George Washington Was No Cherry Picker

George Washington Was No Cherry Picker

Amanda Hope HaleyBy Amanda Hope Haley51 Minutes

Book Excerpt from Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow by Amanda Hope Haley

Chapter 3

George Washington Was No Cherry Picker

Washington, DC, is never more beautiful than during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gave three thousand ornamental (nonfruiting) cherry trees to Washington to signify enduring friendship between our nations, and the nations have swapped cuttings back and forth ever since to keep the original trees’ lineages alive in both nations.¹ The one-hundred-year-long relationship contrasts the meaning of the cherry blossoms themselves, which in Japan represent the transience of life. The ornamental cherry tree has a brief but brilliant blooming season, ended as the wind whisks the petals away. Life is beautiful but fleeting.

I incorrectly thought that Japan gave Washington, DC, all those cherry trees as a nod to the fable of George Washington cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree when he was six years old:

When George … was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the way, was a great favourite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischevious author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.²

Everyone knows this is just an anecdote meant to impress upon us the importance of truth. George Washington, father of our nation, was always honest with his own father, even when he thought he would be punished for killing what would have been a fruited cherry tree. I can only speculate as to what made it his father’s favorite; maybe it provided the biggest and tastiest cherries, or maybe it was a lovely shade tree in his garden. If it had been a black cherry tree, a variety that grows wild in Virginia, at least Mr. Washington could have made some nice heirloom-quality furniture from its wood after the fictional tragedy.

There’s a lot to love about the cherry tree: beautiful, nourishing, strong, metaphorical, even truthful. Not unlike our Bible.

Don’t Pick, Prune, or Chop Down the Bible

As we have learned, the Bible is an anthology composed of many ancient texts written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years. All biblical stories and voices come together in a singular portrait of God and His desire to reconcile humanity to Himself. When we study and teach Scripture, each story and every voice need to be considered to extract a true interpretation of God’s Word.

There are two types of preaching: proof-texting and exegesis. Whenever a preacher gets on stage or behind a pulpit and says something like, “These are the five ways the Bible tells us to do X,” then you know you’re about to hear some proof-texting. That person looked at the world and wondered what his or her listeners needed to hear to feel better about life. Then he went to the Bible and found passages or verses that agreed with whatever five points he wanted to make. To say this is lazy theology is an understatement, but it is probably the most popular form of Sunday-morning lecture. Sadly, many people prefer to hear only that the Bible agrees with the ways they are behaving or believing as opposed to hear just God’s truth. They cherry-pick the parts of Scripture they like while undercutting God’s Word as a whole.

The Method

One of the first lessons I was taught as a budding archaeologist was, “If you look for it, then you’ll find it.” This was in reference to excavations (and will be probed in chapter 4), but it is true for the Bible as well. If you want to “make” God validate you, then you can do it.

Let’s pretend that I just found out I need to teach at a power-player women’s conference in two days. It’s a strange conference—one that peddles in Christian untruth—and they want me to explain why marriage is wrong. If, hypothetically, I were to accept the job (which I would never, ever do because this so obviously disagrees with God’s first command in Genesis 1:28 that humanity be fruitful and multiply), then I would proof-text Scripture to make it happen. My preparation would look something like this:

Step 1: Find a nonbiblical story to introduce the topic and engage the listener.

Christina had spent the year since she had graduated from college planning her wedding. She had been hired as a congressional intern in Washington, DC, and she and her college sweetheart had decided a spring wedding under the Japanese cherry trees would be the perfect way to start their lives as a future Washington power-couple. Family and friends flew in from all over the nation to watch Christina in her blush-pink gown vow to love and honor her husband. Everything was picture-perfect that day.

Before the next spring, Christina was a mess. She was always entertaining her in-laws or cleaning for her in-laws or cooking for her in-laws. Laundry never seemed to be done, and she’d found herself working fewer hours just to keep up with personal responsibilities. She had been passed over for a promotion, and now her husband wanted to add a baby to the chaos. Married life was no bowl full of cherries. She’d lost her ambitions, her successfulness, and herself—all because she’d tied herself to one good-looking guy.

