We’re considering Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book.
Guilt vs. shame
The authors explain,
In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way.’ Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family. … “When a person performs any act in the interest of the community, he is not concerned about the wrongness or rightness of the acts.”‘ If a person commits violence that is approved by the community, then he has no reason to feel shame (and certainly not guilt).
(Kindle Locations 1238-1242).
In this context, “guilt” is an internal feeling of wrongness. It’s a person punishing himself for doing what he knows to be wrong. We Westerners have a guilt culture — and that’s why we tend to see the gospel in terms of expunging individual guilt. (Which is a true thing, of course.)
“Shame,” however, is how your village, family, or community see you. You “lose face” when you’ve been discovered to not meet with societal expectations.
If a person from a shame [or honor] culture commits a “sin,” he will not likely feel guilty about it if no one else knows, for it is the community (not the individual) that determines whether one has lost face. This may seem unbelievable to many of you. You may think, Is that even right? Surely, the person “deep down inside” feels at least a twinge of guilt. (In our experience, no, they do not.)
(Kindle Locations 1245-1247).
I have to admit I struggle to accept this. I mean, having been raised in the South and in the Churches of Christ, I understand guilt very, very well. I can’t imagine a life where guilt is not a part of my psyche. It’s utterly incomprehensible to me.
On the other hand, I’ve also been taught not to follow the crowd, to “take the road less traveled,” not to jump off a cliff because everyone else does, and to turn the other cheek. I was raised in a profoundly individualistic, guilt culture, and so that’s also how I read the Bible. I know of no other way to be.
But in an honor culture, guilt is perhaps even more foreign than losing face is to me. The authors suggest that Paul felt no guilt for the death of Stephen and other atrocities committed against early Christians because his community saw this actions as innocent and good. Hence, no shame.
He felt no shame because as a radical Jewish Pharisee, his community didn’t care whether he complied with Roman law (which banned vigilante stonings, such as the stoning of Stephen), and as a non-Christian, his community cared nothing about the teachings of Jesus. Thus, he felt no guilt even though he participated in killing someone utterly outside the law, just for accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
[In an honor culture,] One’s actions are good or bad depending upon how the community interprets them.
(Kindle Locations 1270-1271).
[S]hame is not negative in honor/shame cultures; shaming is. Technically, in these cultures, shame is a good thing: it indicates that you and your community know the proper way to behave.” You have a sense of shame; if you didn’t, you would have no shame. You would be shameless. This is different from being shamed. When an older American asks, “Have you no shame?” they mean, “Don’t you know the proper thing to do?” When one is censured for not having a sense of shame, for being shameless, then one is shamed.
We know that all this can be confusing. But remember that languages tend not to have words for ideas that are not considered important. Since honor/shame isn’t important in English, we are lacking in the words we need.
(Kindle Locations 1274-1278).
David and Bathsheba
The authors suggest that we can better understand David’s behavior toward Bathsheba and Uriah in terms of honor culture. After all, David shows no sign of guilt or remorse until confronted by Nathan in the palace throne room — before David’s community. Indeed, David’s conduct was even more brazen than we usually notice (by Western standards) —
David was not where he was supposed to be. He was lounging at the palace, while Joab was doing the kingly role of leading the army. (Joab’s role will come up again.) Already the issue of honor and shame is introduced. David is not acting honorably as king.
(Kindle Locations 1297-1299).
We think the story is told in a way to imply she intended to be seen by the king. Her plan works.
David likes what he sees, so he asks a servant to find out who she is. The servant responds to the king’s question with a question: “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” (2 Sam 11:3 NASB). This sort of response is customary in an honor/ shame culture. The servant responded with a question because it would shame the king for a servant to know something that the king doesn’t know.
(Kindle Locations 1307-1310).
David’s adultery with Bathsheba was not a private affair. He asked a servant to find out who the woman was. As soon as the king sent a servant to inquire who the woman was, everyone in the palace would be talking. Then he sent messengers (plural) to bring her to the palace. The entire palace would know that David sent for the wife of Uriah.
Also, the narrator wants us to know that the real conflict is between David and Uriah. The story quits referring to her as “Bathsheba” and switches to “the wife of Uriah” (“Mrs. Uriah”).
(Kindle Locations 1314-1317). Notice how many people David includes in his scheme — utterly without concern for how it might look. He evidences zero guilt.
After Bathsheba is found to be pregnant, David has Uriah called home from battle.
The story tells us exactly what David is doing. He tells Uriah to go home and he sends Uriah payment (“a gift”) to let David off the hook.
