There are a lot of ways my dad set a good example for me, and one that stands out is the picture of him helping with the dishes after supper. It seems to have been an important part of the family’s mellowing out in the evening, at least before we got our first TV when I was twelve.

I remember one night, when he was drying a plate, he spontaneously told us of a Bible verse he had discovered about how thorough God was when he had to punish his Old Testament people. God says, “I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” He demonstrated that, in contrast to my mom’s feminine technique of holding the dish in one position while drying the top and the bottom, he could dry a dish more completely by actually reversing it, so he could see where he was drying. That’s the manly (smarter) way. It was all just a joke, but I still remember that Bible verse.

It’s taken me all this time to look it up and check out his application. I found that the verse is from 2 Kings 21:13, in the middle of a scary passage describing the horrific rule of King Manasseh, Judah’s most evil ruler:

“I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line for Samaria, and the plummet for the house of Ahab; I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will cast off the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies; they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their ancestors came out of Egypt, even to this day.”

The first thing I noticed was that my translation, the New Revised, which we use in our worship services and teaching, did not have that one word my father was emphasizing. The King James Version, which he was using, has as a man wipes a dish, while the New Revised has as one wipes a dish. I thought this must be a case of a modern version cleaning up the gender bias of the older version, which assumed an impersonal noun or pronoun was male. But just to be sure, I checked the Hebrew, and surprise! – the older version was right; the original language clearly specifies a man. This intends to emphasize the distinctive way a man would act. Way to go, Dad!

But then I read the whole paragraph. If this is about the thoroughness of God’s judgment, why would he be using an image of dish-washing? It didn’t make sense. I read several commentaries and found that no scholars seemed very interested in this. Finally, I discovered an on-line version of an out-of-print nineteenth century commentary, and the author gave me the clue. Picture a victorious general who has overrun the capital city of his puny enemy. In celebration, he sits down to a rich meal in front of the enemy leader who grovels in chains on the floor. He’s in no hurry. He enjoys every bite, even down to the last morsel. Ancient warriors were not known for their etiquette, and he uses his fingers to gather the remaining juices (wiping the dish) and shove them into his mouth. Then, full of testosterone, in a final act of contempt, he turns the dish upside down to demonstrate how totally he will crush and demoralize his enemies.

See how far wrong we can be if we read and apply the Bible in a superficial or trivial way! My dad was just trying to be clever, but he was using a serious warning God gave to a sinister, self-willed ruler in a way that would sound silly to the people who read it twenty-five centuries ago.

The study of this one obscure verse made me think about how many other passages in the Bible we routinely lift out of context and twist to mean, in our day and age, something they were never intended to say. Yes, we should use the Bible to find God’s guidance for our life, but how often do we actually misuse the Bible to make it say what we want it to say? I’ve noticed that some of the Christian preachers and teachers who proclaim most loudly that the Bible is God’s Word are among the worst offenders at misapplying it.

Wait, it just occurred to me that my dad might have actually been well aware of the original meaning of this judgment warning and was reminding us all that he was the boss!

— Pastor George Van Alstine