Spanking Children: The Bible Tells Me So?

The indictment of NFL player Adrian Peterson by a Texas grand jury for reckless or negligent injury to a child has generated an extensive discussion in the media on the topic of disciplining children by “spanking,” or corporeal punishment, as commonly practiced in our society. Recent polls indicate that up to 70% of Americans, both Black and White, approve of some form of corporeal punishment of children–with Evangelical Christians coming in at over 85%. 19 States in the USA allow some form of “paddling” in public schools, see a listing here–with Texas leading the pack, having recorded a total of 49,000 incidents in a recent report–and a new kind of “red State” map here.

Max Ernst Virgin Spanking

Max Ernst, Virgin Spanking the Christ Child with three Witnesses 1926

The Peterson case is, of course, extreme–but not necessarily uncommon. He used a “switch,” a slim, leafless tree branch, to beat his 4-year-old son, raising welts on the youngster’s legs, buttocks and scrotum, but millions of Americans–by far the majority of the over-40 generations–can testify to being “spanked,” or in some cases “beaten,” with belts, switches, cords, and other objects that left their markings on legs and buttocks.

Spanking in one form or another is as American as apple pie–and the practice is deeply rooted in, and most often defended by, a reading of traditional translations of the English Bible. The oft-quoted quip “Spare the rod and spoil the child” never appears in the Bible but in the book of Proverbs one finds a string of passages that seem not only to condone spanking, but also direly warn parents that unless they use the “rod” on their children they will utterly fail in their upbringing. Here are the quotations in the traditional King James Version translation:

Prov 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him often.” Prov 19:18: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.” Prov 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” Prov 23:13-14: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell (i.e. death).” Prov 29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”

These six verses in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, as well as a single passage in the New Testament, that speaks of God’s disciplining of us as a father disciplines his son (Hebrew 12:6-7), have become the flimsy foundation for justifying a world of harm and abuse to children over our 300 year cultural history–often with lifelong detrimental consequences, see for example here. Sincere parents, who love their children, but are stuck with a literal reading of badly translated verses taken out of context, are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing.

On the one hand we have testimonials from the majority of us who were “spanked” or disciplined with corporeal punishment growing up, with seemingly no psychological damage, and on the other hand Christian Evangelical preachers and teachers regularly assure parents that spanking will not harm a child, it is positively commanded by God! This Christian reinforcement of “spanking,” based on a misreading of these verses of the Bible, is undoubtedly what continues to convince parents of the younger generations, who might have more of a cultural aversion to such practices, that they are carrying out God’s will. Here are the cautious instructions on the popular the Focus on the Family web site:

When you spank, use a wooden spoon or some other appropri­ately sized paddle and flick your wrist. That’s all the force you need. It ought to hurt — an especially difficult goal for mothers to accept —  and it’s okay if it produces a few tears and sniffles. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t really discipline, and ultimately it isn’t very loving because it will not be effective in modifying the child’s behavior. Have the child lean over his bed and make sure you apply the discipline with a quick flick of the wrist to the fatty tissue of the buttocks, where a sting can occur without doing any damage to the body. You want to be calm, in control, and focused as you firmly spank your child, being very careful to respect his body.

spanking_1-620x320Presumably this “calm” and “loving” beating of a child is to be administered to the naked buttocks of a child–which surely raises some other issues in terms of shame, dignity, and personal respect. Accordingly parents are told that such a practice should not be carried into the pre-teen-aged years!

The fact is these very verses in Proverbs have not only been poorly translated but they have been irresponsibly read out of their historical context and misapplied. For example, the word translated “rod,” that might have inspired an Adrian Peterson, or perhaps my grandmother, to go outside and “cut a switch” off a tree in the backyard, is used by King David in an entirely different way in Psalm 23–The LORD is my Shepherd–where we have the line: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” (v. 4). The Hebrew word translated “rod” (Shevet) clearly does not have to refer to physical beating but can be a metaphor for general discipline and “leading,” as with sheep and a shepherd. It is also the word that refers to a tribal leader–who carries a staff or sceptre of leadership–not to beat his fellow clan members, but to lead and direct them. It is used over 180 times in the Hebrew Bible–never with the connotation of beating. These and other verses, as well as the overall teaching about disciplining children in the Bible is ably discussed by Jerusalem-based Christian biblical scholar Samuel Martin, who has produced a wonderful book, Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Spanking Controversy, available as a free PDF download here with no cost or obligation. Martin has been joined by a significant number of other informed Christian scholars and commentators who are questioning the both the traditional translation and interpretation of these overly quoted verses from the book of Proverbs, see for example, here. I recommend Martin’s work for those biblically oriented folk out there who have wondered about what the Bible really says regarding using corporeal punishment of any kind to discipline children–or for that matter anyone who wants to be more informed on this controversial topic.

Rosh Hashanah: The Day of the Blast

Ever since I first began studying Judaism seriously as a young man, I have felt that there is something not quite right about Rosh Hashanah. In particular, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the holiday described in the Torah and the holiday as understood by most Jews. I had been taught that Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, the anniversary of the creation of the world, and a day of judgment. But the Torah itself mentions none of those three reasons for celebrating the holiday—and does not even call it Rosh Hashanah. Still more perplexing, in contrast to the other seasonal holidays on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah seems to commemorate no important moment in the national history of the Jewish people. Rabbi Nathan Laufer

Today on the Jewish calendar is the holiday called Rosh Hashanah–literally “the head of the year.” Jews wish one another “a sweet, peaceful, and prosperous” New Year and even the non-Jewish world has caught onto the day as the “Jewish New Year.”

