Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Romans 12:20 (KJV)
Heap coals of fire upon his head – Why is this the metaphor we’re made to associate with being kind to our enemies? Sounds rather drastic, doesn’t it? Did people actually heap coals on people’s heads? If so, how could it possibly be related to doing kindness to an enemy? This phrase produces so many questions, but most of us probably just read past it without digging much further.
Is it meant that my kindness will be like complete brutality to my enemy, and that I shouldn’t look to causing him harm because this is practically equal to it? Maybe it’s a way for us to feel comfortable with ourselves when doing kindness to those who oppress us. Or is there something here we’re missing?
The Pirkei Avot is a compilation of ethical, theological, and judicial teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period (10-220 CE). The writings therein can give us some insight into this common Hebrew idiom.
Warm yourself before the fire of the sages, but be heedful of their glowing coals for fear that you be burned, for their bite is the bite of a jackal and their sting the sting of a scorpion and their hiss the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire.
Pirkei Avot 2:15
From this we can deduce that the term “coals of fire” is a Hebrew idiom which refers to the words, or teachings of the sages. Their teachings were always centered on Torah, and although this passage from the Pirkei Avot is a bit harsh concerning their teachings, it is meant to reflect the power of their words. So now let’s apply this understanding to the verse from Romans 12 concerning our enemies. Paul is instructing us that doing good to our enemy will cause them to recall the teachings of the sages. When they see that you, an enemy, is being kind, they are inclined to remember the words of the Torah.
This teaching that Paul wrote down so many years ago was nothing new. It was a widely popular rabbinic teaching. In fact the words were first written down many years before Paul was born by one of the wisest men to have ever walked the earth – Solomon.
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.
As we’ve come to understand, Paul’s letters are never to deter people from the Tanakh, but to always bring them back to it. Being kind to others, especially our enemies, was to bring them under the teachings of the Torah. When you’re out and about showing kindness, are you doing so with the intent of revealing God’s way of life? Being kind is the catalyst to teaching Torah, and teaching Torah is the job of the Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).