What troubles you about scripture? If you’ve spent any time reading the Bible, you’ve likely come across passages that you’d just as soon gloss over. II Timothy 3:16-17 says that scripture is inspired by God, useful for teaching, correction, and training so that we can be ready to do God’s work. But there sure are a lot of stories that I, even as a minister, don’t know what to do with.
What about Noah and the ark - when we’re told that the entire human population of the earth, except Noah and his family, was wiped out?
What about when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac - the miracle child he and Sarah had waited for for so long?
And what exactly does Jesus mean when he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”?
If scripture is useful, then how are we to understand these stories and passages? There are many methods of Biblical interpretation that can be helpful: knowing the historical setting is important; understanding what the passage meant in the original language; identifying the original audience; digging deep into Biblical and ancient culture. There is important work to be done in each of these areas when it comes to faithfully interpreting and applying scripture.
But I believe that the key with troubling texts — as with all stories we might be tempted to lift out of the Bible and apply to our lives — is placing them within the arc of scripture. To be sure, this is its own interpretive endeavor. Understanding the arc of scripture requires a lot of reading, inquiry, and big picture thinking.
As I spend more time doing this, I am more and more convinced that the story scripture is telling is one of love for a broken world. It’s a story of hope offered amid hopelessness, the story of a servant who suffered for us, and with us, and died to reconcile creation into love. And then we are called to participate in this love as we continue the work of reconciliation.
Where does Noah fit into this? Or Abraham? Or even Jesus? As we take these stories on their own terms — understanding as best we can the history and context of each situation — we must also orient them as part of the larger scriptural narrative. How can troubling texts help us better understand love and hope and suffering and death and life and reconciliation?
Because scripture isn’t only useful for teaching and correction and training. We are taught and corrected and trained so that we may join God’s work of love. Our scriptural interpretation needs to influence us toward service in the world and it needs to make sense as part of the larger story scripture is telling us. When we read difficult texts with an eye toward what we can learn about God’s work in the world, and our call as Christians, I think we find ways to redeem some of these stories and may — one day — be able to adjust our impulse to gloss over them.