In a key paragraph of his apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI addresses the “dark passages” of the Bible:
“42. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”. I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.”
The bulk of these difficult passages are found in the Old Testament. As a supplement to the above reading from Verbum Domini, here are five points to remember when you encounter these “dark passages”:
1. There are difficult passages in the Old Testament. Some things said or done in certain parts of the Bible are indeed tough to grapple with on their face. But just because something is difficult to understand does not mean it lacks a reasonable explanation. There are things in the world of science (consider theoretical physics, for example) that are difficult to understand; but that doesn’t mean that they are unreasonable.
2. Context is important. Trying to understand a difficult passage in Scripture out of its context only makes the passage more difficult. An eyeball makes more sense in the context of a face; and likewise, Old Testament events and behaviors make more sense in the context of ancient Near East culture. God’s people did not live in a vacuum. And immediate context of a given narrative also matters. For example, when Nathan the prophet says to David, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel…and I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom’, it sounds as if God is advocating polygamy explicitly (see 2 Samuel 12). But once you realize Nathan is speaking with a tone of satire (one possible explanation), it changes one’s whole understanding of the passage. Monogamy was clearly advocated for by God “in the beginning” (see Genesis 2).
3. “Is” does not necessarily mean “ought”. Just because a given behavior is in the Old Testament does not mean that God condones it. Even the heroes screw up sometimes; thus it is necessary to make the distinctions between which acts are actually endorsed as morally upright versus which are not. Not every description is a prescription.
4. Familiar words may have unfamiliar definitions. The word “slave” is good example. A slave to the Hebrews was something like a live-in employee who worked to pay off debts to his employer. Slaves in this context were not treated like sub-human property as in other cases and cultures throughout history. Nonetheless, this distinction is commonly overlooked today, especially by Christianity’s critics. Paul Copan writes:
“When Christians and non-Christians read about slaves or slavery in Israel, they often think along the lines of antebellum slavery, with its slave trade and cruelties. This is a terrible misperception, and many — including the New Atheists — have bought into this misperception.”
Unlike the rest of the ancient Near East, the Mosaic Law allowed for injured slaves or “servants” to go free, prohibited the kidnapping of slaves, and commanded the Israelites to give safe harbour to runaway slaves.
5. The Mosaic Law is not intended to be permanent or universal. The law prescribed through Moses is what was most appropriate for the Israelites at that point in salvation history. The Old Covenant was not, however, intended to be permanent (see Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 16:59-63; Hos. 2:18). Yes, the Mosaic Law demanded tremendous self-discipline and obedience – a lot of it – but that’s precisely what they needed. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Verbum Domini, “God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them” [emphasis added].
But eventually the Mosaic Law is fulfilled in and through Christ, and parts of the Old Covenant law become invalidated, though “the just requirement of the law” remains (Romans 8:4). But God’s plan from the beginning is to redeem the world through the Israelites; so in the Law of Moses, God meets them where they’re at both culturally and morally. He prepares them for the coming of the Messiah slowly and methodically, and in a unique way. Fr. John Hardon, in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, writes:
“Compared with similar law in other nations of that time, the Mosaic code is vastly superior by reason of its strong monotheism, its proclamation of God as the only source and final sanction of all laws, and from its summation of the whole law in the love of God and of neighbor.”
Two books I highly recommend are Matthew Ramage’s Dark Passages Of The Bible and Paul Copan’s Is God A Moral Monster. Also keep an eye out for Trent Horn’s new book on Bible difficulties which is set to come out soon.