Gender Space in Biblical times:
Considering the whole counsel of God
in understanding the
Biblical texts concerning Corporal Punishment/Spanking
When I was a small boy growing up in Israel, the house that I stayed in in northern Jerusalem was located just off the main road that headed north out of the city. In the early 1970's, there were very few houses located in the area where I lived.
You could walk in any direction and in the non-built up areas near our house, we had semi-nomadic peoples living as our neighbors. These semi-nomads are still living here today and they are known as Bedouins.
These people pursue an age old lifestyle that goes back to the time of Abraham and his custom of living in tents and raising sheep, goats and camels. (Genesis 24:35) The make their living practicing animal husbandry and live by selling their animals and the products that come from them.
Now, over the last few years, I've had the good fortune to visit some of these Bedouins and been in their tents. I've even come to understand their culture and customs a little bit. I also understand their language so when I visit them, I can speak with them and better understand their life contexts as an active observer.
Be careful in making comparisons about modern semi-nomads and people who lived in Bible times
Now, when it comes to comparing the lifestyles of these people and those semi-nomads who we read about in the Bible, one must be cautious. There are some differences, but can we still learn things about the customs of people in ancient times by looking at modern people who are living in similar ways? Without question we can!
What I think helps me in observing the customs and lifestyles of these peoples is that it helps us to see that we need to put flesh on the skeletons that we have in Scripture. Don't get me wrong. You all know that I believe in the Scriptures, but we all have a tendency to read the Bible through the lenses of our own experiences and those lenses may not always be viewing Biblical history in 20/20 vision.
This is what I have tried to show in a post I did about the issue of how many Israelites left Egypt during the Exodus period. I refer to this subject in the following post:
In that post, I have referred to the following three texts, which if taken alone, seem to clearly indicate that there were more than 2.5 million Israelites who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Note these texts.
“And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” (Exodus 12:37-38 ESV)
“So all those listed of the people of Israel, by their fathers' houses, from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go to war in Israel—all those listed were 603,550.” (Numbers 1:45-46 ESV)
“This was the list of the people of Israel, 601,730.” (Numbers 26:51 ESV)
It seems so clear and so plain that this information seems to trump anything else. We seem trapped when we read this and are forced to conclude that there can be no other possible answer to this question. The case is closed.
But here is where the whole counsel of God comes in.
You get a whole different perspective when you, in person, go down and view the city of Jericho. You get a whole different perspective when you go and view the King's Highway going from Egypt in the south up through Jordan to Damascus. You get a whole different view when you see actual semi-nomadic encampments yourself and compare the same to the information we have in the Bible. These issues are in my view just as important as those three texts mentioned before and deserve to be considered with equal weight to what we have in the Bible.
When you see things on the ground and know that you have to deal with the facts of geography, physical laws, physical space and time, you realize that while God is a miracle worker, unless you are able to simply ignore the whole counsel of God and refuse to listen to what the LORD is saying throughout His Scripture (knowing that it is all connected and linked together), you are in a serious state of deficiency and you may become like a horse who has blinders on his eyes and can only see one view point.
It is no different when we look at the material found in the book of Proverbs concerning spanking
This is exactly what I have discovered since I started to study this subject in great detail. If you think that you are going to be guided by a few texts in the book of Proverbs and not going to let the rest of the Scripture speak on the issue of corporal punishment/spanking/smacking, you may only be seeing things in one direction and you may be missing God's whole counsel.
I think that it is really incumbent upon all of us to really study these matters carefully following the Biblical admonition which says:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV)
I think we would all agree that if one does not consider the text in its original context and how we in a modern world disconnected from that context by our own cultural biases and the cultural layers that are spread on our own world views, one may come to an understanding which is deficient.
In this regard, there is no more important issue to consider than what I call "gender space."
Gender Space: What is it and why should you as a Bible student care about it?
Gender Space may sound like a foreign concept which is found in sociological textbooks and to be discussed only in a university environment, but in fact this is not the case. Gender space is all around us and affects our behavior and our interaction with the world around us.
It is the recognition that there are roles and physical spaces where the gender differences are expressed and defined in clear and concrete ways.
Let me give you a simple example. Public restrooms. When one sees a sign indicating a public restroom, it is pretty easy to tell who is directed to go into which space. For either gender to enter the physical space of the other is in most cultures culturally out of bounds and not acceptable.
Gender space exists also in the Bible. A good example of this is found in Genesis 31:
"So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods." (Genesis 31:33-35 ESV)
Here isn't it interesting that you have gender space clearly indicated, but you also have gender boundaries. Laban was the father of Rachel, but he would not touch her personally due to her going through her monthly cycle. There existed a physical boundary between them due to this issue even though they were father and daughter!
We can also note that the women had their respective tents.
I have seen this in person. I have noted in my visits to semi-nomadic communities that the physical spaces where men and women meet and where brothers and sisters meet or where fathers and daughters meet or interact is bound by rules. This is especially the case when children grow up and start to mature. These rules are very different and put into operation very differently in semi-nomadic cultures like those of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (and even to a certain extent in his early life David - who practiced animal husbandry) compared to what one might experience in the Rocky Mountain states of the USA in 2013!
