“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose…”
This is a line from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but the prevalence of its quotation these days, especially from Christians, has made me wonder if a lot of people wrongly assume it to be a biblical proverb, right up there with “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Honk if you love Jesus.”
The line is often used as a warning, to watch out for people who would twist Scripture to prove their own un-biblical beliefs. There are right-wing Christians who will toss it out like a caution flag amidst the liberal “war on faith,” while others will cite Shakespeare’s line as a rebuttal to those whose favorite past-time is biblical proof-texting.
Funny thing, though, about this oh-so-wise aphorism is that when placed back in its original context, it’s purpose changes dramatically. When Antonio, the so-named “merchant of Venice,” tells his friend and client, Bassanio, that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” (referring to Shylock’s biblical allusion of money-lending), he is not speaking out of wisdom, but bigotry. Antonio is an anti-Semite who bears no trust for Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, and also has no qualms about directly labeling the guy “the devil” in his presence.
My point is, just like lines from Shakespeare, a lot of folks may also routinely cite Scripture for their purposes, and not all of them are devils or even proof-texters. However, it turns out many of us have been misinformed regarding the true meaning of certain “well-known” passages.
#3 – Sodom is Destroyed Not for Sexual Impurity but Social Impropriety (Genesis 19)
What You Thought It Was About
Judgment on a society involved in rampant homosexual activity.
In the story, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, welcomes the sudden arrival of two angelic visitors to Sodom. Unlike our modern cinematic interpretations of angels, it’s likely these two visitors are not pale-faced, moussed-hair Scandinavians wearing trench coats. Rather, Lot greets them as he would visiting lords or foreign royalty. He invites them to stay in his home, but the angels tell him they plan to spend the night in the town square.
Lot “urges them strongly” to reconsider (there’s no evidence the Hyatt in Sodom was top-of-the-line) and they do. Later that night, all the men of the town (including young boys) show up at Lot’s door and demand he give up his two visitors, “so that we may know them.” The basic interpretation of these words is that the men wanted to rape the angels. (The statement in Hebrew is “Yatsa yada yada,” which puts that Seinfeld episode in a whole new light.) When Lot refuses their request – to the point of offering his daughters and even himself instead – the men riot and threaten to break down his door. The angels then reveal to Lot the real reason for their visit: they were sent to destroy the city. Before initiating the divine smackdown, however, they kindly usher Lot and his family out the back.
What It’s Actually About
Just like with Shakespeare, the Achilles heel of biblical proof-texting is a not-so-little thing called context. In this case, the preceding story in Genesis helps shed some light by way of contrast, as do the statements the supposedly rape-focused men say about Lot also.
In the story that immediately precedes this one, Lot’s uncle Abraham extends an incredibly gracious and humble welcome to three angelic visitors (the identities of which are commonly interpreted as God himself and the two angels of the Sodom account). After having a generous feast prepared for them, Abraham then journeys on with them for some distance after they stay in his home (18:1-16). The guy is such a bend-over-backwards brown-noser, you’d think he was working for tips.
Why is this significant?
Well, now consider the entirety of the Sodom account itself. Lot proves he’s learned how to be a good host from his uncle, and he also urges the angels “strongly” not to stay in town. It almost seems like Lot knows they won’t receive a warm welcome from anyone else – that gladly rolling out the welcome mat is not how Sodom does things. Which is tragic, because hospitality was considered to be, culturally speaking, very important. It was the litmus test for what made you a good and honorable person, or a good and honorable community. In this day and age, so much of your quality as a human being was tied to your capacity for generosity and benevolence. Welcome the stranger and the traveler, and you would find blessing from God. Reject them, or, worse yet, take advantage of them, and you were persona non grata.
David, Ahimelech and the holy bread in 1st Samuel 21. Mary, the wedding hosts and the lack of wine in John 2. Jesus’ story about the man who bothers his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night in Luke 11. All of these hinge on the priority of being a good host, a deeply ingrained social contract of hospitality. Were you to neglect or break this contract, your reputation would be forever blackened and would lead to the inevitable suffering that comes from a reputation as a social pariah.
Unless, that is, you lived in a town full of pariahs.
Consider the way the men of Sodom react against Lot after he refuses them access to his visitors:
“And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’” (19:9)
You can either choose to believe that all these men just suddenly became alarmingly rape-y all at the same time (and chose to perform history’s largest gang-rape as a way to satisfy those urges), or you can believe that the attempted rape, while shocking, was a means to an end; in this case, domination by subjugation and degradation. Raping Lot’s visitors would have been both a power play and a humiliating insult, and it would have quickly established that even the most important visitors are nothing special in the eyes of the Sodomites.
When Mad Dog Tannen didn’t like Marty McFly’s look in Back to the Future III, he pulled out his six-shooter and fired at the kid’s feet, which is, of course, one of the Wild West’s go-to moves for putting strangers in their place. Let’s just say the men of Sodom had even less patience for foreigners and much crueler means of intimidation.
It’s one thing when a city is filled with people who have no sexual boundaries. It’s quite another thing when they’ve lost all trace of kindness and amity. Is it any wonder Sodom and its sister city ended up two smoldering piles of sulfurous rubble?
#2 – Jeremiah 29:11 is Less Concerned with Hopes and Dreams and More Concerned with Sitting Down and Shutting Up
What You Thought It Was About
Reach for the stars, because God’s got a personal success story written just for you.
