Bible verses on my grandfather’s knee

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My grandfather was a self-appointed Baptist preacher who had little more than a third grade education. Practically illiterate, Papaw derived his theology mostly from Bible verses he had memorized and from the texts of many well-beloved hymns.

Unfortunately, this often meant he used Scripture verses out of context and not always in a kind way. For example, he was quick to scold me for my short, summer haircut by reminding me that “the Bible says it’s a disgrace for women to cut their hair.” He never gave references for his quotes, so I would go home and scour my Bible to find the passages he used against me.

Jezebel? Who, me?

I adored my Papaw. He had a beautiful smile, and he always seemed pensive and wise, despite his lack of education. Even when I proved him wrong, I believed in my child’s heart that he was playing a joke on me. Once when we went to visit him, I proudly showed him how I had painted my own fingernails bright red.

“Jezebel!” he said in his country drawl, his blue eyes twinkling. “Do you know who Jezebel was?”

I did not.

“She was a queen in the Bible. She got herself all made up with lipstick and rouge and did her hair all up in braids. And God was so angry, he threw her out a window and let the dogs eat her body.”

I was horrified and carefully avoided all windows until I could get home to remove the fatal polish from my nails. But when I finally located the story of Jezebel in the Bible, I learned that her sins went much deeper than wearing makeup.

Jezebel was a wicked woman whose aim was to destroy the people of God. She murdered prophets and arranged for the death of man just so her husband could have the man’s vineyard. Her reign was one of vengeance and sexual promiscuity, though I had no idea what that meant. Her worship of pagan idols likely included child sacrifices (according to the annotation in my Bible). There could have been no way my grandfather was serious in comparing me to Jezebel because of my red fingernails. It never occurred to me that he had probably never read the story for himself.

Passing the test

It was very possible that Papaw goaded me with Bible verses because he believed, as many do, that Catholic children do not know their Bibles, and he wanted me to learn mine. This upset my mother, who had converted to my father’s religion soon after getting married and proudly raised us in her newfound faith. Papaw was teasing me about my Bible knowledge one day when I was about ten.

“I’ll bet you don’t even know one single Bible verse by heart,” he dared.

Fortunately, our class had just finished memorizing Psalm 23, so I stood up in his living room and proudly recited, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . .” as I watched his eyes get bigger and my mother’s expression smugger.

Of course, being the showoff I was, I did not stop there:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

They finally cut me off when I started to quote the story of creation.

Like many who have tested my faith throughout my life, Papaw stirred in me a desire to know more, to dig deeper, even if it was only to best him in his little challenges. I read my Bible more and searched for answers, finding along the way a profound Love that has shaped and directed my life. One day I hope to reunite with my grandfather to thank him for his gift.

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