The Origin of Sunday School Myths

by Lee Anderson Jr.

Several years ago, I visited an adult Sunday school class that was in the midst of a study on the book of 1 Samuel. On the morning of my visit, the class was addressing 1 Samuel 25. This is a detailed passage but, to summarize, the account goes as follows: David, who was on the run from the jealous King Saul, had amassed a band of six hundred followers. In order to care for his men, David sought provision from Nabal, an exceptionally rich businessman in Carmel, which is located about 20 miles south of Bethlehem. Nabal, a man known for his cruelty, harshly rebuffed David’s entreaties, failing to give any regard to the fact that David had been anointed as Israel’s future king. This greatly angered David, who set off to kill Nabal and take the needed provisions by force. Violence was averted only because Abigail, the notedly “intelligent and beautiful” wife of Nabal, intervened, bringing David provisions and petitioning him not to carry through with his plan. David was duly impressed with Abigail’s good judgment. When Nabal was told of this the next day, his heart failed—ostensibly from the shock of how closely he had cheated death—and he died ten days later. David, seemingly enamored with the now-widowed Abigail, asked her to become his wife and subsequently married her.

After reading the passage aloud, the teacher called upon the class to offer some initial observations. But, as can be all too common in some Sunday school classes, these “observations” quickly jumped into the realm of strained interpretations and haphazard applications which had little to do with the intended message of the text.

In particular, I remember that one young class member remarked, “Isn’t this a wonderful thing that David took up the responsibility of marrying Abigail and providing for her after Nabal died?” Others in the classes nodded and voiced their agreement with this remark, finding David’s actions chivalrous and commendable. But is this what the passage is really intending to teach, or could this be merely what I call a “Sunday school myth”?

In actuality, no matter how well this perspective might agree with our sentimentality or our sense of nobility, it is simply not what the text teaches. We can infer from 1 Samuel 25 that Abigail would have had access to her husband’s vast estate, and likely would not have wanted for anything—which removes from David’s motives any sense of a need to provide for Abigail. More significantly, however, is what Scripture states directly in verses 42–44. Besides Abigail, David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel, and both of them in addition to his first wife, Michal (the daughter of Saul), who had not accompanied David on his flight.

Although polygamy was practiced in ancient Israel, such a practice was out of keeping with “the law of the king” in Deuteronomy 17:14–20, which expressly forbade the king from multiplying wives (as well as from accumulating excessive quantities of horses or gold). Thus, this passage, rather than commending the future king, actually offers a subtle condemnation of David’s failure to keep his life in check where women were concerned. In this way, it likewise serves as a harbinger of his subsequent moral failings with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11). Indeed, what the young class member had perceived to be a positive commentary on David’s life was actually a negative one.

Why recount this story? Only to note that it is possible to develop views about certain biblical passages that, while making good sense to us or agreeing with our sentiments and ideals, do not match with the biblical author’s intended meaning. The perspective I encountered while visiting the Sunday school class that morning is just one of a plethora of interpretive “myths” I have encountered from Bible passages being handled with less than adequate care.

That is not to say that the young class member was deliberately careless or not well-intentioned. In this case, she simply had not taken inventory of the literary context—either the immediate context (in 1 Samuel 25) or the broader canonical context (namely Deuteronomy 17). Regrettably, though, some of these well-intentioned but still-errant notions spread all too easily precisely because they seem so agreeable to us—at least on their surface. Equally regrettable is that quite a few of these mistaken interpretations concern some very well-known verses. And, because of that, exposing them and unseating them can be quite a task.

Naturally, these “myths” do not always originate in Sunday school. But that is one of the places they can easily spread—and become entrenched—because of how open some classes can be to inviting members to share “what this verse means to them personally.” And of course, the internet, as helpful as it can be for spreading useful information, also provides a ready platform to all those, well-intentioned or not, who are intent on sharing their take on what the Bible says. This leads to no shortage of confusion.

In the next several weeks, I will be engaging with a handful of well-known passages in a series called Busting Sunday School Myths. We will look together at widely spread but mistaken interpretations of these passages, and see where those perspectives went awry hermeneutically. Then we will look at how to interpret those same verses accurately, using a sound hermeneutic and a proper theological method to arrive at what the biblical author intended to communicate. I suspect that some of you will be surprised to find what some verses are really saying. I also think that some of you might be shocked by the implications of some of the prevailing popular-level perspectives on the verses we will address. To be clear though, it is not my intent to bash errant interpretive views (as much as some of them desperately need to be discarded!); rather, it is my sincere hope that we can grow together to be more discerning and responsible handlers of God’s precious word.

†Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

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