Who is the son in the book of Proverbs?
And what does the son have to do with spanking children?
There are over fifty times the word “son” is used in the book of Proverbs. One Hebrew term for son in Proverbs is “ben” or “bar.” Strong’s Concordance in the Olive Tree Enhanced Study Bible gives us this definition: “בֵּן ḇên; from 1129; a son (as a builder of the family name), in the widest sense (of literal and figurative relationship, including grandson, subject, nation, quality or condition, etc.” “Ben” is from the root word, “bana” that means “to build” or “to build a house” or “builder of the family name.” This word could refer to a child, grandchild, teen son, son, or offspring. The key to understanding the word is the context in which it is used. Most often, it is in the generic sense of son. In Proverbs, the word son (ben) is used over fifty times.
Another term, sometimes translated “child” or “son” is the Hebrew na’ar (see Proverbs 7:7). As Strong’s points out, his word could mean, “babe, boy, child, damsel, lad, servant, young (man).” In the Old Testament, this word is translated into the English the following ways: “young man” (76x), “servant” (54x), “child” (44x), “lad” (33x), “young” (15x), “children” (7x), “youth” (6x), “babe” (1x), “boys” (1x), and “young” (1x). Once again, the context determines the meaning of the word. For why it is important to consider things like the context when studying the Bible, go here.
Common verses in Proverbs used to prove it is the parent’s duty to spank their little children are often taken out of context. For example, Proverbs 13:24 (ESV Strong's) says, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son (male offspring), but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” To discipline is “מוּסָר mûsâr; from 3256; properly, chastisement; figuratively, reproof, warning or instruction; also restraint: — bond, chastening, chastisement, check, correction, discipline, doctrine, instruction, rebuke.” Musar is from יָסַר yâsar; a primitive root; to chastise, literally (with blows) or figuratively (with words); hence, to instruct: — bind, chasten, chastise, correct, instruct, punish, reform, reprove, sore, teach (Olive Tree Enhanced Strong's Dictionary). That advocates of spanking choose to interpret “discipline” in this and similar verses as “spank” is curious, since it could mean to chastise with blows (the Old Testament references to blows or beatings are most often punitive of a judicial nature, brought by serious beatings on the back) or it could mean chastise (to correct and instruct).
It is worth noting that in Proverbs 1:8, “Hear, my son, your father's instruction…” the word instruction is mûsâr, the same term translated in other passages as discipline.
There are five times in Proverbs that the English versions use the term, child. The word for each use (Proverbs 20:11, 22:6, 22:15, 23:13, and 29:15) is na‘ar (נַעַר). Granted, taken alone without context, na’ar could mean babe, boy, child, damsel, lad, servant, or young man. Taken in context (verses before and after the passages with “child”) na’ar clearly refers to a young man. The overall context of Proverbs has to do with training young men to be wise leaders in the service to Israel’s king and God. For more on this, read the following posts:
What’s more, the majority of the time na’ar is used in the rest of the Old Testament it is speaking of a young man, lad, or teen. Dr. George Scipione’s book, The Biblical Battle for the Family has an excellent chart on the terms for various ages and categories. Below is an adaptation of his chart found on page 93.
Clearly, the son (ben) and child (na’ar) in the book of Proverbs refers to a teen (approximately 12-20 years old).