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Pope Benedict on the “Dark Passages” of Scripture

Filed under The Bible


There are certain Bible passages, particularly in the Old Testament, that are disturbing. The question of how these are to be interpreted has been with us for a long time, and apologists and Bible scholars--not to mention Church Fathers and theologians--have made many suggestions.

A while back, former Pope Benedict provided some guidance. Here's what he had to say . . .


Verbum Domini

The document in which he made his remarks is titled Verbum Domini, which is Latin for "The Word of the Lord."

It was prepared as an exhortation following the 2008 meeting of the Synod of Bishops, a select group of Catholic bishops from all over the world who meet periodically to discuss particular issues.

In 2008 their topic was the word of God in the life and mission of the Church, and as is customary following such synods, the pope prepared a concluding document offering his perspective on the results of the meeting and how it can benefit the Church.


God's Plan Unfolds in Stages

In referring to the "dark passages" of Scripture, he began by saying:

42. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult.

Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history.

God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.

In other words, when reading the Bible we must bear in mind the particular stage of God's plan that a passage deals with. We cannot simply take a passage at random and claim that it is a direct expression of God's will for all ages or for our own.

This is what Pope Benedict means when he stresses (the italics are in the original) that biblical revelation "is deeply rooted in history" and that God's plan "is manifested progressively . . . in successive stages."


Man Resists God's Plan

Pope Benedict also notes that God's plan is accomplished "despite human resistance."

In other words, men resist God's plan, and this has left traces in Scripture as well. Therefore, if we read a passage in the Bible that is disturbing, it may be a result of man's resistance to God, not an expression of God's ultimate will.

As we will see in coming posts, there were a variety of practices in the Old Testament that we would regard today with horror, and the Law that God gives the Israelites is meant to regulate and mitigate these practices--to limit their harmful effects.

They aren't what God ultimately wants, but for the moment he is willing to try to regulate and limit the damage men are doing.

Why would he do this?


God's Plan in Outline

The reason concerns the basic outline of God's plan. Pope Benedict explains:

God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them.

In other words, he chose the Hebrew people at a particular stage in their cultural and moral development and met them where they were at.

He did not demand of them instant conformity to the fullness of his will. He didn't ask them to be perfect overnight.

Instead, he was willing to tolerate some of the things they were determined to do, though the hardness of their hearts, and over the course of time educate them to a higher level of understanding and acceptance of his will.

At first, he was trying to simply limit the damage done by some of their practices.


Jesus Gives an Example

Jesus himself gives us an example of this in the Gospels, when he is asked about divorce.

At the time, Jewish Law permitted a man to give his wife a written bill of divorce, send her off (i.e., "put her away"), and then he could marry someone else. Here is what happened:

Mark 10

[2] And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

[3] He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"

[4] They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away."

[5] But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.

[6] But from the beginning of creation, `God made them male and female.'

[7] `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,

[8] and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh.

[9] What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

Jesus thus teaches that lifelong monogamy was God's intention for marriage. Nevertheless, because of the hardness of the Israelites' hearts--the fact that they were determined to divorce their wives and marry other women--God was willing to tolerate this practice for a time.

But he regulated it. He insisted that a man arrange for his wife to have a written bill of divorce. This meant that a simple, verbal repudiation of one's spouse did not constitute a divorce.

There were not to be offhanded remarks--or ambiguous offhanded remarks--that would be read as legal divorces. What a nightmare that would result in!

If divorce was to happen at all, there was to be proof of the divorce: an unambiguous, written statement.

And since many people were illiterate at the time, that would mean going to a scrivener and paying him to write out the document.

Having to write out the document would give the man a chance to think twice about the divorce, and even moreso if he had to pay a scrivener for his services.

The net effect of all this was to make women less at-the-mercy of their husbands. They could not simply be cast off in the instantaneous, casual manner that is permitted in some societies (including under Muslim law).

Eventually, though, even this practice was disallowed, and Jesus now proclaims the permanence of marriage for his followers despite what Moses said.

(And, it's worth noting, that even though civil divorce is permitted today for adequate reasons, remarriage is not. A valid, consummated, sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved by anything but the death of one of the parties. It is a lifelong union.)