Step 2: Break the topic down into three-to-five points.

Christina’s story exemplifies the three reasons the Bible doesn’t want women to marry:

  1. The domestic responsibilities associated with marriage are all-consuming.
  2. Marriage distracts women from reaching their God-given potential.
  3. Marriage makes women shallow and sex-addicted.

Step 3: Cherry-pick Bible verses that support the points.

Let’s look at the verses that tell us why women shouldn’t marry:

  1. Proverbs 31:10: “Who can find a virtuous wife? / For her worth is far above rubies …” This list of wives’ responsibilities is so long it must be a sarcastic way of reminding women they don’t want those responsibilities.
  2. Matthew 19:12 (THE VOICE): “Others have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who can embrace that call should do so.” Women should model other single women who live happy, charitable lives.
  3. 1 Corinthians 7:34: “The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband.” Wives get distracted by all the daily household and nightly sexual responsibilities. Those women can no longer love God.

This exaggerated little exercise was honestly painful to write because it is so disrespectful of Scripture. Because the verses are taken out of context—the contexts of the Bible as a whole, the books they are in, and in some cases the very sentences around them—the words can be used to justify just about any claim.

If women were to listen to a speech like the one outlined above and then decide not to marry—or worse, divorce—then they would be falling victim to false teaching and believing in false theology. Sadly, this has been happening to Christians since the very day the Christ was resurrected, as supposed believers doubted His return (1 Corinthians 15:12).

False Beliefs

The consequences of false teachings can be devastating and far-reaching, impacting not only individuals’ choices but the behaviors and beliefs of entire societies. Up until the eighteenth century, proof-texting was complicit in the continuation of slavery in Europe and the New World. Proponents would point to the Bible and say, “Abraham had slaves” (Genesis 21:9-10), and “God never disapproved of it in the law” (Exodus 20:8-10,17). You would think the average Christian would hear that reasoning and respond, “But that was before Jesus came and fulfilled the law,” but the New Testament didn’t exactly outlaw slavery either. Jesus did not condemn the practice in the Gospels, and Paul actually told slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8).

If you look at only those four points, then it does seem as if the Bible makes a case in support of slavery. But consider the contexts, Scripture is written for humanity living in an imperfect fallen world. Institutions exist here that God does not support, but God’s displeasure doesn’t make them cease to exist. God addressed slavery in the law because it was part of the human condition, much as He gave instructions for divorce. Consider what happened in Mark 10:2-12:

The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him.

And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.”

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

God gave all of those 613 laws to Moses and the wandering Israelites because humans needed them to navigate the flawed world God never intended for us. At first, He had one rule: don’t eat from the tree of knowledge. After we broke that rule, He made adjustments and added rules to keep humanity going until Jesus could bring God’s people back into a right, pre-Fall relationship with Him.

As Paul was writing just after Jesus’ resurrection, slavery was still common all over the world. (It takes generations for human institutions to change; slavery would be legal in Europe and America for another eighteen hundred years.) Although Jesus’ gospel message disagreed with slavery, His words had not yet penetrated society. After explaining to new Christians how the law worked, Paul then mentioned that flawed institution of slavery in Galatians 3:26-28 simply because it still existed: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Just because slavery once existed, that doesn’t make it right. There should be no categories of “slave” and “free” because all who accept Jesus’ sacrifice are children—princes and princesses—of God.

But just because God’s children are all princes and princesses in His kingdom, that doesn’t mean we are all wealthy and healthy here on earth. Contrary to the claims of too many rich and famous pastors with gigantic followings, a right relationship with God does not guarantee earthly comforts. The only way to end up believing that is with proof-texting.

There are two common themes among the various prosperity theologians: (1) if you are suffering, then you don’t have enough faith; (2) if you are poor, then you don’t have enough faith. Before we get into the actual false theology of these claims, just read them again. Those statements are about you, you, you, and you. No God. No Jesus.

No one wants to suffer. But since we humans decided to have our eyes opened so we could “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5, emphasis added), we’ve been stuck with both. There was a reason God didn’t want us eating from that tree: He didn’t intend for us to suffer evil. And Scripture actually tells us—that those who are closest to God suffer the most. In other words, the more faith you have, the more likely you are to suffer. But I guess that isn’t the kind of message that packs amphitheaters with tithing listeners.

