Question: How can one approach reconciling confusing, seemingly disturbing, or otherwise troubling texts from the scriptures?

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Question: How can one approach reconciling confusing, seemingly disturbing, or otherwise troubling texts from the scriptures?

Read it in context

The scriptures contain a lot that we cannot understand at first without a lot of context. Biblical scholars have, for many decades, been trying to understand the original context of each of the Bible’s pericopes in order to understand God’s will with each verse. We advise readers to see this article in order to understand context. Once read in context, many passages that seem confusing now can be clarified with additional insights that highlight symbology, progress compared to contemporary civilizations, etc.

Read it holistically

When one can read the scriptures holistically, that is, noting everything that they have to say on a certain topic, the theology can make greater sense and one can know all that God has currently revealed on any given topic.

The “Is-Ought” fallacy

It should be noted and remembered that just because something is described that such behavior may not always be prescribed. Readers should be careful to read the scriptures with this in mind. Just because the scriptures record something that is strange, offensive, or repulsive, does not mean that the scriptures are stating that someone ought to act similarly. It has been pointed out that some things are just negative examples to not follow (1 Cor 10:1-12).

Adopt a solid hermeneutic

The bible has been read many ways by scholars over a long period of time. Hermeneutics are the general frameworks that people read the scriptures with in order to process information from it. Some readers process the bible very literally, historically accurate, always morally sound, etc. Others read the scriptures as interesting literature only and don’t have very set beliefs on anything regarding revelation and how it works. For our purposes, we will suggest one hermeneutic to read the scriptures (and the bible in particular). This we will do by looking at modern revelation and combining the views of two scholars of the bible: Paul Copan and Kenton Sparks. The two men actually hold views that are close to each other, yet Sparks stands a part from Copan in that—where Copan affirms that God was behind the inspiration of these less-than-ideal laws, Sparks sees no way to provide a “full-orbed, detailed explanation” to trace things back to God[1] However both men affirm that the Old Testament contains less than ideal circumstances and that scripture does have a redemptive move to it. The author would agree with both men in that the Old Testament does move beyond its morally inferior context in sometimes startling ways, but that because they are less than ideal, they can stand in need of redemption—of Christ’s redeeming power. First, modern revelation. We suggest readers see our discussion of the nature of revelation here.

Paul Copan on incremental steps for hardened hearts

The Law of Moses: Inferior and Provisional

On Palm Sunday in 1865, the brilliant Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to the tenacious, gritty Northern general Ulysses S. Grant—sometimes called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. This day at the Appomattox Court House was the decisive end to a costly war. Well over six hundred thousand men were killed in the Civil War—2 percent of the United States’ population—and three million fought in it.

Despite the North’s victory, the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded it (January 1, 1863), and the attempt at Reconstruction in the South, many whites did not change their mind-set in regard to blacks. As a nation, we’ve found that proclamations and civil rights legislations may be law, but such legalities don’t eradicate racial prejudice from human minds. A good deal of time was required to make significant headway in the pursuit of racial justice.

Let’s switch gears. Imagine a Western nation or representatives from the West who think it best to export democracy to, say, Saudi Arabia. Think of the obstacles to overcome! A radical change of mind-set would be required, and simply changing laws wouldn’t alter the thinking in Saudi Arabia. In fact, you could probably imagine large-scale cultural opposition to such changes. When we journey back over the millennia into the ancient Near East, we enter a world that is foreign to us in many ways. Life in the ancient Near East wouldn’t just be alien to us—with all of its strange ways and assumptions. We would also see a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall. Within this context, God raised up a covenant nation and gave the people laws to live by; he helped to create a culture for them. In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures. As we’ll see with regard to servitude, punishments, and other structures, a range of regulations and statutes in Israel reveals a God who accommodates. Yet contrary to the common Neo-atheists’ caricatures, these laws weren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all persons everywhere. God informed his people that a new, enduring covenant would be necessary (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). By the Old Testament’s own admission, the Mosaic law was inferior and future looking. Does that mean that God’s ideals turn up only in the New Testament? No, the ideals are established at the very beginning (Gen. 1–2). The Old Testament makes clear that all humans are God’s image-bearers; they have dignity, worth, and moral responsibility. And God’s ideal for marriage is a one-flesh monogamous union between husband and wife. Also, certain prohibitions in the law of Moses against theft, adultery, murder, and idolatry have enduring relevance. Yet when we look at God’s dealings with fallen humans in the ancient Near East, these ideals were ignored and even deeply distorted. So God was at work in seeking to restore or move toward this ideal.

We know that many products on the market have a built-in, planned obsolescence. They’re designed for the short-term; they’re not intended to be long-lasting and permanent. The same goes for the law of Moses: it was never intended to be enduring. It looked forward to a new covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). It’s not that the Mosaic law was bad and therefore needed to be replaced. The law was good (Rom. 7:12), but it was a temporary measure that was less than was less than ideal; it was in need of replacement and fulfillment.

