Internet meanderings recently landed me on the Amazon product page for the bookmark below. It’s the kind of bookmark you’re supposed to give to a friend or loved one, and it bears two Bible verses. Notice the citation from Genesis 31 in particular.
Do you see what I see?
Somebody forgot to read the context of Genesis 31. In that passage, Jacob finally escapes the clutches of his conniving uncle Laban. Unable to travel very fast with all his children and herds, Laban catches up to him. Violence is in the air. But God warns Laban in a dream to say nothing to Jacob. Nothing: “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” And Laban pretty well manages it. He couches his threat in conditional language, “If you do such and such…” And the “apodosis”—the consequences Laban threatens—he leaves in the hands of God:
The LORD watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31:49–50 ESV)
Laban is not saying with a big smile on his face, “Good luck, dear friend! Even if you get some additional wives and, um, oppress my daughters, I pray God protects you!” If he did that, he’d be violating God’s prohibition about saying anything good.
Neither is Laban making a threat, exactly—at least not a threat about something he’ll do. He’s saying, “Watch out, buddy. You mess with my daughters, and I’ll. . . I’ll. . . [Here he thinks of the dream he had the previous night.] God will see it!”
In the words of Bruce Waltke in his excellent and innovative commentary, “This is an imprecation that the Lord monitor the treaty, not a benediction” (434). (And Wenham, in his excellent commentary, points out that it’s a little ironic that Laban, the one who pushed Jacob into bigamy, should warn him not to get any more wives.)
Understanding Scripture accurately
The other verse the bookmark makers cited truly is a benediction, and a beautiful one, Numbers 6:24. And I’m sure I commit errors in my own Bible interpretation (my wife, who has a seminary degree, has sometimes had to point them out). And the misuse of Genesis 31:49 doesn’t exactly count as heresy. Should I give this bookmark a pass—or maybe buy it and use only one side?
No. As a matter of principle, I can’t support decontextualized Bible reading—what would OLSHA members say? I am driven by a desire to understand the text of Scripture accurately—in part so I can obey it myself and in part so I can teach it accurately to others. And where do errant teachers get traction except in persuading people that their views of relevant Scripture passages are accurate?
You aren’t meant to interpret the Bible completely on your own. Christ gave teachers to his church (Eph 4:11–14), and they bear a responsibility to watch over the sheep precisely because of the presence of wolves (Acts 20:28–30). But the best thing sheep can do to make sure the wolves don’t get them is to develop their own skill in Bible reading.
You should care about casual twisting of Scripture. You shouldn’t stand for it. Even if the item is kind of pretty and your friend would like it and it’s 50% off today only. Join me in boycotting all teal bookmarks on Amazon which include polka dots, a photo slot, and Bible verses lifted out of context—will you?
Commentators are supposed to help you make sure you’re reading Scripture with adequate care. If you are studying Genesis, pick up Waltke or Mathews, both of which are appropriate even if you don’t know Hebrew. Wenham is great, too, but a bit more technical. And don’t forget to get the always observant Calvin and the always stimulating Kidner.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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