Saturday, March 09, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (49)

Did you know there are very few references in the Bible to domesticated dogs? Maybe the puppies under the dinner table in Matthew 15, but that’s about it.

Moreover, the Bible does not have much good to say about man’s best friend. I don’t have a real handle on canine history in the Middle East 3,000 years ago, but I can work my way through the entries in a concordance, and the picture isn’t pretty. There are no Shih Tzus in arms or Chihuahuas in purses. The average mutts on the street are scavengers or predators, more like wolves or jackals than Jack Russells. The word “dog” is both a Hebrew and Greek euphemism for a male cult prostitute or some other sort of really bad person. If you want to grovel, you refer to yourself as a dog, and if you want to really grovel, a dead dog.

Unnecessary Troubles and Unpredictable Outcomes

This is not, of course, because God doesn’t care about animals, but because scripture was written first and foremost for the audience it addressed in its day, and it spoke to that audience in its own cultural metaphors, not ours. Life was not always as easy as we have it today, either for man or beast.

The point is that when we read something like “Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears,” we need to hear these words in their original cultural and historical context, not our own. For example, if you take my “passing dog” by the ears, he will probably groan with delight at the attention. This is not that. A passing dog in Jerusalem could have been an amiable mutt like the ones who licked the sores of Lazarus, or it could have been a very dangerous beast indeed. Grabbing hold of it was asking for unnecessary trouble and an unpredictable outcome.

If you’ve ever inserted yourself into someone else’s conflict, then you know very well what unnecessary troubles and unpredictable outcomes look like. Sometimes both parties will turn on you. If it’s a domestic dispute you’re intervening in, you can almost guarantee it.

The “Men of Hezekiah” Proverbs (Proverbs 26:17-28)

The men of Hezekiah had a knack for grouping the proverbs they transcribed topically, and these final 12 verses of chapter 26 are all of the same sort. Solomon is dealing with the subject of social relations: how to deal with families, friends and acquaintances in the real world. He tells his readers what’s really behind the facades some people put on, what might go wrong between neighbors and friends, and warns of the consequences of behaving in particular ways.

So meddling in something that doesn’t concern you is definitely a bad idea. You may find yourself getting metaphorically bitten.

Firebrands, Arrows and Death

Or how about this one?
“Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I am only joking!’ ”
I have always hated practical jokes. There is nothing practical about them, and almost never anything funny. Your mileage may vary. Some people are perfectly good sports. They suck up the emotional effects of being the butt of a practical joke with grace. Others are so terrified of looking put out that they mask their very natural anger and quietly hope it doesn’t happen again. Me, I feel a shot of cold fury coursing through my veins and have to fight the urge to plot a nasty revenge.

Apart from the practical joke situation, you may have heard the expression “half in jest, all in earnest”. It aptly describes the sort of cutting and often untrue remark that may be hurled out to do its damage and then fake-retracted with an “I was only joking” if it turns out the repercussions are too severe, or if the “joker” finds his audience turning on him. It is the tactic of cowards and passive-aggressives, and no Christian should use it.

Need I quote the line about “Let your yes be yes ...”? 

Hatred Covered with Deception
“Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
and harbors deceit in his heart;
when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
for there are seven abominations in his heart;
though his hatred be covered with deception,
his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.”
A hateful person who makes no effort to disguise his loathing for you is one sort of problem; an enemy who sneaks up on you unawares is another. The latter method is much more effective. If Abel had seen Cain coming, he wouldn’t have gone out in the field alone with him. Human history might have gone quite a bit differently. The most painful injuries are done by those we let inside our guard.

Speaking of hearing the words of scripture in their cultural context, when this proverb makes reference to a man’s wickedness being “exposed in the assembly”, it is not talking about being caught out in church. The word qahal included religious gatherings, but is not by any means limited to it. Any time the people of Israel came together for judgment, decision-making and matters of law, the word is also used. We can certainly see this in our own politicians. One may appear to be a gracious or glib speaker, but “when words are many, transgression is not absent.” Talk long enough, and the truth always comes out in some form or another. A man’s character is revealed through his interactions with others.

It’s Not All About Me
“A lying tongue hates its victims,
and a flattering mouth works ruin.”
Lying is a truly hateful act. There’s a reason Satan is associated with both lies and murder. It’s hard for us to see that level of spite or casual disregard in our own prevarications sometimes, but it’s definitely the case. We may think lying is all about us; that we are only fudging the truth because it’s necessary to keep ourselves out of trouble, or because we might gain some sort of advantage if certain facts do not come to light. But lying is never just about the liar. That one-sided assessment ignores what telling a lie does to the person we are lying to:
  • First, it’s an insult. You are making the assumption that the person is too stupid to see through your falsehood, or too indifferent, politically correct or self-interested to call you on it. Or you are assuming your victim would act to injure you in some way, or would reject you if they knew the truth. Each of those assumptions diminishes your hearers and calls into question their integrity and goodness.
  • Second, when you lie, you are dismissing as unimportant the potential consequences for the person who hears your lie and acts on it. You are placing no value on their time or effort. Suppose your hearer wastes hours of his or her life acting on the false information you provided and getting nowhere? That’s on you.
  • Third, the flattering lie sets up your victim for a big fall. It may inflate her ego sufficiently that she attempts something at which she is incompetent or unqualified, or worse, does so repeatedly.
  • Fourth, there is no possible win with a lie. When you successfully fool someone, you begin to see him as gullible and foolish. When you fail to fool him, you cannot help but begin to view him as an enemy, because he is now in a position to expose you. This phenomenon is easy to observe: next time someone calls your bluff, watch how quickly you become angry at them. But why be angry if they are telling the truth and you are not?
In any case, whether you succeed or fail in your deception, you have damaged your relationship. Do you care? That’s the question. You should.

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