david penchansky — understanding wisdom literature

Eerdmans have recently published a new volume by David Penchansky entitled Understanding Wisdom Literature. This is a book which examines the biblical and post-biblical wisdom literature and raises questions and issues which are sometimes uncomfortable but are nonetheless (or perhaps I should say “are thus”) important. Below is my review of Penchansky’s book.

are children always a blessing?

Let me begin with a warning. What I’m about to suggest is probably to be perceived as sacrilegious to many and tantamount to heresy.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard/read/been told that children are only and always a blessing in the Bible. The assertion is frequently made, but rarely demonstrated. The statement gives the impression that the Bible is full of affirmations of the blessings associated with children.

When pushed, however, the number of references provided is very small. In fact, people usually turn to Psalm 127 and are hard pressed to offer further substantiation for the claim (so the “only and always a blessing” starts to sound somewhat hyperbolic). But does Psalm 127 really say quite as much as is often claimed for it? I think not!

Let’s take a look at the Psalm:

שיר המעלות לשלמה

אם יהוה לא יבנה בית
שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם יהוה לא ישמר עיר
שוא שקד שומר
‎‏שוא לכם
‎משכימי קום
‎מאחרי שבת
‎אכלי לחם העצבים
‎כן יתן לידידו שנא

‎הנה נחלת יהוה בנים
‎שכר פרי הבטן
‎כחצים ביד גבור
‎כן בני הנעורים
‎אשרי הגבר אשר מלא את אשפתו מהם
‎לא יבשו כי ידברו את אויבים בשער

A song of ascents. This is Solomon’s.

1If Yhwh does not build a house,
pointless is the toil of its builders.
If Yhwh does not protect a city,
pointless is the watchfulness of the protectors.
2It is pointless for you
who get up early,
who stay out late,
who eat the food of hard work,
thus he gives to his beloved sleep.a
3See, sons are an inheritance of Yhwh,
a rewardb is the fruit of the womb!
4Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
are sons of [one’s] youth.c
5Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them,
They will not be ashamedd when they argue with their enemies at the gate.


Notes:

(a) It seems likely that verse 2 closes with שנא because of the similarity with the repeated שוא in the preceding material. Without Yhwh all is pointless yet arduous, with Yhwh one can rest.

(b) The term שכר can mean “wages” but points to a reward in a tangible, material sense. The sons born will bring material well-being.

(c) The expression בני הנעורים, translated “sons of [one’s] youth” implies that the particular blessing of sons is associated with those born while the parent (father) is relatively young. The implication is that when the father is old, his sons are old enough to help him. The focus is on what they can do for the parent in a tangible way, not in some intangible, feel-good manner.

(d) It is interesting to ponder a minor emendation in verse 5b:

לא יבוש כי ידברו את אויבים בשער

i.e. change יבשו to יבוש and read “he [the father] will not be ashamed when they [the sons] argue with their [the family’s] enemies at the gate.” There’s no support for such a change in the DSS nor in the LXX, and the unaltered reading does make sense as well, indicating that the sons will prevail in legal disputes (presumably by weight of numbers). OTOH, the emended reading implies that the father’s honour stands unchallenged through the actions of his sons. This perhaps fits better with the thrust of the preceding verses.


What is clear about this Psalm, however, is that its view of children as a blessing is heavily culturally conditioned. For one, the focus appears squarely to sit on “sons” not children (see the note in the NET Bible on this point).

Second, that they are a blessing is founded on a couple of caveats — their value is greater if the father is young. This is likely to be a cultural consideration because once the father is older his sons will themselves be of sufficient age to support him rather than need to be supported by him. This is reinforced by verse 5 where the value of these sons of one’s youth is tied to their ability to contend for the family in disputes at the city gate (in the modern world you’d probably be better off hiring a good lawyer).

Ultimately, if you want to argue that children are always a blessing, this is not the text for you. The strongest argument for seeing all children as a blessing is to be found in Gen 1:28 where God’s blessing is linked to filling the land.

What is more, the claim that children are only and always a blessing is further undermined when we look at what is said about children in the book of Proverbs. For example:

Prov 17:25

A foolish son is grief to his father,
and bitterness to her who bore him!

Prov 19:13a

A foolish son brings destruction to his father.

Furthermore, Proverbs implies that children are born without wisdom and hence need training to make them wise:

Prov 22:15

Folly is bound to a child’s mind,
A rod of discipline will remove it from him.

(See also Prov 13:24; 15:5; etc.)

Then it would also be helpful to explain how Absolom was a blessing to David (2Sam 15–16).

