Saturday, November 24, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (34)

In raising his children, my father maintained a keen sense of the big picture. He would always encourage my mother when things seemed most hopeless. I can assure you that happened with regularity: my father traveled, and Mom had an unvarnished, highly realistic, frequently-reinforced view of all the basest aspects of male teen behavior.

Somehow she survived. Hope, maybe.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 19:1-29)

Whips and Scorpions
Discipline your son, for there is hope;
do not set your heart on putting him to death.”
The Hebrew word used for “discipline” in this verse is more frequently translated as “chastise” or “chasten”, the primary sense of which is to instruct, or to correct bad behavior. However, yacar has a wide range of possible meanings that definitely does not exclude corporal punishment.

Rehoboam spoke of “disciplining” [yacar] the people of Israel with whips and scorpions (Strong’s says a “scorpion” was a specific kind of scourge characterized by its sharp points). If these were metaphors, they were severe metaphors indeed. Solomon speaks later in Proverbs of the impossibility of disciplining a servant with mere words, the implication being that something stronger is required from time to time. And in the Law, when a man falsely accused his wife of fornication, he was to be taken by the elders of his city and “chastised”, which is pretty much universally understood to mean he was to receive a public whipping rather than a mere verbal dressing-down.

Not the Go-To Methodology

With that conceded, however, the broad semantic range of yacar and the number of scripture references to methods of punishment that are obviously not physical strongly suggest that corporal punishment should NOT be the go-to option every time a child displeases a parent. There are plenty of other methods I will not go into here, each of which may be more effective and more appropriate than spanking to address specific types of misbehavior. My own experience as a parent taught me that it is profoundly unwise to escalate punishments quickly or emotionally. There are upper limits for reasonable discipline, just like there is an upper limit for the volume of a human voice. If you turn the dial up to 11 at the first provocation, you have nothing left up your sleeve. I opted to keep the volume down and physical discipline rare, a strategy that in hindsight still makes good sense to me.

Nevertheless, the verse has been understood for literally millennia to endorse the discipline of children up to and including the point of corporal punishment. Five minutes with a concordance makes it obvious that the way it has been traditionally understood is not incorrect. That does not mean the principle of corporal punishment has always been perfectly applied, of course. I would not for a moment suggest that an out-of-control father chasing his six-year-old with a whip or punching him in the face is what Solomon has in view. But on the basis of language, spanking traditionalists cannot reasonably be dismissed as a pack of ignorant thugs. There is more than adequate room for their interpretation.

A Possible Legitimate Option

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating for more corporal punishment of children than is currently going on, and I am definitely not arguing for angry, dangerous or reflexive corporal punishment. Slapping, punching and screaming are terrible parenting. They are undignified, unchristian and they don’t work, in the sense that the negative long-term results they produce are worse than the behaviors they are intended to treat.

What I am saying is that, notwithstanding the critics, the judicious use of corporal punishment as one possible option for child discipline is indeed legitimized by the teaching of the Old Testament. We cannot rule it out, and because each parent is directly responsible to God for the way he or she disciplines their children, it means we ought to be careful about lecturing other Christians about the options they choose before God with their own children. They may indeed be unwise about spanking their kids, but it is far more likely they are wrong about HOW to spank than WHETHER to spank.

Jumping Through Hoops

That’s important, because many Christians today simply will not admit this verse could possibly say what it clearly says, and the hoops they jump through to circumvent its teaching are impressive.

Samuel Martin, for instance, has written a whole book on the evils of spanking. His method of distancing himself from the far end of yacar’s semantic range is to write irrelevant paragraph after paragraph about the obvious difficulties of translating Hebrew into English and understanding cultural tropes 3,000 years old. The net impression on the casual reader is that we really can’t understand much at all about the Old Testament because of time and language, and therefore shouldn’t think for a moment that discipline means, you know, DISCIPLINE. It appears lost on Martin that his strategy involves throwing out a boatload of babies for the sake of a few ounces of dirty bathwater. Moreover, he doesn’t once mention Rehoboam’s “whips”. These communicate quite clearly across the centuries, notwithstanding differences in culture.

