Parenting, spanking

Part 5: Who is “the child” in Proverbs?

He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.
Proverbs 13:24

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;
The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.
Proverbs 22:15

Do not hold back discipline from the child,
although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol
Proverbs 23:13-14

 The rod and reproof give wisdom,
But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.
Proverbs 29:15

That’s it. An entire parenting philosophy that has lasted hundreds of years has stemmed from these four verses from a book of poetry.

To summarize what we have learned thus far in this series:

  1. “Spanking” is not found anywhere in the Word of God, so we are either not obeying these verses correctly or we are not understanding these verses correctly.
  2. The “rod” in these verses is a figurative rod symbolizing authority.
  3. The book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom literature written by a King for his son in order to prepare him to take over the throne and is intended to be read as a collection of wise sayings (not commands) that are generally true (not always true).

Now, we will take a deeper look at the object of this discipline – the “child” – in order to see who was intended to be the receiver of the “rod.”

One of the greatest books that I have read on this subject is Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me by Samuel Martin. (You can read the book for free here!)

Much like in English, Hebrew has nine different words that represent nine different stages of a person’s growth.

If you went to visit a friend who had two sons – a toddler and a teenager – and asked her, “Is your child still in diapers?” She would easily understand that you were referring to her toddler and not her teenager.

Similarly, if you were to say to her, “Your son can move my car from the driveway,” she wouldn’t hand the keys to her toddler.

Likewise, if she were to say, “The toddler can drink juice, but the teenager may have a soda for lunch,” I highly doubt that you would be confused as to which one should drink juice and which one should drink soda.

The reason why we understand these terms easily is because while both of these boys are her children and both of these boys are her sons, the words “toddler” and “teenager” imply totally different stages of growth.

Below is a chart that represents the various terms used in Hebrew to represent the different stages of growth from infancy through adulthood.

Male

Female

Root

Meaning

English

Age

yeled

yaldah

yalad

“To give birth”

newborn

0-1 month

yonek

yanak

“To suck; to nurse”

infant

1-12 months

olel

olal

“To ask bread”

Not yet weaned child that eats solid food

1-3 years

gamul

gamal

“To wean; to complete”

Weaned child

3-4 years

taph

taf

“To cling; to swaddle”

Child close to mother

4-6 years

elem

almah

“To become firm”

Pre-Teen

7-11 years

na’ar

na’arah

“To shake off”

Teenager (unmarried man/woman)

12-18 years

bthulah

“Virgin”

Unmarried woman right before marriage

bachur

bachurah

“Ripened one”

Ready to be married man/woman

ish

isha

Man/Woman

In order to accurately interpret and apply the verses in Proverbs, it is important to understand which stage of development is being referred to in the verses above so we do not end up “giving soda to a toddler.”

Proverbs 13:24 uses the Hebrew word “ben” which is a general term meaning “son.” The other three verses listed above use the more specific Hebrew word, “na’ar” – which as you can see from the chart indicates a young man of the ages 12-18. (The word na’ar is also translated as a “male servant.”) Logic would follow that we would use the most specific term in order to determine who is being referred to in these passages.

So if spanking advocates truly want to hit children “the way the Bible commands,” then according to Scripture, they should not start hitting children with a rod until the child is at least 12 years of age (a legal adult in Jewish culture).

This simple truth utterly destroys the “Biblical” basis for spanking as is done in our “modern” culture which is almost exclusively aimed at children under the age of 12.

Just because I am not the type to “believe whatever you hear or read,” I asked one of my friends who was born and raised in Israel and is now working as a Hebrew teacher at a Jewish school, “What is a na’ar?” I did not provide her any context for the question – just simply wanted to get her instant answer.

She replied, “A na’ar is a boy that is like 17 – not a little boy, but not really mature like a man either.”

Just to be sure, I asked her to clarify, “Is Sophia (my 3 year old daughter) a na’ar?”

To which she laughed and said, “No!”

Again, I asked her, “Is your son (an 8 year old boy) a na’ar?”

And again, she replied, “No. A na’ar is like 15 or 16 or 17. My son is not a na’ar yet.”

If people knew and understood the meaning of this one crucial word in Hebrew as easily as native speakers of Hebrew do, the case for spanking would certainly be closed.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Who is the “child” mentioned in the verses used to advocate for hitting children?
  2. How does understanding the connotations for the Hebrew word na’ar impact our understanding of these verses?
  3. If there is no biblical basis for hitting a child under the age of 12, on what basis are we advocating for hitting our children as a method of discipline and correction?
  4. How are we being influenced by our traditions and our culture more than by the Word of God?
  5. What is the significance that King Solomon wrote these verses to his son in preparation for becoming King?

Another interesting thing to note about these verses is that they make frequent connection between “the rod” and “discipline.”  Let’s explore what Biblical discipline really means.

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