Thursday, February 19, 2015

Understanding the Bible: Why is Context So Important?

I enjoy reading Jonathan Merritt's column in Religion News Service each day. He is very smart, and courageous, and always has a fascinating take on the issues of the day.

We also have a little bit of a personal connection. He's very on top of social media, so he frequently likes or retweets things I say in reference to his column. Plus, he traveled to Syria with the director of my department, and I know he has a great respect for World Vision's ministry.

Jonathan also has one of the most devoted followings of rabid atheists I have seen, on anything he writes. If I were him I'd actually be quite flattered that they apparently read every word and seek to insert their opinions vociferously on almost anything he says.

There's one in particular, who dubs himself "Atheist Max," who is always there. He argues with every Christian opinion, to the point where many accuse him of "spamming" the column. (What does this guy do for a living, I wonder? How does he find the time?) He tries to portray himself as a defender of reason, but readily admits he hates religion. His attacks are quite vicious and often ad hominem.

One of the most frightening things he does is subtly twist Scripture and quote it out of context as part of his apparent mission to make God look like a tyrant and His followers like fools.

As part of a recent column on ISIS, Max presented a list of about two dozen New Testament passages and headlined each in such a way as to ignore its context in order to portray Jesus as a violent and evil man. After several Christians complained about the way he took Scripture out of context, he responded:
"Complaining a verse is 'Out of context' is a dishonor on yourself. It is a way to claim a loophole so you can wriggle out of your responsibility for promoting your despicable Bible. Like a used car salesman who KNOWINGLY sells a crappy vehicle and hides behind the small print! Shame on you for trying to hide your small print!"
You can see that he's pretty over-the-top. I then exercised the temerity to say: "That’s absolute nonsense. Context is critical to the accurate interpretation of any work of literature, let alone one as diverse and century-spanning as the Bible."

I guess this was kind of like painting a bulls' eye target on my back. Max came back with this response:
"If you believe your own nonsense then please answer my question. Under what circumstance is it GOOD AND HUMANE to cut off your wife’s hand for touching another man’s penis? By all means put this depravity 'in context' and let’s see how that improves this ridiculous argument."

How does context make a difference?

Max was of course referring to Deuteronomy 25:11-12 ...
If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
After much prayer, and realizing whatever I said wasn't actually going to help convince Max any, but could instead be an opportunity to share the Gospel with others, I decided to reply. Here's how I responded:


Max, thank you! By citing Deuteronomy 25:11-12 you’ve provided the perfect example of why context is so important. Hang on, it’s a deep dive, and since I know you will argue I’ll just say this will be my last word on the subject.

“Good and humane” … Deuteronomy is a book about justice. The very name means “law.” It is a code of justice governing the Jewish theocracy.

“Humaneness” doesn’t enter into the equation. Just like “American Sniper” really is about justice. The sniper’s goal is not to be humane, it’s to protect lives and mete out justice.

Justice is the first half of goodness. Mercy is the second half. The Old Testament law established the demands of God’s justice. The New Testament reveals God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” The penalty of sin is death. Justice.

But Jesus died to give us life. Romans 5:8 says: “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Mercy.

So the context of Deuteronomy is justice. Now to your statement: “cut off your wife’s hand for touching another man’s penis.” Context shows this to be a complete misreading of the text. Verse 11 sets the context: Two men are in a fight. More or less a fair fight, one against the other. But one of the two men’s wives comes along and tips the scales of justice … she “reaches out and seizes him by his private parts.” Says nothing about his penis, so assume the whole package. She is reaching between the man’s legs while he is focused on the fight, and trying to rip off his balls.

If you were that man, I think you would want some justice, no? It’s a violent, physical, sexual assault, not a titilating encounter as you have erroneously (out of context) tried to depict.

And it’s not her husband who’s charged with cutting off her hand (your assertion to this end is simply silly and misinformed at best) … it’s the Law. The government.

It’s interesting to note that Jewish scholars interpreted this command in a way that balanced justice with mercy. I assume this was a rare occurrence, but when it happened, they typically charged a fine “equal to the value of the woman’s hand” (whatever that was), rather than actually cut it off. Justice and mercy.

The point of this law, of course, was to establish justice. You can’t rip off a person’s balls while they are in a fair fight with your husband, and get away with it.

Does that help you see how important context is?

My prayer for you, Max, is that you would experience not just the justice, but the mercy of Jesus. Perhaps then you will be less inclined to take God’s holy Word out of context in a vain effort to validate your own twisted views of the universe.


(I've got to say, in conclusion, that's the only time I've ever felt led to use the phrase "rip off his balls" in a post while sharing the Gospel!)

Please share your own thoughts. How have you found principles of contextual interpretation to matter while you are studying Scripture?

1 comment:

kc bob said...

I think that the context of culture is rarely voiced when folks read the OT. And the context of God's image as a warrior deity is not factored into that context either.

In my view, Jesus came to provide context to God's image and Mosaic Law.