Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 4 (The Sermon on the Mount)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

Understanding that Jews of Jesus’ day had an honor culture, we can re-read the Sermon on the Mount from an interesting and, I think, enlightening perspective.

(Mat 5:11-12 ESV)  11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

When Westerners think of persecution, we think of imprisonment and death. But Jesus addresses loss of honor as persecution. After all, to an Easterner, loss of reputation could be worse than death. Continue reading

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 3 (Fear Culture; Honor in the Gospels and Old Testament)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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. For additional reading on the subject, here’s an excellent article by a native of China explaining shame culture and how it affects his reading of the Bible. (It’s just so very foreign to how we Americans think!) I also came across an excellent essay by Steve Tibbert on guilt, shame, and fear cultures and how the gospel should be presented in each type of culture. It’s well worth taking the time to read. We’ve not considered fear cultures up to this point. These are typically relatively primitive cultures in which behavior is governed by fear of gods and spirits who may not have your best interests at heart at all. Of course, those in guilt or shame based cultures have to deal with fear, but in those cultures, it’s mainly fear of punishment by the authorities or fear of feeling guilty or fear of ostracism. In a fear-based culture, doing the wrong thing would be perceived as leading to disease or other punishment brought on by an angry deity. Continue reading

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 2

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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).

Language

[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 …

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 1

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

The next chapter deals with honor cultures — which is, to me, perhaps the most revealing chapter in the book.

I’m going to introduce the subject from a different angle from the authors of the book — in hopes making a very foreign concept more familiar.

Honor

“Honor” is a concept that the West rarely speaks of. The military talks about honor quite a lot. Some schools have honor codes. Southerners used to speak of honor, I think, but it’s not a common word today — or even when I was little. Nowadays, it’s taken on a somewhat old, musty feel.

That’s because Western culture is a “guilt culture” rather than the East’s “honor culture.” To get a very rough sense of an honor culture, think of the Klingons in Star Trek (really) or the Japanese. The Japanese famously are horrified at the thought of “losing face.” It’s so important there that many have committed suicide rather than live a dishonored life. And to Americans, this is incomprehensible.

You see, in an honor culture, the important thing is how you’re perceived by others. Honor is everything. In a guilt culture, the important thing is who you are. That is, guilt is about your individual conscience; honor is about the group’s perception.

It’s therefore no surprise that individualistic cultures tend to also be guilt cultures and that collectivist cultures tend to be honor cultures.

Honor in the contemporary Middle East

In the Middle East, we see this playing out quite plainly in the Israel/Palestine confrontation. In a typical negotiation, the Western American president approaches the Palestinian leadership and offers his people money, factories, jobs, training, easy travel, and even a new democratic government, figuring that what they really and truly want is freedom and wealth. The Palestinians look at the president with scorn, because what they really want is their honor restored. And that requires all the trappings of sovereignty — a nation, a military, a seat at the U.N., and for some, vengeance.

Vengeance

You see, honor drives people to kill innocents by the thousands on the anniversary of the Battle of Vienna, where the Western armies turned the tide against Muslim forces bent on conquering Europe, eventually driving them almost entirely out of Eastern Europe — on September 11, 1683.

The West is so uninterested that the Wikipedia article on the battle doesn’t even mention the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. The Middle Eastern attackers were trying to send a message — that the defeat of Islam on an earlier September 11 was about to be reversed — and yet the West was largely unaware of the significance of the date, even though, according to one author

Educated, fundamentalist Muslims feel the sting of the defeat hundreds of years later. In their view, they are the recipients of Allah’s final revelation and it is humiliating to them that their “perfect” Islamic culture has declined relative to Western culture. They seek to reverse the trend and September 11 was carefully chosen to try and reverse the course of history and create a new September 11 that the Islamic world could celebrate.

You see, many honor cultures focus heavily on revenge as a means of gaining/retaining honor.

Vengeance in the Bible

We see ample evidence in the Bible that the biblical world was an honor culture with a heavy focus on vengeance. After all, how often do we read a command against taking vengeance?

Deu 32:35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.

Rom 12:17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.

Heb 10:30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

Pro 24:29 Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done.”

Lev 19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Pro 20:22 Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you.

Mat 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The Bible wouldn’t so often warn against taking vengeance if vengeance weren’t a serious problem. For example, think about the provisions in the Law of Moses dealing with the cities of refuge —

(Num 35:9-12 NET)  9 Then the LORD spoke to Moses:  10 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan River into the land of Canaan,  11 you must then designate some towns as towns of refuge for you, to which a person who has killed someone unintentionally may flee.  12 And they must stand as your towns of refuge from the avenger in order that the killer may not die until he has stood trial before the community.”

If a man accidentally killed another, he was required to flee to a “city of refuge” for protection against “the avenger,” and stand trial. Outside the city of refuge, the avenger could gain vengeance by taking the life of the accidental killer.