Jim Schultz concedes that the Bible does not specifically prohibit spanking, but goes on at great length to explain how modern psychological and sociological research have demonstrated that parents really shouldn’t spank. His scriptural arguments against corporal punishment revolve around the correct understanding of the word “rod”, which helps him with other verses, but not this one. He too does not attempt to deal with the meaning of yacar.

Assume Without Evidence

Then there’s Jennifer McGrail’s approach, which is to assume her conclusion without any evidence at all:
“I say we stop with all the spanking and discipline Facebook groups, and start a new one: ‘Those who love their children care enough to treat them the way they themselves would want to be treated.’ ”
Hmm. I was spanked a fair bit as a child, and I don’t regret it one bit. If anything, I could probably have used a few more whacks, so that last clause is a bit open to interpretation: what seems patently obvious to Jennifer is not at all obvious to me. If she is saying we should give our children what they in hindsight would choose as mature grownups, well, fine. My preferences are on record. In any case, Jennifer gets around the problem of Old Testament language by simply ignoring it and assuming she knows better, which is not an uncommon approach.

The problem with all these methodologies is that they start from a visceral dislike of spanking and simply will not allow this verse or any of the other very familiar proverbs about child discipline to say what they plainly say. Whether that is accomplished by ignoring them, eclipsing them with modern psychological studies or overwhelming them with irrelevant details hardly matters: the point is that Solomon is not really being allowed to weigh in.

There is Hope

In any case, let’s not lose our track here. Spanking is only one (hopefully small) component of child rearing, and the issue in this particular proverb is discipline in all its aspects. Solomon’s point is that parents are not to become discouraged or weighed down by the day-to-day obligations of correcting their children. It is worth carrying on doing their job because despite all appearances “there is hope”.

Child rearing is a process, a long-term investment that sometimes takes the best part of a couple of decades before the results can really be seen. It is day after day of being provoked, annoyed and frequently ignored, especially when one is raising three or four children simultaneously. It is grinding, hard work.

Notwithstanding all that, consistent discipline does bring with it hope. My father knew this, he and my mother hung in, and here we are today, all behaving ourselves.

There were times that didn’t seem likely at all.

All Discipline Seems Painful

The second line of the proverb is a little more debatable. The KJV is perhaps a little more instantly obvious than some of the more modern translations. It reads, “and let not thy soul spare for his crying.” If this is the correct take, it ought to silence Jennifer McGrail, because it’s saying precisely the opposite of children know what’s best for them. It’s saying that children generally don’t like discipline and will moan about it, whether that’s tears after a spank, griping about doing homework or huffing and puffing about eating their vegetables. The New Testament confirms this:
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant …”
That’s how I recall it too. Assuming the discipline in view has been well thought out and is being conducted in the child’s best long-term interests, the wise parent ignores his or her protestations in hope of one day reaping the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” of which Hebrews speaks.

Discipline and Death

Modern translations, however, note that the Hebrew muwth is almost always translated “death”, “die” or “slay”, as opposed to “crying”. Thus their renderings are a little more literal … and a little more dire:
“Do not be a willing party to their death.” (NIV)
“Do not desire his death.” (NASB)
“Do not be the one responsible for his death.” (GOD’S WORD® Trans.)
Here the sense is that the failure to correctly discipline a child may result in him becoming the sort of person society will one day have to discipline in the most severe way possible. In this case, the child’s ruin will be in some measure the responsibility of his parents.

I read the ESV’s “Do not set your heart on putting him to death” as something like “However bad it gets, do not assume the worst case scenario is inevitable.” There was a legal mechanism in Israel whereby a father and mother together could bring a stubborn, rebellious, drunken, gluttonous (and presumably near-adult) son to the elders of their city and effectively disown him. If the elders agreed with their diagnosis, their son would be stoned by the men of the city so as to purge evil behavior from Israel.

When capital punishment is a possibility and your own mother is prepared to give evidence against you … well, boy, you have really let yourself slide.

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