Consider what happened to all the men who were the very closest to Jesus, the apostles. With the exception of John, who died while exiled for his faith in Jesus, every single one of them was executed because of his great faith. Those stories come to us from Christian tradition and history, but Scripture agrees that those with the greatest faith have the hardest lives, and it actually foreshadows their fates. Faith didn’t save Paul from suffering; it helped him through it. The knowledge of the faith of others, in fact, helped him survive:

We told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know. For this reason, when I could no longer endure [suffering], I sent to know [the state of your faith] … But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always have good remembrance of us, greatly desiring to see us, as we also to see you—therefore, brethren, in all our affliction and distress we were comforted concerning you by your faith. For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 3:4-8).

One sort of suffering, which prosperity theologians tend to elevate to the number-one indicator of the health of your relationship with God, is financial poverty. If you are poor, then it is because you don’t have enough faith that God will bless you with more money. (The cynic in me would add, “with more money … that you can give to those false theologians’ churches.”) The absolute absurdity of the claim that faith yields wealth cannot be overstated.

Let’s go straight to Jesus’ mouth to find out how God feels about the impoverished. In the Gospel of Luke, the first time Jesus speaks in public. He reads from the book of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down (Luke 4:18-20).

The very first people Jesus mentions are the poor. And He is there to tell them His good news, not to make them wealthy. Whenever Jesus mentions the poor, His concern is for their spiritual wealth, not their monetary wealth. He never shames them for lack of faith or blames them for their financial status. In fact, He reminds them of a bright side: they are more likely to have the greatest faith! Jesus tells His disciples, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20); the kingdom belongs to the poor and not the wealthy.

Paul reinforces this time and again. Although he sometimes uses physical wealth as a metaphor (making his words susceptible to out-of-context proof-texting), it is obvious that it is meant to represent spiritual well-being because Jesus Himself was never literally wealthy. Paul writes, “I speak not by commandment, but I am testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:8-9).

So if faith doesn’t make you wealthy and healthy here on earth, as some proof-texters would have you believe, then what does it do?

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Romans 5:1-5, emphasis added).

Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is unique among his writings. At the time it was sent, he had never visited the Roman church or modeled evangelism for them. He did not know its leaders the way he did in Corinth, Philippi, and the other recipient cities, so he presented the gospel message to them with the purpose of preparing them to take Jesus’ good news to all of Italy and Spain.

Faith is a frequent topic in Romans, but never is it impetus for earthly reward. Faith, as Paul describes in chapter 5, results in “peace with God,” “grace,” and “hope of the glory of God.” Faith allows us to “glory in tribulations” because they improve our “character” and give us even more “hope.” There’s no health or wealth mentioned there—quite the opposite, in fact. You won’t find false theologians quoting those verses if they want to increase their followings and receipts.

Climb into the Bible and Stay Awhile

Exegesis is a type of study that starts with Scripture, and then lets the Holy Spirit reveal God’s truths. It doesn’t require concordances or indexes, wild ideas or personal conjecture. Just prayer, time in the Bible, and a willingness to change.

A mentor of mine who attended seminary several decades ago tells the story of his first experience with exegesis. Frank had a professor who, at the start of the term, gave his students one Bible verse. They were told to go home that night and write down ten observations about the text. They weren’t allowed to consult outside materials for ideas or add verses to make the passage longer. It was challenging for such a short passage, but the assignment was worse after the next class and then the next, as they repeated the exercise—without making any duplicate observations—every day for the semester. By Christmas, the students all had notebooks full of thoughts about that one verse, and all agreed that meditating on Scripture as they had done allowed it to speak in ways they never would have heard without such detailed attention.

Frank has delivered my favorite sermons of all time. For a series of Sundays, he would pick a book of the Bible and recite it from beginning to end. He did it dynamically, pausing where he needed to explain historical or textual or literary contexts that informed the meanings of the words. He doesn’t speak as much as he used to, but he still makes a habit of memorizing books of the Bible, not just verses. I know John 3:16, which is fine, but he knows John. Why? Because Scripture cannot be properly understood in a vacuum. What John wrote from 1:1 to 3:15 and 3:17 to 21:25 colors his words in verse 16.

