A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Interpreting Bible narratives – how much can we apply them to domestic abuse?

A while ago, Jeff wrote a post  called Lord, do not forgive them, for they know exactly what they are doing. The post discusses how Sanballat was trying to undermine the rebuilding of the wall in Jerusalem, and how Nehemiah prayed in  response to Sanballat’s scorn.

It’s been put to me that the Sanballat story and the way Nehemiah prayed about Sanballat is “just a story from the Old Testament” and therefore cannot and should not be applied to cases of domestic abuse today.

I believe there are good reasons why this argument is not sound.

Yes, the Sanballat story is part of a narrative in the Old Testament.
As a story, it contains no commandment, no injunction about how believers ought to behave; it simply recounts an episode in the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, telling how a godly believer, a leader of the Jews, was attempting to rebuild the wall, and an unbelieving gentile was trying to undermine this work. The passage quoted in that post by Jeff recounts some of the scorn of the unbeliever (Sanballat) and how the believer (Nehemiah) prayed that God would judge and punish the scornful man and his allies.
The author of the Book of Nehemiah doesn’t concluded his account with a commandment “Thus shall ye pray also, when you are being scorned by your enemies!” But neither does he infer that the way Nehemiah prayed is wrong and that his prayer should never be emulated by other believers.
So how much are we permitted to apply this story to ourselves? Can we argue one way or the other, from this silence? Without an explicit injunction to imitate, or to not imitate, Nehemiah’s prayer, is it permissible to model our prayers on his prayer?

I’m rather tempted to stop writing here and see whether any pastors or other readers will answer the question I’ve posed.
I think I will leave off here, and see what others have to say, and come back and add something later if I feel it would be useful. (Ha! Maybe I don’t like being seen as someone who always thinks she has all the answers!)

The question in a nutshell is: under what circumstances, and to what extent, may we deduce or infer ethical precepts from the actions of a character in a Bible story, when the story itself neither explicitly condones, nor explicitly condemns, the actions of that character?

Some thoughts to start you off:

Jacob was a cunning deceiver, yet he was one of the Patriarchs through whom came the promises. Can we justify deception because Jacob the Patriarch put on those goat skins and deceived Isaac?

Abraham told Sarah to lie (or semi-lie) to Pharoah. Can we extract any ethical precepts for ourselves from Abraham’s directive to Sarah?

Abigail took the initiative to plead and negotiate peace with David, rather than falling in line with her foolish husband’s high-handed rejection of David’s request. Can we infer or deduce any ethical principles for ourselves from Abigail’s conduct?

12 Comments

  1. 11 Tim. 3:16 says that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

    In this passage God tells us that He gave us the scriptures not only for our knowledge of events that happened but also for a guide so that we would know the difference between right and wrong. He says for ‘correction’ and ‘instruction’ that we might be complete and equipped. God is telling us that we have things to learn from every passage in the Bible. So not only ‘can’ we draw applications from the book of Nehemiah and the story of ‘Sanballat’ but God tells us it is necessary to do so in order for us to be completed and equipped.

    There are many passages that we struggle with such as the passage where Abraham told Sarah to lie. In many cases the lesson from the passage becomes clearer as you read the rest of the story. For instance Abraham gets himself into a very embarrassing situation and puts Sarah in danger with his decision to have her lie and he winds up having to be rebuked by a heathen king who seems to have more wisdom at the moment than him. Also we see that he makes his decision to have Sarah lie out of fear not faith which helps conclude that this passage is not teaching us that it is okay to lie.

    With Jacob and the deception we see the consequences of his actions; the family is torn apart; Esau is driven to want to kill him; he has to flee for his life; he never sees his beloved mother again; his father is badly shaken by the deception and so on. Not only does Jacob’s deception shatter the family but we see his later humbling before God and Esau as an indication of repentance from his past behavior.

    When you contrast the story of Abigail and her husband with the stories of Abraham and Jacob we find that she acted out of wisdom and prudence even though she went to David without her husbands knowledge or approval. Abigail’s husband’s abusive personality was endangering the whole family and it was necessary for her to act in order to save herself and her children.

    Whenever a passage of scripture seems confusing or unclear, it is important to bring other passages along side to help keep a broader Biblical perspective so that we don’t draw a wrong conclusion.

