Sparing the rod ... a response to another blog post

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 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.

חושך שבטו
שונא בנו
שחרו מוסר

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.


Views: 20

Tags: KJV, Proverbs, child abuse, translation


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Comment by Jason Spicer on September 19, 2010 at 5:00pm
I stand corrected, Al-KADIM. Jo didn't even really disagree with you. So why the treatise on her shortcomings? Not cool.
Comment by Jo Jerome on September 19, 2010 at 4:53pm
@ Jason Spicer ... It's not necessary to be an expert in every detail before pronouncing something bullshit in general.

True on its own merit. But this case is even simpler. AL-KADIM is assuming things I never said. All I said or inferred is that a famous catch-phrase which is often assumed to be from the bible, isn't. AL-KADIM presents himself as smart enough to know the difference between that and saying "Nor does the bible say anything equivalent to that." He wrote his blog post as if I'd said the later, as if I am unaware of and/or in disagreement with the points he's making (which I'm not), and needed to be schooled on it.

If it wasn't about me, he never would have included my name in it in the first place. It's a classic smear-tactic ad hominem attack. The audience gets so wrapped up in the long, drawn-out history lesson that the fact I never addressed, challenged or indicated I didn't know those points already is overlooked. I call him on it and the response is name-calling, childish insults to my intelligence and tossing out 'autism' as one would toss out 'handicapped.' Again, classic tactics to discredit and smear someone.
Comment by Jason Spicer on September 19, 2010 at 4:17pm
Al-KADIM, your comments pertaining to Jo Jerome's person remain uncalled for. Apart from disagreeing with you and using an argument you don't respect, it's hard to see how she deserved the ignoramus and diner comments. That was out of line.

Further, I think you missed my point. It's not necessary to be an expert in every detail before pronouncing something bullshit in general. It may be necessary to be an expert in every detail to say you truly understand something, but that just isn't required in order to reject something as invalid. All you need for that is to knock out a few supporting pins. Or even just one, if it's central enough. Asserting that comprehensive scholarship is required before entering debate is an appeal to authority--you don't know enough to debate me if you haven't read as widely as I have. This is nonsense. Theologians have often read extremely widely and still manage to come to the bullshit conclusion that their pet mythologies are literally true. Comprehensive scholarship is, of course, quite valuable and to be respected. That doesn't mean it automatically wins the day.
Comment by Al-KADIM on September 19, 2010 at 3:55pm
Off the cuff, I totally agree with you. My weakness is a fascination with Bellah's concept of American civil religion, especially given the secularism of so many of the Founding Fathers, and can't help wonder whether that shaped American views on a host of other issues, including religion in general. The fact is that you are probably right. But given Glenn Beck's near deification of the Founding Fathers and his canonization of the Constitution ... I dunno. I'm not even sure where I'm going with that. It certainly does intrigue me though.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 19, 2010 at 12:05pm
AL-Kadim, I am guessing there is a strong causal relation between the two. The fundamentalism comes first. It creates a mindset and values consistent with the constructionists perspective. Furthermore as Twain said "You show me where a man gets his corn pone I'll show you where he gets his pinions."
Comment by Sigmund on September 19, 2010 at 11:54am
Fascinating shit - it's a pity that there seem to be restrictions on where it can be discussed. I seem to recall someone attempting to address intellectual defensiveness/'sensitivity' in a discussion, but I don't think it got anywhere, just resuted in more mud-slinging.
As you know, I take the view that restrained argument is often more useful than aggressive rhetoric, but open, constructive discussion and a willingness to engage with worthwhile points of debate (even if you have to dig for them) shoud be everyone's priority; otherwise we're all just shouting at the wall...
Comment by Al-KADIM on September 19, 2010 at 11:15am
I agree with you, by the way, about fundamentalists as constructionists and wonder if your estimate isn't on the low end. The really interesting thing to me is the parallel between their constructivist approach to the Constitution and their literalist approach to the Bible. I wonder if they are causal, and if so, which came first.
Comment by Al-KADIM on September 19, 2010 at 11:11am
Nah, I don't get hungover and was up for four hours when I wrote that (wake up at 5 30 every morning).
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 19, 2010 at 11:04am
AL-Kadim, I'd venture 94 percent of fundamentalists are strict constructionists. Your comments are shockingly lucid coming from a guy who must be nursing a painful hangover.
Comment by Al-KADIM on September 19, 2010 at 8:44am
I'll do this one by one.

Glen, you raise some interesting points. I'll start by responding to your reference to Vico by saying that I am hardly a constructivist in my epistemological approach to truth. You bring a good example from Law, which I think has quite a few similarities to translation, at least in the US. American civil religion, to use Bellah's term, is constitution-based, i.e., it has the equivalent of a near inviolable "sacred" text in the form of its constitution, and far more often than we amend the source, we try to interpret or reread that text. The problem is that text is over two hundred years old and was written in a world very different to our own. The Constitution says we have a right to bear arms--where does it stand on nuclear weapons that can fit into an attache case? (Overly simplified case, I know.) While this may be a broad generalization, the Law attempts to find practical solutions to existing problems within the existing parameters of the Constitution, while historians are unconcerned with the practical ramifications of today and more interested in the "original intent" of the authors based on the circumstances of the time.

As a tangential side note, I sometimes wonder whether this fairly rigid adherence to a written Constitution is related to a fundamentalist approach to the Bible, and why, for example, such fundamentalism is more prevalent in the US than, say, the UK, which does not have a tradition of a written constitution, or Scandinavia, where written constitutions do not have the same authority as the American document.

Furthermore, translation is necessary not only for different languages, but for different times and geographical regions as well. A classic example of this is "Get thee to a nunnery" in Hamlet, where Shakespeare may have meant "brothel." We don't see nuns very often these days, and the few we do are often old and wizened. We think more of Mother Theresa than we do of Xaviera Hollander (of Happy Hooker fame). For a more modern example, what connotations would the statement, "I went to a Tea Party," raise in 2000 as compared to 2010? How is the term used differently today in England and America? How do you even translate Teabagger into any language to carry all the baggage it has? That's just ten years. Consider now the problem with reading the Bible in translation, where we have documents written over two thousand years ago in a different language, going through various translations (from Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek, Latin, Shakespearean English, modern English), each informed by a different cultural milieu. It's a classic case of broken telephone. That's why I contend that it is near impossible to read or fully understand biblical literature (or the Iliad or Dante or Cervantes for that matter) in translation. In some sense, Muslims are right too. The Qur'an doesn't work in English.

As for Jo, this was not an attack on you.

As for Jason, what I wrote above should explain (I hope) why it was not an appeal to authority. Nor was I intending to render "the entire edifice" sound or unsound. I was simply looking at a single verse as an example of the failings of translation. I'm not even passing judgment on the practice of spanking (though personally, I am very opposed to the practice). In fact, the rejection of corporal punishment such as spanking is an incredibly new phenomenon within our culture, for what it's worth, and emerged within my lifetime (or given we are about the same age, your lifetime too). Plenty of my peers got paddled in school as kids, and it was a normative part of this culture in the 1950s and 1960s (see for its cultural acceptance in the 1950s, not only against children but against wives, and for attitudes in the early 1980s). Again, I cannot reiterate enough that I am opposed to corporal punishment. I am simply noting a very recent cultural shift which occurred within the past 30 years in the US. Hopefully it sticks around, but it is still far too early to commend it as an ideal. On the other hand, it only leads me to wonder: What behavioral ideals we have now that will be considered barbaric 100 years from now?

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