The Bible, as a collection of books, letters, history, wisdom, poetry, and narrative, has become the most important book for the Christian faith. A multitude of writers captured the story of God and God’s people over thousands of years, climaxing with Jesus and His life-saving work for the world.
No matter how familiar we are with the Bible, we all have certain ideas and beliefs about what it is about. We may believe it to be God’s ultimate word for humanity, a set of good teachings, or just a compilation of writings with varying degrees of authenticity from thousands of years ago. We may love it or have negative associations with it, especially if we have experienced it being used as a weapon of oppression or discrimination.
As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that my adolescent understanding of scripture was quite simplistic. I definitely misunderstood and misused a lot of the Bible. I believed it to be the story of God, but I also thought it was a scientific guide to the origin of the universe as well as a code to figuring out the end times. It has only been during the last decade, in which I’ve studied the context and style of biblical writings, that this book has become alive to me once again.
There’s so much more to learn, and I love digging deeper and deeper into it. But there’s a problem: there are some problematic texts in the Bible.
This comes at no surprise to those who have spent time with this book. We can easily read some very disturbing stories. Take the story of David and Bathsheba for example (2 Samuel 11). Because of his lust and greed, King David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed so he could have and marry her. While it’s clear that God wasn’t happy with David, we also learn about the grace and mercy of God in redeeming David, whose repentance is an example for us. This story is clearly showing us what not to do.
But there are other passages that depict violence and judgement that don’t seem to be denounced, or worse yet, appear to be sanctioned by God. Why is there no clear rule against polygamy or having mistresses? Why is there nothing said about Elisha sending a bear to maul children who made fun of him for being bald (2 Kings 2)? Why does God command Israel to conquer Canaan, killing everything that breathes (Deuteronomy 20)?
When it comes down to it, some passages of scripture seem to contradict the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Many people comment that the God of the Old Testament seems to be different from the God of the New Testament. How are we supposed to love our enemies and pray for them when we can see examples in the Old Testament of Israelites killing their enemies. Furthermore, scripture has been used to justify violent actions by Christians for thousands of years. What do we do with these difficult passages?
I think we first need to see if we can answer our questions within the text. Have we understood the passage correctly? Was it God who gave the command, or did the people misunderstand His will? Or was it God who acted? Is the story we are reading supposed to be an example of what to do or what not to do? As we dig into the text itself, it will help us understand what the passage is actually saying.
If we are still left with a glaring uncertainty, we have some more work to do. It’s important that we look to scholars and teachers who have spent their lives studying these texts. Seeking input from community will open our understanding in ways we may never have imagined. Still, as I have experienced, even some theologians are left scratching their heads about certain texts. There are several roads we can take at this point, three are highlighted below:
1) Justify the Action - Even if we believe an action to be contrary to other teachings in the Bible, perhaps there’s a reason we don’t understand why it was okay. Even though we would never defend colonialism or genocide, if God told Israel to conquer Canaan, then it must have been justified. Even though it seems unjust to us, maybe it was just in God’s eyes. Otherwise, why would it be in the Bible? Why would God command it?
2) Investigate the Context - Perhaps what we read about in scripture was only okay for a certain time. Violence, nationalism, and war was simply part of the Old Testament context. Maybe the original readers and hearers of these texts would not have questioned them as we do today. We are living in different times, called to follow Jesus. The biblical context may have at one point allowed for slaves and concubines, but that has changed for us.
3) Question the Offender - Maybe war is unjust, whether today or three thousand years ago. What if it wasn’t okay then, but they just didn’t know. Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe they misinterpreted. What if we need to read scripture through the lens of Jesus, questioning anything else contrary to that. But what happens when the offender is God?
Let’s take, for example, the story of God rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 3-15). This is, no doubt, one of the most well known stories of God’s action in saving His people from oppression. He shows His power over all of Egypt and their gods to prove who the true God is. As one of the plagues that hit Egypt before Pharaoh let Israel go, God killed every first-born, human and animal, of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:29-30).
The immediate question is clear. How could a loving God do this? What makes it more challenging is that this was the last of ten plagues. Pharaoh had a hard heart and wouldn’t let the Israelites go, but it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 9:12). Why not soften Pharaoh’s heart so that he would let God’s people go? Then there would have been no need for the plagues and the death, right?
Once again, there are different ways to try to explain what's going on here. It was a different time back then. Violence was just so much more a part of life. The Egyptians got what they deserved anyways. It had to be done this way so that the Egyptians and the Israelites would know who the true God is. God is God, so who are we to question Him? Whatever God does is righteous and just. It sucked for the Egyptians, but it was amazing news for the Israelites.
I’m tempted to attempt an answer, but the truth is that I just don’t know. I know that this is a powerful story and that God’s might is clearly seen through His saving power. But I don’t know why the firstborns had to die and why God hardened the heart of Pharaoh. I don’t want to doubt God’s action, but I also don’t want to sweep it under the rug. The interesting thing, though, is that as I’ve dug deeper into these difficult texts, I’ve become more comfortable with not knowing.
There are no easy answers to these kinds of biblical questions, and I don’t think there ever will be. My hope is that we might be open and honest enough to admit that these passages exist and then to know it’s okay if we don’t completely understand them. So often we try to force our way to an answer, claiming it must be this way in order for us to have faith or believe. But sometimes uncertainty can lead us to a deeper level of trust in our living, creator God.
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't study, investigate and dig deeper. I believe we must, using the good hermeneutical tools at our disposal. But at the same time, I believe God can handle our questions and isn’t afraid of our struggles. In the end, we are invited to be in relationship with Jesus, the living word of God. We don’t need to pretend to have it all figured out for that to be true. As we wrestle with scripture in communities of faith, we will discover how it leads us to the person of Jesus, questions and doubts included.