Though a necessary part of God’s unfolding plan, the Sinai legislation wasn’t God’s final word. As the biblical scholar N. T. Wright affirms, “The Torah [law of Moses at Sinai] is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside—not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished.”[2] This is the message of the New Testament book of Hebrews: the old Mosaic law and other Old Testament institutions and figures like Moses and Joshua were prefiguring “shadows” that would give way to “substance” and completion. Or as Paul put it in Galatians 3:24, the law was a “tutor” for Israel to prepare the way for Christ.

Incremental Steps toward the Ideal

How then did God address the patriarchal structures, primogeniture (rights of the firstborn), polygamy, warfare, servitude/slavery, and a number of other fallen social arrangements that were permitted because of the hardness of human hearts? He met Israel partway. As Jesus stated it in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” We could apply this passage to many problematic structures within the ancient Near Eastern context: “Because of your hardness of “heart Moses permitted servitude and patriarchy and warfare and the like, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” They were not ideal and universal.

After God invited all Israelites—male and female, young and old—to be a nation of priests to God, he gave them a simple covenant code (Exod. 20:22– 23:19). Following on the heels of this legislation, Israel rebelled against God in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32). High priests would also have their own rebellion by participating in deviant, idolatrous worship (Lev. 10). As a result of Israel’s turning from God, he gave them more stringent laws (Jer. 7; cf. Gal. 3:19). In the New Testament, Paul assumes that God had been putting up with inferior, less-than-ideal societal structures and human disobedience:

• Acts 17:30: Previously, God “overlooked the times of ignorance” and is “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.”

• Romans 3:25: God has now “demonstrate[d] His righteousness” in Christ, though “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”

Like two sides of the same coin, we have human hard-heartedness and divine forbearance. God put up with many aspects of human fallenness and adjusted accordingly. So Christopher Hitchens’s reaction to Mosaic laws (“we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals”) actually points us in the right direction in two ways. First, the Mosaic law was temporary and, as a whole, isn’t universal and binding upon all humans or all cultures. Second, Mosaic times were indeed “crude” and “uncultured” in many ways. So Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions. God “works with” Israel as he finds her. He meets his people where they are while seeking to show them a higher ideal in the context of ancient Near Eastern life. As one writer puts it, “If human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the ‘better way’ must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.”[3] Given certain fixed assumptions in the ancient Near East, God didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for. He moved incrementally. As stated repeatedly in the Old Testament and reinforced in the New Testament, the law of Moses was far from ideal. Being the practical God he is, Yahweh (the Old Testament title for the covenant-making God) met his people where they were, but he didn’t want to leave them there. God didn’t banish all fallen, flawed, ingrained social structures when Israel wasn’t ready to handle the ideals. Taking into account the actual, God encoded more feasible laws, though he directed his people toward moral improvement. He condescended by giving Israel a jumping-off place, pointing them to a better path.

As we move through the Scriptures, we witness a moral advance—or, in many ways, a movement toward restoring the Genesis ideals. In fact, Israel’s laws reveal dramatic moral improvements over the practices of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s act of incrementally “humanizing” ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.[4]

So when we read in Joshua 10:22–27 that Joshua killed five Canaanite kings and hung their corpses on trees all day, we don’t have to explain away or justify such a practice. Such actions reflect a less morally refined condition. Yet these sorts of texts remind us that, in the unfolding of his purposes, God can use heroes such as Joshua within their context and work out his redemptive purposes despite them. And, as we’ll see later on, warfare accounts in Joshua are actually quite tame in comparison to the barbarity of other ancient Near Eastern accounts.

So rather than looking at Scripture from a post-Enlightenment critique (which, as we’ll see later, is itself rooted in the Christian influence on Western culture), we can observe that Scripture itself acknowledges the inferiority of certain Old Testament standards. The Old Testament offers national Israel various resources to guide them regarding what is morally ideal. God’s legislation is given to a less morally mature culture that has imbibed the morally inferior attitudes and sinful practices of the ancient Near East.

