Better Bible Study Tip #52: Sometimes The Bible Means Exactly What It Says

Sometimes the Bible says hard things that can make us uncomfortable. For example, many modern Bible readers find it troubling when they read that God would command Joshua to completely annihilate entire populations in Canaanite cites (Josh. 6:15-21). There is often a tendency among Bible students to look for interpretations that make what the Bible says more acceptable and more reasonable in our minds.

One one hand, it is true that sometimes we really do misunderstand the intent of certain passages. For example, if I wasn’t aware that God shown the Canaanites patience for over 400 years (Gen 15.16), that passage in Joshua would probably trouble me more more than it does. And if I read the annihilation command in Joshua 6, without considering the context where God had just spared a Canaanite family for their faith (Josh. 2), the annihilation command would probably sound more like genocide than an act of judgment on wicked people who refused to repent.

When we encounter difficult passages, it’s one thing to closely examine those passages to make sure we are correctly understanding the true intent of the author. But it’s another thing entirely to try to reinterpret a passage to say something it doesn’t intend to say. That’s dishonest.

When we read that God created the earth in six days (Gen 1), we might find that hard to believe. But we need to wrestle with it. We need to ask if that’s actually what the author was trying to say. And if it is, that’s what we need to believe.

When we read about a world wide flood that covered the whole earth (Gen 6-8), we shouldn’t be embarrassed by a story that many would find unbelievable. We need to try to understand the true intent of the author.

When we read about giants in the Old Testament (Num. 13:32-33; Deut. 2-3), we need to avoid the temptation to try to explain it away. If we believe that the Bible contains God-breathed scriptures, that means that God produced scripture how he wanted it, not how we wish it were. That means God really did intend for there to be giants described in the Old Testament. We need to wrestle with that.

When Jesus says “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39), we shouldn’t try to water down his command so that we can respond to evil in a way that seems better to us. Rather, we need to be asking “Did Jesus actually mean what it looks like he meant?” And if that’s actually what Jesus meant, we need to follow it, even if it seems foolish or nonsensical to us.

There are few teachings in scripture as challenging as Jesus’s teachings about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. It’s one thing to read “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marriages a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt. 5.32), and to ask “Am I understanding Jesus correctly here? Did he really intend for us to apply this scripture in the way I think it needs to be applied?” But it’s another thing entirely to simply ignore or disagree with this scripture simply because we don’t like what it says.

There are few verses in the Bible that shock modern values like 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quite.” Sure, we need to closely examine the context. Sure, we need to make sure we are reading the scripture in a way that harmonizes with the rest of the New Testament. But what if Paul actually meant what he said?

When the content of the Bible seems embarrassing, troublesome, or offensive, we need to ask why. It might be that we are misunderstanding the true intent of the text. But it might be that the Bible troubles us is because we are the ones who have the incorrect worldview. After all, every culture has it’s own unique values, including our own. If the Creator has the authority to critique all cultures, including our own, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the Bible shocks us every now and then. Sometimes the Bible means exactly what it says. Sometimes the Bible shocks us because that’s what it is designed to do.

For better Bible study, let the Bible be what it is. Don’t try to change or ignore it. Rather, try to understand it on it’s own terms.