(Kindle Locations 1333-1334). Uriah refuses to cooperate. He is unwilling to help restore David’s honor by claiming the unborn child as his own. Rather, he sleeps in the doorway of the palace — very publicly.
Uriah’s reason for sleeping at the palace entrance was to make a public statement. Everyone, including David, knows now that Uriah is not letting David off the hook. The narrator doesn’t want us to miss this: “David was told.”
(Kindle Locations 1335-1337).
David calls Uriah in for a second audience, and Uriah shames him by pointing out that David should be in battle.
David then attempts to get him drunk so he’ll go into his wife, and yet Uriah refuses.
Now it is clear to everyone, including David, that Uriah will not give David an honorable way out of this mess. It was customary for Mediterranean kings merely to seize whatever they wanted.
(Kindle Locations 1348-1349). David therefore has Uriah killed in battle.
Nonetheless, the text gives no indication that David felt any inner remorse. We misread when we think David had a guilty conscience. David’s honor is restored; Bathsheba moves in so the baby is David’s. … Only Uriah suffered, and David likely considered it Uriah’s fault. Uriah had failed to play along. He had shamed David and David retaliated. Probably in David’s mind, he had made Uriah a fair offer.
(Kindle Locations 1352-1354).
We Westerners might assume that God’s Spirit would eventually convict David’s inner heart, like Poe’s tell-tale heart. That’s because Westerners are introspective. We respond to internal pressure. But David doesn’t appear to be experiencing any inner pressure. No matter; God is not stymied by culture. God had introduced another element into ancient Near Eastern culture: a prophet. Instead of a voice whispering to his heart, a prophet shouted at his face.
(Kindle Locations 1361-1363).
The honor culture thus explains this puzzling passage —
(Psa 51:3-6 ESV) 3 For I know my transgressions, and
my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and
done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and
in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and
you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
(Kindle Location 1365).
Why does David say he only sinned against God? Because human honor had been satisfied. In David’s mind, he’d settled the score with Uriah with honor. But for God’s accusation, he’d have felt no shame. David acted just as a Middle Eastern king was expected to act — by claiming whatever he wanted. It was only in God’s eyes that David’s actions were wrong.
Well … that is … except for Uriah, of course, and David had settled that score. Uriah had shamed him, and David had taken vengeance — exactly as that culture expected.
David had, of course, broken the Torah. He’d coveted his neighbor’s wife. He’d committed adultery. He’d committed murder. But he’d acted consistently with the local culture — which allowed vengeance, especially by kings, and expected kings to seize what they want, even wives.
Remember that Saul had taken his daughter, Michal, away from David and given her to be the wife of another man — without David’s or Michal’s consent.
Indeed, the Torah had not been internalized by many in David’s court. The head of David’s army, Joab, would assassinate Ishbosheth, the son of Saul who reigned as king over 11 tribes after Saul’s death — giving David rule over all 12 tribes. Solomon would execute several enemies of David after David’s death — just as soon as Solomon became king. David’s sons give little evidence of having studied Torah, as they repeatedly rebelled against David and dishonored their father, in violation of the Ten Commandments.
David had been a devoted follower of God while in the wilderness and in his early years as king, but by the time of his sin with Bathsheba, he’d gone the way of other Middle Easterner despots, and his children and courtiers followed suit.
But when Nathan shamed David — taking away his honor — David repented. He did not attempt to save face. He went into mourning for his son and his sin. He completely gave up honor in order to please God. And as he said in Psalm 51, God retaught David how to have “truth in the inward being, and … wisdom in the secret heart.” It was a truly dramatic shift, which reveals itself in the remainder of David’s life. (It’s a great read.)
Now, notice that culture does not define God’s attitude toward sin. David may well have lived in a culture sufficiently corrupt to condone his behavior — very typical of the region — but God did not. God’s will is not defined by our culture.
Therefore, God will deal us by his own standards, not our culture’s. An honor culture does not make sin okay in God’s eyes, even if the culture finds no shame in it.
Nonetheless, I find this a very difficult lesson. It’s hard to imagine anyone acting without guilt. The honor culture is so foreign to me I really struggle to accept the reality of it — and I feel even more uncomfortable treating my favorite Bible characters as having been a part of such a strange culture.
Some readers will desperately want to cite certain Pauline passages to the contrary, but the Greeks were different. Plato had rejected the honor culture centuries before Paul and urged his followers to have an internalized sense of right and wrong — and this fact helped the gospel spread throughout the Gentile world. And, of course, Paul therefore often wrote in terms that made sense in the Greek culture — in terms of internal guilt — whereas Jesus often spoke in terms of the Jewish honor culture.
But this is for another post …