“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” is an aphorism commonly used to support the practice of physical discipline towards children. At one time, this may have been done with a literal rod. Today, it would more accurately be carried out through spanking by hand or using a paddle of sorts.
The reason behind such a practice is that one wouldn’t want to “spoil” the child, so to speak. Which also holds a different connotation than it used to. What we know as “overindulging,” in this sense, means to impair or destroy.
It appears this quote implies that not hitting your children would certainly ruin them. But is this concept one Christians should hold to? If so, where in the Bible is this controversial verse found? And does it really mean what we think it means?
Origins of the Phrase
Contrary to popular belief, the phrase, “spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t found in Scripture. It’s a quote penned by Englishman Samuel Butler back in the 1660s. It was in his poem, “Hudibras,” that was originally produced in response to the local Puritan faith, something he spoke against often… this time in blatant mockery and satire.
Somehow, this particular quote stuck. And while the saying itself isn’t biblical, it doesn't necessarily contradict what the Bible says, either. This is because there are three Hebrew proverbs that do speak to parents not “sparing the rod.” It’s the “spoil the child” that Butler added for his own purposes.
What the Bible Says about ‘Sparing the Rod’
It’s likely that Butler was loosely referencing the book of Proverbs, even if only to mock them.
Whoever spares the rod hates their children (Proverbs 13:24a).
If you punish (children) with the rod, they will not die (Proverbs 23:13b).
A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom (Proverbs 29:15a).
For some Christians, these are verses that have become “proof-text” for their own use and support of corporal punishment. For others, they are reason enough to dismiss the Bible’s teaching, altogether. However, these are only partial verses and we’d do a great disservice to their application by ignoring the context as we make the assumption, sparing the rod, spoils the child.
When Given a Verse, Take a Chapter
As with any verse, we need to consider the original context, along with how it fits into the greater biblical picture. One way to do this: By taking the chapter whenever given a verse. Reading the surrounding paragraphs, or in this case even the second half of the sentences, one can gain a better perspective.
One should also note the unique design of Proverbs, in general. Scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain in their book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, that the Hebrew Proverbs were poetic in nature, written in such a way to stimulate mental pictures, while including sounds that are pleasing to the ear. These nuances get lost in translation, making it hard to recognize them as worded to be memorable or catchy, while not necessarily meant to be literal or absolute.
With this in mind, we can look back to the complete verses that reference using a rod on children:
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them (Proverbs 13:24).
Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die (Proverbs 23:13).
A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother (Proverbs 29:15).
There are three repeated themes here, we can now define through the lens of Scripture. This will help us understand the original message — both implied by the author and received by the audience, because these verses can never mean to us what they never meant to them.
Using the Bible to Understand Parenting
Scripture often interprets Scripture, and according to Scripture, the role of any godly parent is to:
We can see here a much broader aspect to parenting at work alongside the suggestion of physical discipline. The bigger picture highlights a more prevalent call, that of discipleship and character.
Using the Bible to Understand Discipline
There’s a connection here, we don’t want to miss. Our word “discipline” is indeed a derivative of the word “disciple.” A correlation made apparent all throughout the Bible and one that the original authors and audience of these proverbs would have recognized.
By looking at the original language, we even see that the Hebrew word translated to “discipline,” is the very same word that is translated into “instruction,” elsewhere. The root word being “mū·sar,” and by observing how it’s used throughout the Bible, we begin to see a controlled range of application. It swings from teaching, training, and modeling (discipleship), to verbal correction and even consequence (discipline).
Most notably, “mū·sar” is a noun used, outside of the proverbs, to reference God’s instruction and discipline. Which makes sense, because according to biblical culture and belief, both instruction and discipline were expected to come through the father; in the family setting, by the actual father (to which the Proverbs are addressing,) and in the broader sense of God’s family, through God as Father (to which the biblical narrative addresses.) In both instances, and in both uses of the word, this was done primarily as orally, audibly, and visibly, well before physically.
Notice all the warnings and commands on the importance of verbal instruction and active listening in Proverbs chapter 13, alone. By “taking the chapter” we find:
A wise son heeds his father’s instruction* but a mocker does not respond to rebukes (Proverbs 13:1).
Wisdom is found in those who take advice (Proverbs 13:10).
Whoever scorns instruction* will pay for it, but whoever respects a command is rewarded (Proverbs 13:13).
The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death (Proverbs 13:14).
A wicked messenger falls into trouble (Proverbs 13:17).
Whoever disregards discipline* comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored (Proverbs 13:18).
The one who loves their children is careful to discipline* them (Proverbs 13:24).
And again, in chapter 29, where the third reference is made to use a rod upon the child, Proverbs 29:1 repeats, “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing (Proverbs 29:1, ESV).
When we understand the intent and purpose of these Proverbs, we can recognize each would have been easy to remember and fun to say, even part of the teaching parents would pass along to their children.
If anything, there is more to be said in these chapters about the discipleship of children (from the parent’s perspective) and the importance of obedience (from the child’s perspective).
Using the Bible to Understand the Rod
According to the language used, a rod can represent many different things. A tool for discipline (Proverbs 22:15; Exodus 20:21), for herding sheep (Leviticus 27:32), for cultivating herbs (Isaiah 28:27), but also when referencing the tribes of Israel (Psalm 74:2), and/or when used as a symbol of authority (Judges 5:14).
As a nomadic people, the Hebrew rod would most commonly have been seen as the tool held and used for everything from guidance (of flocks or families), to protecting or even clearing the way.
It held a symbol of authority to it, and yes, could also be used as a weapon or tool for discipline.
This would be what it represented in the three verses we are exploring, an extension of the Father’s role and authority, to be used wisely and appropriately.
What Does This Mean?
As the Bible strongly encourages the obedience of children to their parents, we can also say it’s within the scope of parenting to uphold such expectations. God does this with us, and we’re to do it with them. This isn’t done with a rod of iron, however.
As is received from our Heavenly Father, parents are to extend an abundance of intention, grace, and mercy. Keeping in mind, effective discipline can only come by way of godly inspired discipleship, bound in love.
At the end of the day, consequences are good and should be set in place. But the moment a hand is raised in anger, or one’s “rod” becomes the preliminary or primary source of teaching, we’ve missed the mark, entirely.
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Amy Swanson resides in Connecticut where she has recently discovered a passion for Bible study and writing. By God's continued grace, she now enjoys helping others better understand their Bibles, while also being an advocate for biblical church integrity. As a mother of three and a wife of 13 years, she blogs less than she'd like to but shares Scriptural insights, encouraging truth, resources, and musings on her FB page.