Finally, the transition from OT to NT presents another consideration: do Jesus’ words about families (e.g. Matt 12:46–50) suggest that the same consolation found in sons in Israel (and Ps 127 implies the blessing comes from adult sons, not toddlers or infants!) can now be found in our relationships within the people of God? Was a large family seen as a blessing because it meant the growth of God’s people? If so, the NT offers a different perspective where all can become children of Abraham. In the OT, becoming a “great and numerous people” was a sign of God’s blessing, and this was largely achieved through reproductive means. In the NT, the expansion of God’s people is through evangelism: not once in the NT is having children described as a blessing although many other things are so described. The categories do change.

does the Bible mandate corporal punishment in child-rearing?

The book of Proverbs is often used, it would seem, to justify the claim that a true Christian approach to raising children must invariably include the use of corporal punishment (see, for example, Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15). Partly because I keep running into this argument, I thought I’d post a few comments and observations relating to it.

First, perhaps the most extreme proponent of corporal punishment I’ve encountered is Sirach who, in chapter 30, writes:

1He who loves his son will whip him often,
so that he may rejoice at the way he turns out.
2He who disciplines his son will profit by him,
and will boast of him among acquaintances.

7Whoever spoils his son will bind up his wounds,
and will suffer heartache at every cry.
8An unbroken horse turns out stubborn,
and an unchecked son turns out headstrong.
9Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you;
play with him, and he will grieve you.
10Do not laugh with him, or you will have sorrow with him,
and in the end you will gnash your teeth.
11Give him no freedom in his youth,
and do not ignore his errors.
12Bow down his neck in his youth,
and beat his sides while he is young,
or else he will become stubborn and disobey you,
and you will have sorrow of soul from him.
13Discipline your son and make his yoke heavy,
so that you may not be offended by his shamelessness.

Ouch!

Fortunately few today go quite so far as Sirach. Nonetheless, my concern is with the derivation from Proverbs of the idea that corporal punishment is required by the Bible, or that “a parent that doesn’t use corporal punishment hates their child” (as I was once told). I know there are quite a few Christian parenting books which endorse forms of corporal punishment almost from birth, and substantiation is almost entirely founded on a few verses from Proverbs. I want to say that this is a gross misunderstanding of Proverbs virtually akin to the mistake made by Job’s friends who assumed that Job must be suffering because of some personal sin since that’s what wisdom taught.

My problems with this application of Proverbs are as follows:

  • Proverbs should not be interpreted as rules in this way. I know people pay lip-service to this very fundamental hermeneutical strategy for Proverbs, but then subsequently jetison it when trying to draw lessons from the material. Proverbs attempts to teach profound truths in brief aphorisms which become guides to the wise to know how to act. It is clear from Proverbs itself that you need wisdom to apply its wisdom, for in the hands of fools the material in Proverbs is open to abuse (cf. Prov 26:7, 9)!
  • The only form of discipline for children (or “youths” cf. 22:15; 23:13) explicitly identified in Proverbs is “the rod,” yet I know of no-one who suggests that corporal punishment should be the only form of discipline parents mete out to their children, despite the fact that a literalistic reading of Proverbs would lead one to conclude that this is the recommended course of action.
  • “The rod” is clearly metaphorical in a number of passages (e.g. Prov 14:3). This is also reflective of the poetic nature of aphoristic wisdom literature, which employs all manner of poetic devices to convey its messages.
  • This understanding is reinforced by the observation that Proverbs never contrasts methods of discipline: the antithesis to discipline is always lack of discipline, not another supposedly inferior form of discipline. Were corporal punishment being exclusively endorsed, I would expect some such contrast to appear.
  • The use of “the rod” is influenced by the terse nature of the aphorisms, not because it is the be-all and end-all for biblical discipline. Once “the rod” is established in the aphorism as a reference to discipline, it is appropriate to use the symbol to develop the instruction countained in the aphorism.

The upshot of this is that while Proverbs teaches the importance of disciplining children, it should not be taken as endorsing particular forms of discipline. It clearly doesn’t eschew corporal punishment, but neither should it be understood as requiring it or even making it normative. Wisdom requires wisdom, and so one ought to recognise that individual circumstances need to be evaluated and dealt with individually. To my mind, to entirely exclude corporal punishment as a legitimate tool in discipline is as legalistic and blinkered as suggesting that it ought to be normative. Every child is different: what works for one will not work for another. Every circumstance is different: sometimes an urgent response is needed, sometimes not.

