Understanding Honor/Shame Culture
We all read the Bible with a set of cultural assumptions and values. This affects our interpretation.
For those of us in the Western world, many of the these assumptions and values are addressed by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (IVP Books, 2012).
In the fifth chapter, they cover the difference between an honor/shame and a right/wrong (also called innocence/guilt) culture.
Western culture is one based on right/wrong (innocence/guilt). As a Westerner trying to understand the honor/shame system of the East, the difficult thing to relate to is how external everything is.
In the West, a person can have a code of honor, try to live up to it according to their conscience, and have a private sense of honor if they do, shame if they don’t. But this doesn’t make an honor/shame culture.
In an honor/shame culture, the honor or shame is social, and always comes from without, not within.
Richards and O’Brien warn those of us in the West that it really is a different world:
“English just doesn’t have good words to describe this system, and our cultural values run almost in the opposite direction.”
Being guided by our own consciences is an important value in Western Civilization—so important that it’s hard not to see it as universal. We assume everyone will be plagued with a guilty conscience even if nobody else knows what they did wrong:
“Because Westerners—especially Americans—assume we should be internally motivated to do the right thing, we also believe we will be internally punished if we don’t.”
When we think about the Holy Spirit convicting people of sin, we assume this conviction gets processed through this internal conscience.
Eastern cultures don’t see it that way:
“In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressure and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way.”
Richards and O’Brien illustrate this difference with the Old Testament story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba:
“From beginning to end, the entire story of David and Bathsheba is steeped in honor and shame language, and this explains why Western readers often find some parts of the story confusing.”
The Western Version of the Story
Briefly, here is the story as I have always understood it and heard it explained:
David saw Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, bathing on the rooftop, while Uriah was away fighting a war. David then slept with Bathsheba. He tried to keep it a secret but Bathsheba got pregnant.
David sent for Uriah and tried to get him to sleep with his own wife so that he would think he was the father. Uriah, however, was a loyal and dedicated soldier. He wouldn’t sleep with his wife while his fellow soldiers were still on the battlefield.
David then sent Uriah back to the war and gave the General of the Army orders that put Uriah into a situation too dangerous to survive. In other words, David had Uriah killed in battle.
The Eastern Version of the Story
Here are the key differences when told from the perspective of an honor/shame culture, as Richards and O’Brien tell it in their book:
David didn’t try to keep it a secret.
He was the king, and he was used taking what he wanted.
As the king, David could have given Uriah money and kept Bathsheba. It would have been a sin before God, but the people David ruled would not have had any problem with it. David was concerned only with what the people thought, so he felt no need to keep his actions hidden.
The problem was that David didn’t keep Bathsheba.
Bathsheba was sent back home. This was a public humiliation. She was shamed.
Richards and O’Brien point out a nuance that doesn’t come across in many English translations of 2 Samuel 11:4:
“The text pours on shame by saying she was ‘sent away,’ not ‘she left.’”
Then, when she was found to be pregnant, it brought dishonor on David. And all of this was public knowledge:
“Everyone in the palace knew about it. ‘The wife of Uriah’ is shamed, since David didn’t keep her. When she sends word that she is pregnant, it is public news.”
Uriah knew what David had done.
And David knew that Uriah knew. And Uriah knew that David knew that Uriah knew. Everyone knew everything but nobody was talking about it.
David was trying to save face. By telling him to go home to his wife, he was indirectly asking Uriah to give him cover.
This is what David was saying, without saying it: “I’m the king. I slept with your wife but I don’t want to marry her. Go home and raise my child as if it’s your own.”
Some people already knew that David was the real father of Bathsheba’s child. Nevertheless, if Uriah had slept with his own wife, as David was asking him to, it would have restored honor to both David and Bathsheba. (Again, in the eyes of society, not in the eyes of God.)
David even gave Uriah a bribe—not directly of course, he sent it to him after they had finished talking:
“And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king.” (2 Samuel 11:8 ESV)
(By the way, it was no accident that David saw Bathsheba taking a bath in the first place. She was sending him a message. Uriah probably understood this, too.)
Uriah shamed King David instead of honoring him.
Uriah didn’t even go to his own house. If he had, people could have at least assumed that he had slept with his wife. Instead, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to play along with David’s scheme:
“But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house.” (2 Samuel 11:9 ESV)
Those servants knew what was happening between David and Uriah, and they knew the message that Uriah was sending.
The next day, Uriah threw it all in the king’s face. He said out loud what he knew David wanted him to do. And he went further than that. He passive-aggressively shamed David for not going out to war with his army:
“Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and drink and to lie with my wife?” (2 Samuel 11:11 ESV)
Uriah and David were probably not alone when this conversation took place. There were other people listening, and it was also for their sake that Uriah said these things.
After a second failed attempt at persuading Uriah to play along, this time adding alcohol, David sent Uriah back to the battlefield and had him killed.
Reminder: God Transcends Culture
What David did was not OK with God, and God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. But even in doing so, God convicted him from without. David was at peace within. His conscience was not bothering him.
As a Westerner, this is what I find hard to understand.
Richards and O’Brien explain how God works through different cultures:
“Although David had acted appropriately according to the broader cultural standards of his day, God held him to higher moral standards. Even so, God worked through the honor/shame system to bring David to repentance…Instead of a voice whispering to his heart, a prophet shouted at his face. Either way, God speaks. Since David’s culture used shame to bring about conformity, God used shame to bring David to repentance.”