(If you did not read the first post in this series, you can find it here.)
There are two things that might make Rob Bell’s interpretation of Matthew 5:38-41 fascinating. First, no one has ever heard it before. That should always be a red flag. What are the odds that in the 2000-year history of the church someone in modern day Michigan is the first person to have come up with the correct interpretation of this passage? We shouldn’t write it off as impossible, but we also have to recognize that to espouse such an innovative interpretation is to say that Augustine got it wrong. Athanasius got it wrong. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Schaeffer, Grudem, Sproul, MacArthur, Piper - all got it wrong! But not Rob Bell.
Second, this interpretation is fascinating and attractive because it brings in a lot of extra-biblical information about 1st century Jewish culture. What we have to keep in mind is that it doesn't matter if every history book in the world says the same thing, if a piece of historical information leads to an interpretation that simply is not allowed by the Biblical text, then the historical information is suspect, not the Holy Scriptures. And that is precisely what we have in this case. In order for Rob Bell's interpretation to be valid, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount must be either thrown out or rewritten. And actually, much of the rest of the NT becomes obsolete because what Bell has proposed here is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Scriptures
So, let’s look at the specifics. We’ll start with the text itself, then look at the context.
Bell’s interpretation has problems from the very beginning – v38-39a: “You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person.”
Do not resist an evil person. Do not resist an evil person. Do not resist an evil person. And yet, Bell’s interpretation could be summed up in the statement, “Here’s how to resist an evil person.” He has made this passage mean precisely the opposite of what it says, which leads me to a rule of thumb that should be obvious: any time a teacher proposes an interpretation that flips the plain meaning of the text on its head, you are probably listening to erroneous teaching.
Things don’t get better for Bell as we move forward – v39b: “but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Remember Bell’s claim that because it would be improper to use the bathroom hand (left hand) to slap someone, this first slap must be a backhanded slap with the right hand. He further claims that the victim’s turning the other cheek to the attacker would force the attacker to hit him with a closed right fist, and thereby treat the victim as an equal.
This logic has several holes. First, the attacker could simply give an open-handed slap with the palm to the left cheek. Second, since the Romans had such a disdain for the Jews, there is no reason to think that the Romans would have had any qualms about using their bathroom hands to slap the Jews. Third, if the Romans were so prone to gratuitous violence, it is not likely that they would have allowed a lowly Jew to force them to treat the Jews like equals. Fourth, Bell proposes that these masters of brutality have only two ways to hurt people: a backhand and a punch.
What does the text say? “But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Couple that with the first half of the verse – “Do not resist an evil person” – and what do you have? You have a verse that tells you not to resist an evil person - when he strikes your right cheek, let him slap the other also. There are some passages in the Bible that are difficult to interpret, but this isn’t one of them.
Verse 40: "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” Bell says that this verse is a command to get completely naked and thereby shame the oppressor into treating you like an equal. He sites Gen9:20-25, where Noah’s son Ham sees him naked and is cursed. Bell extrapolates from this that it was more shameful in the Jewish culture to see someone naked than to be seen naked.
There are a couple of problems with this. First, the idea that nakedness was a shame to the viewer and not the naked person doesn't work with the whole counsel of Scripture. While it is true that it was definitely not a good thing to look at another person naked, there is even more biblical evidence that shame was more closely associated with one's own nakedness. Adam and Eve hid themselves from God because they were ashamed by their own nakedness. In Deut 28:48, as God is outlining the consequences of disobedience, one of the things listed is slavery to the enemy in hunger, thirst, and nakedness; that is, nakedness would be a curse for their own sinfulness. Likewise, Isa 47:3 says 'your nakedness will be uncovered and your shame will be exposed.' There are numerous similar examples. To say that becoming nude in front of someone would put you in a position of power over them is just wrong. To become naked was not a power play but a cause for shame.
Second, Bell assumes that what was true of Jewish culture was also true of the Romans. But even a rudimentary knowledge of ancient Roman culture exposes this as ludicrous. This was a culture known for their manifold public bath houses in which men soaked together both nude and partially nude while discussing business. Also, the Romans, who perfected crucifixion, routinely crucified their victims completely nude on crosses positioned right along the major thoroughfares. And don’t forget the ancient Roman art rife with images of the naked body. These were people who had no problem whatsoever with nudity. But Rob Bell contends that a Jew could so shame a Roman by disrobing in front of them that the Roman would be forced to treat them as an equal. It just isn’t plausible.
Again, what does the text say? “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” Now jump back to v39a: “Do not resist an evil person.” Put them together and what do you have? Do not resist an evil person – if he wants to take your shirt, give him your coat also. Very straightforward.
We’ll cover the rest of the passage next time. Until then, keep looking at the passage. Check out v41 and search for why Bell’s interpretation won’t work. Also, look at v42, which Bell omitted, and determine why it was far more convenient for him to ignore it than to include it in his message.
Look at the larger context, too – the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7. Does Bell’s interpretation fit? And does it match the example set for us by Jesus?