Translation

Seeing the Big Picture of Romans 9-11

Hi Dojo readers,

This is a particularly Bible-geekish post. So be warned beforehand.

I recently had a friend ask me for help, as she was preparing to teach Romans chapter 9 in her adult Sunday School class. I shared with her a few suggestions about Romans chs. 9-11, one of which came from my re-reading N.T. Wright’s chapter on Romans 9-11 in his MASSIVE magnum opus “Paul and the Faithfulness of God“. [Seriously, it’s so large that Ben Witherington has written a 93-part review of it. No…I’m not making that up!]

Wright spends around 200 pages just on these three chapters of Romans…but given the amount of ink that has been spilled over the past 2,000 years on that section of the book, his treatment is well worth reading and engaging with overall. But what initially piqued my interest, and has become more convincing the more I read and reread Romans 9-11, is Wright’s suggestion that the entire section is structured chiastically. [For those who are unfamiliar with what a “chiasm” is, you can read a quick intro summary to the concept HERE.]

I wanted to share it with Disciple Dojo readers in a way that visually helps them see Wright’s proposed structure…and thus a potential way to make sense of the overall flow of this most dense (and often confusing!) section of the book. So using the Bible study approach I suggested in a previous Dojo blog post (which I still believe to be the single most effective way of studying overall books of the Bible in the modern age!), I copied and pasted Romans 9-11 into a Word doc and formatted it according to Wright’s suggested structure…using his “Kingdom New Testament” which I have on my Kindle reader. (I thought that was only fitting!)  I’ve color-coded the corresponding sections of the chiasm and indented them as well. I also put all OT quotations in italics. Here it is below for those who are curious. You can judge for yourself whether or not you find it persuasive or a helpful way to read this section of Scripture.

 

Romans 9-11’s Chiastic structure based on

N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, ch.11

(Kingdom New Testament translation)

 

9:1 I’m speaking the truth in the Messiah; I’m not lying. I call my conscience as witness, in the holy spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and endless pain in my heart. 3 Left to my own self, I am half-inclined to pray that I would be accursed, cut off from the Messiah, on behalf of my own family, my own flesh-and-blood relatives. 4 They are Israelites; the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises all belong to them. 5 The patriarchs are their ancestors; and it is from them, according to the flesh, that the Messiah has come— who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen!

6 But it can’t be the case that God’s word has failed! Not all who are from Israel, you see, are in fact Israel. 7 Nor is it the case that all the children count as “seed of Abraham.” No: in Isaac shall your seed be named.” 8 That means that it isn’t the flesh-and-blood children who are God’s children; rather, it is the children of the promise who will be calculated as “seed.” 9 This was what the promise said, you see: Around this time I shall return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And that’s not all. The same thing happened when Rebecca conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac. 11 When they had not yet been born, and had done nothing either good or bad— so that what God had in mind in making his choice might come to pass, 12 not because of works but because of the one who calls— it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As the Bible says, I loved Jacob, but I hated Esau.” 14 So what are we going to say? Is God unjust? Certainly not! 15 He says to Moses, you see, I will have mercy on those on whom I will have mercy, and I will pity those I will pity.” 16 So, then, it doesn’t depend on human willing, or on human effort; it depends on God who shows mercy. 17 For the Bible says to Pharaoh: This is why I have raised you up, to show my power in you, and so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So, then, he has mercy on the one he wants, and he hardens the one he wants. 19 You will say to me, then, “So why does he still blame people? Who can stand against his purpose?” 20 Are you, a mere human being, going to answer God back? “Surely the clay won’t say to the potter, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Doesn’t the potter have authority over the clay, so that he can make from the same lump one vessel for honor, and another for dishonor? 22 Supposing God wanted to demonstrate his anger and make known his power, and for that reason put up very patiently with the vessels of anger created for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, the ones he prepared in advance for glory— 24 including us, whom he called not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles? 25 This is what he says in Hosea, I will call “not my people” “my people”; And “not beloved” I will call “beloved.” 26 And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” There they will be called “sons of the living God.” 27 Isaiah cries out, concerning Israel, Even if the number of Israel’s sons are like the sand by the sea, Only a remnant shall be saved; 28 For the Lord will bring judgment on the earth, Complete and decisive. 29 As Isaiah said in an earlier passage, If the Lord of hosts had not left us seed, We would have become like Sodom, and been made like Gomorrah

30 What then shall we say? That the nations, who were not aspiring toward covenant membership, have obtained covenant membership, but it is a covenant membership based on faith. 31 Israel, meanwhile, though eager for the law which defined the covenant, did not attain to the law. 32 Why not? Because they did not pursue it on the basis of faith, but as though it was on the basis of works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as the Bible says: Look: I am placing in Zion A stone that will make people stumble, A rock that will trip people up; And the one who believes in him Will never be put to shame.

