Know the Facts Behind the Words
“RETURN evil for evil to no one,” Paul said, and added: “Keep conquering the evil with the good.” In support of this he quoted: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him. something to drink; for by doing this you will heap fiery coals upon his head.” Paul was quoting an inspired proverb: “If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For coals are what you are raking together upon his head.” But just how good is it to heap coals of fire on someone’s head? Would not such charitable conduct smack of hypocrisy, having an evil motive calculated to bring suffering rather than good? So the words would seem to say.—Rom. 12:17, 21, 20; Prov. 25:21, 22.
But there are facts behind the words that make them say something very different. To “heap fiery coals upon his head” is a metaphor or figurative expression drawn from the method of smelting metals in ancient furnaces. The ore was put in the furnace and then not only was a bed of coals put underneath but a layer was heaped on top, over the head of the ore. This increased the heat so that the hard metal melted and separated from the impurities in the ore. The heaping of coals on its head softened and purified the metal in the ore. So the doing of kindness to an enemy, the returning of good for evil, will make him feel shame and remorse, will soften him and melt his hardness, will separate evil impurities from him and bring out the goodness in him.
Today if one’s speech is said to be salty it is understood that it is highly seasoned with risqué indecencies and improprieties. But that could hardly be the meaning when Christians are advised: “Let your utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how you ought to give an answer to each one.” A background knowledge of salt as it was used in symbol in ancient times clarifies the meaning. Salt was offered with the Mosaic sacrifices, since it is a preservative and prevented fermentation. Preventing change by decay, it was used in connection with covenants to indicated the permanence of the agreement. Among ancient peoples it was a sign of friendship to eat salt together. It symbolized perpetual fidelity and loyalty. Hence when the Christian was told to season his answers with salt it meant to use truthful words that would preserve from destruction, that would be loyal and faithful, that would make the answers tasty and appetizing for the listener and work toward his preservation.—Col. 4:6.
NAILED TO THE STAKE
When speaking of the ending of the Mosaic law covenant at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension into heaven, why did Jehovah say that “He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the torture stake”? No copy of the law was nailed to the torture stake of Christ Jesus in the first place, and if it had been what good would that do? How would that act take the law out of the way or terminate it? Since the law was not literally nailed to the stake, the meaning must be symbolical. What is that meaning? Again, it is the background facts that illuminate the words. The claim is made that in the time of Christ in Asia bills or deeds were canceled by driving a nail through them and fixing them to a post in a public place. Some say that outmoded laws were abrogated by nailing copies of them up in public places. While specific proof of this custom is lacking today, there are indications that it existed and was followed and that the allusion is to this custom where Colossians 2:14 speaks of the law as being canceled out by nailing it to the torture stake on which Jesus was impaled.
First Timothy 1:3, 4 records Paul’s warning to “certain ones not to teach different doctrine, nor to pay attention to false stories and to genealogies which end up in nothing, but which furnish questions for research rather than a dispensing of anything by God in connection with faith.” The force of this warning is more appreciated when we know of the scrupulous accuracy with which the Jews kept the genealogies, and how minutely they investigated any possible discrepancy. “How prolific these Biblical books [of Chronicles] were in provoking genealogical conceits is shown by the statement that 900 camel-loads of commentary existed on 1 Chron. viii. 37 to ix. 44,” says The Jewish Encyclopedia, and it continues to deplore the mischief and pride involved in these genealogical tables. But when Paul wrote First Timothy such controversies were pointless. It was no longer vital to have the genealogical records maintained, since God no longer recognized in the “body of Christ” Jew or Gentile anyway, and the genealogical records already established the descent of Christ through the line of David. So the genealogies were of no importance to Christian teaching, and Christians should not be sidetracked into such quarrels that contributed nothing to Christian faith.
WASHING HANDS BEFORE EATING
When the Pharisees complained to Jesus that his disciples did “not wash their hands when about to eat a meal,” Jesus rebuked the Pharisees. Does this mean Jesus favored eating with dirty hands? No, for it was not on the grounds of sanitation that the Pharisees commanded hand-washing. It was their oral tradition. It was a religious ritual, their hand-washing. Hands had to be washed before and after the meal and sometimes during the meal, with special water, and in different ways with different foods. Knowing all the intricate nonsense the Pharisees in those days commanded concerning the washing of hands immediately gives understanding. It shows a religious ritual was involved, that it was a part of the oral tradition of the Jews that Jesus said made void the Word of God, and it eliminates any erroneous thought that Jesus favored eating food with dirty hands.—Matt. 15:1-6.
How could anyone believe that the day of death is better than the day of birth? Or that it is better to mourn than to rejoice? Yet the Bible says so, at Ecclesiastes 7:1-4. Understanding comes when the historical background of the words is known. “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better is it to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take [it] to his heart. Better is vexation than laughter, for by the crossness of the face the heart becomes better. The heart of the wise ones is in the house of mourning, but the heart of the stupid ones is in the house of rejoicing.” Just as a good name with God is better than precious oil or any other material possession, so death after a life that has built up a good name with God is better than birth when one has no name with God at all and it is unknown whether the name one builds during life will be good or bad. Death with a good name insures that one of a resurrection to life, but at birth one has no assurance at all of attaining the new world of everlasting life. And when it speaks of the house of mourning it refers to a home in which a person has died, and the practice of friends going there to comfort the survivors. It is better to show this kindness than to callously ignore those in grief and rush off to banquets to laugh and revel and rejoice. Ordinarily it is better to begin life than end it, and to rejoice than to mourn; but when we understand what is behind these words we see that they are exceptional, that in their setting they are true.
PUNISHMENT IN HELL-FIRE
One last example from many Biblical accounts to show how the facts behind the words bring clarity. The Bible speaks of the incorrigibly wicked being everlastingly punished in “hell fire” or a lake of fire. Not only does this seem fiendish, but it contradicts the statements that “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” and that “the wages sin pays is death.” (Ezek. 18:4, AS; Rom. 6:23) When the King James Bible speaks of “hell fire,” as at Matthew 5:22, the original Greek is géhenna tou pyrós [“gehenna of the fire,” Yg]. It has no reference to any lake of fire inside the earth, but means the valley of Hinnom to the west and south of ancient Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time it was the dumping place and incinerator for the filth of the city. Fires, to which sulphur or brimstone was added to assist the burning, consumed the refuse. Here the bodies of not only dead animals but occasionally the bodies of executed criminals were thrown. When a human body was thrown there it indicated a person too wicked to deserve a resurrection; hence no memorial tomb was used for him. Hence the place became a symbol of a destruction or punishment that was complete and everlasting. The Jews of Jesus’ day understood this symbol, so Jesus used it to indicate the everlasting punishment in death for the willfully wicked.
Just as there are modern expressions that would be meaningless to persons living in ancient times because they would not know the background of our age, so there are words from Bible times that are meaningless to us unless we learn the facts behind them.