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).


[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 …

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes, Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Honor, Part 2

  1. Gary says:

    As a child of the deep South where, at least when I was growing up, most Christians cared a great deal about what others thought it seems we were both a guilt and a shame culture. To “bring shame and reproach upon the church” was one of the worse sins you could commit.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    That’s a very interesting comment. In fact, my own experience is that many of our rules were based more on fear of criticism from other churches than what the Bible really said. A frequently cited passage was —

    (Pro 22:1 ESV) A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.

    The idea was that, even if God might permit women to wear pantsuits to church rather than dresses, pantsuits might injure the congregation’s reputation among other Churches of Christ. In fact, we were often much more concerned with our reputation among other Churches than in the community generally.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be hard to find that reputation is not the ultimate driver of Christian behavior —

    (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.”

    In fact, Jesus expected that we might have to give up our reputations for his sake. We should be driven by the gospel and love for Jesus, not inter-church peer pressure.

    But even today, I find that many Church of Christ members are far more concerned with what family and other congregations might think than how to best participate in God’s mission. Hence, honor culture is indeed very much with us.

    I need to give this some further thought. I mean, why is it that in our highly individualistic, guilt culture, many Churches of Christ evolved an honor culture regarding congregational behavior? How did peer pressure come to matter more than what the church believes is right? Why this drive to be accepted by other congregations?

    And while vengeance is not really a part of our culture, persecution of sister congregations by preaching against their supposedly false practices is. I mean, we have preachers who work to destroy the reputation of other congregations as a matter of routine — and this is an honor-culture enforcement mechanism, no doubt.

    I bet the experts on culture have something to say on this. Very, very interesting indeed.

  3. Alabama John says:

    The one thing I saw that demonstrated this is the women wearing coverings that didn’t think you had to. They were seeking to obey 1 Corinthians 10:32. Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Also the lesson on eating meat of idols verses.

    A lot of our beliefs and interpretations are originated in our heritage. Southerners are mainly of Scotch/Irish heritage and that bred in thinking and attitude is prevalent even today.

    Breeding doesn’t just set traits in animals.

  4. Gary says:

    I have a book on the Scots-Irish. ( In the UK they are called the Ulster Irish.) Only one chapter was on their Presbyterian religion but, change the Calvinism to Arminianism, and it sounded so much like conservative Church of Christ culture and ways of thinking. We don’t often consider our Presbyterian roots but it is very much in our religious DNA. The sectarian rivalry of northern Ireland and later of the American South would fit right in with a shame culture. In Mississippi we were very much aware of the dominant Southern Baptist culture. (Some years ago I read that 55% of all believers in Christ in Mississippi were Southern Baptists- more than all the other denominations combined.)

  5. Not sure our behavior was an matter of honor, really, Jay. It may well be that we evolved this higher-standard dynamic out of the same sense that we developed our fear of error. We have long feared being damned for being wrong, so we often used the phrase “to be on the safe side” when describing our decisions. It has long been an article of faith with us that we were “more right” than anyone else. So, for us to behave more conservatively than the folks down the street readily fits that mold. Certainly this sense of “honor” never kept us from regular character-assassination of the denominations….

  6. Ted Hughes says:

    Jay, how might this concept be in play with the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

  7. Jay Guin says:


    That’s a really interesting question. I’ve not seen that particular event discussed in the guilt/honor literature.
    There are honor killings in some societies, especially in the Middle East. It’s easy to imagine that her own family might feel obliged to kill her for shaming them by committing adultery. In some societies, her father might even be killed for loss of honor if his daughter cheats on her husband, because he would have made a blood oath with her husband’s father assuring her faithfulness. After all, it would have been an arranged marriage, worked out between the fathers, not the couple being married.

    But I’m struggling to fit all that in with the story. It’s clear enough from the NT that some Jews were quite willing to stone an adulteress or blasphemer despite Rome’s law that only the Roman government could impose the death penalty. In a sense, these vigilante stonings were acts of rebellion against Rome — a refusal to submit to their authority, especially when the Jewish vigilantes believed they were imposing God’s law over Roman law.

    It’s interesting to puzzle out how the oldest men felt when Jesus said, “The one without sin cast the first stone.” The Torah required the witnesses to the crime to throw the first stones. Jesus modified the rule to make a point. Normally, having made the accusation, the men would be honor-bound to finish what they’d begun — to stone her to death. To choose to do otherwise would be to admit error and hence be dishonored.

    Jesus turned the tables by insisting that only the sinless could throw a stone — forcing the men who wanted to kill her to claim sinlessness, which was quite impossible — and might even have been dishonoring.

    I really don’t know. I’ll think about some more and maybe some of the readers can see how the culture might impact our reading of the story.

Comments are closed.