Dealing with Difficult passages
The bible contains a variety of material that is arranged in a narrative. At times the writer is drawing a scene and inviting the reader to join them in an understanding of the wonder and rightness of the scene. In other cases, the writer draws a scene with a fair amount of tongue in cheek or even sarcasm. Finally we also find passages that are difficult to interpret - was that practice to do with the culture of the time?
Lets have a look at some examples of passages that are difficult to interpret:
a) 1Tim 2:9-15
Paul clearly indicates how women are to behave in the church: they are to be clothed modestly, be quiet and submissive and to not teach. What is your reaction to these instructions? Frankly they don't fit well with our modern perspective or our cultural mores in regards equality of the sexes. What are we to do with this passage - ignore it because it doesn't fit our culture? But we know that our culture is not as enlightened as it could be. Do we say that these things are local to the time and context that Paul was writing to? It is fairly clear that Paul frequently worked with women in ministry. Romans 16:1ff lists a number of women ministers in positions of authority in the Pauline churches.
b) 1Kings 22:4-18
Here we have a situation where God is implicated in a scam. The text is very clear that (1K 22:19-23) God was instigating the direction to Ahab and Jehoshaphat. The prophets were truly speaking the message from God to the kings. So who were the good guys and who were the bad guys?
A key for interpreting this passage is the question: "Who did the kings believe and why?" Clearly there was something - perhaps in terms of reputation that distinguished Micaiah from the other prophets. Clearly the true message was available from him.
One of the key reasons that this passage is so difficult is that it projects an understanding of God and prophecy that just doesn't fit our current understanding. So how do we interpret it and how is it authoritative as the bible should be?
c) Ps 137:7-9
What is your reaction? The thought of killing innocent babies in such a callous manner horrifies us. Is this an invitation to commit infanticide on Iraq? Why?
d) Jud 19:20-30
What is your reaction? There are so many things in this story that cause a reaction: the attitude of the old man to his daughter, the attitude of the Gibeans to the Levite and the attitude of the Levite to his concubine. Is this story something to be emulated? Surely if it is the word of God...?
e) Jn 7:53-8:11
What is your reaction? There are people in this story that reflect us at times and are not to be emulated. The crowd was a self righteous mob responding to an attack on their moral position. There was the adulteress who reflects us when we are on the other side of the moral proposition and there was Jesus indicates the path we should take.
You should now have a feeling for the distinction I am attempting to draw. There are things in the biblical text that are there to demonstrate an important point, they are placed there as an example and we are supposed to emulate that example. However the example may be portrayed in the trappings of the culture of the time and if we interpret it literally we miss the point. Was Paul in 1Timothy 2, really indicating that church should be carried out in a manner that would be seemly in the culture in which it existed?
There are things that are limited to the time they addressed. I don't expect that the Christian church will return to a full sacrificial system. However the Old Testament sacrificial system has many insights to offer into our current covenant.
There are some portions of the bible that are meant to be normative i.e. they define what we are supposed to do - a fairly literal interpretation. The great commission remains a key visionary statement that defines an important part of the mission, ministry and purpose of the church. We are meant to go out and make disciples.
There are other portions that are descriptive. They may be cultural or even educational. However it is the lessons learned that are meant to define our actions rather than the text itself.
Finally there are things that are offered to the reader so that the reader can share in the horror that the writer is experiencing. A good example is the passage from Judges.