These are the two parts of exegesis: attention to detail and knowledge of context.

The Method

Whenever David and I have hosted small-group Bible studies, our most successful ones (based on attendance, enthusiasm, and overall aha moments) were when the group decided on a book of the Bible and just started reading. At each meeting I tended to facilitate the discussions, filling in mainly historical context where necessary and answering the occasional question if I could. We left each meeting with a loose assignment to read the next chapter or so of text and write down observations and questions to discuss the next time.

We tended to select narrative books for study, such as Esther, because they were entertaining and already familiar to everyone at the table. This was good for me, too, because it was easy for me to prepare historical, textual, and literary details I could share with the group to broaden their understandings of the passages. My goal was always to help everyone see past the limitations of their English translations and understand the world from which the story was written. I wanted context to help them interpret Scripture themselves, not make them all believe as I believe and take my word as gospel.

So let’s take one of those proof-texted verses from page 79 and exegete it instead. (If I haven’t stepped on your toes yet in this chapter, then I’m about to.)

Proverbs 31:10-31 has become the go-to passage for many Christian married women. On the surface and out of context, it is the laundry list (pun intended) of activities, attitudes, and accolades women should be attempting. They include:

  • making her husband feel secure about their relationship,
  • feeding and clothing her family and employees,
  • running a small vineyard and winery,
  • sleeping no more than one REM cycle each night,
  • volunteering to help the poor,
  • keeping up on the latest fashions,
  • making her husband famous, and
  • sharing her wisdom and kindness with everyone.

Easy-peasy! Nothing about that list is at all intimidating or makes me feel like a failure as a woman.

I thank God He did not finish the book of Proverbs with a poem about how I should behave in my marriage, because David does all the grocery shopping, I sleep ten hours every night if I can manage it, and my daily work uniform consists of clean-but-paint-splattered T-shirts and faded yoga pants. Part of the reason David feels so secure in our relationship (he says I tick that box!) just might be my stereotypical work-at-home writer sloppiness and not the love and affection I shower upon him.

Step 1: Textual Criticism

I like to begin studying a text by figuring out who wrote the passage and when and where he did so. When it comes to Proverbs, this may be a bit harder than it initially looks. The book begins by saying, “The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel,” which readers traditionally take to mean that Solomon is the author. For a lot of reasons—foremost among them the construction of the text (which we will get to next)—that first “of” likely means something more like “inspired by” or even “commissioned by.” Proverbs is probably not by Solomon, but because he was known as a wise king, the book was dedicated to him.

In the Hebrew, it is easier to tell that Proverbs is an anthology of several collections of sayings. Some of these collections are directly attributed to their authors (such as the “men of Hezekiah” in 25:1); others were written or collected by a more general “Teacher” of young men. Proverbs 31 says it is the collected sayings of King Lemuel’s mother to her son, as told by King Lemuel to the Teacher who compiled all the sayings.

What Is the Best Bible Translation?

I first asked that question of a theology professor when I was a freshman in undergrad. The response stung: “No translation will ever be good enough.” Her implied but unstated next thought was, So go sign up for Hebrew and Greek next semester. At that point I still thought I’d become a lawyer or architect, so it would be another year before I entered Intro to Biblical Hebrew.

The thing is, she was right. If you don’t know the original languages, then you are stuck relying upon someone else’s translation that may or may not be correct.

But let’s be practical: most Christians aren’t going to learn Hebrew or Greek because they are too busy (hopefully) showing the gospel to the world. I think God would rather have most of us “in the field” than behind desks squinting at jots and tittles. He gifted certain people for that, and many of them are the very ones doing the translations. So when people ask me, “What is the best translation?” I try not to shut them down with a holier-than-thou deflection.

You might not know the original languages, but you can know who translated your Bible and what decisions they made. Did a church or denomination sponsor the translation? Was it the work of just one person; if so, what does he or she believe? When ancient manuscripts disagreed, which one was translated in that version and why? Answering these questions isn’t such a hard assignment, and their answers can make you trust the translation (or translations) you choose to read. Just look at the Bible version’s introduction. All you need to know should be there.

