By Darren Sim, at the Fellowship Weekend 2016
We've all struggled through passages in the Bible, or have encountered those moments when we don't really know how to answer questions posed by our friends about the Bible. How ought we to read these passages?
The Bible is God’s Word
God’s Word is completely trustworthy, reliable and relevant. How do we know this? The Bible claims this about itself! In Psalm 33:4, we are told, “For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all He does.” Proverbs 30:5 also tells us that “Every word of God is flawless; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” Not only that, Jesus claims this as well, saying, “Scripture cannot be broken- (John 10:35)”. Jesus does not try and establish the authority of Scripture here, he simply asserts it. The word “broken” is “luo” which means to dismiss, dissolve or invalidate. Here Jesus shows that he clearly believes no word spoken by God could be errant or wrong.
This means that when we do not accept the Bible the way Christ does , with a strong belief in inerrancy, we place a judgment on God’s Word. When we read God’s word, we don’t read it passively, but we read it with a choice. When we judge God’s Word based on our standards and understanding, we’re saying:
1. The Scripture is not all from God or,
2. God is not always dependable.
To accept either shows that we do not properly submit to God and as Kevin Deyoung puts it, we are “sub-Christian.”
The difficulty of difficult passages
It may be hard to believe sometimes, but this is true even in difficult passages. Most of us believe in God’s Word in passages like the crucifixion because it is historically verifiable. We believe God’s Word when He does things that fit into our understanding, like defending a victimized woman (John 8). We like it when God and the things He does fits into our idea and vision of Him. But, what about passages that have genocide in them? Do we believe God’s Word is inerrant then? When the God we encounter in the passages seem so far off from the God we are familiar with, do we still believe in the inerrancy of Scripture?
Here, we will look at just 3 passages. In some of these passages, it does appear that God commands genocide, kills for petty reasons and also appear to contain some theological contradictions. We are going to look at examples of difficult passages for each of these categories and see how our belief in God’s Word holds true even in these challenging passages.
Example 1: Genocide (Deuteronomy 20:10-18)
In this passage, God licenses the wiping out of entire groups of people. When we read this passage, I’m sure that we begin to ask many questions -- “Isn’t this genocide? Isn’t there some other way He could have done this? Doesn’t this make God seem cruel and intolerant?” Theologian turned atheist Gerd Ludemann wrote, “The command to exterminate is extremely offensive, a far cry from the merciful God frequently proclaimed in Scripture.”
But before we go on, it is important for us to understand the context. What happened in the history of Israel? This could help shed light on the reasons for this command. According to Genesis 15:16, God was willing to wait 430 years before the sins of the Amorites reached their limit. That patience must already show God’s grace. God is patient, but it does not mean that He will not judge and punish. God is also a God of judgment and the time has simply come for their judgment. He would not be just if He let their sins go unpunished.
Next, let us also understand the details of the text. This prompts us to ask this, were the people living in the land really that wicked? Were they wicked to the point that every man, woman and child had to be slain? The Canaanites for example, engaged in incest, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality and child sacrifice. (Lev 18:20-30) From Genesis, we understand that human beings are image bearers of the Almighty God. We are called to reflect the likeness and glory of our Creator. These people were deserving of judgment and death because they had angered the One who created them. God has the right to take lives as and when He deems fit because each and every breath we breathe belongs to Him.
Beyond that, God is protecting His people. We know this because we know God's character. Knowing how deeply depraved these people were, God in His love for His chosen people, desires to protect them from falling into the same depravity. His will is always for those He loves. The Canaanites would eventually lead the Israelites into idolatry!
Example 2: Death of Uzzah for steadying the ark (1 Chronicles 13:7-11)
In this passage, we see Uzzah do something seemingly trivial. Uzzah is acting out of reflex, he simply doesn’t want God’s sacred seat to touch the ground. The oxen stumbles so he tries to balance the ark and God strikes him down for it. When we read this, it would be easy to react as David did. We can get angry with God, how could He strike down a man for trying to protect and preserve God’s throne? Isn’t God being petty and temperamental?
From Numbers 4:17-20, Uzzah was probably a Kohathite, a special family branch in the tribe of Levi, consecrated by God for a special task, to take care of the sacred articles of the tabernacle. As a Kohathite, Uzzah would know that under no circumstance, was any Kohathite ever to touch the ark. Never. The design of the ark, with its poles and golden rings made it clear that the ark was not to be touched. In fact, God had decreed that if a Kohathite even looked at the ark, he would die. Once more, the context provides helpful information for us.
What then was at the root of Uzzah’s “heroic” act? It was most likely arrogance. Uzzah assumes that his hand, his touch is cleaner than the dirt on the ground. However, it wasn’t the ground or the dirt that would dirty the ark, it was the sin of Man that would. The earth obeys God. The earth alone, did not rebel against God in Genesis and bring the whole cosmic order into chaos. That was the work of Man. Man is sinful and that is dirtier than any ground on earth. It is thus a presumption that Uzzah makes here, that he is cleaner than the ground when in fact in his sin; he is dirty and sullied beyond anything we could comprehend. Once more, the character of this God affects how sinful humans ought to relate to Him.
