Corporal Punishment in the Bible

07 Sep

First, I need to make my excuses. I’ve been potty training Breckon for the last two weeks (he is finally getting it, and my frail sanity thanks him) and Kian decided to start teething, crawling, and even caught a cold (either that, or these teeth are pretty ruthless) at the same time. I promise I haven’t stopped writing, but my mommy duties are pressing at the moment. I have about 20 blog posts swimming in my head. So here’s one. :)

I just finished reading “Corporal Punishment in the Bible” by William Webb. It combined two of my loves – biblical hermeneutics (the art/science of interpretation of the text) and parenting. I couldn’t put it down. Let me first give you background into why I even read this book, and then I’ll tell you why it was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

I have a 26-month-old son named Breckon. He has been in his terrible two’s since he was 18 months old, and is constantly pushing to see where his boundaries are. Now, I’m an observer. I watch other parents. Many of the parents around my age will tell their kids to do something (or stop doing something), then the kid says “no” or just keeps doing/not doing, and the parent shrugs their shoulders and says, “Kids will be kids. What can you do? I tried.” I want to avoid being this parent. I want my kids to do what they should. My generation is mostly this kind of parent with wildly out-of-control kids. The other extreme is probably what my generation is reacting to – the overbearing parent that characterized our parents’ generation. The kids are under my thumb, they will fear me, and do as I say (but “not as I do”) at all times. These kids are generally well-behaved…until they get a taste of any kind of freedom. Then they go nuts. I don’t want to be this parent either.

There is a middle ground, and I’m trying to find it. Being a mom is difficult for me (for anyone!), because you have to figure it out as you go. I like to research, figure it out, then jump into a task. You’re really limited on doing that when you have kids. So I’ve read a few books on child discipline. The pro-spankers (headed up by Dobson) use the proverbs in Scripture as their basis. To undermine spanking is to undermine a parent’s authority, and most of all, biblical authority. So Christian parents feel that they must spank to be good parents, and they must also oppose any legislation that takes spanking away from the parent’s bag of tricks. For awhile, we used a modified version that involved snaps with a rubber band on the back of Breckon’s hand to cause a little bit of mild pain to show him that his behavior was unacceptable. And I felt like I had the backing of the Bible to do so, but even though it worked, I hated doing it. It seems so harsh, and he’s so little. I know many parents can testify to spanking and then crying themselves because they truly hated it so much.

Then I read some anti-spanking material. Much of it doesn’t deal with the biblical texts on spanking, and I was aware of the avoid-tactic. Much of this material is silly, in my opinion. You can’t reason with a 2-year-old through a lengthy monologue about their feelings and motives and frustrations. They aren’t mini-adults. Neither do I buy into the “child-led” stuff that basically says, “Trust your child in everything. They will do what’s right.” What about being born into sin? Your job as the parent is to train your child to do good and avoid evil. The anti-spankers are also super-inflammatory. A parent who beats his son black and blue is nowhere near the same parent who lovingly gives two spankings on the bottom with no bruising or marks in order to serve as a nonverbal “no.” Not all spanking is abuse, though many of us have experienced levels of abuse that began as spanking. The pro-spankers (Dobson) are absolutely against abuse.

The basic problem I had with both sides (pro-spanking and against) was that neither dealt with Scripture well. I could tell that the pro-spankers were taking some verses out of context and avoiding some of the hard-to-swallow passages. Even the theologians – Wayne Grudem, Andreas Kostenberger, and Al Mohler – were not dealing with the texts properly. The anti-spankers generally avoided Scripture altogether. Should a parent spank or no? Enter William Webb.

Webb places these verses in their original context of the Ancient Near East. When we read a lot of these verses through our Western lenses, we are shocked at some of the things the Bible says on corporal punishment:

Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of one who has no sense. Prov. 10:13

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. Prov. 13:24

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death. Prov. 23:13-14

A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the backs of fools!  Prov. 26:3

“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” Exodus 21:20-21

If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, 3 but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes. Deut. 25:2-3

Blows and wounds scrub away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being. Prov. 20:30

Webb encourages us to notice that there are no age limitations on the corporal punishments (pro-spankers say that spanking is not effective after age 10 or so, contrary to Scripture). You can see that corporal punishment is for children, slaves, criminals, or any adult who shows foolishness.The primary place for these beatings is the back, not the bottom (pro-spankers say to spank the bottom because permanent damage here is unlikely, whereas the back exposes many vital organ). Rods, not hands or wider paddles are used, which increased the likelihood of the skin breaking and bruising. Also, the limit was not 2, but 40 lashes. So pro-spankers can hardly claim that they are sticking to Scripture perfectly. Is this a bad thing? No, Webb argues. We should applaud their gentler and kinder approach to discipline over the Bible’s! But this leaves us questions about how to apply the Scriptures well, if we are obviously not going to stick to it word-for-word.

