“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?” Matthew 23:33 NASB
Brood of vipers – Do you read the Scriptures with an ear toward what you want it to say? Do you read with your past associations, instruction and cultural background as the interpretive pattern? Or do you read Scripture as if it were written to you like today’s newspaper? Don’t brush off these questions too quickly. If you don’t begin by attempting to understand the words of Scripture in the historical and cultural setting of their authors, you will end up with outrageous and erroneous conclusions. Let me give you an example.
Shmuley Boteach purports to have written an accurate analysis of the real Jesus. In his book, Kosher Jesus, he examines Jesus’ declaration recorded in Matthew 23:33. He concludes: “There are many reasons to believe that this verse is a forgery. First of all, common sense dictates this doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus we know. These poisonous words, ‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?’ seem utterly inconsistent with the beautiful teachings on ethics in the Sermon on the Mount about the meek and humble inheriting the earth. Was Jesus really prone to such vulgar outbursts and temper tantrums? Indeed, this later, interpolated Jesus sounds like a man with serious anger issues who can’t control his rage.”
What can I say? Apparently Shmuley has the inside track on what “fits” the vocabulary of the “correct” Jesus. His comment makes you wonder if Mahatma Gandhi ever uttered an invective against the British or if Mother Teresa ever said an unkind word toward the uncompassionate Christian leaders of her own Church. What’s worse is that Shmuley doesn’t seem to understand the power and indictment of the Sermon on the Mount either. In his view, all of Jesus’ words must be peace and light. Otherwise, they are forgeries. Of course, he is the proper authority to tell us when a forgery has occurred. How does he know? Because “forgeries” don’t fit the way he wants the text to read.
Boteach seems to ignore the fact that Yeshua is speaking about hypocrites and that He is quoting John the Baptist, who also addressed his remark to unrepentant inspectors. Boteach apparently doesn’t realize that this is an idiom from the first century, an insult used by others in antiquity. Boteach requires Yeshua to meet his standards of self-control which, of course, can never include emotional outbursts in the face of self-serving depravity. Apparently Boteach hasn’t read Essene literature either. One thing is quite clear. Boteach is a contemporary liberal. He might be Jewish by birth, but he seems to have forgotten the outrage of YHWH found throughout the Tanakh.
I beg you not to make the same mistake. It is so easy to read the text the way we want to read it, to understand the word according to our definitions. It is so easy to be “offended” by Scripture because it doesn’t fit our ethical view. But that is like dismissing Tolstoy’s War and Peace because it doesn’t accurately describe tactical nuclear weapons. Context matters! Dismiss the context and you can make the text say whatever you wish.
Topical Index: brood of vipers, Matthew 23:33, Matthew 3:7, Boteach, exegesis