It says what! Making sense of impossibly difficult Bible passages…

Posted by on Aug 3, 2021 in Blog | 4 comments

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In my recent post On Being a Progressive Conservative, I mentioned that I had drawn the short straw on our preaching team and had to speak on some impossibly difficult Bible passages from Deut 19-26. Several of you asked what I landed up saying, and so I thought I would post the notes from the message. Actually it went surprisingly well, and many people said they found it helpful. Most commonly cited was the insight that when we read scripture we should pay more attention to the concern behind a passage than to its specific instruction. What to do (the instruction) is strongly impacted by the culture of the time, the concern of the passage much less so – and it is therefore the latter which keeps its timeless significance. Even if you read no more than this, perhaps the post has some value…

Here is what I said – and if you’d prefer to listen, here is the youtube link.

OK – it’s reasonable for you to ask what the preaching team was thinking about when we decided on a series from Deuteronomy. Last week Pete looked at Deut 13 which at a common sense reading seems to be encouraging religious violence – even against loved family members. And lest you think it was just Pete who drew the short straw, I got Deut 19-26. Now it is true, I could read these chapters and cherry pick a few inspiring passages and pretend that others are not there – but that would be to be dishonest to you and dishonest to the text – so I deliberately selected some passages from these 7 chapters that are easy to appreciate as well as some that are more than a little troubling.

And let me be upfront, some of the issues we speak about today are very confronting, and if you find that too hard and prefer to slip out, I won’t be offended – and I hope you realise that the reason I am dealing with them is because they are important and we have to think about the issues clearly. But if it is the wrong time for you, just slip out. 

I imagine that when we read about the cities of refuge in Deut 19 – an instruction intended to protect people who had inadvertently killed someone but faced “mob justice” – you appreciated the different context of that time and decided that the Bible is a book about fairness, realism and compassion. But that probably stopped when we got to Deut 22:28-29 with its teaching that if a man rapes a virgin he must marry her and never ever divorce her, or Deut 23:1-2 that those who have been castrated or born out of wedlock must be excluded from God’s people, and not only them but all the way on for 10 generations. “Oh my goodness”, you’re probably thinking. “Those poor children – how traumatising… and what a missiological stumbling block for contemporary Australia where about half of all children are born outside of marriage.” And there are other passages about when you should cut people’s hands off or stone them or  – well you can read Deut 19-26 for yourself.

The world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, was once speaking at a meeting and someone asked at the end: “Mr Dawkins, you have almost convinced me to be an atheist, but I feel I need to read a bit more about it before making a decision  – is there a book you would recommend I read.” Without hesitating for a second, Dawkins replied: “Yes, the Bible. If that doesn’t make you an atheist, nothing will.” It was an astonishing answer, especially as Christians so often recommend that people who don’t believe read the Bible. But if Dawkins was pushed further I imagine he would have said: “The trouble with Christians is that they read the Bible selectively. But it isn’t all the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Cor 13. Read Deut 19-26 and you will stop believing in a loving God.”

That’s a pretty sobering start. What are we to make of the impossibly difficult passages found in the Bible?

First – stop pretending they aren’t there. Denial achieves nothing other than to annoy those who know the passages that exist – even if you don’t or have closed your eyes to them. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said:

“…one of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you ever thought – and, of course, therefore a world that’s a bit more alarming than you ever thought. The test of true faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what is real.”

So the first thing to stop pretending is that there are no problems here. In fact, perhaps the first guidelines we need to give is to remember that the Bible is an adult book – but it is often taught to us when we are children. Now I am not saying that children shouldn’t be taught the Bible, but because we were introduced to some of its stories when we were very young, we don’t push back, and so don’t question as deeply as we should. For example, I was taught the story of Noah’s Ark when I was about 3 or 4. It covers the extermination of everyone and everything bar one family and two of every animal (7 pairs if it was classified a clean animal). Most 21st century listeners hear that and are profoundly uncomfortable – is the world really so neatly divided into goodies and a minute handful of goodies…. And what about the destruction of all the animals… don’t they matter? Yet I suspect many here today have not thought about those questions because we heard the story so many times as children that we now have little interest in it and don’t question it. But the Bible is an adult book and needs to be interrogated closely if we are to benefit from the profound goodness within it (and yes, I absolutely believe it is a book of profound goodness.)

