Her name was Jennie, a friend of my family. One day she came to me for advice.
Jennie, her husband, and their four children were attending a fundamentalist Church. She was a timid little thing. At the time, her husband had been abusing her verbally and physically, even pulling a gun on her during sex. At that point she stopped being intimate with him. But one day he came to her and said, “O.K I was wrong. Please forgive me. The Bible says you have to. And now you have to have sex with me.” She was not persuaded.
Jennie was teaching Sunday School at their church. One say she told one of the elders, “You know, I have been teaching Sunday School here for some time. Shouldn’t I join the Church?” The elder said, “I don’t think you are going to want to do that.” She said, “Why not?” He said, “Because if you do you we will have to denounce you from the pulpit because you are not making yourself available to your husband.” They had in fact done that in the case of another woman.
I imagine some of you might get upset with this story, but why? They were following Scripture, as was Jennie’s husband. He confessed his sin to her, and doesn’t the Bible say, “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22) And doesn’t the Bible say, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25)
And as for the elder’s advice, doesn’t the Bible say, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matt 18:15-17).
What’s your problem? These people were being entirely biblical! By strict canons of interpretation, assuming Jennie had resisted repeated entreaties to resume intimacy with her husband, she was wrong, and her husband and the church, right.
But sometimes being “right” is so wrong.
Paul warns us about this, and gives us a handle that must be used in order to modify our rigid, “right” but ultimately so very wrong interpretations.
In Romans 14, Paul is dealing with disputes concerning whether it is better for Roman Christians to eat only vegetables or if it is alright to eat meat. The problem with meat is that Christians, who were generally poor, could buy meat more cheaply after it had been offered to idols in one of the pagan temples in the city, and then taken to the butcher stall to be sold. The issue was, “Is the food spiritually tainted if it had been offered to idols?” Paul is not talking about whether the food is kosher or not—this is not about what kinds of meats one eats, but about whether one should or should not eat meat of whatever kind if it had even possibly been offered to idols prior to its purchase.
Paul teaches that as far as being spiritually contaminated, food is not actually contaminated by being offered to idols. It does not develop spiritual “cooties” (v. 14). But suppose there is a brother, a fellow believer, for whom the idea of eating food that even possibly might have been offered to idols is a big issue. Paul says “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Messiah died.” In other words, as Paul says elsewhere, we ought to limit our freedom where the wellbeing of others is at stake.
Paul makes the application nicely for us in verses 21-22: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
So the point here is that even in matters of “right” and “wrong” we need to exercise some flexibility when we factor in the wellbeing of others.
Similarly, in the case of Jennie, even if the elders had some Bible verses that entitled them to rebuke her publicly, it was wrong for them to do so if by so doing they would be doing violence to her. That elder who warned her not to join the church had the right instinct: the church was going to act on “biblical principle,” but if and when they did, she would be grievously injured and socially stigmatized. And regardless of how "right" the principle was, great care needed to be taken lest this be needlessly done.
The way I see it is that perhaps the most dangerous person in the world is a man with a proof text. Much violence has been done by people who had a verse to justify what they did. Similarly, one of the most frightening sentences one can hear in religious circles is this one: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Terrifying. What this formula misses is this better alternative: “The Bible says what it says. I interpret it. I believe my interpretation. What do you think?”
The Jewish tradition has learned this lesson. In the Torah we read about stoning the rebellious son.
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear (Deut 21:18-21)
What should one do with such a passage? The meaning seems clear. . . and terrifying, If one were to do a simply analysis of the words, there could be only one outcome: that the biblically faithful community should stone rebellious sons. Can there by any doubt that this is a very dangerous passage to come across if one adopts an "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it" approach!?
The Jewish community recognized that such an approach would be morally repugnant and in fact wrong, despite the neat and tidy hermeneutics. Here is what one Jewish website said about this issue. (See here).
It is an old and probably valid tradition that there never had been, nor ever will be, a rebellious son, and that the law had been pronounced for educational and deterrent purposes only, so that parents be rewarded for bringing their children up properly (ibid.; Tosef. Sanh. 11:6).
Interpreting every single word of the biblical text restrictively, the talmudic jurists reduced the practicability of this law to nil. The "son" must be old enough to bear criminal responsibility, that is 13 years of age, but must still be a "son" and not a man: as soon as a beard grows ("by which is meant the pubic hair, not that of the face, for the sages spoke euphemistically") he is no longer a "son" but a man (Sanh. 8:1). The period during which he may thus be indicted as a "son" is three months only (Sanh. 69a; Yad, Mamrim 7:6), or, according to another version, not more than six months (TJ, Sanh. 8:1). The term "son" excludes a daughter (Sanh. 8:1; Sif. Deut. 218), though daughters are no less apt to be rebellious (Sanh. 69b–70a).
The offense is composed of two distinct elements: repeated (Sif. loc. cit.) disloyalty and defiance, consisting in repudiating and reviling the parents (Ex. 21:17), and being a "glutton and drunkard." This second element was held to involve the gluttonous eating of meat and drinking of wine (in which sense the same words occur in Prov. 23:20–21), not on a legitimate occasion (Sanh. 8:2), but in the company of loafers and criminals (Sanh. 70b; Yad, Mamrim 7:2) and in a ravenous manner (Yad, Mamrim 7:1). There are detailed provisions about the minimum quantities that must be devoured to qualify for the use of the term (cf. Yad, Mamrim 7:2–3). As no "son" can afford such extravagance, the law requires that he must have stolen money from his father and misappropriated it to buy drinks and food (Sanh. 8:3, 71a; Yad, Mamrim 7:2). "Who does not heed his father and mother" was interpreted as excluding one who does not heed God: thus, eating pork or other prohibited food, being an offense against God, would not qualify as gluttony in defiance of parents (ibid.). But it was also said that one who in his use of the stolen money performed a precept and thus heeded his Father in heaven could not be indicted (TJ, Sanh. 8:2).
As father and mother have to be "defied," to "take hold of him," to "say" to the elders, and to show them "this" is our son, neither of them may be deaf, dumb, blind, lame, or crippled, or else the son cannot be indicted as rebellious (Sanh. 8:4; Sif. Deut. 219). Either of them could condone the offense and withdraw the complaint at any time before conviction (Sif. Deut. 218; Sanh. 88b; TJ, Sanh. 8:6; Yad, Mamrim 7:8).
My point is this: the Jewish community realized that the plain meaning of the text was an unacceptable one. In my view this passage in Deuteronomy is an example of what I term "limit language," where God speaks in the harshest terms to forbid an action. But it is not meant to be interpreted woodenly, but rather as a measure of the intensity of God's feelings on the matter at hand.
Four suggestions in conclusion:
If you read social media as much as I do, you will find religious people denouncing political figures and others in the news in the most strident of terms, often using the Bible as their justification.
But remember: there is nothing more dangerous than a person with a proof text. Beware, especially when that person is you!
*"Jennie" is a pseudonym. Certain facts of the story have been changed, but the material about her husband's conduct and "apology" and the actions of the church are true.
« In Praise of Being Wrong