Rightly Dividing

Anyone who grew up participating in AWANA, as I did, has memorized 2 Timothy 2:15, which reads, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (ESV). I originally learned it in the King James Version, which says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” And while I don’t mind losing the “shews” and “needeths” of the KJV, there are still some verses that I prefer in that translation, and I think this would be one of them. While “rightly handling” makes a lot of sense, I think “rightly dividing” paints a clearer image of what the verse is about.

It reminds me of another verse many of us have memorized, Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (ESV). God’s Word is like a scalpel, able to make precision cuts, separating what to the naked eye or finite mind may seem inseparable.

Both of these verses serve to remind us of the extreme care with which we should handle God’s Word. Just as a surgeon wields his scalpel carefully, so too must we be wise and discerning in our use of God’s Word, because careless use and application of the Scripture can do damage.

Interestingly, I was attending a Bible conference some months ago in which the speaker’s stated aim was this idea–the careful and proper handling of the Bible. Yet, during the course of the conference the speaker himself was handling it with less precision than I thought prudent. Example: he, several times, made reference to David raping Bathsheba. I had never heard that before, so I turned to that passage in my Bible and read it again. I failed to see in that passage (2 Samuel 11) any indication that David had forced himself upon Bathsheba. There were plenty of other things that were wrong in that story–perhaps all of them on David’s part–and the story is powerful enough without adding to it something that is not there. So, when it came to Q and A time, I decided to ask the question.

I worded it like this: “You have mentioned several times the importance of using the Bible accurately and of not reading into it things that are not there.” (Speaker is nodding his head, no doubt pleased that I have been paying attention). “Yet, you have also referenced two or three times David raping Bathsheba. I have never heard that before, and I don’t see it in the passage, so I was wondering if you could tell me why you have used that term.”

He proceeded to tell me (and the entire audience, since this was an open forum Q and A) that he used that term intentionally and after careful forethought. He acknowledged that the Bible does not say that David raped Bathsheba, but that it is a reasonable conclusion to make from the text. After all, David sent a soldier to bring her to him, the speaker said, and if that is not force then what is? And the Bible does not say that David did not rape her, he said.

Hmmmm. I have several problems with this reasoning. The first one is relatively minor, by way of comparison. That would be that my Bible (an ESV) says David sent “messengers,” not soldiers. I see the same word choice in the ASV, AMP, CEV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV and NKJV, so I think replacing “messengers” with “soldiers” is careless and inaccurate. Depending on the translation it says that the messengers “took her” or “brought her” or that “she came to him,” so I think it would be a stretch even to say that Bathsheba was taken to David by force.

Second, none of the translations referenced above say that David forced himself on Bathsheba. Most of them say something along the lines of “he slept with her” or “he lay with her.” And I think it is careless to suggest that the Bible would not have clearly stated that David raped Bathsheba if that was, in fact, what he had done. After all, just a few chapters later, in 2 Samuel 13, the Bible makes it clear that Amnon raped Tamar, so it cannot even be suggested that the Bible was attempting to be discreet or to avoid unnecessarily graphic details in the account of David and Bathsheba. In fact, I raised this point with the speaker at the conference, and he said that he stood by his assertion, and gave several, in my opinion, absurd reasons for not stating rape in chapter 11 but doing so in chapter 13.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, is the incredible danger of arguing that something happened simply because there is no clear evidence that it did not. Arguing from a lack of evidence is a dangerous place to be, and no one would want to be on the receiving end of such an argument. To say that David raped Bathsheba is plausible because Scripture does not say that he didn’t makes no sense. If that kind of logic would hold water, imagine how far that could go… It would be fairly easy to overcome in the present, since anyone accused with such reasoning could then issue the apparently-required denial, but when dealing with historical accounts of individuals who are no longer living, there would almost no end to the ways in which history could be manipulated. This reminds me of a line given by a witness in an old episode of Perry Mason; when asked if anyone could confirm that she was home alone at the time of the murder, she quipped, “If I had known I was going to need an alibi, I would have arranged to have company.” After all, people are “home alone” all the time, and think nothing of it. The fact that someone claims to have been home alone during a murder cannot be used as proof that he or she actually committed the murder unless there is additional evidence that he or she did so. In other words, there must be evidence of the crime in order to convict; an absence of contradictory evidence is not sufficient.

Let’s keep the example of David and Bathsheba in mind. The Bible is God’s inspired Word, and while it has been translated and it is available in a multitude of versions, that is no excuse for asserting that it claims something that it does not. Most importantly, the fact that the Bible may not say something did not happen is no evidence for claiming that it did. There are some things God decided we do not need to know, and He gave us everything that we do need to know. We need to study carefully, and apply accurately, but there is no excuse for carelessly swinging our scalpels.

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