Finally, I’d also like to highlight Eph 6:4 as another passage which instructs us in how to apply discipline. I like Andrew Lincoln’s comment on the passage in his commentary on Ephesians:

Fathers are made responsible for ensuring that they do not provoke anger in their children. This involves avoiding attitudes, words, and actions which would drive a child to angry exasperation or resentment and thus rules out excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities.

disciplining children

Everyone has something to say about the best way to discipline children, even people without children! In Christian circles it is common to emphasize the “biblical” approach to discipline, an approach which inevitably (and not inappropriately) turns to advice from the book of Proverbs. Here are a few of the verses in Proverbs to which people turn when considering how the Bible advises we discipline our children:

A wise son accepts his fatherʼs discipline,
But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke. (13:1)

He who spares his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. (13:24)

Discipline your son while there is hope,
And do not desire his death. (19:18)

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child;
The rod of discipline will remove it far from him. (22:15)

Do not hold back discipline from the child,
Although you beat him with the rod, he will not die.
You shall beat him with the rod,
And deliver his soul from Sheol. (23:13–14)

The rod of reproof gives wisdom,
But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother. (29:15)

On the basis of these proverbs it is common to assert that the biblical teaching not only endorses some form of corporal punishment in pedagogy, but actually mandates it. Certainly that would seem to be the way Sirach understands the advice, because he clearly felt that Proverbs didn’t go anywhere near far enough! Just listen to the advice Sirach offers in chapter 30:

He who loves his son will whip him often,
so that he may rejoice at the way he turns out.
He who disciplines his son will profit by him,
and will boast of him among acquaintances.
He who teaches his son will make his enemies envious,
and will glory in him among his friends.
When the father dies he will not seem to be dead,
for he has left behind him one like himself,
whom in his life he looked upon with joy
and at death, without grief.
He has left behind him an avenger against his enemies,
and one to repay the kindness of his friends.
Whoever spoils his son will bind up his wounds,
and will suffer heartache at every cry.
An unbroken horse turns out stubborn,
and an unchecked son turns out headstrong.
Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you;
play with him, and he will grieve you.
Do not laugh with him, or you will have sorrow with him,
and in the end you will gnash your teeth.
Give him no freedom in his youth,
and do not ignore his errors.
Bow down his neck in his youth,
and beat his sides while he is young,
or else he will become stubborn and disobey you,
and you will have sorrow of soul from him.
Discipline your son and make his yoke heavy,
so that you may not be offended by his shamelessness.

Did you ever wonder why Sirach’s wisdom was translated by his grandson and not his son? I think the answer lies in the words above! I also think the above passage is sufficient to prove the error of canonising the apocryphal books!

But seriously, what are we to make of the advice in Proverbs? For many, it would seem, these aphorisms form the basis for promoting corporal punishment (you could even by a “rod” for a while in the US). But let me outline the reasons I think that such a conclusion is premature.

  1. Proverbs is not a book of rules. Now although just about everyone agrees on this point, for many it ultimately has little impact on the reading of Proverbs!

  2. Proverbs require wisdom to be correctly understood and applied. They are brief snippets of advice not comprehensive tomes encompassing all there is to say on a particular topic. They rely on the wisdom of the person using them to be able to use them correctly and they can be misused by fools (see Prov 26:7, 9). So we should not understand a single proverb on the topic of disciplining children to provide us with all there is to know on the topic!

  3. If you look at the proverbs relating to disciplining children you’ll note that just about the only method of discipline mentioned is the use of “the rod.” Very few people today would suggest that the rod or even corporal punishment should be the only means of discipline we use on our children. So are they inconsistent and unbiblical?

  4. When Proverbs does talk about the rod, look closely at what the proverbs actually say. For example, in Prov 29:15:

    The rod of reproof gives wisdom,
    But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.

    As is typical, the proverb has two opposing parts—the first tells us that “the rod of reproof gives wisdom.” What does the opposing half of the proverb say? Does it say “but a child who is only sent to his room brings shame to his mother”? “But a child who is grounded brings shame to his mother”? “But a child who’s pocket money is taken away brings shame to his mother”? Does it contrast “the rod” with any other form of discipline in order to tell us that the rod is the only means of discipline that works? No it doesn’t! It contrasts “the rod” with not disciplining at all! It contrasts “the rod” with allowing the child to get away with anything without any consequences.

Here, then, is the hermeneutical crux of the matter. Proverbs uses “the rod” as a convenient way to refer to discipline in general, in contrast to not disciplining. Now there’s no doubt that, in the ancient world, corporal punishment was pretty widely employed. But correctly understood, I do not think Proverbs can be interpreted as mandating corporal punishment as normative. On the other hand, Proverbs can’t be used to argue that corporal punishment is never appropriate. Proverbs affirms discipline over against not disciplining, it should not be interpreted as providing rules about the appropriate means of discipline, and to treat it as such is to make foolish use of biblical wisdom!