How can we approach difficult passages?

  1. Focus on the concern, rather than the instruction

Specific instructions tend to be related to time and context, but the underlying concern is usually timeless. Let’s take this impossible passage about marrying the person you rape (Deut 22:28-29). Rape a virgin, and she is yours for life, or so it seems. OK, so forget about the instruction (and don’t let any literalist try to persuade you it remains valid today), and ask, “what is the concern behind the passage?” As always, context is important. Don’t read the passage with a 21st century lens. Imagine a world where people didn’t think about marriage in the romantic terms we do today. True, at times married people were in love, but that wasn’t considered especially relevant – at best it was a bonus, not a necessity. What mattered was that people were protected against poverty and starvation. This was always the number 1 concern. If a virgin was raped, she was considered unmarriageable (I’m not going to try and defend that, I’m just noting it). Rape therefore left you not just emotionally scarred, but financially desolate. And it is this second part that the passage tries to rectify. The passage is saying that if you rape someone, you are taking on the financial responsibility for your victims upkeep for the rest of your life and you cannot get out of it – divorce is never allowed (this at a time when divorce was easily obtained). Yours is the financial responsibility until your death – because a husband had to financially provide for his wives (and it was a day when polygamy was normal). So think very carefully about what you do – it will immediately hit you – you have to pay a bride price (50 shekels) and then maintenance for ever.

Now I am definitely not suggesting we salvage this passage or advocate what it teaches. It is a very early stage document and the focus is only on one part of the crisis caused by the rape – financial provision. But it is important we know that… and recognise that this very early document is saying, “you mess someone’s life up – you pay”. And whatever you think about the church redress scheme for victims of institutional sexual abuse – actually it is this very ancient principle that is being applied – though mercifully staying with your assailant has long been dropped from the formula. 

How do we know financial provision is the underlying concern in the passage? Well look at Deut 21:15-21 – when a man loves one of his wives more than another, but the less loved wife gives birth to his first son, romance is not allowed to cloud his judgement. He can’t transfer the benefits of the first born to the children of the wife he prefers. It is about economic order and stability and the inheritance laws of the time. The concern is fairness and everyone accepting their responsibilities. If you look at the concern rather than the instruction, you will realise that the underlying concern is picked up in today’s maintenance provisions for children of divorce. So what if you love someone more than your original wife and children, this passage says. You still have to make provision for them and don’t think you will be allowed to get out of that.

  1. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and be grateful we live in the 21st century.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow put forward his famous hierarchy of 5 levels of human needs – the most basic being physiological needs (food, water, air), followed by the need for security, then for love and belonging, then for the esteem of others, and finally the need for self actualisation. Maslow’s principle is simple – until your lower level needs are met you can’t focus on higher level needs. Bottom line, the privileged position we find ourselves in in the 21st century means we ask questions and make judgements at the higher levels of the hierarchy – it’s about becoming the best version of me and my self-actualization. The Bible was written at a time when physiological and security needs dominated – and many of its instructions reflect this. This doesn’t make the concern behind the text irrelevant – it is just that it works its way out differently. Rather than condemn an era when people found it hard to think beyond level1 concerns, thank God that we live at a time when we can pay attention to level 5 needs. Gratitude rather than judgement should be our prevailing sentiment.

  1. Remember, revelation in the Bible is progressive, and it is a Divine/ human dance

Also important to remember is that revelation in the Bible is progressive. What is more, the Bible is both a Divine and a human text. It validly depicts God’s interactions with humans – but that doesn’t mean that humans understand the God they encounter. They engage with the revelation they are able to receive at that time. A thesis – the Bible is the ongoing story of God struggling to convince humans that God really, really loves them!

Let’s tackle those tricky verses in Deut 23:1-2, and we’ll start with the offspring of forbidden marriages and the disputed meaning of “or of illegitimate birth” (included in some translations and not in others). It sounds very harsh that these children are to be excluded from the Lord’s assembly – and for 10 generations. But hold on – what about Jesus? Well, his birth was pretty contested. It might have been a virgin birth, but who believed that at the time? Most would have though that he was a child conceived before wedlock. It is no coincidence that in the incarnation God opts to identify with those impacted by Deut 23:2.

