Christians and Christianity are often the target of criticism over what is termed the “dark passages” of the Bible. That is, those parts – above all in the Old Testament – which at first glance seem to portray a vengeful or vindictive God.
In a recently published book Mark Giszczak analyzes and explains why some parts of the Bible are so difficult for our contemporary culture to understand. “Light in the Dark Passages of Scripture” (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing) contains both general principles to help understand Scripture as well as a look at some specific texts.
Giszczak started by explaining how we need to avoid some bad solutions in explaining Scripture. One of these is to simply ignore the difficult parts, dismissing them as a quirk of the Old Testament.
Another is to dodge the issue by ignoring the literal sense and interpreting the texts only at the spiritual level. This avoids rather than solves the problem, Giszczak observed.
Some commit the error of a separation of the Old and New Testament, as if there were two different Gods.
In order to perceive what God is trying to teach us Giszczak refers to the concepts of justice, love and redemption. Original sin resulted in the loss of grace and introduced suffering, punishment and God’s just judgment.
“God’s judgment with its attendant punishments addresses evil action and aims to right the wrongs humanity brings forth. Yes in an odd way, just punishment is a kind of mercy, since punishment is meant to lead to conversion, reformation, moral transformation. Punishment is not only punitive but instructive.”
Justice and mercy
Tension exists between justice and mercy, Giszczak explained, and in the end mercy triumphs. Our evil acts demand a just response from God, he continued, but as sinners we also need God’s mercy and redemption.
We see therefore, God’s punishment of Adam and Eve, but also the promise of a savior. Along with the destruction caused by the Flood, Noah’s family is preserved.
Another key to understanding Scripture is to comprehend God’s role as a teacher. God’s pedagogy, Giszczak noted, is based on the principle of gradualism. Thus, God’s divine plan is revealed to humanity gradually.
“God slowly over the course of time, reveals more and more of who he is to humanity,” he said.
This gradualism is also present in Jesus’ teaching as seen in his use of parables that reveal God in a way suited to those listening.
In the world of the Old Testament gradualism meant teaching people who lived in a relatively primitive culture, Giszczak commented. Taking this into account helps understand the laws related to animal sacrifices, ritual purity and child sacrifice.
“We often talk about ‘meeting people where they are at,’” Giszczak said. “God does that. He knew where the ancients were and brought them closer to himself one step at a time.”
As a result of this gradualism not all of the laws and precepts of the Old Testament are applicable in the Christian era. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Giszczak distinguished the Old Testament laws into three categories: moral, ritual, and judicial. Only the moral law dealing with universal principles of right and wrong are still valid today.
Turning to some specific Bible accounts Giszczak started by noting how God sometimes deliberately causes the death of people – the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian firstborn.
One thing these and other instances have in common is that a person or people reject God and are then punished. God uses death as a punishment to restore the order of justice.
This might seem harsh, Giszczak admitted, but he explained that: “In love God created us and the world we live in. To reject him is to reject ourselves, our Maker, our environment, and being itself.”
The penalty of death in the Old Testament reveals to us the gravity of sin, he said, and shows us how sin makes us enemies of God and friends with death.
In one of the chapters Giszczak grappled with the issue of child sacrifice, particularly God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. Beneath this narrative there are two deeper dimensions that help make sense of it, he explained.
First, the test of faith by which God wants Abraham to put his whole trust in God. Second, child sacrifice was common at the time and by providing a substitute for Isaac, God reveals he does not want to be worshiped with human sacrifices.
Another chapter examined the problem of suffering. Innocent people shouldn’t suffer is the normal reaction of people, yet we see cases in the Bible such as that of Job where this does indeed happen.
Some suffering is caused by people and God is only implicated insofar as he does not violate human freedom. If God were to prevent people from doing evil then we would not be truly free and neither could we choose to do good.
Giszczak looks at a number of other issues, such as slavery, polygamy, divorce and the treatment of women.
In concluding Giszczak urged his readers to remember that the Old Testament is completed by Jesus. Yet, even with the aid of the New Testament we still have difficulties in interpreting some parts of Scripture.
It helps to think of Scripture as a kind of pinhole or imperfect mirror in which we perceive only imperfectly the Divine, Giszczak concluded. Thus, some mysteries will remain as such until we encounter God face to face.