In a blog where I am an unwelcome commenter, Jo Jerome wrote: "How many Xians today swear that 'Spare the rod, spoil the child' is from the Bible when it isn't?"
She is both correct and incorrect. I thought it may be fun to examine the phrase and its historical evolution, and use it as a text case as to why translations of biblical texts, even the much vaunted KJV translation, are utter bullshit. Also, I just had a quarter bottle of bourbon, and this is what I like to do when I drink.
So let's begin.
Yes, the phrase is not biblical. It comes from Samuel Butler's poem Hudibras, which describes the English Civil War between the Royalists and the Bible-thumping Puritans. The actual line reads:
Love is a Boy,
by Poets styl'd,
Then Spare the Rod,
and spill the Child.
"Spill" is not a typo. They just spelled funny then.
But Butler had precedent. Langland, in Piers Plowman, wrote:
Who-so spareth ye sprynge, spilleth his children.
Enter debate whether "sprynge" was a typo for "spryge" or "sprig." Sprig is defined as "a small spray of some plant with its leaves, flowers, etc." on dictionary.com. So it wasn't quite a rod, but a little, leafy branch. More on sprig later.
What Butler was doing was taking a biblical verse deemed popular or important at the time, and converting its main idea into poetry. It was some vain exercise either. It helped people remember the verse more easily. For example, most people here can cite verses from Ecclesiastes by heart: "For everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a reason (turn, turn, turn) and a time for every purpose under heaven ..." We use music. Back then they used poetry. Try it. "In the beginning (turn, turn, turn) God created (turn, turn, turn) the heavens and the earth ... and the earth ..."
The verse he was referring to was Proverbs 13:24, which says: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes." You'll agree that Butler's use of terse phrasing, rhyme, meter, and alliteration is much more memorable.
It's also inaccurate. For shits and giggles (for some reason, I have an overwhelming urge to say "shit" today), let's look at the Hebrew original.
I'll transliterate and translate first:
Chosech shivto Spares his rod
Sonei veno Hates his son
We-ohavo And he that loves him
Shicharo musar Is early to give chastisement.
First, notice the terse lines, the rhyme and rhythm (the last line cannot be four syllables because of a grammatical quirk in Hebrew but the a in shicharo is a half-vowel). Butler actually captures the mood of the text better than the KJV.
Now, that was my own translation, with some vital comments. Musar is not chastisement. It does not have the same negative connotations. In modern Hebrew, for example, "musari" means "ethical" or "moral." It also appears in Proverbs 1:8 and also with the context of being from a father. That verse is translated in the KJV: "My son, hear the instruction of your father, and forsake not the law of thy mother." The word for instruction there is "musar." Then again, translators were never uniform. They imposed their own beliefs on the text. The same word is translated in one place as "instruction" and in another as "chastisement." Then again, the Brits were more rigid in disciplining kids, so they imposed their values on the biblical text.
If that's the case, our verse could alternately be read, "And he that that loves him is early to instruct him."
Let's go up a word to "Shicharo." This is a unique word, and we are not sure exactly what it means. I went with "early" because the root of the word (Sh. Ch. R.) means dawn. It could also be related to the word for freedom, and that was probably a consideration as well, but I am sticking with dawn because of the first word in the text, Chosech.
I put the Hebrew here for a reason. That word is חושך in the original biblical text. It is a misspelling. The common word for spare would be חוסך which is pronounced the same, but has a one-letter difference (ש and ס can sound the same in Hebrew). On the other hand, חושך has another, more common meaning (and a different pronunciation, choshech). It is the word for "darkness" (as in Genesis 1:2, "and חושך was on the face of the abyss"). Suddenly the verse has the juxtaposition of dawn and darkness, morning and night. It adds a poetic element, and it adds a message: "If you teach your child morals in the morning, you won't have to punish them at night." I believe that this is a far more noble sentiment than "If you don't beat your kid, you don't love him."
So far, so good. One other word I take exception to is "rod." The word in our text is "shivto," the 3rd-person sing. possessive form of "shevet," i.e., his rod. Now, "shevet" is one of those words that has multiple meanings in Hebrew. For example, it is used to describe Moses' staff, but in Genesis 49:10 ("The scepter shall not depart from Judah"), it simply means "scepter." In that verse, it doesn't mean a stick used to beat, but rather a symbol of authority. Let's plug that meaning into the verse in Proverbs: "He who denies exercising his authority over his child hates him." Once again, very different from beating the shit out of his kid.
But "shevet" also has another, even more common meaning as "tribe" (such as the 12 tribes). Admittedly, this meaning originates in the word for scepter and indicated a certain level of autonomy that the tribes once had, long before Proverbs was written. On the other hand, it allows for a very different reading of Proverbs: "He who denies his son his heritage as a member of the tribe hates the kid, so teach him all of that early, when the kid is young." Once again, that's a far cry from child abuse.
Well, I'm about ready for another drink. Basically, Jo is correct that the phrase "Spare the rod, spoil the child" is not biblical, though it is based on a biblical teaching. On the other hand, that reading of the text in English is a biased imposition of Northern European cultural norms onto a Middle Eastern text through mistranslation. The real problem is that most Christians, including those that go to seminaries, have no clue how to even read the texts that they embrace or critique. In either case, their attitude is based on ignorance.
I contend that you can hardly critique what you can't even read, but that's just me. And what do I know? As someone so generously put it earlier, I am just an armchair theologian, and an atheist one at that.
And now for that drink.