The Poisonwood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

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What is "the verse" in Adah's chapter from The Poisonwood Bible?

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In The Poisonwood Bible, "The Verse" is Nathan's tool for punishing his daughters. If he disapproves of something that they say or do, Nathan assigns them a Bible verse and has them write it down along with the next ninety-nine verses. The final verse is meant to be illustrative of the lesson he wishes them to learn.

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"The verse" is at the end of the one hundred verses Mr. Price forces the girls to write out from the book of Numbers as a punishment when they cause trouble. The hundred verses end on Numbers 32:32, the verse Mr. Price considers most relevant:

We will pass over armed before the Lord into the land of Canaan, that the possession of our inheritance on this side of the Jordan may be ours.

In other words, Mr. Price wants the girls to understand that they must be "armed" with righteousness if their father's missionary work in Africa is to be successful.

In this case, Methusaleh, the family parrot, says the word "damn." Mr. Price is worried that whoever taught the parrot the word is threatening the entire family with God's wrath, asking "why you would have a poor dumb creature condemn us all to eternal suffering." When none of the girls will confess, Mr. Price has the three oldest girls do the writing as a punishment.

In fact, as Adah explains, the parrot learned the word from their mother, who said "damn" over and over again when her Betty Crocker Angel Dream cake mix, brought from the United States, failed in the African climate. The girls' silence saves their mother from their father's anger.

The episode is part of the tragicomic first section of the novel, in which Mr. Price takes upon himself to bring his family to the Congo to try to convert the local Africans to Christianity, all while showing a complete lack of sensitivity to the culture he is entering. The cake mix is emblematic of the adults' failure to understand the culture and environment they are encountering.

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In the Price household, "the verse" is a punishment. Whenever Nathan, who is fanatically religious, feels that his daughters have stepped out of line in the eyes of God, he assigns them a verse from the Bible. The next several hours of their time will be taken up by writing out that verse, as well as the ninety-nine verses that follow it. The hundredth verse always contains a message for the "sinful" daughter, to drive home the message that Nathan wants her to remember.

By instituting this form of punishment, Nathan misses the entire point of the Bible, which is a message of God's unconditional love. By forcing it down his daughters' throats as a punishment, he makes the Bible come to be seen as something tedious and fear-inducing.

Over the years, the girls realize that Nathan must have spent time thinking through every conceivable "sin" that they could commit and assigning a section of scripture as punishment in advance for each one. This helps to create the image of Nathan as an oppressive father, rather than a loving one. The passages that he selects, such as the one culminating in Numbers 32:32, are full of God's wrath and condemnation, rather than any token of love or forgiveness.

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Adah defines "The Verse" as the Price family's "household punishment." Whenever Nathan feels that any of his daughters have erred or committed a sin, he assigns them a Bible verse. They are then forced to spend hours writing it down, along with the following ninety-nine verses. The one-hundredth verse is meant to drive home the main lesson of their punishment. Adah often wonders whether her father knows the Bible so thoroughly that he can select the appropriate verse and instantly determine the one-hundredth verse preceding it or if he spends long hours awake at night reading the Bible just to research which verse he will assign his wayward daughters in advance. Either way, Adah is impressed with her father's knowledge of the Bible, even if she sees no value in the religion itself.

This type of punishment is very telling of how Nathan sees his faith. To him, the Bible is not a book of love and compassion. He views the Bible the way one might expect of the fire and brimstone preacher that he is. To Nathan, his faith is a tool of control and something to be feared. It is full of warnings and punishments and woe be unto the person who ignores what it has to say.

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In Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible," fundamentalist preacher/missionary Nathan Price has no concept whatsoever of Christian love, but he cherishes vivid "Christian" ideas about disciplining his daughters. He regularly punishes them for what he deems to be disobedience or "sin" by forcing them to copy out 100 Bible verses, with the 100th verse always being the one which deals with the specific "sin" being punished; he names a verse, and they have to copy it and the next 99; the 99th will contain the lesson.  For example, when the family parrot says "Damn," Price chastizes his daughters for supposedly sending the parrot's soul to Hell by teaching it profanity, and forces the three older ones to write out the 100 verses beginning with Numbers 29:34 and ending with 32:32, which reminds them that God is always watching for errors, including every word that comes out of someone's mouth. Nathan's daughters observe that "Our Father" NEVER has to consult his Bible when meting out punishment, yet his chosen passages always fit some part of the "crime." Observing this through the years, they realize that the only possible way for him to so easily recall punishment passages was for him to have thought out, far in advance, every conceivable example of disobedience which might be expected from a child. Then he would have had to search out relevant passages/verses from the entirety of scripture, divide those passages into 100-verse segments ending with his chosen verse, and MEMORIZE every beginning-ending set of 100 verses. In other words, rather than anticipating actually GUIDING his daughters, he anticipated only punishing them, and he has consistently confused punishment with discipline. He has no ready passages of approval or affirmation for his daughters, but only passages of condemnation, "sin," and anger. Ironically, by disciplining his daughters in a fashion, he has taught them not only to hate the Bible, but also to hate the concept of God as ANY sort of father. He was a complete and total failure at portraying or communicating any sort of love, Godly or otherwise.

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