Step 2: Historical Criticism

Although Proverbs contains wisdom from before Babylonia conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the book was more likely compiled from oral tradition and edited after the exile, at least one hundred years later. This is largely based on the setting of Proverbs, which is a school. Young men would have gathered in a small group to learn from an older man, usually a scribe.³

It is true: if someone was educated in Israel, he was male. The ancient world was ruled by men; if you doubt that, just read your Bible. Male-dominated societies are called patriarchies, and that is exactly what Israel was. God is “Father,” not “Mother.” The oldest son, not the oldest child, gets the largest inheritance. Ruling monarchs were kings, not queens. You don’t have to like it, but you need to accept that it is true.

Right there, at the intersection of ancient patriarchy and modern feminism, is where misinterpretation of Proverbs 31 begins. When women read the Bible for role models, we instinctively look for feminine pronouns. Many books have been written about how poorly women are treated in the Scriptures. They are sometimes sacrificed and raped, often marginalized and unnamed, and in our zeal to find and get to know characters “like us” in Scripture, we sometimes invent names for them. Since the fourth century, the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) has been known at different times and in different places as Veronica and Bernice and even Martha of Bethany. More recently, feminist scholars have named women to make them more relatable and dignified. Cheryl Exum, for example, named the raped and dismembered Levite wife of Judges 19 Bath-sheber.4 The desire for more female biblical role models is nothing new.

Women and men need to look beyond the gender of biblical characters because modern gender roles do not match ancient ones. (Again, I’m not saying you have to like it, but you do have to admit that it is true.) Looking at the proverbial laundry list again, my husband ticks as many of the “perfect wife” boxes as I do. He makes me feel secure about our relationship, keeps me fed and clothed, volunteers in the community, and is far more fashionable than I am on a daily basis. On the other hand, I have a higher educational degree than David does. I am more likely to be a leader, and he can’t touch me when it comes to the traditionally male pastimes of grilling, gardening, and gutter-cleaning. (And he doesn’t want to!)

All that to say, when just about anyone is reading the Bible today, he or she is more likely to have more in common with a male character than a female character. In the book of Proverbs, women should not identify with the popularly named Woman of Virtue in 31:10-31; we are actually the students being taught the lessons of wisdom and folly by the Teacher.

Step 3: Literary Criticism

So if women aren’t supposed to emulate the Woman of Virtue as described at the end of Proverbs, then what are we supposed to get out of that final poem?

All of the proverbs were collected and taught to encourage students to seek God throughout their lives, and much of the book is concerned with the dichotomy between wisdom and folly. These traits are personified in Proverbs, rendered in The Voice translation as “Lady Wisdom” and “Lady Folly.” Lady Wisdom is depicted as an unmarried woman reaching out to young suitors, and men are encouraged throughout Proverbs to follow the path of Lady Wisdom, which leads to God. She is challenged by Lady Folly, who reaches out to the same men in insidious ways. The virtues of the former and vices of the latter are emphasized in Proverbs.

The last twenty-one verses of Proverbs—the very passage that women have used to judge themselves and one another for centuries—is actually the conclusion to the struggle between Wisdom and Folly for the hearts of humanity. Here, Wisdom, the victor, is depicted as a married woman. The students who followed her would be rewarded with happiness, which men in the ancient world apparently defined as security, success, wealth, respect…and awesome wardrobes.

Happiness is every man and woman’s reward for pursuing wisdom instead of folly.

Step 4: Read the Scripture slowly and carefully.

Once the context of a passage has been evaluated from all angles—historical, textual, and literary—it is time to zoom in, take out our notebooks, and write down hundreds of observations about each verse. See if you can beat Frank’s and his classmates’ records!

Just kidding. Careful inspection of God’s Word is central to exegesis, but you would miss so much of the Bible if you spent six months on every verse. If you could live to one hundred and had come out of the womb fully literate, you’d still read only 200 of the 31,102 verses (give or take, depending on which Bible you are reading). That is 13 percent of Genesis and only .65 percent of God’s Word. Clearly there has to be a balance between studying the minutia and the big picture of Scripture.