ShofarWeb.jpg

In contrast Christians (and thus our “secular culture”) begin the New Year in the dead of winter–as the long dark winter days finally grow longer (marked by December 21st and the Winter Solstice). Ancient Hebrews, as reflected in Exodus 12:1-2, reflecting the ancient Babylonian practice, began the year in the Spring (March/April), which was the “turning of the year,” with the arrival of new life in the Spring (marked by March 20th and the Vernal Equinox). Of course these seasons only make sense in the Northern Hemisphere.

So what is the meaning of Rosh Hashanah? Rabbi Nathan Laufer has a very perceptive piece on the subject titled “Remembrance of Trumpets Past,” in Mosaic on-line magazine, exploring its potential meaning in our oldest texts of the Torah, where this day is called both the “day of the blast,” most likely referring to the sound of the Shofar or ram’s horn, as well as a “a day of remembrance”–but the question is–remembering what? You can read his complete in-depth treatment here. I highly recommend it. It is the most intelligent piece I think I have ever come across on Rosh Hashanah. 

Imagining the Shores of Magdala

This wonderful painting of the shores of Migdal or Magdala, home of Mary “the Magdalene,” was painted by my friend Daniela Ciubuc who traveled to Israel with us last year and gave it to us as a gift. I absolutely love it. The infamous Cliffs of Arbel, mentioned by Josephus, where opponents of Herod the Great hurled themselves to their deaths rather than surrender are shadows in the distance at sunset (Jewish War 1.315). Just to the north is Ginosar/Ginnesaret, with Capernaum a bit further up. I find it easy to imagine Jesus, once he moved his mother and brothers to Capernaum, spending meditative time on these shores. The effect of the lake either early morning or at sunset is captivating. And if he did form a bond with Mary Magdalene, as some of our sources indicate (see The Jesus Discovery, chapter 5 titled “Jesus and Mary Magdalene”), it is easy to imagine them also together on these shores.

Magdala

This little cove area seems to fit the “shore” of the Sea of Galilee described so vividly in the appendix to the Gospel of John, chapter 21. Peter and his companions had gone back to their fishing in Galilee–just as the Gospel of Peter records–still weeping and mourning over Jesus’ death, when they have experiences of Jesus that convince them that Jesus was nonetheless “alive.” See my exposition here that attempts to put all the sources together, “When Apostles and Angels Wept.”

Jesus Son of Mary…

Did you know that Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is never mentioned in the gospel of Mark? Since Mark is our earliest gospel that seems all the more striking. Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus whatsoever, much less any story of the virgin birth. When Jesus is identified in Mark by paternity he is called “the son of Mary,” (Mark 6:3).

stjoseph

We all tend to read our New Testament Gospels “backwards,” meaning many of us have years and years of “stories” in our heads about Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the Disciples, and so on, but with no sense of where any of them came from in terms of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. Just imagine if Mark was ALL we had with no father even mentioned much less named for Jesus, with Jesus being called “son of Mary” in the only text that identifies him in terms of his family. What a difference that would make. Everyone tends to just “fill in” the name “Joseph” wherever it is missing. There is clearly more to this phrase–son of Mary– in Mark than immediately meets the eye.

Given Jewish culture, then and now, in which children are referred to as “X son of X,” naming the father, this is all the more jarring. I remember for years in flying into Israel we would have to fill out the visitors visa form on the flight as it landed. Under name one had to give “father’s first name.”  So even as a non-Jew I became, legally speaking, “Jimmy Dan Tabor son of Elgie,” my birth name and my father’s first name! I remember reading the trial brief for Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary who was accused and subsequently acquitted of forgery charges, the only Israeli trial brief I have ever read, and he was referred to as Oded Golan, son of his father–with his father’s first name given. I am convinced that the complete absence of Joseph from Mark’s record, plus the reference to “the carpenter, the son of Mary,” is a subtle admission by Mark, that Joseph was not the father of Jesus and at least by the time Jesus was an adult, he had likely died.

Interestingly, when Matthew does his “rewrite” of Mark, his main narrative source, he changes Mark’s reference to the “son of Mary” significantly to read: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). And of course Matthew is our earliest source for the “virgin birth” of Jesus, in which it is asserted that Jesus had no human father.

What we do know with any certainty about the paternity of Jesus is precious little with lots of blank spaces to fill in. If Joseph was the father of Jesus we would surely expect Mark say so in this critical passage set in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. For more on what we know, don’t know, and might responsibly determine see my series of posts here on the “Unnamed Father of Jesus.”

Hand Made Baroque String Instruments from Vienna

If any of my blog readers have any interest in a hand-crafted Baroque stringed instrument–violin, viola, or cello, my son, Nathan Tabor, who lives in Vienna is one of the best among Luthiers with years of experience and a 100% customer satisfaction rating. He tailors what he makes to the customer and his prices are incredibly reasonable. I love this recent photo of him hard at his craft on which he often spends 12-14 hours a day. Take a look at the web site and if you are interested you can shoot him an e-mail…tell him “James” sent you. http://taborviolas.co.uk

NateVienna