Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me, Part II

My first review of Samuel Martin's book, Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy, was about my impressions of the book and a look at what the book is and is not.  In this continuation, I would like to focus more on the specific content of the book, with an overview of each chapter.

Chapter 1 deals with the Hebrew stages of child development.  There are very specific words used in Hebrew, and although at times the English has been rendered as a very generic "child" or "boy", that does not give an accurate or precise view of what it would convey to readers of Hebrew.  From my own experience with Spanish, this makes perfect sense.  Both "nene" and "joven" might be translated as "boy", but they are not at all interchangeable.  Generally speaking, a "nene" is a toddler, a "joven" is a young man.  In the same way, the Hebrew word "na'ar", which is used in the rod passages of Proverbs, is much more like the Spanish word "joven".  "Na'ar" is used for a young man, generally well over the age of 10, one who is already becoming independent.  It does not refer to a small child or to a girl of any age.  There are Hebrew words for young children, such as "gamul" (a weaned child), "taph" (generally ages 4-6), and  "elem" (pre-adolescence).  Yet instead, the word for a young man is used.  If you want to make the rod passages about corporal punishment, spanking would not begin until adolescence, a time when most spanking advocates suggest that you stop spanking.

Chapter 2 delves into the Jewish attitudes toward the Proverbs passages.  This is interesting, and completely ignored by most Christians.  He cites a number of well-known and respected rabbis, most of whom forbid use of a physical rod on children.  He also shows again the importance of the ages, and quotes from the Talmud to show that "a child under the age of six is not even hit lightly...the teacher tries to reach him through gentle speech."  In older children, if corporal punishment was to be used, it was considered a last resort when all other methods had failed, and even then a number of conditions must be met.  The verses in Proverbs are not viewed as a mandate to spank by Jews.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the context of Proverbs.  Chapter 3 refers to its legal applications. Rather than being written as timeless, cultureless wisdom for the masses, it was written for those who had a thorough understanding of the law of Moses.  Chapter 4 explores the gender focus of Proverbs.  It is a book written by men and to men.  Consider the introduction, Proverbs 1:1-5.  "to the young man (yes, that is "na'ar") knowledge and discretion".  Much of the book of Proverbs concerns warnings about adultery and other adult themes that are relevant to a young man, or "na'ar", but not to a child.  Also, while in other Biblical texts the Hebrew specifically expresses both genders (Joel 3:1), the rod verses only use the masculine form.  The context of the book as a whole simply reinforces the fact that the passages are meant to refer to young men.

Chapters 5 and 6 explore the New Testament passages.  Although the book of Proverbs is cited many times in the New Testament, none of the rod passages are ever referenced, even when parenting is addressed.  Although there are many references to physical punishment, they were nearly always done as legal punishment for crimes.  He also speaks of Jesus driving out the moneychangers, and notes that Jesus was using the whip of cords to drive the sheep and oxen out.  According to the law of Moses, it is illegal for one Jew to strike another outside of the court of justice.

Chapter 7 addresses Proverbs 23:13-14 and the misconception that spanking can save a child from going to Hell.  The word that is sometimes translated as hell simply means the grave.  Furthermore, the word translated as soul is often used to refer to animals, not just humans.  To try and stretch this passage into meaning eternal punishment is simply incorrect.

Chapter 8 deals with another misconception, taught by many spankers such as Dobson and Lessin, about children crying during spankings. Some use Proverbs 19:18 to come up with convoluted teachings about what type of crying is acceptable, and when, and how long.  Once again, it is based on poor translation.  An accurate translation of this passage exhorts the parent to "not set your heart on his [your son's] death/destruction."  This verse could actually be used to encourage gentleness and hope!  The Hebrew word for tears never appears in the book of Proverbs.

Chapter 9 continues looking at some of the fallacies promoted by religious spankers, and focuses on the teaching that spanking is meant for the buttocks.  Proverbs does include passages describing hitting fools (not children) on the back with a rod.  The Hebrew word here is correctly translated--back.  There is another Hebrew word for buttocks, which is used in Isaiah, II Samuel, and many other passages.  Trying to claim that the Bible teaches spanking on the bottom is a deliberate substitution of the spanker's personal preference instead of Scripture.

Chapter 10 examines the theological implications of spanking.  Spanking is a punishment for a crime.  The child has been tried, found guilty and sentenced.  Yet, as Christians, we rejoice that instead of being under the law and subject to its punishments, we have been given grace and forgiveness.  How effectively can we teach our children about grace when we force them to live under punishment?  He shares beautiful writings from Rev. D. L. Moody and Karl Barth, who did not spank their own children, and concludes with encouragement for parents to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit towards their children.

The appendices also contain interesting and useful information, including misunderstandings regarding the harshness of Biblical teachings, the end results of punishment in the Bible, the Biblical standard for engendering righteousness, an examination of the word "shevet" (rod), and more.

The truth is that the Bible does not ever teach that parents should spank children.  The original readers were well aware of that.  It is only through imposing our cultural baggage on imprecise translations that it is been twisted to an English-speaking audience today.  God's Word is Truth.  The responsibility that we have to accurately handle that truth is important.  We are blessed in being able to have the resources to obtain correct translations today, to help us fulfill that responsibility. 

I greatly appreciate Samuel Martin's scholarship and deep love for the Bible.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in this topic to check out his site, www.biblechild.com.  His books are available there, and you can also sign up for his newsletters, which are full of interesting articles.

"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth." ~ II Tim. 2:15


artfulstampin said...

thank you so much for posting this- the Lord blesses me so much through what you write.

dulce de leche said...

Thank you! Your encouragement means so much to me. <3 <3 <3

Claire said...

Thanks for the thorough review, Dulce <3

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for all your postings about spanking and discipline, I just eat them up!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information xxxx