As an example of how to read the Bible slowly and carefully, let’s settle into just one verse of the Virtuous Woman poem:

She girds herself with strength,

And strengthens her arms (Proverbs 31:17).

My first question would be, who is “she”? From literary context, we know this is the personification of Lady Wisdom as a queen mother’s ideal daughter-in-law.

What on earth does “girds” mean? In the Bible, you’ll often see that word in combination with “his loins” and in a war setting. In English, you’ll see that word as the first part of girdle. To gird is to encircle something. Warriors would wrap their abdomens (specifically the muscles on either side of the spinal column) before a battle to protect their vital organs. Women, millenia later, would wrap the same area with torture devices that used bone stays and rigid fabric to cinch their waistlines (not much organ protection happening there!). The Virtuous Woman is wrapping herself firmly and tightly. The writer probably did have the warrior’s girdle in mind when he recorded this, so if you’re picturing someone like the Greek goddess Athena, that’s not too far off.

How can one be wrapped “with strength”? The woman isn’t protecting herself with armor or any other material object. If I go to the Hebrew-English lexicon, I learn that the Hebrew word translated as “strength” here means literal physical muscle power. The following verb form does as well. This woman is physically active. Maybe she’s doing the ancient Israelite equivalent of PiYo or Pure Barre to strengthen her core?

If she is strengthening “herself,” then why are her arms singled out? Arms are used here to reinforce her strength and authority. Other versions of this Hebrew word refer to military forces, so again, a kind of administrative strength surrounds this physically strong character.

If we were to detail the surrounding verses, we would learn that she works with her hands a lot. The woman plants her own vineyard (v. 16); she makes her own threads (v. 19) before sewing her own clothes and housewares (v. 22). She has servants and family members who follow her every instruction (vv. 15,27). Strength is central to her lifestyle and an integral part of her body, just as strength always complements the virtue of wisdom.

The Result

When the Bible is exegeted instead of proof-texted, God’s words can have a totally different meaning. What is obvious to a casual English reader—that mothers such as King Lemuel’s have impossibly high standards for their future daughters-in-law—is turned upside down when historical, textual, and literary contexts are considered in combination with careful reading.

Our hypothetical friend Christina doesn’t need to stress out about her cooking and housekeeping and future childrearing; she can focus on what God has planned for her specific life that will honor Him. Maybe it’s wife- and motherhood, or maybe it’s a power career. Maybe both. From any and all of those positions, she can serve God with wisdom. And that godly service will bring her happiness.

The Impact

Wisdom is just as much a reward for the faithfulness and good choices of women as it is for men. One of the first lessons we can take from that truth is not to judge ourselves or other women by impossible standards. I shouldn’t judge David based on whether or not he can write a book, and thankfully David doesn’t judge me whether or not I can read a blueprint. God uses everyone differently in His work to reconcile all of humanity to Himself, and He offers wisdom to all who will follow Him.

The Bible is not just a collection of cherry-sized memory verses that are ripe for picking only when they validate our own opinions; it is a strong and beautiful reflection of God, and all parts of it are part of Him. Let’s not take George Washington’s proverbial hatchet to Scripture by proof-texting God’s words to justify human ideas rather than God’s. That would leave us with dead faiths in false theologies that are contrary to God’s character.

Instead, let us learn about the Scriptures—their historical, textual, and literary contexts—as we study the words themselves. This holistic approach to the Bible gives us a more complete picture of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—and the world that wrote down Their words for us.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  1. A deep study of Scripture ideally includes an investment of time in learning the historical, textual, and literary contexts of passages. Why is such exegetical study preferable to skimming only English translations or cherry-picking parts of the Bible you enjoy the most?
  2. No longer do Westerners live in a patriarchal society that defines roles based on biological gender alone; in fact, more women graduate today with advanced degrees than do their male counterparts. In the twenty-first century, might you also identify with biblical characters who share your societal station and cultural responsibilities and not just your gender?

Order your copy of Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible When Truth and Tradition Collide by Amanda Hope Haley