(Num 35:25-27 NET) 25 The community must deliver the slayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the community must restore him to the town of refuge to which he fled, and he must live there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the consecrated oil.  26 But if the slayer at any time goes outside the boundary of the town to which he had fled,  27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside the borders of the town of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the slayer, he will not be guilty of blood …

The NET Bible translators explain the meaning of “avenger” —

The participle ‌גֹּאֵל‎‏‎ (goel) is the one who protects the family by seeking vengeance for a crime.

In other words, the Torah assumes that, even for an accidental killing, justice cannot be had except in certain cities specially designated as cities of refuge. Outside these towns, the law of vengeance prevails. The culture was so steeped in the need for vengeance that even God’s justice under the Torah could not reach into the more rural areas of Israelite society.

Honor and vengeance

It’s not that vengeance is foreign to the Western heart. It’s not. But we don’t have politicians running for office in order to avenge losses from 400 years in the past. In fact, we’d rather do business with, say, Viet Nam or Germany than seek vengeance. We’re much more about a nice house in a subdivision than keeping score on ancient wrongs. Those were other people with other problems. We feel little, if any, identity with the soldiers who fought in Vienna so very long ago.

But in a collectivist, honor culture, that wrong needs to be righted. Honor needs to be restored, and it will be restored, not through living better, but by military victory. And if outright victory can’t be had, a grand, romantic, suicidal gesture will have to do to show that the defeated remain willing to fight on for honor, regardless of the odds, proving that the West may have bigger guns, but they can’t take honor away from their enemies.

It’s the West that says, “Living well is the best vengeance” (George Herbert). The East often sees things very differently.

But this is not a blog about Middle Eastern politics. Rather, the point is that once we get a grasp of a culture that is radically foreign to us Westerners, we can better understand scriptures written from within an honor culture.

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A Living Prayer

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Individualism

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

America and the rest of the West has an individualist culture. We are all about the individual, even at the expense of the family or church.

It’s not unusual for children to live thousands of miles from their parents to pursue a career. Few people will turn down a promotion to avoid leaving their congregation. Our culture just assumes that the good of the individual overrides the good of the group.

However, the Middle Eastern culture of First Century Judea was quite different. Sons followed their fathers’ trade in their home village, living in a very small room built adjacent to their parents’ home.

Many a First Century Jew would have left his home town only for the occasional pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His wife would be from his home town and selected for him by his parents. Continue reading

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Language, Part 3 (patronage)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

For some time now, I’ve been looking for an excuse to dig more deeply into the meaning of the Greco-Roman patronage system as it relates to Christianity. The authors provide the briefest of introductions —

In the Roman system, likewise, the client couldn’t earn the “favor”; the patron showed “kindness” to help. Seneca, a philosopher from Paul’s time, said the patron and the client had a relationship, a form of friendship. The client was now a “friend” of the patron, but not a peer. The client was expected to reciprocate with loyalty, public praise, readiness to help the patron (as much as he could) and, most importantly, gratitude.’ This kind gift had strings attached. (All gifts in antiquity had strings attached.) Seneca called it “a sacred bond.”‘ The recipient of the gift was obligated to reciprocate. Paul introduced Lydia to Christianity (Acts 16). She reciprocated by hosting Paul and his team at her estate. Continue reading

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The Quiverfull Movement

Is anyone familiar with something called the “Quiverfull Movement”?

It’s a movement among conservative believers that pushes for large families. We’re just now seeing its impact in the Churches of Christ, especially in some of our more conservative congregations.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a large family. I have four sons — and am very happy that I have so many children. The problem arises when you take the joy of a large family and turn it into a command. It’s even worse when you take that alleged command and turn it into a political statement. Continue reading

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Language, Part 2 (chesed)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    I need to apologize, I think, for disappearing so long from my own blog. Things got really busy at church and work, with little warning. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed. Nothing horrible, just too much to do in not enough time.

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.

However, I do need to note that Alan was right in his comment that the authors are sometimes very weak in their biblical application of the principles they present. But I find their points regarding the challenge of reading the Bible with Western eyes extremely helpful.

That is, the general principles they teach are, to me, extremely helpful and insightful. They add a few tools to my hermeneutical toolbox, which I greatly appreciate. Unfortunately, their book is much weaker in some of the examples they give of how to apply these tools. Continue reading

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Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Language, Part 1

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible  -             By: E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O'Brien    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.

The most obvious difference between us and the writers of the scriptures is language. The scriptures are written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Nearly all Americans read the scriptures in English translation.

After all, even if you know one of the languages of the Bible, you’d have to be fluent in the version of the language spoken 2,000 years ago to truly understand the text. A modern Greek speaker would struggle to read the New Testament text, just as modern Americans struggle to read the English of Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales — which aren’t nearly as old as the Bible. Hence, the original languages are accessible only to those who’ve studied for the purpose of reading the original text. Continue reading

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