I’ve been pondering an idea for a while but haven’t had the time to do it, so I’d like to do some crowdsourcing. There are a lot of Bible verses that we regularly hear brutally misused. I’m not just talking about a verse that is a ambiguous and there are different interpretations of it. I’m talking about things like quoting half a verse while ignoring the other half in order to make a point completely opposed to what is directly said in the second half.
Here are some I’ve already been thinking about. After compiling for a while, I realised they fit well into a few major themes:
First we have the texts that we use to support violence.
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:23-25 NIVUK)
I actually just wrote about this, so won’t again, but it is even directly overwritten by Jesus!
‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34 NIVUK)
In context, of course, if Jesus were talking about a literal sword for his followers to employ, he would have been telling them to kill their families with it (or at least their non-Christian families).
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:4 NIVUK)
Let’s ignore the preceding Romans 12, and presuppose that this is talking about Christians in government 300 years before that happened, and then conclude that it is our duty to kill people!
Pro-Violence/Judgement (of God)
Very closely related, we get those texts that are used to make God judgemental, violence, or downright evil.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised. (Job 1:21b)
This attitude is rebuked and it comes within a story of Satan taking things away from Job, so why do we cite it and sometimes even sing it as true?
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9 NIVUK)
Often used to explain why God is angrier, more violent, and less just than we are, when the context is the exact opposite.
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Work out salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)
Typically used to say we need to be afraid God will punish us or he’ll revoke our salvation, ignoring that the preceding verses were about how humble and self-sacrificial God is and that we are told to work out our salvation, not work to keep our salvation.
Shame and Control
These may be the most ugly of all, the texts used to shame and control other Christians legitimately trying to follow Jesus the best they can.
Touch not mine anointed (1 Chronicles 16:22a KJV)
Used by abusive pastors or other authorities to keep anyone from questioning their power. Previous verse: how God didn’t let anybody oppress his people but rebuked kings on their behalf.
Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.(Proverbs 22:6 NIVUK)
Often used to shame parents. If they have turned from the way they should go, obviously it was your fault for not putting them on the right path. This is a straight-up denial of the genre of Proverbs which speaks in broad generalities – it is not saying that children have no free will!
‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. (Matthew 7:1 NIVUK)
I can’t count the number of times I’ve questioned whether something is a problem and I’ve had this quoted to me without them taking the concern seriously. It seems to be viewed as the ultimate trump card: how dare I judge them for being judgemental?
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
So if you are overtaken by a temptation, clearly it’s your fault.
Money is the root of all evil (not what the Bible actually says)
This one is actually just being misquoted, typically to make people who have more money than you feel guilty about it. It actually says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).
It’s All About Me
Individualism and self-centredness at its finest.
11 For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
The meme sums up the problem with how this one is typically used.
Ask and it will be given to you (Luke 11:9)
Often used as prosperity teaching, in context it comes right after explaining what kind of things they should ask for: in short, the Kingdom.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Like some of the other prosperity stuff, it is clearly not saying that God will make sure nothing bad happens to you. Side note: I’m a little tempted to put the entire book of Romans on this list, along with the entire book of Revelation, but that arguably goes into the territory of valid alternate interpretations.
13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)
No, being a Christian does not turn you into a superhero, or, as it most often seems to be used, the world’s greatest athlete.
Leave It To Beaver Values Reinforcement
The household codes, such as:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:21-22 NIVUK)
Notice most don’t usually include the next part about slaves, considering we typically agree that part doesn’t apply. Most of the time they don’t include the introduction about submitting one to another, and sometimes they don’t even bother bringing up the man’s half which is even more demanding and far more radical in the context. I’ve written about these lots of times, but in short, not only do many not bother with the context of the author, most don’t even bother with the preceding and following passages.
11 The poor you will always have with you (Matthew 26:11a)
Therefore, don’t bother trying to fix it, right? Nope. In context it is prioritizing a centrality of Jesus, which if you take seriously means caring for the poor as he did and taught. Plus he’s quoting Deuteronomy 15, so if you look at that you’ll conclude some interesting things.
And of course there are the very few texts that may be about homosexuality. Here’s one example:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (1 Corinthians 6:9 NIVUK)
with the footnote:
The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.
