Book Review: Thy Rod And Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

Thy Rod And They Staff, They Comfort Me: Christians And The Smacking Controversy, by Samuel Martin

In this slim, 160-odd page book, Samuel Martin (son of Ernest Martin) makes some large and fundamental worldview errors. For one, he pits law against grace in attempting to condemn spanking entirely, claiming that as Christians we are no longer subject to punishment. Additionally, he makes the elitist claim that lay members should leave exegesis to those who are trained to do so, all the while citing Hellenistic thinker St. Augustine as an authority on the Bible. This is bad practice, and these fundamental worldview issues limit the effectiveness of the author’s very technical Hebrew-based arguments, some of which, sadly, are arguments of silence (if spanking had been so important it would have been mentioned in the New Testament). As a note for Americans, this book uses the term “smacking” instead of “spanking,” to meet the usage of the English. American readers should be aware of this difference when the reading the book.

The book opens with a section on the nine biblical stages of child development as discussed is the Hebrew scriptures. The author openly admits the lack of evidence to discuss the Hebrew view of childhood in English, which opens the floodgates for his private speculations as well as supposedly authoritative rabbis. Unfortunately, what we see here is largely rejecting the word of God for the traditions of man. The nine states of childhood that the author identifies are as follows: infant (first three months or so), suckling (up to a year), newly eating children (a year to three years, what we would call a toddler), weaned one (three or four years old), clinging child (four to six year old), maiden, virgin, or stripling (what we would call a preteen, from ages six to thirteen or so), youth (teenager or adolescent), and young man/woman just prior to marriage (late teenage years to a 20-something?). The author spends considerable time on this textual analysis as a prelude to an examination of child discipline in the Bible that is age-appropriate. Unsurprisingly, the author then immediately comments that the disciplinary verses of Proverbs refer only to those about ten years of age and older, and not to younger children at all.

The author then defends his interest in Orthodox Jewish scholarship and examines the Jewish attitudes toward childrearing, which prefer a rod of pleasantness to a rod of discipline and an encourage to self-discipline rather than provoke resistance, as well as behave in such as way as to inspire reverence and love among one’s charges. The author sensibly points out that before punishment can take place, there must be a warning and complete certainty that the child deserves punishment. Then one goes to a reprimand, a written record of misdeeds (a demerit), punitive writing assignments, confiscation of property, removal from celebrations, and then meetings with authorities (principles, and so on). After this, spanking is considered acceptable as a means of discipline of last resort in a classroom setting. Once the stages of escalating discipline are discussed, the author comments on the proper means of spanking, a light strap or the hand and never a switch or rod, according to the rabbis. Mildness was to be shown to children under the age of ten, more strictness after that as children became more able to understand the reasons why.

At this point in the argument the author makes a slightly tangential point to comment that rabbinical authorities have the sole right of halakha (or interpretation) of scripture. This is problematic, given the corruption of religious authorities (Jewish and Christian) in general. At this point the author begins the third section, on the legal context of the book of Proverbs. The author points out (correctly) that the orientation of the Book of Proverbs and its authors was to the Law of Moses. The author then (incorrectly) considers Proverbs and its advice on spanking as not being binding on Christians because it is not about repentance, instead, it is about knowing the right thing (God’s laws) so that can behave properly. Here we see the trap that worldview errors lay even for profoundly intellectual scholars. An incorrect worldview, as Samuel Martin possesses, leads to incorrect conclusions. By pitting the law of Moses against the Law of Christ, this author commits serious and damnable heresy and invalidates his fundamental conclusions and indeed his entire approach.

After this major stumble, the author then talks about the gender focus of the book of Proverbs. The author spends some time pointing Job, Psalms, and Proverbs at men and Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther at women, denying the relevance of material directed at one gender to the other, a typical example of this author’s fallacious reasoning. The fact that the book of Hebrews is advice given to a son, in a very masculine way (but not a biased way), indicates in the mind of the author that spanking was only to be done to male children. It is strikingly inconsistent and lamentably typical that the author spends so much time dismissing the importance of the Hebrew scriptures to Christians, considers the rabbis the only just interpreters of such scriptures and then fails to properly interpret verses like Galatians 3:28-31 as signifying that such discipline now could be judged as appropriate to young women as well.

It is at this point that the author decides to make his argument of silence from the New Testament by pitting “good” grace and love against “bad” law. The author says that just because the New Testament does not mention spanking means that spanking is not acceptable in the New Covenant, enforcing his eisegetical approach on the scriptures and considering himself to be a proper authority on scriptural interpretation like the corrupt Talmmudic rabbis he adores. The author briefly, but ungraciously, admits that in one passage of Paul’s writings (Ephesians 6:2) that Paul uses a word taken from the Hebrew in Proverbs that refers to spanking and other forms of discipline, but then says it was not a specific enough reference to make spanking acceptable for Christians, while legalistically and Pharisaically trying to twist out of the relevance of Hebrews 12 for the issue of spanking as well.

At this point the author then discusses physical punishment as described in the New Testament, including its metaphorical uses by Paul concerning congregational discipline, which makes up the sixth part of the book. In all cases physical punishment is shown as being connected with a judicial system and with punishment after a trial and the opportunity to present a defense. Notably, the author does not use this as a model for how spanking should be used in a household, where the idea of a family trial to ascertain guilt before enforcing such punishment could be appropriate for older children until the tenth chapter.