    • Thank you so much, Dale! Excellent points you’ve made there. I wonder whether you can add a bit more about why we may indeed apply the model of Nehemiah’s prayer to our own situations of being abused. I know this would help some of our readers.

      • I would start your case (for using Nehemiah’s response to Sanballat and his prayer as a model for dealing with abusers) with the II Tim.3:16 passage. That gives us a good foundation from which to work. We need to counter the assumption that unless a scripture passage specifically says that it applies to the church then it is not for us. The opposite position is more correct, that unless a passage specifically indicates that it applies only to Israel or to the ‘old covenant’ then there is an application, teaching or commandment for each individual believer. While the story of Nehemiah and Sanballat are about the Jews and the rebuilding of the walls and Jerusalem, there are clearly lessons for us. Look at the similarities between then and now. Here is a man of God trying to do the work of God and he has enemies who are trying to stop what he is doing. He is doing the right thing and the opposition is trying to resist his efforts and they are using tactics of intimidation, deception, fear and distraction to keep him from accomplishing his goals and calling. Does that sound familiar? It could be today’s headline. “Offenders and their protectors in high places are trying to intimidate and frighten those who are trying to stop abuse.” The characters and their objectives in a general sense are much the same. We are in complete harmony with scripture when we are teaching Biblical lessons from these Old Testament passages. Romans 15:4 ” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning…” There are things from the Old Testament that are clearly not for today such as “an eye for eye” but the scriptures make this very clear. For anyone to so broadly dismiss the Old Testament scriptures as not applying to ‘us’, shows that they have a very weak and shallow understanding of all of the scriptures.

        I think that it is an excellent and insightful use of this passage to apply Nehemiah’s reaction and prayer to how we should deal with abusive people. Sanballat used deception, intimidation, fear and distractions in the same way that abusers do today and they are just as dangerous. And like the religious people that were connected to Sanballat and were doing his dirty work so are many professing Christians doing the same thing today for the offenders. The comparison is amazing!

    • Jeff Crippen

      Dale – That is a crucial Scripture for hermeneutics indeed! And think of Luke 24 where Jesus taught the disciples how the Old Testament spoke of Him. I don’t know what school of hermeneutics is being taught in seminaries that would maintain that OT narrative cannot be applied to our own lives, but apparently it is floating around out there somewhere. Yes, we realize that not everything in either Testament is directly transferable to us in a kind of one to one correspondecne, i.e., go get yourself a slingshot and slay your enemy. But anyplace that Scripture reveals to us the nature of God, the nature of evil, the nature of man, the manner in which God deals with man, and so on, then those principles are abiding. Sanballat, as an enemy of God, reveals to us the tactics of Satan in his opposition of the people of God and the work of God. We can learn a huge amount from this narrative. One instance that I am aware of is a pastor telling an abuse victim that she was wrong in saying that Nehemiah’s wisdom of refusing to listen to or meet with Sanballat provided her with wisdom about how to deal with her abuser. The pastor insisted that narrative literature of the Bible is not to be applied personally like that. Of course, in this particular case, the principles from Nehemiah were in opposition to what the pastor wanted this woman to do (go back to her abuser husband). But just imagine the far-reaching (and bad) consequences of saying that narrative literature of Scripture is ONLY to be applied to God’s broad, ongoing plan of redemption in Christ and not to our individual lives. That would dismiss huge portions of Scripture. Thanks much for your input here.

      • Jeff,

        Thank you for what you are doing. Expounding the truth of the scriptures and how the different passages give us insight into how we can and should be dealing with the issue of abuse is so vital. It may not win over the masses but I believe that it wake up some.

      • Jeff,

        How do I get the ‘share’ icons to show up after each post so that others share to FB and so on. I have ‘connected’ to FB, LI, and twitter but I can’t figure out the other.

      • Jeff and Dale, thanks for your excellent input. I think the principle that Dale articulated is of foundational importance. I’m paraphrasing it below for our readers to ponder over once more. Really I’m just putting what Dale and Jeff have said in different words, but it bears repeating, because this stuff takes a while to sink down into the brains of confused and frazzled victims.

        2 Tim.3:16 is a key guideline for interpreting scripture. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work.” This implies that unless a passage specifically indicates that it applies only to Israel or to the ‘old covenant’, then there is an application, teaching or commandment for each individual believer.

