Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

Especially when it comes to the Bible.

I’m reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-winning The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismIt’s excellent if you’re into that sort of thing. I am.

Today, though, an aside caught my eye. President Roosevelt, having asked Taft twice to return from his post as governor of the Philippines twice to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote him a third time to insist that he return to replace the retiring Secretary of War.

“You will think I am a variety of the horse leech’s daughter,” Roosevelt began, alluding to the biblical parable in which a blacksmith’s perpetually dissatisfied daughter demands ever more of him.

My first thought was “I know the Bible decently well, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.” So I took advantage of my vast theological library Googled it.

Roosevelt is referring to Proverbs 30:15, which starts out “The leech has two daughters: Give and Give.” It can also be translated “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” Admittedly it’s a strange verse, having to do with forces in nature that are never satisfied.

At any rate, the KJV uses the word “horseleach,” which is a certain type of leech, but also apparently a term for a veterinarian or blacksmith for horses. The Bible verse, though, is referring to the leech.

This is fun, isn’t it. But here’s the relevance: You can see how Goodwin got where she got. However, in regards to Roosevelt’s allusion,

  1. There is no parable, just [a half of] a proverb.
  2. There is no blacksmith, and therefore no blacksmith’s daughter.

Goodwin is a smart person and a good writer. In all likelihood, she read this obscure reference from Roosevelt, looked up a couple of things, and patched together a backstory. It’s just that the backstory was wrong. It’s a little more interesting is that no one in the pipeline— Goodwin, research assistants, editors– was familiar enough with the Bible to raise an eyebrow. But even there, hard to criticize non-Christians for not knowing obscure Bible passages super well.

Here’s the point: Smart people get things wrong, just like the rest of us. People with Pulitzers and PhD’s are human. They have gaps in their knowledge and understanding, to say nothing of the little biases and mental tricks we’re all prone to. This problem is magnified when the Bible is involved. People who know very little about it feel very confident in making bold assertions about its contents and their value. (I’m not accusing Goodwin of this.)

Never assume that something’s true just because a smart person said it.

Remember that the next time you read something about the Bible that makes you say “wait, what?”


Note: It’s possible that I’ve missed something here, that Goodwin is right and I’m wrong. If that’s true, I invite you, kind reader, to bring evidence to my attention, and perhaps you will prove my larger point by refuting my example.


3 thoughts on “Never assume that smart people know what they’re talking about.

  1. These days, most journalists come from a secular/non-religious background. So it’s not surprising when they get even simple (at least by the standards of the knowledgeable) facts wrong.

    Case in point: At Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural on January 21st 1985, NBC News anchor John Chancellor spoke of Reagan reading from ‘Eleven Chronicles’ 7:14 (If my people, which are called by my name. . .).

    Of course, it’s II Chronicles.

    In my line of work, I am always amused at the youngsters, who clearly (to me) do not know what they are doing, but they put their best game face on and confidently say they can get the job done, when I know there’s crucial details about the job they’re not aware of.

    Human nature, I suppose. In like fashion, journalists do their best in rising to the challenge, even though they know nothing about the subject they’re covering and ‘fake it until they make it.’

  2. I am glad to find this! I had the same reaction you did to the passage in Goodwin’s otherwise excellent book and also resorted to Google, where your very helpful analysis appears. Thanks.

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