If we are to begin to accept that honour, shame, and grace are significant themes in Scripture then we need not only to look at words which relate to shame, like disgrace, disgust, embarrassment, etc. where they appear in our Bibles. We need also to look for evidence in the stories, the prophecies, the narrative of God’s dealings with the world.
So, in this blog we will from time to time look at passages from the Bible, to see where honour and shame at themes represented in what we read. The point in looking at these passages is to show just how prevalent concerns for honour and shame were in the communities that first read these Scriptures.
Today we look at a passage in 1Samuel which, at one level, is a demonstration that David respects the codes of honour in place in his society.
1 Samuel 24
The context of this story is David’s gaining great honour and public acclaim by defeating Goliath (1 Sam. 17). In that story he courageously defends the honour of God and of Israel. David says:
“What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace (this shame) from Israel? (1 Sam. 17:26)
As the story unfolds, David’s honour is recognised by the women of all the towns (1 Sam. 18:6-7). Saul’s jealousy is obvious in the story. However, when you add to this the fact that “in an honor and shame culture, honor is a zero-sum game, the power of this value to influence behaviour is raised to another order of magnitude.” (Werner Mischke: p11.)
The phrase used by Mischke, ‘honor is a zero-sum game’, equates to a theme developed by Bruce J. Malina and other members of The Context Group. They argue that within ancient Mediterranean culture “everything in the social, economic, natural universe, everything desired in life: land, wealth, respect and status, power and influence exist in finite quantity and are in short supply,” (Neyrey: p11). All things were in limited supply and honour was also be seen this way. The phrase used for this is: ‘a limited good society.’ Honour was one of things that were in short supply. (This is discussed in full in Malina: pp 90-116.)
King Saul’s honour as king was threatened by David. Saul’s very personhood, his total identity was threatened and this caused him to “rage with jealousy and seek David’s demise. Saul’s honor was at stake, and … [he would] have considered it the equivalent of a mortal threat”(Miscshke: p11). Saul became obsessed with finding a way to kill David. 1 Samuel 18-23 are the story of Saul’s various attempts to kill David. In chapter 24 David and his men are hiding in a cave because Saul’s army is close by. They are about to sneak out of the cave and as they creep toward the entrance of the cave they find that King Saul is there asleep.
David’s men encourage him to kill Saul, but David refuses, although he does cut off the corner of Saul’s robe.
In this story we see David showing loyalty to the position of the king who had been anointed by God—along with his obedience to the Spirit of God—David could have killed Saul, but didn’t. He was committed to respecting the Saul’s honour (1 Sam. 24:6–7)
Bruce J. Malina; “The New Testament World – Insights from Cultural Anthropology;” Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 1993.
Werner Mischke; “Honor and Shame in Cross-Cultural Relationships;” Mission ONE, May 2010. Web. 21st November 2103. Available from http://beautyofpartnership.org/about/free at http://cdn.assets.sites.launchrocketship.com/a6347111-876c-4337-9f3f-9f712c3494ed/files/34d84729-e146-4502-aa4e-34f0abce8a51/honor-and-shame-in-relationships-3sm.pdf. I am indebted to Werner Mischke for his notes on this passage.
Jerome H. Neyrey: “Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew;” Louisville: Westminster Press, 1