Literal coals and literal head?

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)

A Protestant pastor of mine once taught that in Bible days people would carry coals (burning coals, "coals of fire") on their heads in some sort of fireproof container. By heaping these on an enemy's head you are giving them a gift, a blessing, so they can start their own fire.

Needless to say, this sounded fishy to me.

How does feeding them equate with giving them some of your coals?

Would your enemy calmly stand there while you transferred coals from your head to his? (Wouldn't you both take the containers off your heads first?)

How is it possible to feed your enemy when in battle? (instead of pouring hot coals on them which is what you were going to do until you remembered Paul's words in this verse).

The meaning

In the context, Paul is teaching about revenge. He gives the example of how to relate to your enemy as an illustration of his teaching that we should not vent our anger on others nor seek revenge. Instead, we should bless them and let God judge them. God will heap the coals of fire of his judgment on them as required; it is not our place to do this.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

We should not harbor desires for revenge when we are wronged. God will judge everyone properly, hopefully forgiving them if they cry out to him for forgiveness.

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)

Instead we should love our enemy as our neighbor, feeding them.

The second part is the hard part, bringing up images of fighting an enemy in battle. If you were inside a city under siege, you might pour down hot coals on the heads of those below trying to breach the walls.

Should we refuse to defend ourselves and our families, allowing our enemies to vanquish us? This verse is not teaching pacifism.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

We don't conquer the powers of darkness by being wicked ourselves.

Paul often states things in a very obtuse manner with an awkward flow of ideas; we must understand his intent. The "coals of fire" is an example of a judgment, this to be meted out by God, not by us.

Other passages

Other Bible passages using the phrase "coals of fire"...

Judgment (Ezekiel 10:2)

Burning coals used with incense (Leviticus 16:12,13)

Burning coals (Song of Songs 8:6)

Flashes of lightning in a storm (2 Samuel 22:13)   (Psalms 18:13)

Silly figurative interpretations

Many interpret the phrase "heap coals of fire on the head" as figurative giving it all sorts of meanings such as...

Once we start interpreting like this, the Bible means nothing at all because it means anything you want. Sadly, this is mostly the kind of teaching and preaching I hear from fundamentalist evangelical Protestants on the radio and in churches.

Literal vs Figurative

I highlight this verse, Romans 12:20, because it illustrates what can go wrong with figurative interpretation.

As you may have noticed, I don't care for figurative interpretation of the Bible, preferring instead to be strictly literal. Once you start interpreting the Bible figuratively it becomes gibberish.

In the very early days of the church too many early church fathers adopted figurative interpretation — even the apostles did it. The results are (then and now) you can support any wacky idea you want to with words and phrases figuratively meaning whatever you want.

So here are the literal underpinnings...

Ezekiel 10:2 illustrates what is going on. In judging Jerusalem, God commands an angel to scatter coals of fire over Jerusalem. In the spiritual, heavenly realm, literal coals are literally poured-out on the city. Back in the physical realm, the inhabitants of Jerusalem experience this in the form of various invasions by enemies.

Likewise in Romans 12:20. As God sends angels to fight the powers of darkness in the spiritual realm, this manifests in the physical realm as wars and sieges of cities and such.