If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen this verse printed on graduation cards, imprinted on paperweights, and scrawled in the top corner of Oh the Places You’ll Go!, I wouldn’t necessarily be a rich man, but I’d have way more dimes than even Kramer had in that episode when he tried to cook his pants.
It seems like such a wonderfully personalized verse right there in the middle of all that tedious, long-winded Old Testament prophecy. It’s as if God suddenly stops all his complaining about the Kingdom of Judah long enough to throw a hopeful bone out to us modern readers. For a lot of Christians, Jeremiah 29:11 is the John 3:16 of the Old Testament and certainly the most quotable line from any of the Prophets, unless you count that “mount up with wings like eagles” line from Isaiah, but that’s usually reserved for the backs of T-shirts of Christian high school track teams.
The point is, for a brief moment in Jeremiah’s heady prophetic discourse, I’m reminded that God has a special plan of success all ready for me, and all I’ve got to do is… um, well, whatever “seek me with all your heart” means. Pray, I guess. And read my Bible and, you know, keep doing my “quiet time” and stuff . The verse really isn’t clear on that part.
What It’s Actually About
The divine rescue you think is coming isn’t, so stop complaining and get used to a less-than-perfect life.
Once again, the popular interpretation burns in the light of context. It turns out that Jeremiah 29:11 is not as easy to extract from the larger passage than we would like, which is a bummer since that one verse is so darn marketable. The historical background underscoring this passage in Jeremiah reminds us that the people of Judah have recently experienced a tragic defeat at the hands of the formidable Babylonian empire; as a result, they have been exiled from Jerusalem and forced to live in Babylon, the homeland of their captors. They are strangers in a strange land.
Into these dark days, Jeremiah’s prophecy comes across not glass-half-full encouragement, but tough-love advice.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:4-7)
Did you get that? The instruction for the people of Judah, caught up in the darkest period of their history and forced to toil and tarry in a land not their own is … to deal with it. To accept it. To make the best of a bad situation. And to not expect a rescue anytime soon, no matter if some other prophets claimed salvation was imminent (29:8-9). So go ahead and settle in for the long haul, because things ain’t changing until long after you’re dead.
That’s right. That plan for a hope and a future, while being directly concerned with an entire race of people (as opposed to each individual high school graduate at a baccalaureate service), was actually about a future generation that would see the Babylonian empire fall to the great King Cyrus of Persia, a messianic-like figure who would later decree that all exiled people were allowed to return to their homeland.
So, yeah, it’s a nice verse, but unless you’re willing to concede that God’s perfect plan for your life might be seventy years in coming, I’d stop using it as a testament to God’s interest in earthly successes.
#1 – The Passage That Allegedly Elevates Men as Household Leaders Actually Describes Them as Household Slaves
What You Thought It Was About
God has ordained males as the unequivocal head of the household, and wives must dutifully submit.
Toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, he spends some time giving behavioral advice regarding specific social and familial systems in that city. Now, when we males were still little boys, we were more interested in reading about that whole armor of God metaphor that comes after these verses. However, as we matured, entered college and began attending Sunday School classes and small groups geared toward young singles, we encountered a lot of marriage-centered curriculum that was focused on the family stuff rather than the helmet of truth, the sword of salvation and the crossbow of congeniality (that last one may be apocryphal). Specifically, what we learned is that according to Ephesians and a few other sprinkled passages attributed to the Apostle Paul, when it comes to establishing a Christian marriage, men are the boss and, well, you ladies just gotta deal with that.
It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (5:22-24)
There you have it. For most preachers espousing what is known as a complementarian view of marriage, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. Men are compared to Jesus, and women are, well, something between a gaggle of believers and an individual in need of a head.
What It’s Actually About
Full-fledged service to one another.
Context, context, context. Even if you believe complementarianism to be the correct way to structure the family unit, looking before and behind these three verses reveals there is something much bigger being described here. The Apostle Paul seems less concerned with mandating men to be the masters of their domains…
and more concerned with encouraging a lifestyle of servanthood among the entire Ephesian congregation. Though a lot of modern Bible translations slap a big chunk of space and a subtitle in between verses 21 and 22, take a look at how Paul opens this whole “be subject” part of his letter:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:21)
One another. Be subject to one another! Now, consider the way he describes the character of Jesus Christ as he extends the metaphor in verse 25:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (emphasis mine)
And in verse 28,
In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
There is something much more sacrificial being insinuated in this passage, especially since it starts not merely with instructing females to “submit” to males, but for all the people to “submit” to one another. The Greek word is hypotasso, and it means, among other synonyms, “to subordinate, obey, yield to advice.” Paul is not focused on husbands and wives so much as shedding new light on the relationship between Jesus and the Church. He has taken the traditional patriarchal structure of a family and applied it - with a caveat of full-fledged servanthood by both parties – to the Savior and those who would believe in him. And in case you missed it, he even says in verse 32 that this is his real point.
So, yes, guys, according to Paul you are the head of the household. Congratulations! However, the next time you think this means you get to call all the shots, set the dinner times, control the calendar, schedule sex, and leave all those annoying “inside chores” for that obedient bride of yours, think again. If the salvation you claim is to have any genuine influence in your home, you’ll find yourself relinquishing a lot more of your attention, time and energy than that which you keep for yourself.
But, hey, don’t take my word for it. President Bartlett feels the same: