Why is that in the Bible?” she asked me, with eyes wide as saucers. My wife is never one to mince words. She had put her finger on a tough moral issue arising from two Old Testament texts. With razor-sharp insight, she called out the sexual immorality of David in 2 Samuel and Solomon in 1 Kings. How could anyone who hoards women in a harem be counted as faithful to God?
Yet the Bible describes David as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) and Solomon as a king imbued with divine insight (1 Kings 3:5-15; 1 Kings 5:7). Isn’t there some disconnect between the Bible’s description of these kings and the morality of their actions? How do we deal with these thorny places in Scripture?
If we are honest, several hard sayings in the Bible emerge as we read. Some are God’s commands, some are words that the faithful speak to God, and some of the hard sayings are actions taken by God’s people. For example:
• Abraham gives his wife to another man (twice!) and lies about her identity (Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:1-18).
• God commands Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice to Him (Gen. 22:1-2).
• God apparently commands genocide against people groups (Deut. 20:10-18; Josh. 6:1-27; Josh. 7:1-26).
• Jephthah offers his daughter to the Lord (Judg. 11:29-40).
• Men of faith complain about divine violence, injustice, or passivity (Psalm 22; Psalm 44; Psalm 88; Lam. 1:1-22; Lam. 2:1-22; Hab. 1:2-4; Jer. 16:1-21).
• Psalmists pray for vengeance against enemies (Psalm 58:7-11; Psalm 94:1-2, Psalm 22; Psalm 23; Psalm 137:7-9; Psalm 139:19-22).
The list above is representative and reveals only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tough moments in the Bible. Through the years, I have worked with good, God-fearing people who have had a hard time reconciling these difficult sayings with the Holy God of the universe, the Father who gave His one and only Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. I get it, because I share in their struggle. But I believe there is help and hope.
To start, let me say that we must wrestle with difficult passages of Scripture. We cannot and should not ignore them, because our efforts to contend with them will guide us to a deeper faith and a richer love for Jesus. Too often, those far from God have used these difficult portions of Scripture as a kind of bludgeon against Christianity. But the hard sayings of the Bible need not be assaults on the faith. They do make us uncomfortable, to be sure; however, all Scripture is designed to build us up and train us to follow Jesus more closely (2 Tim. 3:16).
There are five basic skills we need to nurture in ourselves if we want to gain a truer understanding of God’s Word as we wrestle with it. Like tools in a toolbox, these skills will enable us to “go to work” with hard sayings:
1. Learning the biblical story
2. Finding treasures of darkness
3. Distinguishing between description and prescription
4. Considering complex characters
5. Hearing Scripture proclaim Jesus
The story of the Bible moves from a world gone wrong to a world reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.
Learning the Biblical Story
I enjoy listening to classical music, especially Beethoven or Mozart. When a symphony hall resounds with the music of these masters, it sets my heart on fire. But imagine listening to the music of the symphony stripped of all treble, with only the bass remaining. Of course, the music (if we could call it that) would be deep and rich, robust and powerful. But it would lose all the texture that makes up a master’s work. The full scope of the symphony, with the combination of highs and lows—the trills of the piccolo and the resounding clashes of cymbals, the mournful cry of the violin and the thrumming power of the double bass—would dissolve into a mass of noise with no context.
This illustration helps us to embrace the importance of Scripture’s overall context. The Bible is not a mass of jumbled stories. Rather, its context is built from the foundational symmetry of creation at the beginning (Gen. 1:1-31; Gen. 2:1-25) and new creation at the end (Revelation 21:1-27; Revelation 22:1-21). Its story has a particular direction as well. The story moves from a world gone wrong to a world reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. Understanding the context and direction of Scripture remains key for understanding its more difficult passages.
Getting a Grasp on the Story
The Bible tells the story of God, who creates a lively and life-giving world. Genesis 1–2 teaches that God’s world is “good.” All is well in it, until something goes awry. Human sin brings wrong into God’s good world. Genesis 3 introduces the horrors of sin, when Adam and Eve rebel against their Lord. They wrongly believe that they can find life and wisdom without God’s guidance and protection. The result of their sin is death and curse.
But despite human sin, God proclaims that wickedness will not win the day or destroy His good world. God raises up the people of Israel to be His chosen vessel of blessing. From them, He would choose a king who will rule the nations with perfect justice and love.
Despite God’s blessing on them, the Old Testament reveals that Israel is a broken vessel. Sin marked the first human pair and mars the people of God. Humanity needs someone who will erase the stain of sin, bearing the punishment of sin on their behalf. The Old Testament exposes that this person is the coming Messiah, the King of Israel and the Lord of God’s kingdom. He will bear the sins of the people and the world, and His work will usher in the new creation (Isa. 53:1-12; Isa. 65:1-25). So, the story from creation to the coming Messiah is central to the structure of the Old Testament.
