A Case Study in Bad Biblical Interpretation

OK, just to be up front, I don’t intend to be nice here. No, I’m not going to try to be extra mean either. I just have a little story to tell from years ago about one of the worst handlings of Scripture that I can ever recall. It involves an Old testament passage and a teacher reading into the passage something that is completely, ridiculously, absolutely not the message intended by the author of the passage.


Funny thing is, if you know me, you know I could be telling you one of many stories here. This one comes from a devotional book that I owned in college (so if you were hoping for me to call out some teacher you know of, I’m not going there). As a simple aside, I generally dislike devotional books, and this one could be the reason why. Quite often, these little books take biblical passages, ignore the context, disregard authorial intent, overlook proper interpretive method, and abuse the Bible by making the little story into a self-help prosperity grab. And, in case you think I’m picking on one bad thought in a book, understand that the story I’m going to tell you is from the lead devotional in a book, the title of which encapsulates the error: Don’t Quit Until You Taste the Honey. (For grins and giggles I looked this up on Amazon and discovered that this was published by the Baptist Sunday School Board, now Lifeway, in 1993.)


The story goes like this. Samson, soon to be a judge over Israel, is a very selfish and sinful man. He determines that he wants to marry a Philistine woman—obviously something against the commands of God. Samson even defies his parents’ wish that he would choose a nice Israelite girl. Samson wants this Philistine woman, because she looks good to him, she is right in his eyes. Of course, every man doing what is right in his own eyes is the theme of Judges and the reminder of the godlessness and lawlessness that marked rebellious Israel in the days of the judges.


So, on the way to see if the marriage alliance is possible, Samson kills a lion that leaps out at him. Perhaps this should have reminded him that he is under the protection of God and should hope to avoid God’s judgment. On the second trip, this time to pick up his wife, Samson sees the carcass of the dead lion on the side of the road.


Now, before reading what Samson did, remember the biblical laws given to Israel. You were not supposed to touch a dead body. You were not supposed to eat unclean food. There was a holiness code to live by. And, Samson was under a Nazarite vow, so he had even higher standards of purity to obey. And Israelites were not supposed to mix marriages with the Philistines, which Samson was in process of doing and thus rebelling against the law of God.


Judges 14:8-10 – 8 After some days he returned to take her. And he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. 9 He scraped it out into his hands and went on, eating as he went. And he came to his father and mother and gave some to them, and they ate. But he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey from the carcass of the lion.


Samson scrapes honey out of the rotting carcass of a dead animal, eats it, and gives it to his unsuspecting parents. He makes himself unclean and spreads that impurity to others. Samson dishonors the Lord, disobeys the law, and drags others down with him.


Now, there is certainly a good personal thought here. When we sin, we often lead others astray with us. We can infect the lives of others with our impurity if we are not careful. Sin does not just hurt us.


There is a nice biblical picture here of what was happening in the nation. Samson was not doing right. Though he brought benefit to the nation by rescuing them from the Philistine’s in years to come, he also brought sinful uncleanness everywhere he went. He was used by God. He was a man who had a kind of faith in the power of God. But Samson was also spreading unholiness.


In a smaller picture, this shows us the wrongness of Samson’s marriage. Honey is good. Marriage is good. But when a person of God marries against the command of God and unites with someone who hates God, it is against the command of god. It’s like the honey in the lion carcass.


Any of those might have been fair thoughts for the devotional to use. But the title of the book says it all. The author used the honey story as a self-motivational exercise. He wanted us to learn from this story that Samson didn’t quit, no matter how hard things got. He stuck to his guns, he pressed on, and he was rewarded in the end with the sweet taste of honey. So, don’t quit until you taste the honey. Don’t give up on your dreams until you get there. That is what the author of the devotional book took from this passage.

Friends, that is bad biblical interpretation. And, before you think I’m just a horrible meanie, please know that I can look back over some of the stuff I’ve taught in my past and see that I used to be just as bad. Even now, if I get anything right, it is because of the grace of God and the good teachers I have been privileged to learn from; it is not of my own making.


But with that said, can we please, for the love of all things right, stop allowing ourselves to read little pithy devotionals that do not handle Scripture in context? Can we please not allow ourselves to rip a verse out of its original meaning and make it encouraging for the here and now? If you want to be encouraged for today, preach the gospel to yourself. Remind yourself that you are a sinner who needed grace to avoid the wrath of God. Remind yourself that Jesus lived perfection and then died as a sacrifice to pay for your sins. Remember that Jesus rose from the grave and grants everlasting life to us when we believe in him and yield our lives to him. Remember that, because Jesus is alive, because he grants us forgiveness, because he promises to return, because he is sanctifying us, because he promises us eternal perfection, we have hope for the here and now. Our lives have meaning because of Jesus and his perfection.


IN fact, you can then go back to the ugly Samson story and let it be what it is. We are the kind of sinners who would eat honey from a carcass, because we are the kind of people who will grossly dishonor God for our pleasures. But thanks be to God, in Christ, we can know that there is forgiveness for our ugliest sins. So we need not scrape honey from a rotten corpse. Instead, we can find life and eternal joy in obeying the Lord and looking forward to his glory forever. That is way better than maggot-infested sweets in the here and now.