10:1 My dear family, the longing of my heart, and my prayer to God on their behalf, is for their salvation. 2 I can testify on their behalf that they have a zeal for God; but it is not based on knowledge. 3 They were ignorant, you see, of God’s covenant faithfulness, and they were trying to establish a covenant status of their own; so they didn’t submit to God’s faithfulness. 4 The Messiah, you see, is the goal of the law, so that covenant membership may be available for all who believe.

5 Moses writes, you see, about the covenant membership defined by the law, that “the person who performs the law’s commands shall live in them.” 6 But the faith-based covenant membership puts it like this: Don’t say in your heart, Who shall go up to heaven? (in other words, to bring the Messiah down), 7 “or, Who shall go down into the depths?(in other words, to bring the Messiah up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we proclaim);

9 because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10 Why? Because the way to covenant membership is by believing with the heart, and the way to salvation is by professing with the mouth. 11 The Bible says, you see, Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich toward all who call upon him. 13 All who call upon the name of the Lord,” you see, will be saved.”

14 So how are they to call on someone when they haven’t believed in him? And how are they to believe if they don’t hear? And how will they hear without someone announcing it to them? 15 And how will people make that announcement unless they are sent? As the Bible says, How beautiful are the feet of the ones who bring good news of good things.” 16 But not all obeyed the good news. Isaiah asks, you see, Lord, who has believed our report? 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes from the word of the Messiah.

18 This might make us ask, Did they not hear? But they certainly did: Their sound went out into all the world, And their words to the ends of the earth. 19 But I ask, did Israel not know? To begin with, Moses says, I will make you jealous with a non-nation; And stir you to anger with a foolish people. 20 Then Isaiah, greatly daring, puts it like this: I was found by those who were not looking for me; I became visible to those who were not asking for me. 21 But in respect of Israel he says, All day long I have stretched out my hands to a disbelieving and disagreeable people.

11:1 So I ask, has God abandoned his people? Certainly not! I myself am an Israelite, from the seed of Abraham and the tribe of Benjamin. 2 “God has not abandoned his people,” the ones he chose in advance. Don’t you know what the Bible says in the passage about Elijah, describing how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 Lord,” he says, they have killed your prophets, they have thrown down your altars; I’m the only one left, and they are trying to kill me! 4 But what is the reply from the divine word? I have left for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 In the same way, at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer by works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Did Israel not obtain what it was looking for? Well, the chosen ones obtained it— but the rest were hardened, 8 as the Bible says: God gave them a spirit of stupor, Eyes that wouldn’t see, and ears that wouldn’t hear, Right down to this present day. 9 And David says, Let their table become a snare and a trap, And a stumbling block and a punishment for them; 10 Let their eyes be darkened so that they can’t see, And make their backs bend low forever. 11 So I ask, then: Have they tripped up in such a way as to fall completely? Certainly not! Rather, by their trespass, salvation has come to the nations, in order to make them jealous. 12 If their trespass means riches for the world, and their impoverishment means riches for the nations, how much more will their fullness mean! 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Insofar as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I celebrate my particular ministry, 14 so that, if possible, I can make my “flesh” jealous, and save some of them. 15 If their casting away, you see, means reconciliation for the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 Take another illustration: if the first fruits are holy, so is the whole lump. And another: if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you— a wild olive tree!— were grafted in among them, and came to share in the root of the olive with its rich sap, 18 don’t boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember this: it isn’t you that supports the root, but the root that supports you. 19 I know what you’ll say next: “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 That’s all very well. They were broken off because of unbelief— but you stand firm by faith. Don’t get big ideas about it; instead, be afraid. 21 After all, if God didn’t spare the natural branches, there’s a strong possibility he won’t spare you. 22 Note carefully, then, that God is both kind and severe. He is severe to those who have fallen, but he is kind to you, provided you continue in his kindness— otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And they, too, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted back in. God is able, you see, to graft them back in. 24 For if you were cut out of what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will they, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. 25 My dear brothers and sisters, you mustn’t get the wrong idea and think too much of yourselves. That is why I don’t want you to remain in ignorance of this mystery: a hardening has come for a time upon Israel, until the fullness of the nations comes in. 26 That is how “all Israel shall be saved,” as the Bible says: The Deliverer will come from Zion, And will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. 27 And this will be my covenant with them, Whenever I take away their sins. 28 As regards the good news, they are enemies— for your sake! But as regards God’s choice they are beloved because of the patriarchs. 29 God’s gifts and God’s call, you see, cannot be undone. 30 For just as you were once disobedient to God, but now have received mercy through their disobedience, 31 so they have now disbelieved as well, in order that, through the mercy which has come your way, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has shut up all people in disobedience, so that he may have mercy upon all.