        From this principle, a secondary principle follows. Where there are parallels between the ethical dynamics in an OT story, and the ethical dilemmas we face today, we may infer an ethical principle from the OT story and apply it to ourselves – so long as we are not violating the overarching ethical principles found in God’s Word.

        For example, Sanballat clearly had an ungodly agenda that he was prosecuting with ungodly tactics – just like a man who abuses his wife has an ungodly agenda and ungodly tactics. In contrast, Nehemiah had a very godly agenda and was using godly tactics to bring it about. Similarly, a victim of domestic abuse wants the abuse to stop; she wants to protect her children and herself from the ravages of the abuser. And she tries every thing she can think of in the way of godly tactics, to attempt to stop the abuse. When all her efforts fail and she finally sees her husband as an a abuser, a Sanballat, she is justified and wise, like Nehemiah was wise, to refuse to meet with him or negotiate with him. And she may pray to God about this man, like Nehemiah prayed to God about Sanballat.

        And none of this is violating the overarching ethical principles found in God’s Word, because Scripture tells us over and over again about how we can, and indeed should relate to those who persist in wickedness, especially when those people masquerade as fellow believers. Avoid such people, have nothing to do with them (2 Tim. 3:5); hand them over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5); purge the evil person from among you (1 Cor 5:13), and on and on. For more scriptures about rebuke, separation, and penalties for wicked phoney believers, see chapter 2 in my book.

  2. Reblogged this on Speakingtruthinlove's Blog.

  3. I would also be willing to bet that a pastor who told a victim off for applying the Nehemiah/Sanballat story to her own situation, would be happily applying other OT narratives to ethical situations when it suited him. Pick and choose your applications, and you can get away with a lot of Lording it Over your congregation while still having the appearance of godliness.
    For example, there have been many church leaders who have yelled “Touch not God’s anointed!” when a congregant dares to criticise them. It’s cool to apply that verse, when it suits them, but not to apply other verses which don’t suit them.
    Pshaw! It’s this kind of thing that makes the Lord say “I will spit you out of my mouth!”

  4. Anonymous

    Interesting, Barbara. I once heard my pastor’s wife expound on Nehemiah’s response to Sanballat, and apply it even to a marriage situation, where the wife can say, “Sorry dear, but I have a higher calling and will not go there in discussion, etc…” if she is called by God in a certain direction and feels hindered by an ungodly response from her husband. I certainly grabbed that as permission to stand up to my husband, but in reality was far too scared to say anything like that.

    However, since leaving, I have gleaned a lot out of Nehemiah narrative and it never crossed my mind that the prayer was inapplicable to my situation. It seems abundantly clear that the tactics of Nehemiah’s enemies are that of abuse. It is also clear that Nehemiah’s response is illustrative of a godly response because he is presented as a godly prophet. The only part of Nehemiah that I have felt uncomfortable with is his response to the pagan inter-marriages in the last chapter, where he cursed the offenders and pulled out their hair! But then again, if I understood the depth of the sin, and felt the anger at the unrighteousness of the offenders, maybe I would feel it appropriate to do that.

    • Yeah, I was always a little torn between whether to laugh or whether to “tut-tut” at Nehemiah’s pulling out their hair. Maybe Nehemiah lost it a bit, just like Moses lost it when he hit the rock several times. Or maybe pulling out hair was a way of shaming a person, like putting them in the stocks in Elizabethan times. I seem to remember that some Israelites had their beards pulled out or shaved by either the Assyrians or Babylonians. If de-hairing a man was a way of shaming him publicly, then Nehemiah’s action makes quite a bit of sense. The hair would grow back eventually, but not before the entire community knew that these guys had been publicly humiliated.
      (I can think of a few politicians I’d like to do that too, come to think of it…. Those in Oz know who I mean!)

  5. Finding Answers

    I really enjoy reading through posts expounding scripture.

    Equally well, I enjoy the discussions contained in the user comments – and that includes everyone.

    When a comment is made regarding some area in Scripture with which the person is struggling, the resultant replies provide wisdom / depth / clarity / application we might otherwise miss. AKA edification.

    The last ‘c’hurch I attended, the most frequent use of the Old Testament was either to elicit money or talk about how material reward was biblical. Ensuring, of course, they mentioned what they preached was scriptural…

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