Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts By William J. Webb (InterVarsity, 2011).

William Webb broke new ground with his “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic first propounded in his widely-debated book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (InterVarsity, 2001). This work is an application of that hermeneutic to a different issue: corporal punishment. While this book does not directly deal with preaching, its hermeneutic calls for thoughtful analysis and engagement by every preacher. If we are in the business of applying an ancient text to modern life, it behooves us to examine every application hermeneutic.

A brief explanation of the hermeneutic (57–73) is in order. Webb’s interpretive “movement” looks like this: X (original culture) → Y (Scripture) → Z (“ultimate ethic”) (59). For example, considering, say, Deut 21:10–14 that talks about capturing women in war for wives, Webb would compare that particular command, Y (in Scripture), with what was going on in the original culture with women POWSs, X. Noticing that Y depicted a moral and ethical improvement over X, Webb would have readers imagine a trajectory that could be extrapolated from X to Y to a postulated “ultimate ethic,” Z, which is not explicit in Scripture. Current readers, chronologically and ethically located between Y and Z, are then supposed to do all they can to get to Z (60–62). That scheme seems to be fraught with problems, but the critical issue is how one can arrive at this extra-scriptural “ultimate ethic” (Z). Is it simply the subjective opinion of the observer? And, by seeking an “ultimate ethic” outside the Scriptural text, does that mean that no text of the Bible ever articulates a terminus, an ultimate state of affairs? There is always a danger in looking at the Bible with our seemingly sophisticated eyes and declaring Scriptural injunctions as less than ethically ultimate: a Pandora’s box is thereby opened that permits a great deal of subjectivity.

Webb points to the inconsistencies of the “pro-spanking” camp: there is no upper age limit for corporal punishment in the Bible; there is no biblical basis for the “two smacks max” limit (forty strokes/lashes are advocated in Deut 25:3); there is no limitation of the location of biblical punishment to the buttocks or hand, no restriction upon causing bruises, welts, or wounds in the Bible, and no constraint on the use of the instrument of discipline to a paddle or a hand (28–52).  Webb thus turns the tables on the “pro-spanking” camp: as they alter the guidelines of the Bible for corporal punishment (Webb’s point of view), this camp is actually doing what Webb advocates in his hermeneutic: “They [the “pro-spanking” camp] have taken the redemptive spirit, which resides within the corporal punishment texts themselves, and gone beyond the concrete, frozen-in-time particulars of the text to a fuller realization of the biblical ethic” (37). He admits: “We should not assume that the social ethic found in the Bible always portrays an ultimate ethical fulfillment of its redemptive spirit” (51). Apparently, God did not see fit to demand an ultimate ethic of his people in those days, but decided only to nudge them in that general direction—“ a kinder and gentler administration of justice and toward a greater dignity for the human being who is punished” (84; emphases original).

I am not convinced that the pictures painted by Webb are real. Not only was the ancient near eastern cultural ethic (X) never monolithic, some might argue that in some cases—for e.g., the freedom of women to serve as leaders in pagan worship—it was even “better” than the more restrictive biblical stipulations. So in which direction (Z) are we to proceed? One could consider the development of human governance in the Bible: a one-man show in Moses’ time, to amphictyony in Judges, to monarchy later. From our vantage point today, we see the ideal as democracy. But the ultimate ethic is clearly stated in the Bible—it is a monarchy, with Jesus Christ ruling with a rod of iron. This again makes the trajectory towards a fancied extrabiblical “ultimate ethic” a matter of conjecture.

All in all, I recommend Webb’s latest offering. Even though one might carp about his argumentation, there is much there that needs to be grappled with. For all those with any interest in the hermeneutics of application (and that includes the majority of the readers of this Journal) this book is a must read. Well written, in an easy conversational style, it promises, unlike other works on hermeneutics, not to put anyone off with abstruse terminology and references. This book has certainly made me think!

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 12 (2012): 80–81

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