33 O, the depth of the riches And the wisdom and knowledge of God! We cannot search his judgments; We cannot fathom his ways. 34 For Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has given him counsel? 35 Who has given a gift to him Which needs to be repaid?36 For from him, through him, and to him are all things. Glory to him forever! Amen.

How to study the Bible like a Black Belt in the digital age!

Hello Dojo readers!

We live in an age where the technology we carry around in our cell phones alone gives us more access to Biblical studies than every person in the entire history of mankind combined.

Think about that for a minute and let it sink in.

I'll wait.

It is simply staggering when you actually realize the implications of this basic fact of life in our digital age.

And while the rise of modern telecommunications has produced many new ways for evil and sin to flourish, it has also produced the ability to study and understand Inspired Scriptures in ways that are utterly revolutionary…and no, I’m not talking about those silly “Bible Code” approaches some people seem so fascinated by (spoiler alert: they’re bogus!).

In fact, one of the absolute most effective ways to study the Bible that I have ever found is also available absolutely free for any Christian in the world with internet access and a word-processing program. And that is what I want to share with you today. Because it’s the way I prepare for the Bible studies I lead when I really want to understand a book in Scripture as a whole and the flow of thought within it.

You see, the original Scriptures in their original languages did not have verse numbers.

They didn’t have chapter numbers.

They didn’t even have spaces between the letters originally!

Here’s an example of what a New Testament text looked like when it was first being circulated among the early churches:

greek text.jpg

ITWOULDREADLIKETHISTOTHEORIGINALAUDIENCEANDTHEYWOULDKNOWWHERETHEWORDSWERESUPPOSEDTOBEDIVIDEDBECAUSETHEYWEREUSEDTOREADINGTHISWAYANDBECAUSEMOSTOFTHETIMESCRIPTUREWASREADOUTLOUDRATHERTHANBYINDIVIDUALSANYWAY.

Now of course modern English (which of course you speak and/or read if you’re reading this post!) has things like spaces, punctuation and paragraph indentations, all of which help us determine the writer’s intended message. But sometimes, due to printing/cost constraints, it is not feasible to print the Scriptures for modern English readers in ways that make the bestsense literarily...that is, in terms of sentence structure, paragraphing, poetic structure, flow of thought, etc. In the past, many publishers would print each verse as a new paragraph for some translations (see the old KJV or NASB for example). With the demand for thinline and pocket-sized Bibles, publishers often use the two-column approach which allows more text per page…but rarely helps aid reflective, thoughtful, intuitive reading.

Furthermore, the presence of chapter and verse numbers in most printed Bible translations end up dominating the page (see the print version of the NET where each verse also includes the chapter number right beside it, for instance) and break the passage up in ways that the original Biblical authors never intended (such as the woefully ill-chosen chapter break between Genesis 1 and 2!). Many readers are also unaware that chapters weren't added to the Bible until the 1200s...and verse numbers came centuries later. Neither were part of the original Inspired texts.

On top of that, the decisions as to where paragraphs should begin and end are 100% made by the translators/editors/publishers of the various printed Bible translations rather than being part of the original Inspired text itself. Most of the time this doesn’t make a huge difference…but sometimes it most definitely does. Compare the paragraph break in 1Corinthians 14:33-34 in the NIV (2011) and original NIV (1984) for a great example of a paragraph break making all the difference in the world!

So with all of this in mind, one way in particular, which I have found to be TREMENDOUSLY helpful in really reading and studying the Bible in detail and understanding the literary flow of Scripture’s library of texts is by using a simple process that forces me to interact with the text in a way that no printed version ever could. I invite you to try it for yourself and see if you don’t gain so much more from ANY book of the Bible than you ever have before.

