Heaping Burning Coals on Their Heads

Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:

Romans 12:19-21

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!

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I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.

The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?

It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.

One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.

So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!

Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you. 

This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.

The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.

In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.

This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.

This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”

Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.

The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.

How to Use a Commentary: 4 ways to get the most out of your daily study.

FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations

Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.

First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.

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A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.

So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.

#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.

While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!

Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.

#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).

Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:

(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).

This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.

But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.

Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.

In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!

#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.

Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.

The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.

#4 There is no Rush!

For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.

So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).

Craig Keener:
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)

Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)

Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)

Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal Favorite. Very easy to read!)

N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)

William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)

Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)

 

Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)