Note too that common ancient Near Eastern worship patterns and rituals—sacrifices, priesthood, holy mountains/places, festivals, purification rites, circumcision—are found in the law of Moses. For example, we find in Hittite law a sheep being substituted for a man.[5] In his providence, God appropriated certain symbols and rituals familiar to Israel and infused them with new meaning and significance in light of his saving, historical acts and his covenant relationship with Israel. [6] This “redemption” of ancient rituals and patterns and their incorporation into Israel’s own story reflect common human longings to connect with “the sacred” or “the transcendent” or to find grace and forgiveness. In God’s historical redemption of Israel and later with the coming of Christ, the Lamb of God, these kinds of rituals and symbols were fulfilled in history and were put in proper perspective. Instead of glossing over some of the inferior moral attitudes and practices we encounter in the Old Testament, we should freely acknowledge them. We can point out that they fall short of the ideals of Genesis 1–2 and affirm with our critics that we don’t have to advocate such practices for all societies. We can also show that any of the objectionable practices we find in the Old Testament have a contrary witness in the Old Testament as well.[7]

The Redemptive Movement of Scripture

The Old Testament’s laws exhibit a redemptive movement within Scripture. It’s easy to get stuck on this or that isolated verse—all the while failing to see the underlying redemptive spirit and movement of Scripture that unfold and progress. For example, William Webb’s book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals[8] unpacks this “redemptive-movement” perspective found in Scripture. The contrast is the static interpretation that rigidly “parks” at certain texts without considering the larger movement of Scripture. Some people might ask, “Is this some sort of relativistic idea—that certain laws were right for Old Testament Israel but now there’s another standard that’s right for us?” Not at all! Keep in mind the following thoughts we’ve already touched on:

• God’s ultimate ideals regarding human equality and dignity as well as the creational standard of marriage made their appearance at the very beginning (Gen. 1–2).

• The ancient Near East displays a deviation from these ideals in fallen social structures and human hard-heartedness.

• Incremental steps are given to Old Testament Israel that tolerate certain moral deficiencies but encourage Israel to strive higher.

So the Old Testament isn’t affirming relativism—that was true in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament. God’s ideals were already in place at creation, but God accommodated himself to human hard-heartedness and fallen social structures. Half a loaf is better than none—something we take for granted in the give-and-take of the political process in the West. In other words, the idea that you can make progress toward the ideal, even if you can’t get there all at once, is a far cry from relativism. Rather, your eye is still set on the ideal, and you’re incrementally moving toward it, but the practicalities of life “on the ground” make it difficult to implement the ideal all at once. Likewise, the Sinai laws were moving in the right direction even if certain setbacks remained.


Israel’s History: Differing Stages, Different Demands

Israel’s story involves a number of stages or contexts.[9]

Stage #1: Ancestral wandering clan (mishpachah): Genesis 10:31–32

Stage #2: Theocratic people/nation (‘am, goy): Genesis 12:2; Exodus 1:9; 3:7; Judges 2:20

Stage #3: Monarchy, institutional state, or kingdom (mamlakah, malkut): 1 Samuel 24:20; 1 Chronicles 28:5

Stage #4: Afflicted remnant (she’erit): Jeremiah 42:4; Ezekiel 5:10

Stage #5: Postexilic community/assembly of promise (qahal): Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 13:1

With these differing contexts come differing ethical demands. Each new situation calls for differing ethical responses or obligations corresponding to them. Don’t get the wrong idea, however. It’s not as though this view advocates “situation ethics”—that in some situations, say, adultery is wrong, but in other situations it might be the "loving thing to do". Rather, the Old Testament supplies us with plenty of permanent moral insights from each of these stages. So during the wandering clan stage, we gain enduring insights about commitments of mutual love and concern as well as the importance of reconciliation in overcoming conflict. The patriarchs trusted in a covenant-making God; this God called for full trust as he guided them through difficult, unforeseeable circumstances. And during Israel’s theocratic stage, an enduring insight is the need to acknowledge that all blessings and prosperity come from God’s hand—that they aren’t a right but a gift of grace. The proper response is gratitude and living holy lives in keeping with Israel’s calling.

Again, what we’re emphasizing is far from moral relativism; it’s just that along with these historical changes came differing ethical challenges. During the wandering clan stage, for instance, Abraham and the other patriarchs had only accidental or exceptional political involvements. And even when Abraham had to rescue Lot after a raid (Gen. 14), he refused to profit from political benefactors. Through a covenant-bond, Yahweh was the vulnerable patriarchs’ protector and supplier. After this, Israel had to wait 430 years and undergo bondage in Egypt until the bag of Amorite sins was filled to the point of bursting (Gen. 15:16). God certainly didn’t act hastily against the Canaanites! God delivered Israel out of slavery, providing a place for her to live and making her a political entity, a history-making nation. A theocracy was then formed with its own religious, social, and political environment.

To acquire land to live as a theocracy and eventually to pave the way for a coming Redeemer-Messiah, warfare (as a form of judgment on fully ripened sin) was involved. God used Israel to neutralize Canaanite military strongholds and drive out a people who were morally and spiritually corrupt—beyond redemption. The Canaanites had sunk below the hope of moral return, although God wouldn’t turn away those who recognized God’s justice and his power in delivering Israel from Egypt (such as Rahab and her family). This settling of the land was a situation quite different from the wandering clan stage, and it required a different response.

