August 25, 2019 A Religious and Political Commentary

‘What goes without saying’ may lead us to miss the point of what was intended

“That goes without saying” is a phrase we’ll use from time to time to describe something we feel is obviously understood by our audience.  Because we feel it is self-evident, it lets us move on without explanation.

But what “goes without saying” can often make interpreting the Bible challenging.  When we’re reading a document that spans thousands of years and was written by people from very different cultures, there is much room for misinterpretation.

What “went without saying” to them may not be so obvious to us.  Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so it is human nature to fill in the blanks – often incorrectly.  Additionally, “what goes without saying” for us may lead us to completely miss the point the original author intended.

A couple examples from the Bible come to mind.

Moses’ brother and sister were not happy with his choice for a wife: “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite (Numbers 12:1).” Clearly, since Zipporah’s native land of Cush is mentioned twice, Moses’ siblings are having race issues.  A quick glance at a Bible atlas lets us know that Cush is a region in the southern Nile River Valley.  She was a dark-skinned African.

Since we’re not sure what Miriam’s and Aaron’s beef was specifically, we’re inclined to fill in the blanks from our own sordid, misinformed background. We wrongly imagine that “it goes without saying” that Moses’ siblings think Zipporah the Cushite is Moses’ (and their) inferior.

We might even be tempted to think (as some earlier Bible commentators do) that because she is black, she was a slave.  But we would be wrong on all counts. The Cushites, in reality, were a highly respected, noble race in the ancient world.

We also know that Zipporah was the daughter of Jethro, called the “Priest of Midian,” and very likely a wealthy man. Moses, on the other hand, has just discovered his Hebrew slave-heritage, was a criminal (sought for murder), and was himself on the lam with no worldly goods to his name. We incorrectly imagine Moses married below himself.

In reality, if there was a “marrying below one’s station,” it was Zipporah who married below herself, not Moses.  This is highlighted by Miriam’s and Aaron’s next comment: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us… (Numbers 12:2)?”  They seem to be upset that Moses is putting on airs and presumptuously marrying above his station.  They are whining: “Moses isn’t the only prophet here – we are, too! Who does he think he is?”

We find something similar in the New Testament.  After the church is founded in Acts 2, the good news of Jesus begins to spread in concentric circles from Jerusalem.  A significant moment is found in Acts 8 when the Apostle Philip converts a black-skinned Ethiopian to Christianity and the gospel reaches the continent of Africa.

In Luke’s account, the African is reading the scroll of Isaiah and the conversation begins: “…Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30-31).”

What might (erroneously) “go without saying” is that Philip humbled himself to enlighten this ignorant African traveler to the gospel.  And again, we would be wrong. It turns out that this man (in his chariot with his retinue) was one of the more powerful and influential men in the world.  There certainly was an act of humility and condescension, but it was not on the Apostle Philip’s part.  It came when this Ethiopian ambassador stopped his chariot to let a poor traveler join him.

Several years later, Paul would write: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” This verse is a beautiful reminder to us that whatever issues of race we have here on this fallen planet, they did not begin with God. Christianity clearly teaches equality and egality among races and genders.

However, “what goes without saying,” as we read Paul’s statement, is the false assumption that Paul is making concessions: Jew is better than Greek – but God still loves the Greek.  Freeman is better than slave – but God still loves the slave. Male is better than female – but God still loves women.

Again, we are wrong.

If this were Paul’s meaning, it would not be very shocking.  That type of thinking could be readily found in Judaism.  Rather, Paul’s statement was radically different – so different that his opponents sought to kill him for it.  So different that, when this new theological reality began to take hold, it changed the world.

Rome’s economy was built on slavery.  By the end of the first century, it is estimated that 35-40% of the Italian peninsula’s population was slaves. It was the church (and a few Stoic philosophers) who worked against the social construct of slavery – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

It was the church who gave full rights of membership and status to slaves. The church spoke against ill-treatment of slaves. The church preached equality of all peoples. The church collected money to buy slaves’ freedom. And it was the church who promoted slaves to leadership roles (Onesimus, the slave mentioned in Paul’s letter to Philemon, would eventually become the Bishop of Ephesus).

So when Paul says, “There is no slave nor free” in God’s economy, it is not from a benign, exalted position of authority that he deigns to offer grace to lower people.  He is lower people.

Part of our problem in the American church is we forget our heritage.  Our movement began at the bottom rung of the ladder. Perhaps we should stay put.

Related Posts

Christian socialism has same problem as secular: Sin nature of humans

October 25, 2018

October 25, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestWhen I was a kid, I lived in a cul-de-sac in north Denton (“Idiot’s Hill”) where all of the neighbors...

Open Letter to the Church

February 15, 2018

February 15, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterest“We are no longer a Christian nation.”  That was a quote by President Barak Obama in a June 28, 2006...

Willing Accomplices

March 13, 2019

March 13, 2019

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterest“No man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country, and however powerful a man may...

Jumping to Conclusions

January 23, 2019

January 23, 2019

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestBy now you have seen, ad nauseam, video of the “Covington Catholic Kids” and Nathan Phillips in a confrontation at...

Create or Consume

April 25, 2019

April 25, 2019

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterest“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…God saw all that he had made, and it was very...

Separation of Church and State?

July 17, 2017

July 17, 2017

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestRecently, the “Trinity Lutheran” case was decided favorably on behalf of the church in the US Supreme Court. “In dissent,”...

If You Can Keep It

September 28, 2017

September 28, 2017

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestAs the aged Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he...

Gehenna

August 30, 2017

August 30, 2017

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestJesus was a master teacher, often using stories, illustrations, and object lessons to make his spiritual points. One of Jesus’...

Free Speech and the Church

May 25, 2017

May 25, 2017

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterest“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech” – that revered phrase in the First Amendment.  Where did it...

Religion

August 7, 2019

August 7, 2019

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestAccording to Science Daily, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world. Make that 4,201. I realized this as I...

Ideas have consequences.

January 10, 2018

January 10, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestWhen Europeans began global exploration, their most surprising discoveries were not exotic lands and peoples, but their vast technological superiority...

For our nation to reconcile, we must be forgiving

July 12, 2018

July 12, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterest“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say y’all will do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true,...

God knows the ‘flyover’ churches

June 28, 2018

June 28, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestReading one of the lists of disciples recently, one name jumped off the page at me: James the son of...

Opinions vary on how church should be

May 3, 2018

May 3, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestChurch. Everyone has an opinion. Some of us like liturgy and hymns. Some of us like electric guitars and fog...

Context gives meaning to all our memorials

January 25, 2018

January 25, 2018

FacebookTwitteremailLinkedinPinterestEvery day on my way to work I drive by a white cross with plastic flowers on the side of...

Comments
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *