- 5 Popular Bible Verses and Passages That We May Be Misinterpreting
- Five Popular Bible Passages We May Be Misinterpreting (Part 2)
I’m of the opinion that at a certain age, all people (especially Christians) need to start questioning things and thinking for themselves. In particular, those like me who profess Jesus as Lord, need to wrestle with the Bible, think critically about it and even sometimes push back against things they are taught. I’m NOT advocating being a jerk about it or being unteachable or living with a jaded sense of cynicism. I’m simply saying that when necessary we need to check our presuppositions about the Bible, acknowledge that we bring biases to it, and very humbly challenge long-held interpretations of certain passages. We need to consider that there are times we may be wrong, even about things we have believed our whole lives. This is extremely hard for people to do and I am very indebted to my father for modeling this before me even into his 70’s.
When I say we “may be wrong,” that is exactly what I mean. I am not saying I am 100% sure that the traditional interpretations below are wrong, just that it is possible that some traditional interpretations have been held for so long by so many people that this has prevented us from thinking critically about them. At the very least I ask you to consider these alternative interpretations, if you have not already. All of them are held by people I esteem as orthodox in their faith and practice. They are not wild, crackpot ideas I came up with on my own. I owe everything I know about the Bible–with a couple of exceptions–to teachers. And if I am not teachable, then I am not a true disciple of Christ. When my favorite professor at Moody, Dr. Julius Wong Loi Sing, first presented the interpretation of Mark 12 in #1 below, I bristled at it and deemed him wrong immediately. But after months of wrestling with it, and reading it over and over in context in as many translations as possible, I came to the conclusion he was right. You may not change your mind on any of these. I only ask you to consider. Keep in mind that for Dr. Wong Loi Sing, and for me, the wheels are still turning on these and every passage in the Bible.
1. Mark 12:41-44
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”Mark 12:41-44
Traditional Interpretation: The woman is being praised for giving everything she had, as a great sacrifice and not out of abundance. And we should give God all that we have, no matter how little we have or much it costs us.
Alternative Interpretation: Jesus was not complimenting the woman but instead condemning the Pharisees for obligating the woman to give all that she had through unmerciful taxation.
At times it is unfortunate that chapter and verse divisions–which are not original in any Bible text–keep us from seeing connections in passage contexts. And at times Bibles divide chapters with subheadings that make it even harder to see them. Many Bibles divide Mark 12:41-44 from the verses that precede it.1 But if you read the verses prior to Mark 12:41, you will see that Jesus is issuing a warning about the Pharisees and in vs. 40 accuses them of “devouring widows houses,” meaning that they were so wicked they did the opposite of the law in taking care of widows and took what they needed to live. “Devour” is a strong word here. These were heinous acts of injustice. And I don’t think the scene changes from Mark 12:40 to 12:41. Jesus certainly complimented people in his ministry but he also very often rebuked and warned against the Pharisees. I think that is what he is doing here. He is not complimenting the woman. She had no choice and was not being generous or sacrificial. She was a victim.
2. Proverbs 22:6
Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6
Traditional Interpretation: If you teach your children the ways of God, when they grow up they will keep following Him. Since Proverbs are principles and not promises, this does not mean it works every time. It explains why good Christian parents at times have rebellious children.
Alternative Interpretation: “The way he should go” is not talking about things like Bible teaching but about how a child “bends” in the sense of having inclination towards certain talents and abilities. The Amplified Version says it this way: “Train up a child in the way he should go [teaching him to seek God’s wisdom and will for his abilities and talents], Even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Please understand, I am not interpreting this verse based on modern psychology, but rather on what the Hebrew could actually mean. The ‘way he should go’ here can mean bend as the word literally is used in how a bow in a bow and arrow bends. So it may be teaching to encourage children according to their disposition in talents and abilities. In other words, If they are good at the piano, encourage them to play. If they are not, don’t force them to do it. If your child is good at sports, encourage them to play. If they aren’t, don’t. I’m not a parent and do not give unsolicited advice to parents. I am just trying to explain what the passage can mean. If you direct your child to their bends in talents, skills and ability, when they are adults they will continue to find purpose in those things. Even with this interpretation, there may still be the principle/not promise result.
Of the five verses and passages I’m dealing with here, this is probably the one I am least sure about as far as the suggested alternative being correct. I’ve read a lot of critique of the interpretation of “bend = ability.”
3. Matthew 5:8
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.Matthew 5:8
Traditional Interpretation: If you follow Christ and as a result live purely in avoiding sin (especially things like sexual sin), you will see God in Heaven one day.
Alternative Interpretation: “Pure in heart” has to do with how you treat the people as far as showing mercy and justice to people in need and ‘see God’ means you see Jesus on earth. This would mean that Matthew 5:8 teaches the same basic thing taught in Matthew 25:31-46, that if you serve the least of these practically, you are encountering Jesus. This is another interpretation Dr. Wong Loi Sing helped me with while at Moody.