Step 1: Choose a translation

If you don’t have the ability to read or translate the text from its original language/s (Hebrew, Aramiac and/or Greek) then you’ll need to choose a translation that you can work with. There is no “best” or “most accurate” translation in modern English. EVERY translation is an interpretation. Period. Anyone who claims otherwise is being dishonest or is ignorant of how Bible translation works in real life. For the purpose of study, I suggest choosing a translation that is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between word-for-word and thought-for-thought:

Slide49.JPG

Fortunately, most English translations are available for FREE online! There are many places you can go, but I recommend in particular Bible Hub, Biblia.com, or Bible Gateway (Bible Gateway is nice because it has the RSV and NRSV, which many critical scholars prefer and which I grew up with being a good Methodist boy!)

Step 2: Choose a book of the Bible

This is based on whichever book you want to understand better or whichever one you are studying in small group, Sunday School or seminary/Bible college. For this example, I’m going to use the book of Jonah since I’m an OT guy and it’s one of my favorite books to teach.

digital study 1.jpg

 

Step 3: Open a blank word processor document

I’m not a hipster, so I’m using PC. But if you’re a Mac user, I’m sure you can find an equivalent to this step! For this example, I’m using Microsoft Word, but the open-source Word-like programs out there all do the same thing basically so it shouldn’t be a problem if you’re computer savvy enough to have found this blog in the first place!

Step 4: Copy the text of your Bible book

In your online Bible resource noted above, go to the first chapter of the book you’re studying and use your mouse/touchpad/touchscreen/whatever to highlight the entire text of the chapter. Then copy it by either selecting “copy” from the edit menu, right-clicking and selecting “copy” from the pop-up menu, or just hit “CTRL + C” (my preferred method).

digital study 2.jpg

 

Step 5: Paste the UNFORMATTED text into your blank document

This is the key to the whole process! Go to the Word document you’ve opened and paste the text into it. But make sure to paste the text UNFORMATTED. In Word, you do this by choosing “Paste Special” from the “Paste” menu at the top left of the screen. When you do this, it removes any text formatting and hyperlinks and paragraphing. If when you paste the text there are still paragraph breaks in the passage, just go through and delete them so that you are left with an unbroken block of text.

digital study 3.jpg

 

Step 6: Repeat for the remaining chapters of the book

Obviously if you’re studying 3John or Jude or Nahum this will be a very quick process! If, however, you’re studying Psalms, Jeremiah or Acts, then you may want to break this step up and do it for 5-10 chapters at a time. With Jonah, it’s just 4 chapters so it only takes a few minutes

Step 7: Save your Word file

Now that you have the entire text of the book in a single, unformatted word-processor file, save it to your computer/device with a filename that will let you identify it easily. For instance, I would save mine as “JONAH_TEXT.doc” or something like that.

Step 8: Add spaces, paragraphing, punctuation and notes

THIS is where the real payoff takes place! As you read through the text in your word document go through and begin adding your own formatting. Decide where the paragraphs begin and end and indent/space it accordingly. As you go, I recommend either deleting or making into superscripts the chapter and verse numbers. Delete any cross-references or footnotes you may have copied (though pay attention as you go to whether some of the footnotes are insightful or important and, if they are, note them either in the side margin or in brackets or some other way that you find helpful). Be sure to delete any paragraph headings or subject headings that your translation may have put in the text at the beginning of various passages (i.e. “Instructions about the Tabernacle” or “Jesus heals a blind man” etc.). These will tempt you to simply agree with the editors of that translation, rather than working out for yourself how the text flows.

I usually set up my Word document so that there is a good 2″ t0 3″ margin on one side of the page (usually the right, since I’m right handed). In that margin, I create a text box by selecting “Text box” from the “Insert Shape” menu and I use that for adding any notes, alternate translations, cross references, or quotes from commentaries I come across as I study the book. This is not a necessary step, but I find it especially helpful and recommend doing it if you can.

digital study 4.jpg

 

During this process of formatting the book on your own, you will likely be forced to make interpretive decisions that you would have never even thought about when reading a printed/formatted text. You may find that a train of thought runs all the way through a number of verses and they all belong to the same paragraph after all. Or you may find that a new thought beings in the middle of a verse and the text should be separated there instead. Or you may come across a list of things that are hard to keep in mind when read in paragraph format and so choose to put each one on a separate line to create a bullet-point/list feel that the text gives (this is especially helpful in genealogies!) and to see the importance of the number of items listed, which you might have otherwise missed (Hint: this is ESPECIALLY helpful in Matthew’s opening genealogy!).

