child’s heart. All we can do is correct in love and pray that God will transform them into people after God’s own heart.

* The writings may span to before the time of David, but for our purposes, we focus on the time when the oral tradition of the Old Testament was most common and the time it was solidified in writing.