Even though even some fundamentalist scholars admit that these two words are hard to translate, the supposedly-ecumenical NIV still puts that footnote as very matter-of-fact because politics (as many translations do). Even if translated correctly here, most don’t bother looking at the other things listed around it in any of the places that something possibly to do with homosexuality appears and are not remotely consistent with this judgementalism.
That turned into a lengthy post, but if you have more ideas, leave them in the comments.
This post is the first in a short semi-autobiographical series I’m doing called Embracing Ubuntu. Ubuntu, for those who aren’t familiar, is an African concept that is hard to translate but means something like “diversity in unity.” It is neither uniformity – making everyone the same or not talking about differences – nor is a free-for-all battle where anything goes. It is a recognition that is simple in theory but hard in practice: we are all different and that doesn’t make me better than you. I’ve expressed this idea many times, often using the Anabaptist phrasing the “Third Way,” but in this series I want to give examples of where I have encountered it working.
I’ll start at the beginning. It is a very good place to start (cue Sound of Music stuck in each of our heads). I had been in churches and campus fellowships that on the surface allowed questioning, but for the most part if your questioning got you to a different conclusion than them, you clearly didn’t belong there. The most painful was another campus group that was particularly judgemental, but I think some other examples in my life could have been less blunt versions of the same idea if I had crossed the wrong lines. For the most part we stuck to uniformity.
8 Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. 9 Then have the trumpet blown on the tenth day of the seventh month. Have the trumpet blown throughout your land on the Day of Reconciliation. 10 You will make the fiftieth year holy, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It will be a Jubilee year for you: each of you must return to your family property and to your extended family. 11 The fiftieth year will be a Jubilee year for you. Do not plant, do not harvest the secondary growth, and do not gather from the freely growing vines 12 because it is a Jubilee: it will be holy to you. You can eat only the produce directly out of the field. 13 Each of you must return to your family property in this year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-13 CEB)
The practice of the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year are far from the only laws designed around equal economics. There are laws against charging interest on loans (Lev 25:36). There are laws against taking collateral on loans (Exod 22:25-27). There are laws against moving boundary markers between your property and your neighbour’s to expand your property (Deut 19:14; 27:17). There are laws making sure anyone can buy back their land at any time if they come up with the money (Lev 25:24-28). The Jubilee and Sabbath years are, however, among the most radical and so I want to give it a bit more focus here than others.
How the System Worked
For some background, we have to remember that wealth at this time is largely determined by real estate. They didn’t have savings accounts or investments in corporations. The idea of having money for the sake of having money is a very recent one. They did have a coin system, but wealth was still measured in what practical things you bought with those coins: cattle, wives, slaves, and especially land. Land also then became the main way for people to gain an advantage at the expense of others.
Many of the other laws would limit these attempts at exploitation, but it would still happen to some degree. Jubilee was essentially a giant reset button, wiping out trading of property that had been built up. It was not strictly speaking an elimination of debt. Those buying the land knew that they had to return it and they paid less accordingly. This mean that those who shrewdly took advantage of those in economic trouble were not particularly punished; they were just limited in how far they could go with this wealth-accumulation strategy.
It is true of course that some would get into debt through their own fault an we might be tempted to say that it isn’t really fair to “let them off the hook so easily.” I actually think it’s very fair. They still were forced to sell their land to make ends meet and in many cases they essentially sold themselves into slavery as well. The fact that they were limitations on how poor they were allowed to become for how long doesn’t mean that it would be anywhere near an easy experience for them. Besides, many others were the victims of injustice, not in poverty through any fault of their own. These people in debt would have to experience significant consequences – up until the next Jubilee – but there was still a guarantee that they would have a second chance. This is another great window into the heart of God: she may not suddenly and miraculously remove all of the consequences when we fall short and get ourselves in trouble or even when others hurt us, but there is always an opportunity for restoration.
There are a some details that we aren’t sure about. For one that is mostly academic, it is debatable whether it was the 50th year or whether it was the 49th, merged with the 7th of the 7 Sabbath years. The former would mean two straight years of not harvesting which could cause significant strain on the average person surviving on their agricultural output, if God did not provide in any miraculous way that is, but that does seem to be a more literal reading of the text. The latter would make more “common sense” but really having everyone take off an entire year every 7th isn’t exactly common sensical either. It doesn’t particularly matter in terms of what principles we can draw from it, though.
