Many people find the Bible intimidating. Some come to it certain they won’t agree with all they find. Others are turned off by the sheer size of the good book.
But for many, their difficulty isn’t about objection or being overwhelmed. It is often nervous pride that they will not understand what the text is teaching. Even with all the resources available, some stories still leave seasoned Bible teachers hoping few questions are asked.
Before we look at specific stories that have left scholars debating, we should first look at why certain texts are difficult. In my experience, texts can be difficult for a variety of reasons, such as cultural context, unfamiliar phraseology, or traditions which have been forgotten. The most challenging stories present difficulties in one of three areas: (1) the story triggers those who have survived a related trauma, (2) the story makes people question the character of God, (3) the story is simply hard to interpret.
When tackling difficult tales from the Bible, always remember that as God’s word, Scripture speaks intentionally through what it says as well as what it doesn’t say (Desiring God). What stories tell us, and what they don’t, communicates to us what God desires for us to meditate on and learn from. Trust in His wisdom.
When you encounter problems in Scripture, or tales like these that are hard to swallow, resist the urge to sweep them under the rug. There are often unlikely gems hidden in such places.
Remember, the purpose of Scripture is to teach us about our God’s character, to know him, and to learn about his great plan from beginning to end. Keep this in mind as you read through these five difficult Bible stories.
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Stories that Awaken Memories of Trauma
The Rape of Dinah
Although the telling of this story is straightforward, what makes it hard is the subject matter. It’s a tale of violation, vengeance, and tribal vendettas. All teachers of the Bible must be aware of the needs of the audience, and they must be sensitive to the stories that may trigger victims of trauma.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports, “In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.” This doesn’t mean we don’t teach these stories that may awaken emotional responses in those listening to our teaching, but we compassionately warn them that the content we are covering contains sexual assault, abuse, and graphic violence. We also make sure to have qualified people available afterwards to pray with them, or provide wise counsel.
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Stories that Tempt us to Question God’s Character
The Suffering of Job
This wisdom literature leaves the listener wondering, “If God is more powerful, WHY did he allow this?” It forces us to deal with the sovereignty of God in uncomfortable ways. We watch Job suffer knowing God had a part in it all. Like Job’s friends, we desperately search for a reason why Job deserves such torment.
At its conclusion, we see God mercifully remind Job of His character, power, and infinite ability to restore, doubling all that was lost.
The book of Job clearly illustrates that Satan, or the accuser, has no power over Job unless God allows it. More importantly, the enemy has no power over God, only delegated authority. Job is difficult because it demands we develop a theology of suffering while holding it in dynamic tension with the ‘why’ behind the suffering. No small task for even a seasoned teacher of Scripture.
Timothy Mackie suggests, “There may be evil and suffering in God’s good world that from one perspective may seem needless, tragic, and unjust. But, from a wider vantage point, there may be a vast network of factors that make the same tragedy fit into a larger cause-effect pattern that brings about the saving of many lives. It’s impossible for any human to know such things or have such a perspective. This means all of our claims to evaluate God’s rule over human history are always limited, and will therefore fall short.”
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When God Is Angry at Balaam
Balaam is well-known for having the talking donkey, which is a quirky and supernatural passage to teach on, but just a couple verses previous we see a difficult quandary. Balaam had been pressured again and again to go to Moab by Balak but refused to go until the Lord had given permission. Balaam repeatedly made it clear he would only do what God had wanted him to do, but once we see permission granted, the Lord was also angry that Balaam went.
Wait, what? Balaam waited for the okay, didn’t he? Then the angel of the Lord showed up with his sword unsheathed, scared the donkey, and we get the only indication for what Balaam possibly did wrong to incite the anger of God in verse 32, “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.”
God cares about the state of hearts. Even if Balaam’s actions were in line, it could have been that his heart was not, and that may have been enough for God to supernaturally open up communication between man, beast, and the divine. This is an educated guess, but still a guess. We can’t be fully sure why anger was kindled when there had been license to go, but we do know that the Lord was not the one who changed. Balaam himself stated in the very next chapter that, “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?” (Numbers 23:19)
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Jephthah and His Daughter
This one is a doozy! The end of this nightmarish tale leaves us wondering if Jephthah did the wrong or right thing. It doesn’t feel clear. We read it and wait for God to stay Jephthah’s hand as he did Abraham’s, but she receives no quarter. Internally we might scream at the story, “Where is God! The humans are messing everything up again!”
When this story is taught, teachers often land on the lesson of, “don’t make hasty vows.” Which is solid advice, but also leaves the listeners wanting and asking, “Was what Jephthah did right?” Seems wrong, but we are not explicitly told it was in the story; does that mean if I make a rash vow to God, I have to keep it? Jephthah negotiated with foreign powers and when facing the Ammonites, he made a vow to God in the hopes of guaranteeing his success and calm his fear of the unknown. God is not at the mercy of our vows and is not seen responding to Jephthah at all. It can’t be overlooked however that Jephthah’s name appears in Hebrews 11:32-34 as one of those whose faith in God yielded massive military wins.
Ultimately, the Bible as a whole points to Jephthah’s actions as wrong. God was clear with the Israelites that he does not want worship in the form of human sacrifice, and this is the strongest ground to stand on when taking the position that what Jephthah did was wrong.
When the Israelites were about to enter the promised land in Deuteronomy 12:30-31, Moses told the people to be careful not to adopt the ways of foreign worship, “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”Substantial text that points to the Lord hating the practices of child sacrifice, revealing what Jephthah failed to take to heart.
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Stories That Are Hard to Interpret
The Book of Revelation
This book is one story that begins with John being swept into a vision that we can only make educated guesses about. We can interpret the letters to the churches and learn from the faults God saw in them. We can see clearly the victory of Christ over the Antichrist and Satan. We can rest in the joy that awaits believers when the old world is gone and the new perfect world has come, but we struggle to know the exact hows, whats, or predict when (and we are not supposed to).
Passages like Revelation 12:13-17 are poetic in their imagery (a woman and child, a dragon, eagle’s wings, a torrent of water), and have archetypes we know point to Christ, but being able to identify every symbol accurately is outside of human ability:
The good news is that God gave us this book so that when the time does come, we will not be caught unaware. When the days prophesied about in Revelation unfold, this book will make a whole lot more sense. Until then, we receive the hope it promises without knowing all the details of how the Glory of God will conquer all.
Chara Donahue is a co-author of the Bible study 1, 2 & 3 John: Experiencing Transformation and is working on her next book. She enjoys serving as a biblical counselor, speaking to women, and savoring coffee when her four kids are out playing with dad. She holds an MSEd from Corban University, is passionate about seeing people set free through God's truths, and is the founder and editor of Anchored Voices. Get in touch with her on Facebook or Twitter.
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Originally published Wednesday, 18 September 2019.