Pope Benedict on the "Dark Passages" of ScriptureJIMMY AKIN
There are certain Bible passages, particularly in the Old Testament, that are disturbing.
Recently Pope Benedict provided some guidance. Here's what he had to say . . .
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.
In referring to the "dark passages" of Scripture, he began by saying:
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."
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?
The reason concerns the basic outline of God's plan. Pope Benedict explains:
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 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:
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 . . .
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:
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 finishes his remarks on the "dark passages" of Scripture by saying:
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.
Incidentally, the reason I decided to do a series of posts on this topic was that a young mother who is a member of the Secret Information Club wrote and said that she was experiencing a crisis of faith after having encountered an atheist group's presentation of some of these passages.
If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.
I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.
The very first thing you'll get if you sign up is an "interview" I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.
He has a lot of interesting things to say!
If you'd like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com.
Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any difficulty.
In the meantime, what do you think?
Jimmy Akin. "Pope Benedict on the "Dark Passages" of Scripture." National Catholic Register blog (September 13, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.
Jimmy Akin is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and a weekly guest on "Catholic Answers Live. He was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he was compelled in conscience to enter the Catholic Church, which he did in 1992. His conversion story, "A Triumph and a Tragedy," is published in Surprised by Truth. Among the books and pamphlets he's written are: Mass Appeal: The ABCs of Worship, Mass Confusion, The Salvation Controversy, Islam: A Catholic Perspective, The Nightmare World Of Jack T. Chick, and Annulments: What You Need To Know.
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