The important thing is not that you get it “right”, but rather that you are forcing yourself to interact with the text at the literary level and really absorb its content and how to best present that in terms of reading clarity. You will find yourself reading and rereading a passage and perhaps realizing that it could legitimately be read two different ways depending on how it’s spaced/punctuated, etc. This is exactly what this type of studying is supposed to do! To get you to not just read the text…but to actually READ the text. To THINK THROUGH the text. ON YOUR OWN before consulting any commentaries, study guides or study Bible notes.

You won’t end up with a “perfect” formatted text. Rather, you’ll end up with a text that you have genuinely worked through and thought through and are so much more familiar with after having done so!

Step 9: Save your formatted book file

Once you’ve formatted your book of the Bible (or actually, have done so multiple times along the way so that you don’t accidentally lose your file due to a power outage or accidental keystroke or any of the other things that make us want to throw our computers across the room when they happen!) save it with a different name that distinguishes it from the unformatted version. For example “JONAH_EDITED.doc”. And if possible, save a copy of both versions on a flash drive or memory card as well! That way, you can share it with others or across multiple computers/devices.

Step 10: Use your new formatted digital book file alongside your various Bibles when studying or teaching

As you continue to study the book, you may find that you need to go back and re-edit parts of it. You may come across other translations that you think work better in certain passages of it. No translation is perfect and the beauty of this whole process is that with a simple cut-and-paste you can create study notes, alternate translations, insert footnotes, underline, highlight, make bold, or change font color in ways that help the text make better sense to you.

For example, when I was doing this with the book of Revelation, I found it helpful to put all of the quotes or references to passages in the Hebrew Bible in bold italics and to indent them. This allowed me to easily see just how much Revelation draws from the Old Testament and the frequency with which John does so. I also put in small parentheses beside each one the actual verse reference being alluded to or quoted. This allows me not only to easily identify which books John is quoting throughout, but it also helps to instill in my visual memory the passage in the OT that is being referenced each time I read it.

Or when doing this with the book of Romans, I would put spaces between each rhetorical section of the book so that I could more easily see when Paul is changing voice/character in his various diatribes throughout the letter. Of course there are points at which it is heavily debated whether or not he is speaking as himself or as a rhetorical interlocutor (nowhere more so than ch.7:14-25!), but that is part of what you learn as you continue to study the book throughout your life and further develop your Biblical-theological views.

When doing this with a book in the Hebrew Bible in particular, you are forced to note and figure out a way to better communicate visually the structure and patterns of Hebrew poetry (which is practically EVERYWHERE in the OT!). Many passages that are formatted in most translations as simple paragraphs are actually poetic. So, for example, on the 6th “yom” (day) of Genesis 1, when God creates “adam” (human), we come across the first poem in the Bible in v.27.

Slide207.JPG

The tri-partite structure of the verse provides a MAJOR clue as to how we understand the concept of the “image of God” that might otherwise be missed by just reading it as a prose paragraph (I’ll let you study that verse on your own to find out what I’m talking about). In some books, such as the Song of Songs (aka. Song of Solomon) it is impossible in places to identify exactly who is speaking. This is when using different text colors can be especially helpful!

It also becomes very helpful in narrative portions of Scripture where there is dialogue. Instead of reading it all in a block paragraph, you can format the dialogue like modern English dialogue reads in novels or plays, thus more easily keeping track of who’s speaking and how the conversation is going.

Another really helpful thing this whole process allows is the ability to add punctuation. All punctuation in any Bible translation has been added by the translators…and often they don’t do justice to the tone of the text. There are times when an exclamation point (or three!!!) are needed to convey the force of the passage. There are times when USING ALL CAPS can help bring out the emphasis when the author seems to be “shouting” (in modern digital lingo). These are all things you can decide and add to your formatting to help bring out the meaning of the text.

And if you don’t have a tablet or mobile device that you can take with you to Bible study/Sunday School/class or wherever it is you want to read and study at the time, you can print out the word file and take it with you in a binder or notebook. That way you have something to scribble notes on, highlight, underline or whatever else you may want to write down, which you can then easily edit into your digital file when you get back to your computer.

“But what if I get it wrong?? Isn’t this “adding to” God’s Word??”

No.