The Ideal and the Real
For another that does have some more interesting implications, we don’t know if or how often this was ever actually practised. Most today would probably look at this as a great idea in theory but too crazy to put into practice. The same is probably true of the Ancient Israelites. It may have been put into effect occasionally but there is no evidence that it was a consistent practice as commanded.
Previously I discussed how Jesus shows that the Law stooped to the hardened hearts of Israel. Perhaps this law didn’t stoop far enough and it gives us a prime demonstration of the gap between the ideal and the real. Of course we always want to strive after the ideal, but sometimes our context simply is not ready for it, so we settle for something more subversive, pushing in the right direction. That principle is really all through Scripture: the Law, the prophets, the Gospels, and maybe most strongly of all in the writings of Paul.
We could debate what if anything we should take from this law today. We are not a land-based economy, although we have no shortage of debt in various forms. Of course there is no government initiative to try to do the same as this law suggested. That would fly very much in opposition to our capitalist framework and I can’t even blame them for not attempting something so radical.
That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to live out the heart of Jubilee. We can find ways to level the playing field economically; some churches even go so far as to share all their money in common just like the early church did in Acts. We can find ways to limit the ways in which the rich exploit the poor around us, widening the gap when we as Christians should be seeking to reduce it. As usual, I’ll leave it open for you to figure out, ideally within your community, what that looks like in your context. Feel free to comment with ideas here.
You have more than likely heard about a small fragment of papyrus that suggests that Jesus had a wife. The fragment was recently dated to be authentic from somewhere between 659 and 859 CE. Some who love conspiracy are saying that this proves Jesus had a wife but the Church buried it because that would give too much power to women. I have two thoughts in response to that.
Most worship music I’ve found to be ecumenically-friendly. Even when I’m out worshipping with other branches of Christianity, I don’t see too many problems with the lyrics of the songs we sing. But being trained in theology, including worship planning, I do tend to notice lyrics that don’t fit with my theological understanding.
Here are just a few examples:
Slavery was completely acceptable and even expected in the Old Testament Law. It even seems on the surface to be supported in the New Testament, too. When people tried to abolish slavery in the United States and in England (including Canada as a colony), defenders of the practice didn’t have any problem finding passages to support their view. And yet we pretty consistently today agree that slavery of any type is wrong. So along with the general look at how the vulnerable are protected in the Law, I want to specifically focus on slavery.
Ancient Near Eastern Slavery
First, let’s get a grasp of their context. Slavery in the Ancient Near East was not the same as slavery in the Southern United States, which is what we usually think of when we hear slavery. It was not the same as a lot of slavery that exists today. It definitely wasn’t good to be a slave, so don’t get me wrong there, but it isn’t quite what we jump to. It wasn’t about race where one race enslaved another, as in the British Empire and the United States, although when a nation conquered another they could enslave some of their people as spoils of war.
The primary reason to be enslaved was economic. If I owed somebody money, I could pay off my debt by working for them for a set amount of time. I remember growing up and going out to restaurants when my family would joke that if we couldn’t pay for the meal we’d have to do dishes to pay it off (we didn’t have a dishwasher so that meant by hand). That’s the general concept – if you don’t have money, you’d pay by labour – but for a longer period of time.
If we were to fast forward to the New Testament, this makes sense of some of the things that Jesus said. He tells one parable where a servant is forgiven his huge debt by his master but refuses to extend that same forgiveness to another servant who owed him money. They are servants because they owe money, so the forgiveness that the master showed the first servant was more than just a $0 on a debt statement – it was freedom from service. Jesus also teaches us to pray that our debts are forgiven as we forgive the debts of others. Some translations change this word from “debt” and we who are free tend to read it as an abstract concept, but in the strictest context it is asking for the removal of literal monetary debts that led to slavery.
So what kind of things did God’s Law say in these slavery conditions?
