This week there was a discussion in my network here in Tanzania about Psalm 51:5:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Did David being conceived ‘in sin’ mean that his mother committed adultery and he was illegitimate?
Admittedly the grammar of the KJV (above) could be read this way, but it can equally be read as describing the general situation of the state of all human beings at conception rather than one particular act. Most modern translations clarify this, for example, the NIV:
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
There is very little reason to read the passage and be concerned about David’s mother. After all, the introductory line tells us that the psalm is David’s response to Nathan rebuke to him about his adultery with Bathsheba. (I have written about this gloss elsewhere. It was rape.) This is not a passage about David suffering because of his mother’s sin; in this passage David assumes responsibility for his own sin.
To make it about David’s mother sinning potentially removes some responsibility from David and it impugns the sexual ethics of a woman about whom we know very little. It is exegetically irresponsible and completely unfair to her. The one verse that references her (Psalm 86:16b) is entirely positive:
Save me, because I serve you
just as my mother did.
I said this to my associates who basically assented and went back to talking about David being able to be cleansed from sin, whether his own or his mother’s.
Generational curses are a big deal in Tanzania, the idea that you might be suffering because of something your parents or another ancestor did. They are a favourite topic of unscrupulous preachers who add to the gospel their own means of salvation.
So the topic for discussion became: do you assure people that irrespective of your parents’ sin Jesus can cleanse you or do you tell people that there’s no such thing as a generational curse anymore and to disbelieve anyone who says so. The first acknowledges the cultural background but presents Jesus as the solution; the second favours a more individualistic approach asserting that only your actions are relevant. It’s a sophisticated missiological conversation.
But it frustrates me. The discussion from this passage is what to do about generational curses. I want to say, “If you want to talk about a theology of generational curses, fine, but this is not the passage to do it! Because you are doing it with this poor woman’s reputation!” However, my concerns do not loom as large when the massive issue of generational curses is on view.
It’s not that gender justice is unimportant — these same people put a lot of time and energy into empowering women — but rarely do they do so by re-examining biblical women. That’s my way of dealing with the issue, and doing it with this passage was doing it on my terms. The presenting issue is generational curses, not gender justice. Our cultural background significantly influences what we consider a red herring, and in this case I suspect my comments smelled decidedly fishy to my associates.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.