Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Train up a Child in Whose Way?

'Little boy / big castle' photo (c) 2010, Jim Champion - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it." Proverbs 22:6, KJV

If ever parents wanted a Bible verse to cling to, to claim a promise for their own children, it was this one. 

Based on Proverbs 22:6, books have been written, conferences have been held, and prayers have been prayed. Some Christians do not take Proverbs 22:6 lightly. In fact, one of these books, To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, has been linked to three child murders. While the Pearls advocate an extreme method of "child training" that most Christians do not employ (thank God!), most of us who have grown up in the Church have heard this verse. 

I have always had a problem with this verse for three reasons. First, it is often applied as a promise, but it simply is not. It is a proverb, a piece of wisdom. That is all. Second, I have known many individuals who were arguably "trained in the way they should go" but have significantly departed from it as adults. (Parents of wayward children have probably been guilt-ridden about this too!) Third, and perhaps most importantly, I simply didn't see how the writer of this proverb thought sin and brokenness could be so easily defeated. If having a good life is as easy as proper training, why does the world need Jesus? And why isn't it working? 

My personal problems with Proverbs 22:6 aside, there is a bigger problem with this verse.

I hate to be the one to break the news to everyone, but Bible translation has failed miserably in regard to Proverbs 22:6 and we have all been duped. 

Okay, now hold on. I hear you groaning already: "Oh great, she's going to tell us what the Hebrew really says, as if the Hebrew is clear. Pulease." I get it. I really do. If Scripture were clear, many scholars and pastors would be out of work. 

So, I'm not going to pretend as if the Hebrew is clear here because it's not. But I (via my awesome professor and a little independent verification) can tell you what Proverbs 22:6 doesn't say. Ready?


The word should, or an indication that the way is God's way, is NOT in the text at all. So what is there? The most literal translation is a bit convoluted, but it says:

"Initiate for the child on the mouth of his way; even when he is old, he will not turn from it." (A source other than my professor is here.)

Yep, that's right. There is no indication that "the way" is a good way. In fact, "the way" belongs to the boy, meaning it is "his way." A looser translation could be:

"Start a kid down his own way; even when he is old, he will not turn from it."

Now, I know it's ballsy to say that the English translation is blatantly wrong. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that Scripture is wrong; the Scriptures as they are in the original languages are holy and pure. But, for some reason the KJV inserted a "should" into this verse and it has been translated ever since using that lens. (In terms of scholarship, the KJV has a lot of problems. Some newer translations are actually better. Sorry KJV adherents. It's beautiful in some places, but it also includes the word unicorn in six places, as well as having other serious source problems.)

But translation problems aside, what does the proverb actually mean? Because of the odd wording, it's hard to know precisely. But my professor's best guess is that it means the complete opposite of how we interpret it. That one little word should makes all the difference. The proverb is a tongue-in-cheek statement about the way life works, not a prediction for those who are good parents.

Think about it this way: Give your kid his way, and when he's older he'll live life according to himself. And for the record, your children's own ways are sinful and selfish. Proverbs is continually contrasting "the good way" to "the bad way", and this verse is referring to the latter, not to the former. You know the phrase "stuck in his ways"? That is closer to the idea here. We must teach children to think about and care for others, to communicate and follow God, and not to live lives that are all about themselves.

Moreover, do you see the word train there? Neither do I. I understand how train could be one understanding of initiate (which is also translated as dedicate), but the Scripture is hinting more at pointing the child in the right direction and giving him a little jump start, not at using obedience training.

Let's all just keep in mind that children are not dogs and should not be trained as if they are. I am often flabbergasted by the emphasis on obedience training in Christian parenting advice. Obedience training is moralistic behavior-modification for children. I'm not saying teaching our children to be obedient is bad, I'm saying that obedience should not be the goal of Christian parenting. Children should primarily be enraptured by the story of God and how they fit into it, not with their own behavior. 

So that's what Proverbs 22:6 does and doesn't say. What do you think? Am I being disrespectful toward the Scriptures or is this actually freeing for all of you parents out there?

Oh, and for the record, I know I said earlier that "I hate to be the one to break the news," but that was a lie. I really love being the one who breaks news like this. Now please go tell your friends so that we can all stop throwing this verse around incorrectly. I'll go work on my degree so that I can contribute to a translation that is a bit less inaccurate one day.

As a follow-up, read what to do if you suspect abuse here.

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