2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he will serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he will go free without any payment. 3 If he came in single, he will leave single. If he came in married, then his wife will leave with him. 4 If his master gave him a wife and she bore him sons or daughters, the wife and her children will belong to her master. He will leave single. 5 However, if the slave clearly states, “I love my master, my wife, and my children, and I don’t want to go free,” 6 then his master will bring him before God. He will bring him to the door or the doorpost. There his master will pierce his ear with a pointed tool, and he will serve him as his slave for life.
7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. 8 If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family. He has no right to sell her to a foreign people since he has treated her unfairly. 9 If he assigns her to his son, he must give her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he takes another woman for himself, he may not reduce her food, clothing, or marital rights. 11 If he doesn’t do these three things for her, she will go free without any payment, for no money. (Exodus 21:2-11 CEB)
Let’s recap from this text and others:
Male Hebrew slaves serve for 6 years maximum. You could argue that they should be called servants more than slaves, definitely not a good place to be but as family they were treated well enough to survive and be free in a few years. Maybe we could think of it more like prison than slavery.
Female slaves were more complicated. There seems to be some conflict on if or when female slaves are released. The difference is probably whether or not the master has had sex with her. If he has, he is obligated to take her as a wife and treat her as well as any other wives (in the culture, you could have as many wives as you could afford to take care of). In today’s Western culture we might read this and think that it is forcing a woman to marry her rapist, something we definitely would not condone, but we should think in contrast to other nations at the time where women were bought for sex and then discarded whenever the buyer had had enough. Yes, she is considered property, but this law guarantees that she continues to live and live a reasonably good life rather than being forced into prostitution or begging. If the master hasn’t had sex with her, she can return to her father who would still be able to find a husband for her.
Foreigners could be enslaved for a longer period of time (Lev 25:44-46), but they were also protected in some ways. There may be some conflict here as well. In the Old Testament, when they are commanded to love their neighbour (Lev 19:18), it meant fellow Israelites, but this is something that Jesus would expand (Luke 10:25-37). Only slightly less blatant than the command to love neighbours, though, is Leviticus 19:33-34:
When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. (CEB)
It is not directly saying that foreign slaves would have the same protections as Hebrew slaves and there is no evidence I’m aware of that the Ancient Israelites read it that way, but if you have to treat them like one of your own citizens, it isn’t a stretch to conclude that they still had to be treated reasonably well (with no details of what that means).
Finally, sanctuary was provided to any escaped slaves (Deut 23:15):
Don’t return slaves to owners if they’ve escaped and come to you. (CEB)
Hospitality was a big deal in the Ancient Near East. This wouldn’t have meant a simple passive not turning them in while not helping them either. If somebody comes to you for help, you help them in real practical ways like food and a place to rest.
Why Not Abolish?
The obvious question is why God wouldn’t have just commanded the end of slavery entirely. This is God’s chance to set the Law on what righteous living looks like. So assuming that slavery is a bad thing, why would God settle for regulating it instead of abolishing it entirely? This goes back to the idea of the heart of the Law. As Jesus demonstrated with divorce, God sometimes sinks to our hard-hearted levels for what is realistic in our context instead of the ideal. It isn’t that God’s ideal changed, just that God works with the level that we are at. Now, we are past the age where slavery was simply assumed. There are extremely few people who would suggest that we need to take these laws literally by reimplementing (regulated) slavery. But we can look at this principle of dignity for all – regardless of income, race, gender or anything else – and work in ways that best encourage this dignity.
21 Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22 Don’t treat any widow or orphan badly. 23 If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry. 24 I’ll be furious, and I’ll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.
25 If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don’t be a creditor and charge them interest. 26 If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27 His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I’ll listen, because I’m compassionate. (Exodus 22:21-24)
In Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:18-21, and Deuteronomy 19:21, the Israelites are given this principle called the lex talionis:
23 If there is further injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, 25 a burn for a burn, a bruise for a bruise, a wound for a wound. (Exodus 21:23-25 CEB) Continue reading Lex Talionis
Yeah yeah, I know, I’ve already written lots about the backlash to World Vision’s recent announcement they would hire legally-married gay Christians. I promise I’ll move on soon – or at least I’ll try to – but I wanted to hit on something else that I got thinking about. It’s this question: what theology would it take to see holding children hostage as an acceptable – even necessary – option?