I believe that it is best to let passages and words in a Bible book interpret other passages and words in that book. In other words, if Paul talks about being “holy” in Romans, then I will understand its use better from other Romans passages than I would from how Peter speaks to holiness or how it’s described in Exodus.
With that in mind, in Matthew 23:23-26 Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”
Notice that I bolded the word “clean” in the quoted verses. That is because it is the same word that you find for “pure” in Matthew 5:8. Nowhere in Matthew can I find Jesus or anyone else speaking of being “pure” or “clean” as avoiding sin. I can however find a place where being pure/clean means you do not neglect others and you value mercy and justice in how you treat others, especially the less fortunate (which was a huge part of mercy and justice in Israelite law). I think in Matthew we understand what James 4:17 says about purity: Purity is not just what I avoid doing. It’s also about the good that do.
And when Matthew says “see God,” that is exactly what Jesus taught in Matthew 25:34-40. If you serve the hungry and imprisoned and naked, you will ‘see’ Jesus2. At the beginning of Matthew it tells us that Jesus is “God with us.” At the end Jesus promises his disciples “I am with you always.” I think Jesus being God is clear in Matthew and so seeing God and seeing Jesus are the same thing.
4. Job 13:15
“Tho He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.”Job 13:15
Traditional Interpretation: Job is saying that no matter what–even if God kills him–that he will hope (or trust) in God. And we should have a similar fierceness of faith when our world crumbles as Job’s did.
Alternative Interpretation: This one is not an issue of interpretation since it really is what the Hebrew reading actually says. Due to manuscript differences, a word in this verse may be lo’ (“not”) or lo (“to Him.”) You can see one tiny little mark makes the difference and it is a huge difference for translation. The RSV reads: “Tho He slay me, I have no hope.” It basically gives the opposite meaning. Most of the popular English Bible translations (ESV, NIV, NASB, NLT) have the traditional rendering above.
I am not a textual critic of either testament by any means, but the reason I believe the latter reading is correct is because of the entire book context of Job. When Job speaks of hope, or even trust, he almost never speaks of having it in a positive way. He says plainly he has no hope (6:11, 17:15). He says his hope has been cut down like a tree (19:10). He says his days end without hope (7:6). He says he hopes for the grave as his house (17:13).
This does not mean he cannot in the midst of despair and desperation, give a cry of hope in God. That is probably what he is doing concerning the resurrection of Jesus in 19:25. But by sheer probability, if Job is speaking to hope in his book, he’s probably speaking negatively. This lack of hope is a recurring theme even, I would say, in Job.
Traditional interpretation: God created the heavens and the earth by the spoken word and out of nothing. He created the earth and all that is in it over a period of 6 days.
Alternative interpretation: In Genesis 1:1, God created the universe and everything in it. From Genesis 1:2 until the creation of humans in Genesis 1:26 God took 6 days and prepared the garden of Eden, which would also be the land later promised to Abraham and his descendants for many generations, for humans to inhabit. In other words, all of creation (apart from humans) took place in Genesis 1:1. The rest of the chapter is about getting the garden (and eventually, the Promised Land) ready for the humans to dwell from Genesis 1:26 on.
For a more detailed explanation of these thoughts, please see Genesis Unbound by Dr. John Sailhamer, a book endorsed by people like Walt Kaiser and John Piper. So if this sounds like (as Sheldon Cooper would say) “hokum,” please understand that some conservative Christian scholarship backs this interpretation.
Basically, Dr. Sailhamer teaches that in Genesis 1:1, “heavens and the earth” is a Hebrew merism for “the universe.”3 Genesis 1:2 is referring to the ‘land,’ not the earth.4 It describes it as “uninhabitable” or like a wilderness rather than “formless and void.” In Genesis 1:3, instead of God saying, “Let there be light,” it could be “Let the sun rise,” since the sun already existed from being created with everything else in 1:1. Genesis 1:4 should read “one day” instead of the “first day,” per the NASB. And lastly, the word “created” from 1:7 and 1:16 could be translated “made,” which can mean to “arrange” or “put right” as in “make a bed.”
Taken together, these alternative–and very possible–translations support the belief that Genesis 1:1 is describing the creation of the universe. This includes the heavens, the earth and everything else. Everything from 1:2 on is talking about the formation of the Garden of Eden/Promised Land. One of the best points Sailhamer makes about this interpretation is that the Pentateuch has the Promised Land as one of its most preeminent motifs so having it begin with its formation makes sense.
Feedback, even in critique or argument form, is welcomed. But please understand that while I will debate in a respectful and gentle way, none of these verses contain doctrines that are worth getting intense about. We can disagree and still be in Christian community together.
- The same account in Luke 21:1-4 has an even more unfortunate division in that it breaks the story from the previous verses with a chapter break. ↩
- Greek users may note that the word in Matt. 5:8 for ‘see’ is different than Matt. 25:34-40. But I’d argue they are synonyms. ↩
- A merism is when you represent a single thing by several of its parts. In Psalm 139, David says God knows him when he sits and when he rises. In other words, he knows him completely. ↩
- The word can be translated either way, much like ‘tierra’ in Spanish. ↩