The seventh section of the book discusses the rather obscure point of asking whether spanking will save a child from hell (assuming, of course, that hell exists in the form of eternal torment), spending an entire chapter discussing Proverbs 23:13-14. It is clear that this verse is of great importance in Martin’s hermenutic. First, the author sensibly shows that sh’ol (usually pronounced sheol) is the grave and not some place of fiery eternal torment. The author then sensibly comments that naphesh refers to a living being and not an immortal. The author draws from this the sensible conclusion that what Proverbs 23:13-14 really means is discipline your child in such a way that he avoids a life of crime that would lead to his death. And that is sensible advice, as well as the seriousness spanking should be involved in.

The eighth chapter of the book deals with Proverbs 19:18 and examines what it means in the context of childrearing. The author first points out that many pastors claim that spanking needs to be done so hard and long that it makes a child cry (this seems to have been the model used by my family when I was young). Ironically enough, the Hebrew of this verse points instead for parents not to set themselves on destroying their children through abuse or aggression. The ninth chapter then points out where the rod was to be administered according to Jewish custom. The author very briefly talks about the fact that the Jews had and used two different words, one for back and the other for buttocks, and that the road was to be used for the back. In the tenth section the author finally discusses the use of a family court where spanking is a punishment for a specific sin in the context of law. After saying this, though, the author claims that because we are under the law of Christ and not under the law of Moses that there is no place left for spanking, a false and Dispensational (Gnostic) view of law and grace that pits the two against each other fallaciously. The author then shows that he accepts the authority of antinomian Protestant preachers over that of God’s word itself. The author concludes the main part of the text by saying (falsely) that if parents show love and patience with their children there will never be occasion for spanking, itself wishful thinking, no matter how we might wish it were so.

At this point the author has a series of appendices. The first one looks at the punishment of stoning disobedient children as the ultimate last stage in a series of punishments and talks about the Sanhedrin as a bunch of “softies” when it came to discipline (perhaps one reason why Israel and Judah were so immoral so often), and points out that parents had to bring their child to court as a sign that they were too permissive as parents themselves, and were accepting their share of the blame. The second appendix seeks to examine the question of whether punishment works. The author concludes that people are too stiff-necked and stubborn for punishment or blessings to generally have any effect, but that setting a godly example does help inspire obedience to God’s ways. The third appendix is an expansion on the author’s commentary about the meanings of the Hebrew Sh’ol, discussed earlier. The fourth appendix is a brief commentary on the usage of the Hebrew word for rod. The fifth appendix compares the Protestant and Hebrew order of the Hebrew scriptures. The sixth and final appendix seeks to use the Hellenistic heretic Augustine as an authority on childrearing.

So, what can be said about this book as a whole? It is clearly a flawed book, as its support of the exclusive authority corrupt rabbinical authorities to interpret scripture and its Hellenistic “Christian” (actually Marcionite heretic) views of the law and grace, and its generally politically correct approach make the book wrong on many counts. As a whole the book cannot be recommended as authoritative. Nonetheless, it is not without value, and a biblically astute reader can see from a proper understanding of scripture that spanking is not to be given to children too young to understand the reasons why, is not to be used often or in anger, requires a judicial approach and a legal atmosphere as well as collection of evidence in a trial. All too often this is lacking when parents beat the tar out of their children. So, is the book a good one? No. It wastes its erudite scholarship with a faulty dualistic worldview, but taken more moderately, its conclusions that spanking should be rare and a last resort in a proper family court environment are sound pieces of advice that the God-fearing family can take to heart. However, that case remains to be written in full by someone without the author’s unfortunate and heretical antinomian approach. This book has wisdom that can be gleaned, but as a whole it is lacking and unscriptural in its approach, which is lamentable, but all too common.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Book Review: Thy Rod And Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

  1. Paul says:

    “Additionally, he makes the elitist claim that lay members should leave exegesis to those who are trained to do so,”

    Oh those evil Bereans Paul complimented. Sounds like he would agree with those in earlier times that preferred the rabble didn’t have access to the Bible.

    I’m certainly not against scholarship and try to improve myself in that area but some of the most bizarre ideas I’ve ever seen regarding scripture have come from some of the most educated while most of those with great faith who live their christianity daily are not classical greek or hebrew scholars but instead take God, through the Bible, at His word.

    Scholarship has it’s place and can add to our appreciation and understanding of scripture but it’s no substitute for the Holy Spirit.

    • I’m a very well-educated person myself, and I take scholarship very seriously, but at the same time I also take it very personally when others seek to wall off intellectual discourse to only a privileged (and generally corrupt) elite. We should make our scholarship, if we are intellectually inclined (as I am) available to the general public, be willing to patiently explain our findings and the contextual understanding we gain after much knowledge, and then have the humility to let that knowledge sink in and be spread by ordinary believers. Those of us who are intellectually inclined need to be careful not to consider ourselves to be the only ones who are privileged to handle God’s word and rightfully divine the word of truth, but we ought to teach that which we have learned through much study as broadly and openly as possible.

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