Later, when many of God’s people were exiled in Babylon, they were required to handle this situation differently than in the previous theocratic stage. They were to build gardens, settle down, have children, and pray for the welfare of Babylon—the very enemy that had displaced them by carrying them into exile (Jer. 29:4–7). Israel’s obligations and relationship to Gentile nations hardly remained fixed or static.[10]

Kenton Sparks on recognizing that scripture is in need of redemption and not immune from criticism

What we face, I think, is the ethical difficulty I mentioned earlier in passing: the problem of scripture is the problem of evil. Just as God's good and beautiful creation stands in need of redemption, so

Scripture -as God's word written within and in relation to that creation, by finite and fallen humans -stands in need of redemption. Scripture does more than witness explicitly to the fallenness of the created order and humanity. Scripture is implicitly, in itself, a product of and evidence for the fallen world that it describes.


Given what we have said so far, I would join other scholars in suggesting that a robust doctrine of Scripture should not presume that the text is immune from criticism."[11] [...]

Both humanity and Scripture are God's good works and serve a role in his redemptive work. And though this is true, both are marred by the effects of the Fall. The presence in Scripture of this distortion no more compromises its status as God's word than the distortion in humanity compromises its status as God's creation. The Fall's effect on humanity and Scripture remind us that both stand in need of redemption. In each case, we must render thoughtful judgments about where they are rightly ordered and where they reflect the Fall's disordering effects. When we make these judgments about Scripture, true, we follow the admonition of Augustine, who long ago taught that:

Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred either to good, honest morals, or to the truth of the faith, you must know is said allegorically.... Those things ... which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly allegorical, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity.[12]
While I do not fully agree with Augustine's allegorical solution, I very much agree with his sense of the problem. Scripture's natural meaning sometimes runs contrary to the Gospel and, where it does, begs for a hermeneutical explanation. Unlike Augustine, I would attribute these theological tensions to the fact that the Bible is both sacred and broken, which reflects God's choice to sanctify the broken, human voices of Scripture as his divine word.[13][14]

It should be mentioned that "broken" in Sparks' view is labeling what he sees as the identification of things in scripture that absolutely cannot be traced back to God in any sense. The author does agree with Sparks that it is not immune from criticism. "Broken" to the author of this article is seen better as recognizing the following that makes up the suggested hermeneutic:

  1. A fallen world, morally inferior context in which certain laws are given.
  2. Laws that rise above the fallen and morally inferior context (and with it a need to read the scriptures contextually and holistically).
  3. A redemptive move from inferior to better moral law with differing historical contexts that called for differing needs.
  4. Because of less-than-ideal laws, a need for redemption and fulfillment in Christ. Also, since less then ideal, the laws don't remain entirely immune from criticism. Though they do deserve our careful attention including a contextual reading that helps us how they fulfill #2.
  5. Christ’s atonement that covered the sins of all of fallen mankind.

It’s the author’s belief that this hermeneutic shouldn’t be troubling to Latter-day Saints who have traditionally understood the law of Moses to be a “lesser” law. This understanding may deepen with continued study of the scriptures and the moral questions associated with some confusing (and sometimes very troubling if not properly understood) passages.


  1. Sparks, Kenton “Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI 2012) Ebook loc 524 of 2260
  2. N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 181
  3. Alden Thompson, Who's Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 33.
  4. Ibid., 32
  5. Hittite Laws 167. See Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997)
  6. See Allen P. Ross, Holiness to the Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006)
  7. Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 43.
  8. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001)
  9. This section is slightly adapted from chapter 3 in John Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 245.
  10. Paul Copan Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI 2011) Ebook 91-108
  11. My phrase "immune from criticism" is taken from Francis Watson Text, Church, and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 173-87, 231. For similar sentiments, see Ellen F. Davis, "Critical Traditioning: Seeking an Innter Biblical Heremeneutic," in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. E.F. Davis and R.B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 163-80; Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance (London: SCM Press, 1994), 114-15; I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004); Eric A. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis Fortress, 2009); Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, 35. Perhaps, too, Walther Moberly, "What is Theological Interpretation of Scripture?" JTI 3 (2009): 161-78
  12. On Christian Doctrine, 3.10, 12 (NPNF1 2.560-62
  13. By saying Scripture is "broken," I do not mean to suggest that it "does not work" or "cannot serve its purpose." Rather, I mean that Scripture, like everything created by God but touched by the Fall, is at the same time both beautiful and in need of repair. Nothing claimed here is in tension with "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). John's words are not a denial of sin's effect on Scripture. Rather, they merely restate the Jewish assumption that Scripture "always remains in force." See Barnabas Lindars, The Gospel of John (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 374.
  14. Sparks, “Sacred Word, Broken Word” Ch. 6