Church history also shows another side to this verse. The early Christians were noted for rescuing babies who had been abandoned – a tragically common practice in the ancient world. Why were children abandoned? many reasons can be given, but the most common was because their birth was considered dodgy or illegitimate. Rather than exclude, the early Christians went out of their way to rescue and save these “illegitimate” children. How did they reconcile this with Deut 23:2? If you asked I imagine they would look at you and say, “but the concern of the passage isn’t about excluding, it is about trying to make sure every child has the best possible chance in life by being born into a stable home. Yes, it puts it pretty extremely and even negatively, but the concern is for the good of all, and the more we journey on with God, the more we see that. But of course everyone matters to God – and especially these abandoned children we are rescuing”

Or what about the first verse, Deut 23:1? OK – sorry for talking about castration in a Sunday sermon – but one thing about Deuteronomy, it allows no gnosticism – no divide between things spiritual and things earthly. This verse says that those who have been “emasculated” must be excluded from the assembly of God. It seems especially cruel to those who had been the victim of castration – a relatively common practice in the ancient world, often applied to ensure there was no risk of a servant in the royal household sleeping with a princess or wayward queen. Surely the “emasculated” are victims – not villains. True, but remember that the likely concern behind the instruction is to prohibit castration as a practice amongst God’s people. The surrounding nations might be so cruel that they do that – but God’s people, never. Though it sounds as though the victim is responsible, actually the concern of the verse is to stop anyone being treated like this. 

And here’s the thing…

Read Isaiah 56:4-5:

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever.

Take that, Deuteronomy 23:1!

And there is more…

One of the first miraculous conversions in the New Testament is of the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Philip is divinely guided to him in the desert. The passage makes it clear that this is a God initiated encounter. Consider three key elements of this man’s identity. He was an Ethiopian – a Gentile. As an Ethiopian, he would have been a black person (not such an issue in his day, but in later centuries, a big issue). And he was a eunuch – in terms of Deut 23, someone to be excluded from the Assembly. This astonishing miracle takes place to dramatically underline that we have got who is in and who is out all muddled. Actually, God loves this castrated, black, gentile so much that God ensures he is perhaps the first gentile convert to Christianity.

Do you see how differently the church is defined?

This is not accidental. It is God saying emphatically, “you didn’t quite get it the first time around. You didn’t factor in how deeply I am love. This man is not excluded but is especially invited in – especially welcome.” Well, Deut 23:1 – take that! Does that mean Deut 23 was wrong – no, it was meant to stop castration as a practice… but we didn’t get it quite right the first time around so it has to be expressed differently in later passages. And the trajectory of the Bible is always to remind us that God’s love is greater than we first imagined. God’s love is greater!

  1. The original sin in the Bible is about wanting to do ethics alone and apart from God

You say – oh, this is impossibly difficult. How can I decide what to take literally, and what not?

A closing thought. The original sin in the Bible is eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why was that wrong? Because eating from that tree, the early humans thought, would make them like God and remove their need for God.

They were mistaken at two levels. First, they were already like God – made in God’s image and likeness and so – like God. But second – and more importantly, they wanted to journey alone, so competent that God was surplus to their requirements.

It remains our temptation to want to decide everything on our own. The Bible is the Spirits book. Try to read it outside of listening to the Spirit – and you can do harm. Listen to the Spirit, and if you do – you will see that the Bible is about our understanding of God – and about our desperately slow realisation that God is love, and that God’s love soars above any and every human problem. No exceptions…

Well, what do you think?

As always, nice chatting…


  1. As always, great reading. Thanks, Brian. I like your approach and have done a similar thing when I preached three sermons on marriage last year. I don’t have your theological rigour (I’m trained as an economist, not a theologian), but I encourage my congregation to use what I call the CPA method of Bible study – context, principle, application. I find this a safe way to read the Bible. Thanks again, Brian.

    • Thanks Rod. CPA, a very helpful method.

  2. So wonderfully explained, thanks, Brian… I really appreciate this info!


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