You are not producing a translation to take the place of your Bible! You are doing an exercise in study…and it’s okay to be wrong when you’re studying! That’s part of the learning process. Part of the wrestling with God’s word that we are all called to do in whatever ways we’re able.

In the 1700s, John Wesley would read and reread Scripture in multiple languages and produce copious notes on nearly the entire Bible. I believe he would’ve been astounded and overjoyed if someone had given him the ability to format, copy and paste. I believe Bible readers throughout the millennia would be thrilled if they had the ability to digitally read, study and analyze the syntax and structure of the sacred texts in the ways we are able to now…even on our phones!

In the end, remember, the journey IS the destination. The purpose of this exercise is to get you to think through–to REASON through–the flow of the book as a whole. “Memory verses” are fine, but they don’t give you context. Doing the process I’ve suggested above is the single best way I have personally ever found to grasp the overall context–and thus the overall foundational teaching or “big idea”–of the various books that make up this library we call the Bible.

In fact, in our Disciple Dojo video study “Revelation: A Guided Tour of the Apocalypse” we've included in the workbook (which is available to download for free HERE!) the entire book of Revelation that I translated and then formatted, if you’d like to see an example.

I invite you to give it a try, Dojo readers, and see if it doesn’t deepen your understanding and appreciation of whatever book you choose to study next. I guarantee it will!

Blessings from the Dojo,

JM

Groin-Grabbing Girls and Biblical Barbarism??

Hi Dojo readers,

Here is a question I received from a reader that many people have wondered about as they've read through the book of Deuteronomy:

Here's a tough one. What do you do with Deut 25: 11,12? How can chopping off a woman's hand ever be seen as a gracious gift, a shadow of the substance of Christ, or a moral response to the situation described? You would expect to read something like this in the Koran but I've read the Koran and I've never read anything there this brutal or sexist. I asked a Rabbi about this once and he couldn't come up with a good answer for me. And most Christian theologians I know are surprised when I show this verse to them. There are a few other verses like this in Deuteronomy that almost ruin the book for me. And I don't want them to. I'm not looking for "gotcha" verses. I just can't think of any situation where a woman deserves to be treated like this--particularly a woman who's intent is to protect her husband. And if this really is "the Word of God" it does indeed cause a problem for me in trying to reconcile this with the God revealed to me by Jesus in the gospels. This is a sincere question.

This is indeed, on the surface, a  groin-grabbingly bizarre passage (and yes, that was a Simpsons reference I just snuck in there!). So bizarre, in fact, that it even generated a video by an atheist group called "Hands Off."

Now that we've seen the strawman criticism of it, let's look at the actual passage in question, Deuteronomy 25:12, in three popular English translations:

When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her. (KJV)

If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity. (NRSV)

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity. (NIV)

In attempting to answer this reader's question I want to emphasize that the Bible is, first and foremost, an ancient literature library spanning nearly two millennia of writings by over 40 different authors on three different continents in three different languages throughout the rise and fall of many civilizations and kingdoms.

This is CRUCIAL for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to understand. Despite well-meaning claims we may have heard that since it's God's word, Scripture must be plain, clear, and easy for anyone to understand, that's simply NOT true. In fact, I'm constantly amazed at the lack of humility that is shown to the Biblical texts...and not by dismissive skeptics or antagonistic atheists; but rather, by Christians who are the most adamant about the Bible's divine Inspiration. Now don't get me wrong; I DO believe all Scripture is "God-breathed" (2Timothy 3:16-17) and thus divinely Inspired. I am thoroughly evangelical in this regard (though I believe any discussion of the Bible's authority and Inspiration MUST be nuanced carefully). But this does NOT mean that I believe all Scripture to be fully-understandable in all its detail and without legitimate difficulty or ambiguity in interpretation.

An honest apologist is one that admits the degree of difficulty some passages of Scripture impose upon modern readers who are FAR removed from the cultural and historical context in which they were given. And I believe this passage in Deuteronomy is a good example of the degree of caution needed when seeking to interpret the Bible. So, that being said, here is how I answered this reader's question "What do you do with Deuteronomy 25:11-12?"

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The question is indeed a good one. However, there are a few things worth noting about that particular passage (and Torah law in general):

1. Torah law consisted primarily of "case law", rather than exhaustive legislation (this is a big difference between modern and ancient Near East laws). Judges were given an example and then expected to extrapolate wisely from them when rendering judgment.