Example 3: Theological contradictions (James 2:14-24)
Doesn’t this contradict Romans 3:27-28? Paul clearly says that we are justified by faith alone. Later on he even cites the same example as James, Abraham. How can both writers come to such different conclusions with the same examples? Does this in effect make us the same as Catholics?
If we take a closer look at Romans, Paul in Romans 6:1 onwards address a group of people that believe they should sin more so that God’s grace would be made more apparent. They do not see the need for works. James was likely addressing people who believed that because they were saved by faith alone, they did not need to be loving people.
What James is in fact concerned about, is a kind of faith that does not produce love (Jas 1:14). Paul and James are concerned about the same faith. James’ concern is not opposed to Paul. James clearly believes that saving faith results in loving behavior. He is not saying that the works themselves save the person. He is building on what Paul has taught and highlights that there is faith that is dead (Jas 1:19), one that is not real and thus does not result in acts of love, and one that is real and in Christ that works through love and results in love. James was ultimately defending Paul’s arguments, not challenging them. He never says that faith is step 1 and deeds are step 2. He never separates them and simply argues that saving faith results in deeds of love.
This is further seen in the use of Abraham. Both James and Paul cite that Abraham believed God and that was credited to him as righteousness. What James chooses to highlight, is that God tests Abraham after. God was not testing Abraham to see if he could give Isaac up to earn his salvation. He was testing whether or not the faith that Abraham had was real, saving faith, the kind that produces obedience.
From these examples, we realise that it is always important to place these passages in their context, both in the book or in the larger storyline of the Bible. We ought to also remember the character of the God of the Bible, whose words we are actually reading.
Reading difficult passages in light of the cross
Ultimately, we can look to the cross to understand these passages. As Martin Luther said, “There is not a word in the Bible which is extra cruem, which can be understood without reference to the cross.” In the first passage, we see clearly that sinful man deserves death. We learn that when the creation turns against the Creator, punishment is just. What we might not always see is that we fall into that category as well. We worship idols like wealth, identity or relationships. We put them in God’s place and give our lives to them. Aren’t we just as deserving of death? We only escape the judgment coming for our sins because Christ bore it all at the cross. At the cross, he bore the onslaught of God’s wrath that was both justified and meant for us. When we read this passage in light of the cross, it leads us to see the depth of Christ’s work on the cross, that he would make enemies of God His children.
The pride and arrogance of Uzzah was evident in the passage in 1 Chronicles. What we might not always see is that we are just as dirty, just as presumptuous and just as prideful. How many times do we do things in our daily lives centered on what we ourselves think, rather than what God thinks? Just today, I’m sure we have all done, said or thought something that we are ashamed of. We are just as unworthy as Uzzah to even gaze on God’s throne, but in Christ we are clothed with glory far beyond what we deserve. In Christ, we share in the glory of God. In Christ, we the unworthy dirt become valuable to God and able to enter His presence, forever. Reading this passage in relation to the cross shows us that we are as Tim Keller puts it, sinful beyond what we could imagine, but loved beyond what we could imagine as well.
James and Paul show us our need for a faith that leads to acts of love. At the cross, the greatest act of love in human history was completed. Christ laid down his life for us. This becomes the driving force behind all of our acts of faith (1 John 3:16) because it defines love for us and gives us the strength to do the same for others. Christ not only saves us through faith alone, he empowers us to love others, in a way we could not when we were dead in our sins. The cross becomes the means through which we love others.
Difficult passages are for our growth
But why would God make Himself so difficult to understand?
- These passages humble us
When we come across a difficult passage in our Bible reading, or worse, when a friend from another faith brings the passage to us, most of us feel an overwhelming sense of desperation. We realize that we really don’t have the answers for everything. We realize that we are really limited in our intellect and that we need God for something as seemingly simple as understanding His Word. It humbles us and points us to depending on the God of the Bible, instead of our own knowledge. When we feel desperate and helpless, the natural response would be to cry out to the one who has the answers for help. 7 times in Psalm 119, the Psalmist prays, “Teach me your statutes.” The difficult passages that God gives us actually bring us closer to Him! They get us to cry out to Him in desperation.
- That is the nature of relationships
Knowing and loving someone is not easy. It is bound to be complicated and all of us can understand that. If we want to be serious about our relationship with God and know Him fully, we must engage Him everywhere, even in the difficult passages. Anything else would reduce God and give us an incomplete picture of Him.
How then should we approach difficult passages? We should come to the difficult passages God gives us humbly and expectantly. We should bring no pride in our intellect to His Word, and we should be expectant of Him. That through His Spirit and sovereignty, He will speak.
Have you ever come across these passages or other passages and struggled with them? When you encounter these difficult passages, how do you feel and how do you respond?
Why do you think God reveals Himself in a way that is sometimes difficult for people to understand?
How does what we’ve covered today impact the way you read your Bible? How can you be a better reader of the Bible, or help someone else be one?