Culture and the Bible

“It rains on the just and the unjust alike. What do you think that means?”

“Oh, teacher! It means good things happen to both good and bad people.”

 

That was an exchange I had with my class in Yemen. The saying is from the Bible (I can’t remember where in there) and my first reaction to the student was that they had it completely backwards. WIth just a second’s worth of thought though, I realized that their view of what rain means is probably a lot closer to the Bible’s than my Euro-centric vision. Rain is a good thing when you live in a parched place. While we usually associate rain with melancholy, cancelled picnics, and general ickiness, they rightfully see it as a life giving gift.

It made me wonder what else we have been getting precisely wrong out of the Bible because of the culture we are in now. Some things that seem obvious to us might have had a very different meaning back then. We need to remember who was being taught to. I don’t have any hard evidence, but it certainly seems like Yemen is much closer in climate and culture to 30 AD than we are in the US. With that cultural filter put into place, let’s take a look at two different well known teachings from the New Testament.

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This is usually seen as a straightforward appeal to pacifism by Jesus. If a guy hits you, you shouldn’t resist, right? Well, it could be a little different… The translation of that passage is pretty consistent, with most translators using slap, some use smite. The really interesting thing is that they all say “cheek.” None of them say, “If someone gives you a black eye, don’t hit him back,” or even “If someone slugs you in a bar…” No, it says if someone slaps your cheek, you should offer the other one to be slapped as well. What’s the significance of a slap on the cheek?

Even in western culture, a slap across the cheek is the universal symbol of disrespect. There is no damage involved, there are far more violent things you can do than slap someone. What a slap offers that a punch doesn’t is shame. I was warned by some of the expat “old timers” in Yemen to never slap a guy. If I got into a fight, well, that can happen. But if you slap him, he will be forced to defend his honor and that will have much worse endings than a brawl.

With that in mind, that passage may not have much to do with pacifism but with keeping your cool and not escalating things. Don’t let concepts of “honor” drive you to committing a worse sin than the guy that hit you did. Modern day Yemen, and I’m sure all of Semitic culture going waaaaaaay back has many problems with honor related violence. I’m pretty convinced this passage is addressing that instead of being a blanket exhortation of pacifism.

 

Homosexuality isn’t actually mentioned all that much in the Bible. Lots of conservatives will point to the Old Testament’s “sodomites” as a counter example but word is a really dodgy interpretation. The King James version sounds weighty, but most Bible scholars lament its awful translation. A more accurate translation is “temple prostitute.” It certainly makes more sense when read that way.

Jesus didn’t actually say anything at all about homosexuality. I think that’s significant as I put the most weight on what “The Man” says more than anyone else. But others disagree. Paul was pretty straightforward in his commendation of homosexuality though, and that’s where a lot of nontrivial discussion about it in Christian circles comes from.

My personal opinion is that a lot of Paul’s writing sounds like Paul spouting off. He certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus, and he wasn’t around for any of Jesus’s teachings. But let’s ignore that for the time being… It shouldn’t be a surprise, but there is actually a fair amount of confusion about the translation of the word Paul used that most conservatives assume is homosexual. It could mean a variety of other things instead. But let’s ignore that too and concentrate on the audience that Paul was preaching to.

One of the worst kept secrets in the middle east is how much guy on guy sex there is. To our eyes, it is clearly homosexual sex, but they have a little different view of it in Yemen. Keep in mind that guys never see any women over there that aren’t their mother or sister until they get married. Starting in puberty, guys are only with other guys. Hormones being what they are, things go on. From a western perspective, they are all engaging in homosexual acts. Over there, people tend to mostly ignore younger guys fooling around with each other. It’s a little more tricky when they are older. Yemen, like most Arab countries doesn’t consider the one “giving” to be engaging in a homosexual act. It’s my understanding that if you’re married and doing this, it’s a much more serious problem…

My point is this, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that the same behavior was going on back then. Taken in that context, I think it very likely that Paul would be addressing the guys screwing around because they are horny. That’s a far cry from people wanting to marry each other.

Maybe I’m full of it, but I really do believe that a lot of the stuff we supposedly learned from stories in the Bible have been twisted around completely. That is a translation issue, but we need to understand how big a role culture plays in understanding what is said. Somehow we need to put ourselves into the hot, arid, conservative culture of 30 AD. Yemen is about as close as we’ll get today.

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