The New Testament completes the story, revealing Jesus as the coming Messiah. Jesus brings forgiveness of sins, life out of death, and the kingdom of God. At the close of Scripture, Jesus is on His throne in a new creation, and He proclaims that He makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).
The Canaanite Destruction in the Light of the Story
The broader story of Scripture is helpful when we encounter troubling commands, such as the slaughter of the Canaanites (Deut. 7:2). It reminds us that God’s commands against the Canaanites are neither His first nor last word. As its Creator, God has all authority over His creation. When humanity rebels against Him, He has the right to revoke life and to punish sin. This is true of God’s command against the Canaanites as well. God punishes them because of their sin (Gen. 15:16). But we should also remember God’s great patience with the Canaanites before He punished their wickedness. (He waited 400 years!)
As we read the story of Scripture, we should also note that the commands to “utterly destroy” the people of Canaan (Deut. 20:10-18; Josh. 6-7) appear alongside other more numerous commands to “drive out” and “dispossess” the Canaanites from their land (“drive out”: Deut. 6:19, Deut. 7:1, Deut. 9:4, Deut. 18:12; Josh. 10:28; “dispossess”: Deut. 9:1, Deut. 11:23, Deut. 18:14, Deut. 19:1). Why do we have three separate commands?
God’s commands of wrath are the commands of a holy One who battles idolatry and sin.
These commands reveal God’s desire to expose and defeat the false religion of Canaanites instead of simply obliterating them. You see, in the ancient world, three crucial elements made up the identity of a nation: the people, the land, and their god.
Ancient cultures believed that a god protected the people and provided the land for life. If either land or people were compromised, then the nation assumed their god had lost power. Many, if not all, of Israel’s neighbors thought this way. The Canaanites worshipped the pagan god Baal, among others. The Babylonians worshipped the pagan god Marduk. The Edomites worshipped Chemosh. These gods, so the people thought, gave them their land and ruled over them.
So, if one wanted to show a nation’s deity was false, a simple sermon would not do. Pagan gods were exposed as impotent when a more powerful god drove an enemy from the land or defeated the nation in battle.
When God gives three commands (“to utterly destroy,” “to drive out,” and “to dispossess”), He strikes at the three elements of ancient national identity. As He defeated the Canaanites, drove them from their land, and dispossessed them of it, the true God of Israel would expose the pagan Canaanite gods for what they were.
When read in light of the story of Scripture, the Canaanite slaughter reveals God is not “bloodthirsty,” as some suppose, but holy, righteous, and just. He exposed their false gods as powerless idols, unworthy of worship. Interestingly, “driving out” Canaanites from the land gave the possibility for future repentance. And those who embraced the Lord, like Rahab, experienced salvation and blessing. God’s commands of wrath are not the first or last word in the story of Scripture. They are the commands of a holy One who battles idolatry and sin.
The story of Scripture is the foundational context in which to set the hard moments in the Bible. The story reveals that God exposes idols, promotes life, and punishes sin. The story affirms His commitment to reconciliation and peace in the face of sin. It reveals His plan to bring life out of death, joy out of pain, forgiveness in the face of sin, and also His commitment to make all things new through Jesus.
Hard Prayers: Finding Treasures of Darkness
On my shelf is a book about Mesopotamian history and religion, entitled The Treasures of Darkness. The book’s title derives from the prophecy of Isaiah: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden wealth of secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name” (Isa. 45:3). God speaks to Israel in this passage, and He gives a word of hope after they have faced the reality of exile in Babylon. Living under foreign oppression left God’s people deflated, and He provided them comfort in the time of their affliction. This verse especially stands out because it reminds us that the Lord brings treasures from the darkness of life, and when He does, we come to know Him more intimately: “ … so that you may know that it is I, the Lord.”
But the verse also implies that God’s people face darkness. As was true for Israel, it is also true for us. Following the Lord is not always happy or easy. God’s people face dark days of injustice and pain, and in those moments God’s people wonder why the pain exists and how long it will persist. In fact, “why?” and “how long?” are the very popular questions in the book of Psalms! The reason is because the life of faith encounters darkness. What kind of faith does God’s Word provide in these dark days of life, where shadows creep in and menacing uncertainty casts a pale hand over our hearts?
Scripture opens us to prayer, which is a treasure that God gives in dark days. When life turns upside down, our first and best response is to pray: honest, raw, and unfettered communication to the God of the universe.
Prayer allows us to carry our pain and anger to God and leave these difficult emotions with Him.
Take, for example, prayers of vengeance against enemies (see Psalm 58:7-11; Psalm 137:7-9)—how can these be good for us (or our enemies)? Well, prayers of vengeance allow us to voice real frustration and pain to God. Also, praying for retribution prevents us from taking vengeance into our own hands. Rather, they allow us to carry our pain and anger to God and leave these difficult emotions with Him. In fact, psychologists inform us that prayers of lament and vengeance release our negative emotions to the One who can transform them: God Himself. So, these uncomfortable moments give us the vocabulary and grammar to voice our feelings and experiences of injustice, pain, anger, and frustration. They are treasures of darkness.
