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?