Pope Benedict Offers Examples

Although he did not stop to dwell on particular passages, as we just have, Pope Benedict went on to illustrate the kinds of "dark" passages and how they must be understood:

Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things.

This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.

Here Pope Benedict points out that the Bible is written according to the cultural and moral level of the periods it deals with. It records what people did in these periods but "without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things."

There are two important points here: First, as we have already noted, the progressive nature of God's plan may mean that the time had not yet come for an explicit denunciation of the acts. If you were living between the time of Moses and Jesus, when divorce followed by remarriage was tolerated, the time for the explicit denunciation that Jesus provided had not yet come.

But secondly, Pope Benedict notes that there is not an explicit denunciation of the acts. Sometimes, if you are sensitive to the way the text is written, there is and implicit denunciation of them.

This is clear, for example, in the book of Judges, where the judges of Israel are presented as very flawed figures. God may have worked through them to help protect Israel, but they are not presented as paragons of virtue and there is an implicit denunciation of some of their actions.


Historical Comparisons

Pope Benedict also notes that a modern reader may be taken aback if he "fails to take account of the many 'dark' deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day."

In other words, all ages of history contain dark deeds, including violence and massacre. Even our own day does, with the many slaughters that we hear about in the news (or that we don't hear about because the news media isn't interested in them).

And the ancient world was even worse (with the exception of abortion, which has become refined to a high-tech, industrial process in our own day).

By accurately reflecting the violence and crime of the ancient world--by honestly recording what people in biblical times did--the Bible holds passages that can cause us to be taken aback--particularly if we forget the violence and crime that occur in all ages, including our own.

But this is honesty on the biblical authors' part about the ages in which they lived.


Stage Two

The majority of the "dark passages" that people are taken aback by are in the Old Testament, and the majority of those are found early in the Old Testament--either in the Law of Moses (at the nation's founding) or during or very early after Israel's entrance into the Promised Land (Joshua, Judges).

They thus represent "stage one" of God's dealing with the Israelites, when he had not yet led them far down the path of understanding the fullness of his will.

But he did not leave them there. As Pope Benedict explains:

In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel.

Pope Benedict thus names "stage two" of God's process--the period of the prophets, in which God sent messengers to denounce injustice and violence and further educate his people in his ways.

A classic example of this is in the book of Jonah, when God sends the prophet to the pagan city of Nineveh (now Mosul, in modern Iraq) to preach against it. When the people repent, God spares the city, and Jonah pouts. But God tells him: "And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?" (Jonah 4:11)

This represents a dramatic broadening of horizons for one brought up in the Ancient Near East, where the system of tribal loyalties led to bitter group rivalries.

The thought that God would care about--and spare--the enemies of his chosen people, the ones who had conquered his people--this was a dramatic thought!

And it was a further broadening of the moral horizons of God's people.

But the matter did not stop there . . .


Stage Three

Pope Benedict notes that the prophets did their work as "God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel.

The Gospel announced by Christ thus represents the end point of God's program of revelation. As the book of Hebrews tells us:

Hebrews 1

[1] In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets;

[2] but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

[3] He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, thus represents the definitive revelation of God's will, and so Jude refers to the faith as having been "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

There are now no more moral principles to be revealed to mankind.

Throughout the Church age, God has led his people to reflect more deeply on the moral principles embedded in human nature and revealed to us through the public revelation he has given us, but the principles themselves are complete and are meant to guide us until the Second Coming.


Pope Benedict's Conclusion

Pope Benedict finishes his remarks on the "dark passages" of Scripture by saying:

So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic.

Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.

I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.


More on the "Dark Passages"

Given the nature of the document he was writing, Pope Benedict could not do more than sketch some of the principles involved in understanding the "dark passages" of Scripture, and he could not deal with individual passages and how they should be interpreted.

The principles he articulated don't deal with all the kinds of "dark passages" that there are to be found, but they provide important guidance on how to approach the issue in general.

In coming blog posts, we're going to take a look at some of the problematic passages and see what we can make of them.

I can't promise to get to all of them (that would require a book), but we'll look at some representative cases.

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Jimmy Akin

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Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

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