What Dirty Towels Taught Me About the Bible
You know those moments when something happens that you have no category for? Or when everything you thought you understood all of a sudden doesn’t seem quite as clear? The older I get, the more experiences I have like this. The more I realize I don’t know much of anything. Things just aren’t as simple as they used to be. Or maybe they just aren’t as simple as my human mind wants them to be!
I got a call a few months ago from my Ethiopian friend and ministry partner, Henok. He was calling to ask me a question he had about foreigners staying in his guesthouse in Ethiopia. These are always my favorite conversations because we laugh and learn a lot through conversations like these.
“I need your opinion and thoughts on something. I don’t mean to offend at all by asking so please give me grace if I say something wrong, English is my second language. Please be honest with me.”
That day, he explained to me how he noticed the foreigners were taking bath towels at his guesthouse and putting them on the floor in the bathroom. He said they kept requesting new towels every day! The women were even wiping their makeup off with the white towels.
To him, this was troubling (and a bit offensive) because at the guesthouse, there is a limited supply of water. To wash towels every single day wasn’t easy. And getting makeup out of the towels? Nearly impossible. Henok said they kept having to throw those towels away and buy new ones (at $10 USD a pop). He wanted to know if it was okay to post signs in the bathrooms of the guesthouse that say ‘Please reuse your towels so we can conserve water’ and ‘Please do not put your towels on the ground or wipe your makeup off on them.’
It was clear to me that we were looking at the exact same situation with a totally different perspective. I explained that the foreigners (the Americans who were staying there) were not trying to be disrespectful. They weren’t even trying to be wasteful. They were used to having a bath mat to step out of the shower onto that catches the water and makes the floor less slippery. Additionally, they were taught to put their bedsheets and their towels in a pile on the floor to communicate they wanted them to be changed, because that’s how most hotels in the States work. In America after all, it’s culturally appropriate to request another set of towels at a hotel once one has been used. And of course, the women weren’t wiping their makeup off on the towels to be disrespectful; they were just using the towels in Ethiopia the same way they would in the U.S.. They were just trying to clean up.
I sat there laughing with my friend as we realized we were not on the same page, and I couldn’t help but think about how culture is such a huge factor when it comes to understanding somebody’s intentions. This wasn’t the first time we had a cultural misunderstanding or misinterpretation—it was one of many in our years of friendship. For us, this happens like non-stop. All the time. Over and over again.
But what I’ve learned is that it can be so easy to make assumptions without even realizing you’re doing it. It’s so easy to make a simple misunderstanding or misinterpretation about something or someone. How many times have I assumed something about someone that wasn’t accurate at all simply because I didn’t understand the complexity or layers to their story? To put it another way, I made a judgment call about a person because I didn’t know their context.
This whole conversation not only made me reflect on the simple misinterpretations that happen every day in different cultures, but it made me think about the way we interpret Scripture. Why in the world should I think I have interpreted Scripture with 100% accuracy and consideration to the cultural context it was written in, when Henok and I can’t even be on the same page about a freaking towel? How many things am I really sure about? What areas do I maybe need to remain more open handed with? When do I need to consider the cultural context in light of the truth of Scripture?
Obviously none of us can live in ancient Israel now, but we do have the opportunity to see how culture impacts understanding. And that can be really difficult for people who have never traveled or don’t have any friends from a different cultural context. It can be nearly impossible to see how the world could be interpreted differently.
We can only understand and see with the lens in which we have experienced and viewed the world. That’s why we need each other. It’s why we are better together. Without each other, we’ll miss it—or at least some of it. We need each other to help us all have a fuller view of who God really is. To understand the difference between what is Biblical and what is cultural. To see the whole story.
It makes me wonder how many things have been taken out of context because we assume the writer meant one thing, but in the context of the writer’s culture, it meant something totally different. Something that we would have no context for simply because we do not fully understand the culture. If we miss the cultural context of something as simple as a towel, why are we so sure we have interpreted the Bible without error? What if, in order to understand the full context of a loving God, we need to learn from every culture? Not just hear about them, but really understand their perspective?
If you don’t have a friend from another culture or context, find one. Learn from one another. Get to know each other’s worlds. Help each other understand the way you see things based on your own experiences.
And maybe, start by talking about towels.