Reading the Bible left-handed

My daughter was seven-months-old when we realized she was left-handed. I was delighted, imagining this would mean she would have an extra dose of the fabled southpaw creative and problem-solving ability. What I soon realized, however, was that while she may or may not be particularly artistic, she most certainly was disadvantaged.

Until I had a left-handed daughter, I had no idea how much the world was wired in favor of right-handed people. The design of scissors and iPhones, the design of buttons on hairdryers and power tools and the ergonomics of writing desks all cater to right-handed people. The right word to describe the impact of design specifications on right-handed people is privilege. If you are left-handed, the apropos word is prejudiced.

Language etymology bears out this prejudice. The complimentary words dexterous and adroit, describing skill and ability, are derived from the words for right-handed in Latin and French respectively. On the other hand (quite literally), the Latin and French words for left-handed have given us the pejorative zingers sinister and gauche. Similar linguistically prejudicial words for left- and right-handedness can also be found in Hungarian, Chinese, French, German, Finnish, Korean, Spanish, Swedish and Hebrew.

I would not have known that being right-handed was a privilege unless I had to face the challenges of raising a left-handed kid. Discovering the world from her perspective reveals systemic prejudices against southpaws at every turn. It is a sobering reminder to me that we are often blind to privilege if we are the beneficiaries of a system. And if we are blind to our privilege we are unable to cross the divides of prejudice. Privilege colors our interpretation of the world and it deeply affects our ability to exercise compassion.

In Brian Zahnd’s excellent article “My Problem with the Bible,” he makes the point that the Bible is written from the point of view of the oppressed. It is a book of Hebrew slaves, Judean captives and first-century Jews under cruel Roman rulers. Jesus came preaching a kingdom where the first would be last and the last would be first. In Jesus’ Kingdom, it is the meek, the suffering and the mourners who are blessed.

All this, argues Zahnd, deeply affects our reading of Scripture. First-world readers like me are accustomed to identifying with the rulers, not the oppressed. We risk grave hermeneutical errors if we take Scripture’s words spoken to those in bondage and “tame them” to endorse our inherited entitlement, as Zahnd writes.

He makes a valid point. First-world believers are "right-handed" readers interpreting a message written to the spiritually and socio-economically "left-handed.” If we are to understand the Bible correctly, we need to be aware of the privileges and prejudices we bring to our analysis. A power tool may be used by both left- and right-handed people, but there are differences in the way that tool must be held and operated if it is to be used safely. Similarly, the Bible is the power of God unto salvation for all; but there are differences in the way the Sword of the Spirit must be handled to make sure we do not read our own unspoken biases into the text.

Jabez’ prayer in 1 Chronicles 4:9-11 is a case in point. Read from a wealthy, first-world perspective, it sounds like a prayer for more real estate. But given that Jabez probably lived some time after Joshua’s initial entry into the land, his prayer is more likely a prayer for God’s help to take the territory that had, by faith, been allotted to him.

The question for us is not so much whether we are privileged, but asking how we are privileged and how that impacts our ability to understand, interpret, love and act. We are not tabula rasas when we approach Scripture; we are pre-etched with privileges and prejudices. The better we understand the contours of those hereditary etchings, the better our deciphering will be.

Comments (3)

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While I agree wholeheartedly with the need to guard against anachronistic readings, I do wonder whether the author overstates the case a little. As well as books about and aimed at the oppressed, a great deal of Bible content was written by, for and about educated, rich, privileged people such as Abraham (a rich nomad), David & Solomon (kings), and Paul (an oppressor turned apostle).

We must absolutely stand up for the oppressed and we must absolutely interpret the Bible carefully.

Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan. You make a fair point. To read the whole bible from the vantage point of the oppressed would be to make the same hermeneutical mistake, just in reverse.

We need to interpret carefully, and asking the questions “with whom do I identify in this story?” as well as “where is prejudice and privilege at play both for the characters in the text, as well as for me as a reader?” are important for careful readings. I recall a professor at seminary observing that perhaps we make a mistake if we read the story of David and Goliath and assume that we are “like David” in the story, facing the “Goliaths in our life” by faith (worse yet, with the “5 smooth stones of prayer, fasting, etc…) His challenge was to consider that we might better identify with the cowering Israelites in the story: threatened by the enemy of God’s people and in need of a Savior. The person we identify with in the story matters very much.

I think it is also fair to note that certain characters sometimes write from different perspectives in different seasons in their lives: there was a time when David wrote from the ultimate position of power and privilege as King (Psalm 23), but also Psalms he wrote when he was a fugitive and afraid for his life (Psalm 57). A nuanced hermeneutic should respect the context of both those Psalms.

My goal in this piece was to highlight that just as I had been unaware of the prejudices at play with right-handedness until I was confronted with a left-handed daughter, so too I’m learning that I need to be alert to hidden privileges and prejudices which may be at play in my reading of scripture.

Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more: “we must stand up for the oppressed and we must absolutely interpret the Bible carefully”.

Thank you for your kind response, Bronwyn. I can truly say that we are in complete agreement! Really fascinating post.

For the record, I have two kids and have no idea about their handedness. I didn’t know that iPhones were right-handed. Weird.

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