Response to a scripture-quoting defender of spanking
By Randy Cox, April 2004

It looks like you have put your money on Proverbs. Popular opinion is that Solomon was the author. Even if his chroniclers penned them for him, he is often given the credit. Solomon was an idolater and a polygamist. He was not even one of the minor prophets. His children were not good examples of the promise of his parental style. So, if Solomon is the author of Proverbs, he makes himself the example of what not to do to guide and inspire good children.

I think that Proverbs is essentially folk wisdom... a hodgepodge of sayings common among several peoples of the ancient Middle East. You probably know that Proverbs belongs to a category of regional writing known as wisdom literature; what was wise according to human beings; a collection of conclusions drawn from centuries of anecdotes and presumed to be logical, practical and reliable. These ideas were the wisdom of the times... the common sense of the period, not unlike the folk wisdom published in farmers' almanacs since the beginnings of our country.

Proverbs is a departure from the theme of other books of the Hebrew Bible, such as the covenant and the central theological notion binding God with the people and the land. So, it addresses common concerns. It considers what intrapersonal experiences mean to the maintenance of ordered relationships, successful communities and a prosperous nation. Similar to Buddhist and other spiritual guides, Proverbs is a compilation of prescriptions that were trusted in ancient times to lead to right action.

Contrasted with other wisdom books, Proverbs depicts reward for the righteous, who do not suffer. Of course, that is not what is depicted in Job. And then Ecclesiastes questions the very value of human wisdom. The wisdom books do not revolve around one idea of wisdom. However, like other ancient Near Eastern thought, there is the common theme of pattern and repetition. The collection in Proverbs, often incorporating verses of no more than two lines (chapters 10-29), suggests that moral life mirrors the regularity of nature; the "natural" order. Revealed there is the concept of inevitability; good behavior will result in reward, as does good farming practice, for example. But, in Job, reward is not inevitably the consequence of right action and suffering is not always deserved, as in Proverbs. There are more ways than one to look at life and the Bible illuminates that fact. There is no reason to place Proverbs above any one of the other, so-called wisdom books.

Contrasted with the first five books of the Bible (the Books of Moses), where there is the insistence on the significance of revealed law, Proverbs is antagonistic in the way that its authors suggest that there is no need for divine revelation. Proverbs promises that attending to the wisdom of the past and applying rational thinking will guide us to know what to do and what not to do. Because of this great virtue, wisdom, we only need to listen to our minds, according to Proverbs.

And attributing authorship to Solomon is not historically accurate. It simply reflects the ancient practice of enhancing literature by connecting it to figures that are central in tradition; linking ancient writings with the appropriate inspired well-known figure was to confirm the divine inspiration and the authority of those writings. It seems inconsistent, however, to laud an idolater, a polygamist, a tyrant and a failed parent in such a way. Bible scholars say that a more reliable way of dating the verses is to consider linguistic and other internal evidence. Doing so, they say, reveals that the language and content of Proverbs are inconsistent with Solomon's time. So Proverbs is a collection of sayings by men and women (most of them unnamed) who were considered wise for their time and who represented all strata and various periods of ancient history.

Proverbs and the other "wisdom books" should not be read outside the context of a multicultural Near Eastern wisdom tradition, which produced books very similar in character and content in Egypt and Mesopotamia, over four thousand years ago. The Egyptian wisdom book, "Instruction of Amenemope", is considered the probable source of much of Proverbs.

But we have our own timely wisdom, the product of a more modern yet similarly agrarian society. If we are to do as the authors of Proverbs suggested, then we attend to the wisdom of the past and apply rational thinking to guide us to know what to do and what not to do. Of course, we actually have one thing better than the ancient Israelites: scientific, research-based knowledge. So, we have what we consider to be practical and we have the empirical. It is impractical today to limit ourselves to outdated, sometimes barbaric thoughts and ideas from our remote past and to withhold from our guides for day-to-day living the knowledge of our own time. For example, science has been unable to demonstrate that hitting children in the name of discipline is efficacious or more effective than several positive alternatives. Downright unsafe for some, childhood spanking at any frequency or intensity has been associated with several negative outcomes.

Now, just for fun, lets consider some of our own rural wisdom and compare it with the wisdom of the ancient peoples of the Near East:

Hitting and hurting a child on purpose can not maintain or enhance his or her trust that it is safe to be in your presence. It is a betrayal of trust. Punishing a child's body demeans and rejects her body, his essence... the self. It is too easy for a child to conclude that HE or SHE is bad when the parent's duty is to show that it is the behavior that we find unacceptable and inefficient for right living. The behavior is what we want to discourage, not the child. Hitting a child can not encourage the desired behavior. Only showing the right behavior and describing it, over and over if necessary, can do that. But showing a child that "might makes right" or that brute force is legitimate treatment of our fellows risks rearing a bully or a person too willing to assume the victim's role in future relationships. On average, children who are not spanked are less likely to "turn out" badly than are the children who are spanked. The odds are just against the practice.

People use the Bible selectively. They must. Deuteronomy would have us take a son to the city limits of our community and stone him to death for being disrespectful to his father. We don't do that and we don't practice the killing of unfaithful wives or the infants of our nation's enemies. But the Bible has been used by some to support slavery (Genesis 17:13 and Ephesians 6:5), the suppression of females (I Corinthians 14:34, Ephesians 5:22), incest (Genesis 19:30-36), and infanticide (Psalm 137:9).

The Hebrew words sometimes translated to "rod" meant various things, not all of them even tangible, much less a people-beating instrument of control and vengeance. But the Bible verses have been selected and used to defend what is essentially secular behavior. The vast majority of parents in our country, whether they read Proverbs or not, have hit their children. We have little that is good and too much that is bad to show for it.

People hit their children because it's permitted. Almost any reason will do, but some people like to pretend that they do something inspired by God. Only in our country is Proverbs used by Christian sects to support the hitting of children. But there just isn't sufficient reason to treat children the way a handful of lines in an ancient almanac seem to some to prescribe. There is sufficient reason, both moral and scientific, to avoid hurting children on purpose.

Randy Cox, LCSW
The No Spanking Page:
Corporal Punishment in Arkansas Public Schools:
P. O. Box 17733
Little Rock, Arkansas, 72222 USA


The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, Jewish Publication Society, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004.

Rural Wisdom: Time-Honored Values of the Midwest, by Jerry Apps, Amherst Press, Amerst, Wisconsin, 1997

Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal punishment in American families, Murray A. Straus (1994a). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Lexington.

You might be interested to read A Study of "The Rod" Scriptures at:

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