Webb calls this going beyond Scripture “redemptive movement.” Here’s why: in the Ancient Near East during the time these verses were written, corporal punishment in neighboring countries was horrific. Beatings were normal around 100 lashes, with prescriptions for wounds to be opened as well. Bodily mutilations and amputations were common in the judicial system. Women would have their breasts cut off, teenagers and adults alike would lose arms or eyes or ears or noses for any infraction. Slaves would be killed along with their entire families for disobeying or running away. In this setting, the corporal punishment in the Bible is much gentler. Backs were beaten, but only 40 times max and with a rod, not a whip or something worse. Eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. Bodily mutilation is commanded for only one crime in Scripture (if a woman defends her husband by damaging another man’s testicles in a fight, they were to cut off her hand), not over 100 times as in the Babylonian, Assyrian, or Egyptian law codes! Run-away slaves from neighboring countries could not be extradited from Israel; it was to be a refuge for them. It was an enormous amount of grace in a harsh social scene. God’s redemptive movement came in where people were and allowed for gentler disciplines and punishments, with the goal of providing more dignity for those punished, and less damage inflicted in an already-damaged world.

Today, we are beyond those barbaric systems. So should we read Scripture as a static text and “go back” to these over-harsh punishments? Of course not! We should praise God for his redemptive movement in our culture to rid us of bodily mutilations and beatings that leave people black and blue. We should praise God for this movement which led to jail times for parents who do this to their kids. This “going beyond” Scripture is a good thing. Webb applauds the current pro-spanking movement in their efforts to prevent child abuse by proposing “two smacks max,” no bruising or leaving marks, and disciplining in love rather than anger. But he challenges us to go further. He challenges us to join in God’s redemptive movement.

The Bible has not given us the “ultimate ethic” on spanking, just as it did not do this for slavery. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that slavery was wrong and should be outlawed, nor should polygamy be viewed as wrong. Rather, teachings in Scripture gradually move us to these ethics. There are numerous teachings on the dignity of humans created in God’s image, in the beauty and godliness of monogamous marriage, and on the importance on love and grace in our actions. But often, God had to work with a sinful people where they were in order to move them in the right direction. We can follow this movement by reading Scripture within its original context (which requires research, yes), and then moving beyond Scripture to see how we can better apply the redemptive movement of the Bible in our own times.

First, we are free to not spank our kids. If you’ve ever felt like to be a good Christian parent, you need to hit your kids, then worry no more! You are free to use alternative-disciplinary methods that do not include corporal punishment. You are free to be creative in your discipline and tailor it to each child. Just make sure that discipline is actually occurring – because while these biblical texts recommend harsh punishments for their day that we can “go beyond,” we must still teach our children the way of wisdom rather than folly. If you don’t discipline your kids (spanking or not), you are disobeying Scripture. And if you’re a parent in your 20s or early 30s, take a good look at your child’s behavior. Our generation has a tendency to think we are disciplining our kids, but the results show otherwise.

Second, we are also free to join in the sweep of God’s redemptive movement. We should seek disciplinary measures that better uphold the dignity of our children as people made in God’s image. For me, spanking (or even rubber-banding) was difficult because I worried that I might be using too much force on accident. I also hated that I couldn’t truly convey to my young son why he was being spanked, that mama still loves him very much, and that he needs to avoid doing wrong because it makes me sad and it separates him further from God. It seems too harsh for a young 2-year-old who doesn’t really understand all that the spanking entails.

If you spanked your kids as a parent, I’m not here to tell you that you were abusive and wrong. My own parents did not do it well, but Brady’s did, and I often compare my own parenting methods to theirs because they did such a fantastic job. I respect many parents who spank/spanked. But if you’re feeling like you really hate causing your child physical pain to make a point, be assured that you are not violating the Bible’s commands if you “go beyond” and find an alternative method of discipline. You’re not undermining biblical authority in the least.

