Wrong Interpretation

I have written in the past about how I have changed my perspective or interpretation on a certain passage of scripture. An example is the widow’s coin.

Artist He Qi Samaritan Woman At The Well

John 4 is another example. Years ago I taught a Bible study based the story of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. Like others, I saw the woman as somehow morally bankrupt and in need of repentance. The evidence was clear.

First, she came to the well at noon. (John 4:6-7).  The woman came at the heat of the day so as to avoid others who would chastise or shun her because most women came in the cool of the morning.

She has had five husbands and is now with one who is not her husband (John 4:18). Obviously she must be a sinner to have had five husbands and to be living with a non-husband. Perhaps she was a prostitute or some other moral deviant who needs to repent.

Yet over time I began to see a problem with my old interpretive framework.

Dr. David Loose at Luther’s Seminary writes at www.workingpreacher.org,

And that’s precisely the sentence that has moved preachers of all stripes and across the centuries to brand her a prostitute. Yet if we read more closely we discover that there is nothing in the passage that makes this an obvious interpretation. Neither John as narrator nor Jesus as the central character supply that information. Jesus at no point invites repentance or, for that matter, speaks of sin at all. She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.

Further, she could now be living with someone that she was dependent on, or be in what’s called a Levirate marriage (where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife). There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.

The difficulty with the all too regular interpretation is that it interrupts and distracts from the rest of the story.

David Loose then points out that the woman’s response is not a deflection from herself but rather a sign of faith. “I see that you are a prophet.” Seeing in John’s Gospel is tied to faith. One sees and one believes. The story of John 9 when Jesus heals a man born blind demonstrates this. Such seeing also casts light on the time of the story. The woman encounters Jesus in the brilliance of day, not to avoid scandal but rather to encounter truth.  Contrast this with Nicodemus who comes at night in John 3.  (A great Bible Study is to compare and contrast Nicodemus encounter with Jesus and the woman encounters.)

Later the woman tells her neighbors to “come and see the man” (John 4:29). Just as Philip invited Nathanael to “come and see” Jesus.  (John 1:46).  She is one of the first evangelists.

Studying scripture is an ongoing experience that can change our perspective.

When has studying scripture changed your perspective?


Lord Jesus, help us to see with fresh eyes.

4 thoughts on “Wrong Interpretation

  1. Kitsi Vadheim

    Hi John,
    Thanks for sharing your intrepretations of these Bible stories. It was a good reminder for me that there is not just one ‘correct’ interpretation of Biblical stories, and that our perspective can – and should – change over time as we go through life.

  2. Jonathan

    Recently, I was teaching on David and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book and interpretation, I read it from a different perspective: David beating Goliath may not have been a huge upset after all (a deadly accurate and mobile slinger or “artillery” unit beating a slow-moving, heavy infantry unit is not surprising). The interesting things, however, are that no one was willing to step out in faith like David did. Goliath came out to the Israelites 40 days in a row making his challenge and no one responded. There were likely other Israelites with slinging skills and perhaps more experience than David, but none of them challenged Goliath. It took an adolescent boy, albeit anointed by God and with great faith, to step out and challenge Goliath. Additionally, David did not take the conventional wisdom of using Saul’s armor or weaponry, he stuck with the skills he knew he had. One of the people in my class pointed out that “blind faith” is can sometimes be a bad tactic. One person gave the example of deciding to drive through a blizzard without experience or in a car with bad tires, traction, etc, but praying that God would protect you. We all agreed that this seems foolish. What David did was not. David had good skills with a sling, he had taken out a lion and bear with it (which were probably more mobile than Goliath) and protected his sheep. There are many takeaways from this story, but one which stuck for me was that stepping out in faith in this story and what seems to be a pattern in God’s story, is often coupled with the giftings/skills He has given us.

    1. Pastor John Keller Post author

      Jonathan, I appreciate your new perspective on David and Goliath story. I also think he had the skills honed prior to the battle. He had a kind of job interview with King Saul that showed he had the right stuff, including faith in God — but not blind faith. Thanks for sharing.


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