2. Torah law, within the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East, was astonishingly protective of women, children and immigrants. (For a fuller exploration of this than can be covered in a blog post, see Christopher Wright's phenomenal work "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God")

and most importantly...

3. This passage in particular is not nearly as clear as some translations lead people to believe.

The Hebrew literally reads as follows:

כִּי־יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים יַחְדָּו אִישׁ וְאָחִיו
וְקָרְבָה אֵשֶׁת הָאֶחָד לְהַצִּיל אֶת־אִישָׁהּ מִיַּד  מַכֵּהוּ
וְשָׁלְחָה יָדָהּ וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בִּמְבֻשָׁיו׃
וְקַצֹּתָה אֶת־כַּפָּהּ לֹא תָחוֹס עֵינֶךָ׃

"If (men/husbands) are (quarreling/striving) together a man and his brother
and the (woman/wife) of one draws near to (snatch/deliver) her (man/husband) from the hand of the one (beating/smiting/striking down) him
and she stretches out her hand and (seizes/makes firm/strengthens) his genitals
then you will (cut off/trim) her (palm/hollow/basin).
She will not be pitied in your eyes."

[The various Hebrew terms in used in this passage can have different meanings. I’ve provide some of them in parentheses above just to show the degree of ambiguity and interpretive decision translators must make when rendering this passage into English.]

Firstly, given the material that comes just before this passage (see below), it is worth noting that the quarrel or fight being discussed is between brothers, rather than random strangers. Whatever is going on here, it is most likely a family affair.

Also, even more importantly, the word translated "hand" (kaph) in v.12 is not the normal word used for "hand" (yad) in v.11. It's the word for "palm" or "hollow space" that's used to denote a number of things ranging from the hollow of a sling to a wash basin to a door handle (which also functions euphemistically in the Song of Songs).

In short, the translation of this passage is unclear and there is much conjecture about its exact meaning, even among Biblical Hebrew scholars. So whatever you hear someone teach regarding this passage, you must always hold with loose hands. The more knowledgeable they are about Hebrew translation, the more tentative they should be when declaring any particular interpretation as the correct one. Conversely, the more dogmatic they are in teaching on this passage, the less likely it is that they have a firm grasp of the original language and ancient Near East laws in general.

However, I think we can note a few points that help us make some sense of what's going on in Deuteronomy 25:11-12. 

For starters, right before this passage we find a discussion of the concept of Levirate Marriage, whereby the family line of a childless man who dies is carried on by his brother. The emphasis is on the priority and utter importance of bearing children to continue one’s family name and thus their continuation of enjoyment of the blessing promise God made to Abraham of many offspring, which was ratified Mt. Sinai. Bearing a child to carry on the family name was of the utmost importance in ancient Israel. This is a major cultural difference between modern Western culture and that of the ancient Hebrews, but it cannot be emphasized enough.

Therefore it is very likely (I would say almost certain) that the law regarding a wife grabbing the manhood of her brother-in-law during a fight has to do with a potential threat to his ability to father children, as well as his ability to fully participate in Israel’s Covenant worship. You see, Torah specifically prohibited a man with a ‘damaged package’ from not only serving as a Priest (if he was from the tribe of Levi; Lev. 17:17-20), but also from entering into the assembly of the Lord (regardless of what tribe he was from; Deut. 23:1) due to ceremonial uncleanness. And the fact that this command is accompanied by the “show no pity” phrase—which is normally elsewhere reserved for the most severe attacks on Covenant faithfulness among the Israelites (i.e. murder, idolatry, etc.)—tells us that whatever is going on in this case law, it is more than just a woman trying to prevent violence or simply acting in a crass or distasteful manner.

One view that I've found intriguing is that of scholar Lyle Eslinger. He contends that "kaph" in this passage is a euphemism for female genitalia, and the law therefore involves a bit of a wordplay on the concept of "hand." It is an example of the concept of Lex Talionis (law of retaliation) which refers to the "eye for an eye" practice in Torah, whereby the punishment is to match--but not exceed!--the crime. If this is indeed the case, then this passage is stating that if a woman intentionally tries to damage a man's genitals with her hand (which would not only risk making him sterile and unable to produce offspring to carry on the family name, but would also risk rendering him unable to enter the Assembly of the Lord due to Deut. 23:1's prohibition), then the punishment is that her "hand" will suffer the result that she intended to inflict upon him--that is, the cutting off or disfiguring of her labia as punishment for attempted disfigurement of his penis/scrotum. (Depending on your mindset, I'm guessing some of you are either cringing or giggling...or both...as you read the words "labia", "penis" and "scrotum" in a blog on the Bible!) For more on this proposal, see:  L. Eslinger, “The Case of the Immodest Lady Wrestler in Deuteronomy XXV 11-12”, Vetum Testamentum 31/3, 1981, pp.269-281.