Distinguishing Between Description and Prescription
Children like to imitate their parents. If a father wears cowboy boots, it is not too long before a son or daughter is clumsily plodding through the house in the far-too-big boots up to the child’s hips. Because Scripture is God’s Holy Word, our instinct might be that everything said or done in the Bible serves as a model for us to emulate, just as a child mimics the action of a parent. Sometimes, this instinct is exactly right. For instance, Matthew 16:24 gives a hard saying that we ought to imitate: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.’” The meaning is clear: If one seeks to be like Jesus, one must be willing to suffer in obedience to the calling of God.
But in other places, Scripture tells what a person did without indicating we should do likewise. For example, the Bible describes Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, but it certainly does not follow that the Lord prescribes this action for us to imitate.
In some places, Scripture tells what a person did without indicating we should do likewise.
Sharp readers will evaluate action in Scripture based upon three questions: 1) Does the Bible encourage the action in the story? 2) Does the Bible make an assessment, good or bad, about the action in the story? 3) Does the action beautifully picture the loving God who created all things? If the answer to any of these is “no,” we can distinguish description from prescription.
Taking the story of Jephthah’s sacrifice as an example, we can ask, “Does the Bible prescribe this action for us today?” The answer, considering the questions above, is “no.” The Bible neither encourages the action nor makes an overt assessment of it. However, God forbids human sacrifice in the law (Lev. 20:2-5) and seems to provide a way to deal with rash vows. Jephthah would have no need to surrender his daughter (Lev. 27:1-8). Far from revealing God’s love, which is patient and sincere, Jephthah’s action is instead indicative of Israel’s slide into rebellion and violence. In the Bible, there is a significant difference between description and prescription. We will stumble over Scripture’s hard sayings when we confuse the two.
Considering Complex Characters
“You can’t judge a book by its cover” has become a phrase we use to highlight the complexity of human beings. After you open the cover and delve into a book, you may discover that what is hidden in the pages is much more lovely (or horrible) than you ever could have imagined.
So it is with various characters in Scripture. Major figures like Abraham or David, for instance, are not simple. They are rarely painted with a single brushstroke. They exhibit good and bad character traits as well as highs and lows in their faithfulness to the Lord. As we deal with the difficult people in Scripture and the troubling things that they say and do, we must learn to understand their complexity.
We need to realize the people in the Bible (except for Jesus) are imperfect. Biblical stories do not present an ideal or perfect world. Such is the realm of science fiction stories, fantasy, or romance novels. The world that the Bible presents is the real world, with all the challenges part and parcel of it. Characters in Scripture are presented with a realism and roughness that mark a people tainted by sin and yet graced by the goodness of God.
Abraham was both a broken and a blessed man. God used Abraham despite his sin.
Take Abraham, for example. He was far from perfect. As mentioned above, he attempted to give his wife to two kings to save his own hide. If this is not a picture of moral turpitude, I don’t know what is. Yet Abraham was both a broken and a blessed man. God used Abraham despite his sin.
The same holds true for David. Perhaps the clearest thing that we know of David is that he knew how terrible he was. As a result, he knew what it was to repent of sin and utterly lean on God. Psalm 51:1-19 plainly demonstrates this. The Bible presents David as a broken leader, unable to save himself or his people. Yet God blesses both out of His grace and according to His plan.
Complexity is a good thing. The complexity of the biblical characters enables us to understand our lives in the light of theirs. As they are broken and yet redeemed by God, it gives us the opportunity to see that we, too, are broken in sin. Yet like them, we can be redeemed by God. The complexity of these characters reminds us that our goal in reading Scripture is to be like the one to whom these people ultimately point: Jesus. He is our model and example. Complexity in the characters of Scripture enables us to relate to their failings, to aspire to their triumphs, and ultimately to desire the same Savior for whom they longed.
Hearing Scripture Proclaim Jesus
Scripture proclaims Jesus, and we do well when we measure hard sayings in the Bible against this proclamation. Matthew tells the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain as several disciples watch. At that moment, Moses and Elijah appear with Him, signifying the totality of the Old Testament law and all prophetic instruction. There God says, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5) The transfiguration exposes a significant interpretative key: The Old Testament needs to be read and heard in the light of Jesus.
We are to read Scripture as it proclaims our Savior, the ultimate hero of God’s Word. He alone is the definitive model to follow. Our understanding of God is mediated in Jesus. Our understanding of God’s wrath and mercy are explained by Jesus. Our final hope is in Jesus. Our model for morality is Jesus. He is the all in all, the secret of heaven and earth. As the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He is the centre and the strength of the Bible, of the Church, and of theology, but also of humanity, of reason, of justice and of culture. Everything must return to Him; it is only under His protection that it can live.” The more we read Scripture in the light of Jesus, the more we will understand its hard moments and embrace them as difficult—but good—words that lead us to the Son.
Illustrations by MUTI