When we don’t understand the background and bigger picture behind a quote, we can end up with some pretty strange conclusions, so how often do we do this with the Bible?
Michael Slaby, one of former president Barack Obama’s key staff members, founded an analytics startup for nonprofits and activist organizations, and he named it Timshel. “It’s a reference to East of Eden — the Hebrew word for ‘Thou mayest’ from the Bible [in the story of Cain and Abel, when God tells Cain he has the freedom to choose to overcome sin],” Slaby explained to The Sun-Times. “Our goodness is being determined by the choices we make.”
If everything in that quote gave you an eye-twitch, you’re not alone.
First, Slaby’s interpretation of East of Eden’s notoriously dense text makes me wonder if he’s actually read the book in its entirety. Characters’ understanding of the Cain and Abel story changes throughout the novel, and the book’s last scene shows the main character forgiving his son of a terrible act while bearing the pain of that act in his own body.
He blesses his son with “Timshel!” as a demonstration of a father’s costly but unconditional love, not as a message about his son’s inherent ‘goodness.’
Second, John Steinbeck, the author, was not a scholar of Hebrew and never claimed to be. The word "timshel" doesn’t exist. If Steinbeck was aware of that or not is up for debate, but for the purposes of a fictional story, it kind of doesn’t matter. Imaginary people had imaginary conversations about an imaginary word.
That said, books, companies and blogs have wholeheartedly embraced a mistranslated word in a single conversation in the middle of a book that has been pulled out of context.
When a Verse Gets Out of Context
As much as I might enjoy scoffing at an unfortunate misunderstanding of Steinbeck’s work, I’m often guilty of doing the exact same thing but with a much more important book.
How often have I quoted a passage of scripture and ignored the verses around it, the purpose of the book it’s in or certain translation subtleties with the individual words within that verse?
In his sermon about Jabez, Nicky Cruz points out this issue, “Did you heard about that book, The Prayer of Jabez? But there was something that happened when Dave [the author] wrote that little book…. The people twisted it [the verses]; they took whatever was the best for them and then forgot other things.”
With the arguments that raged back and forth over this book’s validity, it brought up the much more valuable question of “How much attention should we pay to one or two verse events in the Bible that aren’t mentioned again anywhere else?”
If we submit to the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, then we must believe that everything in the Bible is included for an important reason, even odd, seemingly one-off verses like Jabez’s.
That said, we also need to understand verses in context of the verses around them, the books around their book, as well as the history and culture of that time-period.
Jabez’s prayer does have a lot to teach us, both as an inspiration for the oppressed but also as a cautionary tale about taking parts of the Bible wildly out of context.
If we’re going to seriously focus in on a single verse or two in scripture, we must also consider the significance of it as part of a larger work (the whole chapter nested within a book) as well as the historic and cultural forces influencing both the people involved and the writers.
The Problematic Modern ‘Prayer of Jabez’
If we look at Jabez’s verses, we have to consider that they are part of a genealogy of Judah (the tribe of Israel that led to David and eventually Jesus), Jabez’s culture was pretty godless (he would’ve lived during the time period that the book of Judges covers, when a lot of people weren’t really following the Lord and pretty horrifying events were taking place), and Jabez’s culture was collectivist, unlike most Western societies.
Case in point, Professor of Theology David Schrock explains the major flaw within taking Jabez’s prayer out of context, “In contrast to the bestselling book, the biblical story of Jabez tells how God comforts those in remarkable pain. But marketed to upwardly-mobile Christians, The Prayer of Jabez told this Israelite’s story as if he was one of us.
“But that’s the problem: Jabez isn’t like us.”
It’s well worth noting that Jabez also didn’t live in an individualistic society and that the Bible has been and always will be a book about God’s blessings to his people (plural).
The Old Testament was concerned with God’s covenant people as a nation, and the New Testament focuses on God’s children as the church. “With Jabez,” Professor Schrock points out, “we must not read his prayer as a request for private blessing, but as a cry for God to bless him as a part of God’s covenant people.”
This is nearly synonymous with David’s psalms that were written for the Israelites to sing in worship, not as a prayer-journal entry just for himself.
To view Jabez’s prayer as anything else, as a way to get private blessings from God, is to reduce our heavenly Father to a kind of catalytic chemical reaction: insert this prayer and that blessing will result. While the Bible does ask God’s children to observe disciplines, they don’t guarantee that we will experience ease in this world or individual, material blessings as a result.
Another important aspect of Jabez’s life and prayer that we must take into account is that his father isn’t named in the genealogy where his verses are found. “Without a father, he would have no place in the land,” Professor Schrock says. “He was essentially an outsider to the land that signified God’s blessings. Therefore, when we hear him pray for his border to be increased, we must hear him as a homeless refugee, not one of us struggling to make payments on our iPhone.”
Jabez’s prayer isn’t a private mantra for money and prosperity. It’s a cry for adoption and redemption from an orphan who was condemned and neglected by his society for aspects of his life that were outside of his control.
Putting the Piece Back in the Whole Puzzle
More than anything, Jabez’s prayer is a reminder that God redeems the crushed, cursed and hopeless.
“From the time he was born, the very mentions of his name reinforce the curse of his future life,” Nicky Cruz said in his sermon.
“However, he did not live up to that name. He refused to allow this label to determine his personality, his temperament and destiny. He came to the conclusion, in his life that he would not cause pain, that he was going to reverse everything in a different direction. Then he did the right thing; this is what the Bible say, ‘He call on the Lord of Israel.’ That's the key.”
His society was in moral decay, but Jabez looked to God for the definition of his life. His family either abandoned him or cursed him, but Jabez asked God to give him his inheritance and blessing like a father would have. His people perpetuated cycles of sin and grief on the future generations, but Jabez pleaded with God to break that cycle in his life so he would not harm others.
“He called on the Lord of Israel.”
We don’t know that he became wealthy by the standards of his day or that he had an easy life as a result. All we’re told is that God answered him.
When we consider the proper context of these verses and the real promise they hold—God is the power of the powerless and the hope of the hopeless—they are much more powerful and hopeful than when they’re twisted into some kind of soft-core prosperity message.
Considering the Bible in context isn’t always easy or comfortable, but ultimately, the message we will find is much more powerful and also will always honor God.