Today, in America, a Christian father would not be restricted from touching his teen age daughter during her monthly cycle, but in Biblical times, we have specific examples showing that they related differently one to another and we have evidence that they would not even touch each other! This is because there were laws which dictated physical cleanliness and demanded a respect of boundaries and physical space which in modern gentile culture today are just not in evidence.
As boys and girls mature, these rules become more pronounced and the taboos associated with them become stronger.
The places where men operate in the public sphere are very different where girls or women operate in some cultures. I think we have to really think this through when we are looking at the Bible because it is a layer that is on top of the texts. Those who ignore these issues risk potentially misunderstanding issues which on the issue just seem so plain and clear, but when you dig down to the sub-texts and the cultural environment or rhythm underneath, there are whole other forces at work or in operation.
It is difficult to draw precise conclusions from these texts, but they can help us to contextualize and point to general ideas that have to be considered when we are relating to the Biblical text. In every case, we need to take care.
Having a good translation of the Bible is so important here and here is why
The nuances of Scripture are often quite important. Here we need accurate translations of the original to help us to know what the original language indicates. Often though, questions about gender are blurred or adjusted for a variety of different reasons. A good example of this is found in the New Living Translation (NLT) in the book of Proverbs. Note it below:
"Don’t fail to discipline your children. They won’t die if you spank them." (Proverbs 23:13 NLT)
Now in this text, we can see no gender differences apparent, because of the phrase "your children." However, if you will check the following link, you will find several dozen other versions which have the text correct. This is not a second person plural construction, but a singular masculine noun.
Unfortunately, we see in this version no relevance to any gender differences. This is a problem.
It is particularly troubling in this particular version (the New Living Translation [NLT]) that we find major inconsistencies in translating the same terms in Hebrew, but the translators seem to want to blur the gender lines. Note the following:
http://biblehub.com/nlt/proverbs/4.htm - Note verses 1, 10 and 20
http://biblehub.com/nlt/proverbs/5.htm - Note verses 1 and 7
http://biblehub.com/nlt/proverbs/6.htm - Note verses 1 and 20 and note especially the use of 'my child."
http://biblehub.com/nlt/proverbs/7.htm - Note 1 and 24 where the text is obviously directed at a male
When you study these pages, you will see the translations moves back and forth between "son/sons" and "child" not really giving a reason why. This is unnecessary and blurs the gender differences and in some cases helps to create a misunderstanding.
Let me be clear. All of these texts are oriented to the male gender. For more information, see my free ebook where I have a whole chapter on this issue.
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How does this relate to interpreting the book of Proverbs on discipline?
The question we here have to ask ourselves is this: Would David or Solomon have looked at the issue of corporal punishment and their supposed advocacy for it in the same way that a modern minister (who is following their supposed advice) would?
David and Solomon had very different orientations and had a three dimensional life which is very different than you or I do today. I think we have to consider these differences and ask ourselves: Do the same parameters apply today?
A good example is pointed out in Prof. William Webb's excellent book "Corporal Punishment in the Bible."
Prof. Webb points to the following text showing that today, due to advances in medicine, we are not limited to give suffering patients only wine or strong drink to alleviate medically induced pain. We have today stronger drugs to do this job more effectively. Note this text.
"Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress:" (Proverbs 31:6 ESV)
No one in their right mind would suggest that on the basis of this text that we abandon modern medicine or modern pain killing drugs. Yet, when it comes to the issue of corporal punishment, all of a sudden, people start focusing on physical "rods" and how we need to follow the timeless Biblical directive.
Here are some points that we all need to think about in relating to Proverbs and some of these include gender aspects?
1. When you consider the gender spaces we've touched on here in Scripture, think about how this might impact father/child and especially father/daughter interactions.
2. The Hebrew culture of the Bible included a day of rest known as the Sabbath. One must consider the implications of the Sabbath and how the orientation of people on this day affected how families interacted. It was designed to be a day of joy and one where the spirit of peace and happiness (very much mirroring our future life in heaven) was to be in evidence. (Isaiah 58:13)
3. David, prior to his becoming king, lived in a rural environment and practiced animal husbandry. How was his physical space and orientation different when he lived with his family in Bethlehem compared to his life as a king? How might this impact his life?
4. David had six wives and many children. How does this issue impact his role as a father in the daily life of all of his children? Was he able to be a father in the same way as Christian men living in the USA or Europe today are to be fathers?
5. Many fathers in ancient times in rural farming areas worked six days per week and worked long hours outside of the home only to come home in the evening to be physically very tired. One can imagine that the actual physical time that children had with their fathers could have been very limited due to the weather, the lack of presence of light in homes, the customs of early sleeping and early rising, etc. We have to understand that the life of farmers in ancient times may have been very different and allowed much less actual interaction than we have today between fathers and their children.
These are just a few of the issues we need to keep in mind when interpreting Proverbs in particular. There are, of course, many more which could be introduced which we also need to pay attention to.
Free ebook by Samuel Martin:
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