Similar, but less cringe-worthy than the above interpretation, is that of Jerome Walsh who suggests that “kaph” refers euphemistically, not to the actual female genitalia, but to the groin area as a whole and the verb for “cut off” is to be translated as “trimmed/shaved.” If this is the case, it would be suggesting that the punishment for publicly shaming a man by attempting to damage his reproductive organ (upon which the very sign of the Covenant, circumcision, was borne) would be the public shaming of the offending wife of his opponent by symbolically desecrating her reproductive organ. This is due to the fact that the shaving of hair in Israel was most often a sign of mourning, humiliation or punishment. Ancient Hebrews were about as far from metrosexual as one can get, and grooming of body hair was not a mark of beauty as it was in surrounding cultures like Egypt. Thus, the punishment would be a court-ordered Brazilian wax! For Walsh’s argument, see:  J. Walsh, “You Shall Cut Off Her ... Palm? A Re-Examination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12”, Journal of Semitic Studies 49/1, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced that either of these is what's going on in the passage. There are challenges to both views which raise some questions about their validity. But they are somewhat plausible and would fit into the category of Lex Talionis laws found elsewhere in Torah--and the purpose of Lex Talionis laws again was, ironically, to LIMIT the potential retributive violence against the accused. And in an honor-and-shame culture, attacking a man's genitals was symbolically (and literally, I guess!) an attack on his very manhood--and perhaps on his entire family's well-being.

Thus, even if it is the woman’s actual palm that was to be cut off (or perhaps cut/scarred), then it would still be an example of the Lex Talionis. In this case, as OT scholar Sandra Jacobs argues, it is a Talionis of Instrument—whereby the offending limb is what receives the punishment. Similar Middle Assyrian laws and have been documented and would provide a cultural legal analogue to Biblical law. [S. Jacobs, “Instrumental Talion in Deuteronomic Law”,  Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law, 16, 2010, pp.263-278]

If attacking the genitals of a man in the ancient world represented an assault on his procreative abilities, his standing in the community, his family name and his very manhood, then it is not hard to imagine that such an action would be met with vindictive violence by the man, his wife, or other family members in such an honor-and-shame culture...which would then potentially ignite a long-lasting blood-feud. This sounds very foreign to us, but in the world of the ancient Near East it would be unimaginable NOT to react in such a manner. Thus, by giving this example of case law in Deuteronomy, Moses is intending to LIMIT the retribution that can be enacted upon the woman, while at the same time recognizing and upholding the high value of sexuality, family, and Covenant which are all symbolized in various ways in the reproductive organs of men and women.

Of course we may find this utterly bizarre and even giggle-inducing (if you don’t believe me, try teaching it to a group of middle schoolers!) ...but this is a big reason why things like circumcision were established the way they were in the ancient world, and subsequently redefined and reinvested with new meaning by God among His Covenant People.

At the end of the day, this passage is admittedly unclear and perhaps bizarre to Christian readers two millennia removed from its original audience. And in modern societies where corporal punishment is a forgotten relic of the judicial past, it can indeed strike us as "cruel and unusual punishment." But it was one of the ways in which God entered into the culture of His people in their historical setting and chose to deal with them as a theocratic Covenant nation. Their purpose was to live among the pagan cultures surrounding them in such a way that God's distinctive relationship with them would draw watching gentiles back to Him. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise (or be seen as an obstacle to faith) that God would utilize certain forms of social and legal practices, albeit in a transformed or significantly-altered manner, in order to communicate to humanity throughout various stages of history. As for how Christians are to apply this passage today, that is a question that would be beyond the scope of this blog (though I discuss a basic approach in my video "Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments??").

However, it is important for those of us who claim to be Jesus' Disciples to remember that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is part of Torah, and according to Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews--despite taking into account the shift from Sinai to Golgotha; from Mosaic Covenant to Messianic Covenant--it remains God's Inspired Scripture for His people. We cannot "cut it off" from the pages of the Bible.

 

Blessings from the Dojo,

JM