Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William Webb

 Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling TextsSummary: Both a useful book to work through Hermeneutical issues (biblical interpretation) in modern culture and worth reading as a book on parenting.

One of the things I am most thankful for is the fact that I was able to be a full time nanny for my two nieces over a five year period.  From about eight weeks after the birth of the oldest until they both started preschool last year I was able to see them almost every day and most of the time I loved being a nanny.

Part of my thankfulness is because I am not going into parenting blind.  My wife has been been a teacher for 17 years and is better at classroom management than pretty much anyone I know. Part of her job as an Academic Coach is to mentor other teachers and help them work through both their own professional development and to problem solve with particular children that have not been identified as special education but are not being reached with standard approaches.

I feel we are fairly well prepared to parent our new daughter.

I have been aware of William Webb’s books for a while, but just have not ever gotten around to them.  They fit in with my focus on hermeneutics a couple years ago, but I think I found out about them after I was getting a bit tired of the subject. Re-reading Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis and thinking through issues of culture and race as a Christian pushed these books back up to the front of my list. William Webb is probably better known for his earlier book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. I am sure I will read that eventually, but Corporal Punishment in the Bible is both intended to be a more popular level treatment and it is focused on parenting which I have been thinking a lot about lately.

William Webb is interested in something that is called a Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic. In simple terms, Webb suggests that God in his speaking down to us as humans accepts where we are and speaks to us there. Over time (both in scripture and in culture) there is a progressive movement that refines God’s instructions to us and points in a progressive understanding of revelation and obedience. The idea of this is pretty uncomfortable for many Christians especially Evangelicals that like to think of God as unchanging. But Webb is not suggesting that God is changing, but that the way God speaks to us changes as our culture changes.

One example from scripture is that is we can see a changing attitude about polygamy from the patriarchs to the apostles. It changed to the extent that by the time directions in Timothy were being giving about choosing elders one of those instructions was ‘husband of one wife’. Acceptance of polygamy, which was a part of Old Testament culture (including acceptance of concubines and maybe even some level of acceptance of prostitution), was now a disqualification for being an elder in the early church.

Another example which is developed in the book slightly, but more extensively in Webb’s earlier book, is the Slavery. This is an important example for Webb. Not just because culturally most Christians now agree that slavery is wrong (and many Christians actively work to end slavery around the world).  But because there is ample evidence in scripture that the Bible treated slavery differently from communities around it. This is where knowledge of the Ancient Near East around Israel is essential.  Webb talks about how it was legal to beat and kill slaves (and some time legally required depending on the offense). But in Hebrew scriptures there were limits. The limits that we read in the Old Testament seem tantamount to accepting slavery and torture now, but in comparison to the wider community they were quite limited. And imposed real limits on the slave holder.

In a similar way, Webb looks at what the Old Testament (which is where most pro-corporal punishment texts are found) to see what it really says. Webb sees three types of punishments, the rod, the whip and the heavy knife. Many of the texts are not explicitly about punishing children. But Webb works through the idea that these were for general punishment of those that were young, fools, wives and Torah law breakers.

The biblical instructions are not similar to what Christian pro-spanking advocates suggest. Christian pro-spanking advocates like James Dobson suggest that you should not spank before 2 or after 12 years old. That there should be two smacks max. That the adults not be angry or out of control, that you should use your hand on the buttocks so you as the adult are aware of the amount of pain you are causing and that you are not bruising the child.

Scripture says that you should use a rod at minimum, rods or whips are to be applied to the back and are designed for welts and bruises. Adults as well as children should be punished. Anger is acceptable and the Wrath of God is cited as an example. Punishment extends to stoning a disobedient teenager.

Webb suggests that modern spanking advocates have already veered far from the letter of scripture in their restrictions and suggestions. Webb praises these ideas because they are essentially doing a similar thing as what Webb himself is suggesting, they are taking the importance of discipline that is suggested in scripture and modifying it to a modern cultural ethic.

One pushback that I know many will have (that I saw yesterday in another context in a conversation on Facebook) is that some will object to Webb’s concept of redemptive hermeneutic because they believe that Webb is claiming to be better than those that are in scripture or earlier generations. This is not something that Webb deals with and I wish he did. I have some ideas of how he would respond but it is not in the text.

The book ends with a substantial epilogue. Webb believes that if you are going to accept the limited corporal punishment advocated by pro-spankers, then you should not have a problem taking it one step further and eliminating spanking as an option.

For Webb, this was an issue he needed to confront because his oldest son around the age of 13 contracted a degenerative neurological disease and reverted back to the cognitive capacity of a pre-schooler. For Webb this caused a personal reflection on corporal punishment. He believed it was degrading to spank his teenage son whether or not it was effective and whether or not he was in the cognitive capacity of those that pro-spanking advocates thought should be spanked.

Webb’s wife, who is a special education teacher and trained as a nurse, assisted other parents with alternative discipline strategies at their homes and with her own students at her school. Over time the Webb family was able to switch to an all alternative discipline system in their home.

The final epilogue both tells that story in more detail and gives good idea of how that works in their home. I have read a number of parenting books and in about 30 pages, Webb (and his wife who co-wrote the epilogue) have a lot of very good suggestions. In a short space it is one of the better alternative discipline pieces I have read. He is clear that alternative discipline does not mean no discipline. It means discipline without spanking. This can mean more work as a parent, but Webb believes it results in discipline actually resulting in change of behavior and attitude at the heart and mind level, not just the fear of spanking level. He is quick to note that bad parenting can happen just as easily with alternative discipline methods as spanking.

For those interesting in hermeneutics this is a good book to work through issues in a real life way. For those more interested in parenting than hermeneutics, this is still worth reading, but you may want to skim sections, especially the 2nd and 3rd chapters.

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William Webb: Paperback, Kindle Edition

One Comment

Adam, this is fascinating how you covered both the hermeneutic and parenting aspects and made them understandable. The concept of progressive revelation is one I see in Scripture, as well as the reality that common themes reappear to remind us that the God of Revelation is the same in Genesis.

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