And if you have a non-corporal discipline book/idea/website to recommend, I’d love to hear it. Parenting is the hardest struggle I think I’ve ever had. The majority of Webb’s book is on hermeneutics (so, kind of like a Bible study), but the postscript at the end is worth the money for the entire book. He shares his own parenting journey (which includes an adult son with a degenerative brain disease), his own family’s creative disciplinary methods, and recommended reading. I encourage parents or future parents to read this book. It’s fantastic.

What are your views on corporal punishment/discipline?

How did/do you discipline your children, or how do you plan to discipline your future children?


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17 responses to “Corporal Punishment in the Bible

  1. Lindsay

    September 8, 2011 at 11:19 am

    No great insights, Aubrey. Glad you have a good model from Brady’s family. Will be keeping both of you in my thoughts and prayers.

  2. James Sparks

    September 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Gary Tuchman, a reporter fro CNN did a report on Fundamental Christianty and corporal punishment. It centered around a Christian family that beat their 9 year old daughter to death. It was very interesting to see the back and forth between Tuchman and the Christian Author who advocated corporal punishment. I can’t tie the link into this reply but if you will google it you see it.

    • aubrygrace

      September 9, 2011 at 10:57 am

      Thanks, James. Just watched it. I’ve actually read “To Train Up a Child” this past year by the Pearls. I spent about half the time laughing, because they are a little crazy. For instance, if you let your daughter play with Barbies, she will become a “porn queen.” And if you send your children to public or private school, “be prepared to see them line up for government-funded abortions, alcohol, and a mark on the forehead.” (seriously, he said that!!) Men are also to “avoid like the plague” a wife who plans to have her own career or doesn’t want a lot of kids – they are very patriarchal. He is more extreme than Dobson/Focus on the Family – the Pearls’ primary tool of “spanking” was a switch, and he even describes the length, diameter, and type of tree for each age group. The book does emphasize being in control of your emotions, and only spanking to provide a sting on the skin and not causing markings or bruising. So Tuchmann’s reporting was somewhat inflammatory, especially since the family went way beyond the Pearls’ teachings. Pearl talks over and over about not abusing children, and spends a lot of book space encouraging parents (especially dads) to foster good relationships wth their kids based on love and trust. Their theology is pretty stupid – nearly every Scripture passage was taken out of context or twisted to say something else. There were some good parenting principles in there, but I definitely don’t recommend the book when there are a bajillion other parenting books out there.

      Still, when you read Scripture without taking note of the context, even the Pearls’ teachings on spankings are mild compared to the Bible’s (which can hardly be called “spankings” – they were beatings). So everyone is already “going beyond” Scripture in some way – we just need a more thought-out, consistent hermeneutic. I think Webb provides this very well.

  3. Hermana Linda

    September 23, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I am very happy to read this post and plan to link to it shortly, if that’s ok with you. I think you will be interested in the many posts I link to which explain Gentle Parenting.

    • aubrygrace

      September 23, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      Absolutely! Link away. :) I look forward to reading some of your posts – heading over there now!

  4. Hermana Linda

    September 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Great! Thanks!

  5. Loralee

    September 24, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    We really enjoy, and the books Families Where Grace Is In Place and Grace-Based Parenting. Oh! And and are run by a couple of friends–excellent things! So glad that you’re heading towards grace-based discipline.

  6. Leslie

    September 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you for this lovely and thorough review – fascinating! I would love to read that book. Here are my favorite parenting books which lead to discipline in a more gentle way. I also started out spanking, but no longer do – it’s the best decision I ever made!
    God bless!

  7. Samuel Martin

    September 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm


    Really enjoyed your post.

    You may find my work on this subject interesting. I pray so.

    Blessings from Jerusalem.

    samuel martin

  8. Carissa Robinson

    September 29, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Hi! Excellent post! I have a blog describing my journey in discipline as a non-spanker…my goal is to be an encouragement to other moms:

    -Carissa Robinson

  9. Stacy K

    March 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

    I ended up on your blog by chance and I really ended this post and your one about “Give them Grace”. I want to read both these books and thank you for being an encouragement to me!

  10. Richard

    June 13, 2012 at 10:23 am

    As a child i felt the peach switch a few times The ping pong paddle a few times In high school the hickory was an option Now forty years after graduation i can say i have never been in jail Was discipline the reason or was it gods hand i can’t say only HE KNOWS

  11. Frances

    August 14, 2012 at 9:21 am

    It’s important to use common sense. One can draw a straight line from what was done in Biblical times to what is done now but still obey the Scriptural injunction to correct children. Speaking for myself, I take my child across my lap for spanking. It is ideal correction for blatant disobedience.


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