Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “It’s not what I don’t know about the Bible that scares me, it’s what I do know 1.” I agree with him. When we ponder stories from the Old Testament of God’s wrath on Israel’s enemies, to Israel’s requirements for holiness, to their consequences for violating the Mosaic and Levitical Law, we can see that this would have certainly struck fear into the hearts of even the most casual Jewish person in that time.
In the New Testament, Jesus expands his moral code exponentially, as Matthew records on the famous Sermon on the Mount (or the Sermon the Plain in Luke). As we now live in this New Covenant, violations occur not just in the physical act of adultery, but Jesus states that just looking at a woman with lust is akin to adultery. Another example is that if you condemn your neighbor with an insult, it is tantamount to murdering them. Even being “wishy-washy” without a clear “yes” or “no” comes from Satan himself. Clearly revolutionary teachings like the Old Testament’s lex talionis are child’s play compared to God’s new standards.
Jesus’ and New Testament teachings can be difficult to follow, but I think they are clear: God values the human heart, not just outward actions. But even though the Bible lays out a pathway to God and his moral requirements for us, how do we interpret Scripture when the passage is obscure, or even downright scary? We don’t know which passages Twain was referring to that scared him, but one that scares me is in 2 Kings Chapter 2.
In verse 26, we read that Elisha was walking one day and was hassled by a band of forty-two boys. They laid a litany of verbal assaults on him, calling him “baldy”, and the prophet felt threatened. But he didn’t run away like a most of us would if a gang of forty-two people intimidated us. Instead, like a scene in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, he stood his moral ground, and defended himself, and, in a Gandalf-like way, conjured-up two bears from obscurity to attack his hecklers.
Now, these weren’t cuddly bears like Baloo or “Kung Fu Panda”, this divine pair actually mauled the entire motley crew. Just in case you didn’t get that: Elisha was threatened by a gang, prayed, and bears leaped out of the woods and ate his attackers. Was this a bit an overkill (pun intended) by God? Couldn’t God just have teleported Elisha away like he did to Philip after he shared the Gospel with the Ethiopian (Acts 8:39)? Don’t get me wrong, you can make a strong exegetical case that these “boys” were actually a group juvenile delinquents endangering the prophet’s life, but it still begs the question of whether God could have used another method to protect Elisha.
The Bible is full of other questionable passages that can leave us wondering about God’s character and how to interpret the words he left us. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with burning sulfur, blessed King David who committed adultery, and commanded the Prophet Hosea to marry and stay committed to a prostitute! In the New Testament, Jesus talks candidly about wars, rumors of wars, famines, and natural disasters in the Last Days, and that only “those who stand firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24).
Dwelling only on passages like this can leave us confused, and even wondering about the true nature of God. We certainly shouldn’t shy away from diligently studying them (as they are in the Canon for a reason), but to truly understand God, we must take the Bible in its entirety. When we do that, and look at God’s overall character and plan for humankind, we can see that he is good, and his ways are perfect, and he loves his people. Many verses attest to this fact:
Psalm 136 emphasizes over and over that “His love endures forever.”
John 3:16 says that “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Paul writes in Ephesians, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” (3:20).
The Book of 1 John states that “God is love” and “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (3:16, 4:8).
Verses like these, and numerous others, reveal that we can trust God and his enduring love for his people, even amidst seemingly other ambiguous passages. God gives us enough information about him, and it’s in this “enoughness” that our minds can rest, and we can entrust our lives to him. Then, the actual scary sections of the Bible become the ones that reveal what happens when we don’t choose to follow him, and the consequences of living a life apart from him.
Take for example John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Also, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28).
When I remember how God has made himself totally available to the world, and how his love saturates the Bible, suddenly the thought of wild animals jumping out of the woods eating God’s enemies seems less scary. Then, like Twain, the passages I know that speak of a life-after-death without God actually become the ones that cause me to tremble.