Proverbs 25:21 and 22 says that if you are nice to your enemy, then you will heap coals of burning fire on his head and the Lord will reward you. Romans 12:20 says basically the same thing. At first, it sounds like God will reward you for doing a bad thing! Heaping coals of burning fire on the head of anyone, in our culture, is definitely not good. But, if you look at the cultural and historic context, the perspective changes greatly.
I've been told that in the culture and time when the verses were written, it was actually a very good thing to heap coals of fire on some one's head. If you remove our 21st century conveniences like central heat, ovens with timers and thermostats, and sources of heat like electricity and natural gas, all of a sudden fire becomes much more valuable. Though I've never studied the context or details out myself, I've been told that to heap coals of fire on some one's head is like giving them coals to start a cooking fire or to get heat going in their cold tent. It is a very good thing.
Recently, I had the opportunity to experience the benefit of heaping coals of fire. Fortunately, the coals were not on my head! My folks were visiting, and we decided to head down to a local river to swim. When dinner time arrived, we had everything for the cookout, except charcoal. The little grill in the park next to our picnic table, though, did have a very small pile of coals, left over from some other cookout! Being the resourceful mother of many that I am (and you know, necessity is the mother of invention), I gathered handfuls of twigs from the ground and used the left over coals to start a fire. It worked great! We had hot, tasty food, without any charcoal, matches or lighter fluid, all because some one left a heap of burning coals.
Since that experience, the verse in Proverbs has come to mind often. As I've reflected on my adventure with coals, I realized I've learned a couple of lessons. The first lesson is how very much I take for granted the modern conveniences I have!! If I want to cook, all I have to do is turn on my stove and blue flame leaps to life. If I want to bake something, the digital read out on my oven tells me when the oven has reached the right temperature. If it is cold in my house, with the flip of a switch I can make it warm. Such conveniences have only been available for a relatively short time in the scheme of human history. I have much for which to be thankful!
The second lesson I've learned is how vital it is to understand the historical and cultural context of a passage of Scripture. Without further background on Proverbs 25:21, I thought God was willing to give a reward for a bad thing. Instead, it has become very clear from my experience that God is honoring kindness and generosity to an enemy instead of recognizing an action that could only be considered spiteful and unkind. The Bible can seem to mean very different things depending on your perspective, but looking at the context limits the interpretations significantly.
If there is a moral to this story, it is up to you to choose. One last piece of advice, though. If you find yourself at the park ready to barbecue without any briquettes, see if another grill has coals still burning. Just make sure the people who lit the fire are actually done using it. That way you won't find yourself actually experiencing the transfer of burning coals to your body!