It is quite remarkable that the seemingly obscure term stumbling block should appear in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament and should appear so consistently. After all, we in the contemporary world are not used to such things, at least not directly. That is not to say that we stumble any less than people did in the trap, but rather that we do not have, apart from the Bible, a concept to refer to tripping hazards with the same degree of seriousness that was the case in biblical times. It should be noted that there are a few terms in the Bible that are translated as “stumbling block” in English, most notably the Hebrew word miksol and the Greek word skandalon, from which we get the English word scandal. Indeed, it appears as if the semantic domain for stumbling block includes at least two different but related concepts, one of them referring to a block by which people trip and fall, injuring themselves, and the other of which is a stick-trap deliberately laid for someone to trigger and thus spring a trap.
It should be wondered why I would care so much about stumbling blocks. As is often the case, much matters with perspective. Over the past few months I have seen my own personal mobility decline from generally good except for times when I am struggling with a gout attack to frequently hobbled on a regular basis, and that tends to put mobility issues far more seriously in my attention than they would be before for a fairly average person of my age . And, as is often the case, not only do I struggle with mobility issues myself, but I also tend to notice that these concerns are very common for one reason or another. Some of us have bodies that seem to be failing on us a bit ahead of schedule, and some for natural reason of age struggle with balance or must use canes, walkers, or wheelchairs to get around. I must admit I am not necessarily far from being in that group myself. What we have here, therefore, is a situation where my own observation and experience makes something more important than it might otherwise be, or at least more in my own attention and notice.
Since time is brief, as I am getting ready for the Feast of Trumpets this morning, I would like to include the various references to stumbling blocks and then to briefly comment on them and what connections and insights we can draw from the concept of stumbling blocks as a whole as it appears in the Bible. With that said, here are the references to stumbling block in the Bible taking a familiar English translation:
Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
Isaiah 57:14: “And one shall say, “Heap it up! Heap it up! Prepare the way, Take the stumbling block out of the way of My people.””
Jeremiah 6:21: “Therefore thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will lay stumbling blocks before this people, And the fathers and the sons together shall fall on them. The neighbor and his friend shall perish.””
Ezekiel 3:20: “Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand.”
Ezekiel 7:19: “They will throw their silver into the streets, And their gold will be like refuse; Their silver and their gold will not be able to deliver them In the day of the wrath of the Lord; They will not satisfy their souls, Nor fill their stomachs, Because it became their stumbling block of iniquity.”
Zephaniah 1:3: ““I will consume man and beast; I will consume the birds of the heavens, The fish of the sea, And the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off man from the face of the land,” Says the Lord.”
Romans 11:9: “And David says: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, A stumbling block and a recompense to them.”
Romans 14:13: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”
1 Corinthians 1:22-24: “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
1 Corinthians 8:9: “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.”
Revelation 2:14: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.”
What insight do we gain from this list of verses? Well, for one, we can see that they are concentrated in a few sections of the Bible. Aside from the reference in Leviticus in the law, all of the references are either in prophetic books (the major and minor prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and Revelation) or in the Pauline epistles. It is also worthy of note that Paul refers to stumbling blocks in two parts of the Hebrew scriptures where those words are not precisely used, showing that he is drawing some sort of insight from these earlier passages and putting them into a context that relates to how we should (and should not) deal with others. Let us also note that we see the same division between stumbling block as something that one is vulnerable to by reason of physical or moral blindness or instability in walking as well as an active trap meant to kill or destroy rather than merely trip over. These references, therefore, have a great deal of complexity about them.
Let us try to briefly summarize their message, therefore. For one, we are forbidden from setting up stumbling blocks in front of others. If we know someone has a vulnerability–if they cannot see well or walk very well–it is ungodly to take advantage of this for their destruction and/or for our amusement. This extends to metaphorical stumbling blocks related to moral vulnerabilities and weaknesses. God is allowed to set stumbling blocks before people for their judgment, but not people, and when God does it, He commands that His servants give warning to others about these blind spots and vulnerabilities so that people have a chance to repent and escape from judgment. Stumbling blocks have a wide degree of application, from physical areas whose lack of level status makes it hard for those whose visibility and mobility are limited, to areas like filling one’s belly, which makes us vulnerable to a feeling of complacency and contentment with life rather than a striving to overcome. Certainly we live in a world where stumbling blocks are common, and I suspect more of us than think about the subject are vulnerable to them. Let us live so that we do not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others and let us be aware of our own weaknesses as well.