WILDERNESS: How to Deal with Difficult Texts


Exodus 32:25-29 (NIV)

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”


What on earth do we do with a passage like this? My first inclination is to try and Pastorsplain it to us, leading us through some theological and hermeneutical gymnastics to explain how and why God might order such a horrific feat. It feels much more akin to the Rwandan genocide than holy love.

Certainly, we can appeal to the mercy of Moses’ gracious invitation, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” We can’t; however, gloss over this: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”

Here’s how I deal with a text like this one. I don’t understand it. I can’t explain it. I do not question the authority of God nor do I question the veracity of Scripture. I do not all of a sudden consider this as a viable policy of church discipline. I vastly prefer the story of the Day of Pentecost with 3,000 people crying out to the Lord, “What must we do to be saved?” But this story is in the same Bible as that one. I refuse to edit the Word of God. I refuse to sit in judgment on the Word of God. I stand under its judgment.

There are many places in Scripture that puzzle modern readers. One thing is clear to me. We cannot judge the ancient texts of the Word of God by modern standards. If anything it is the other way around. Modern standards must be sifted by the ancient texts of the Word of God. Only as we stand-under Scripture’s authority can we ever hope to under-stand its meaning. Though there are clear and long-standing theological principles concerning how we evaluate and apply Scripture texts in present day contexts, their meanings are unalterable. We must take the whole book or none of it at all, and we must read it as one book and not as isolated elements. And we must read it in communion with all Christians of all times in all places.

We are living in what I call, “The Great Confusion,” a time when the authority of the Word of God is being violently opposed. Eternal verities and long-standing truths are being dismissed as oppressive lies and prejudicial falsehoods. Many parts of the Church are succumbing to the cultural pressures to conform to the spirit of the age with well-meaning compromises built on all manner of theological and hermeneutical gymnastics to circumvent the clear meaning and clairvoyant wisdom of Scripture. It is a predictable pattern. It has happened before, and undoubtedly it will happen again.

We will do well to remember, despite all manner of attack, and armies of detractors, “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)

More than prosecutors or defense lawyers, God wants witnesses. He wants Scripture’s authority to be witnessed to by the Holy Spirit-empowered obedience of love more than by our offensive or defensive arguments.

So when skeptics and unbelievers bring forward a text like today’s with an underlying indictment of God, let’s not take the bait. We are not on the line and neither is God. Let’s disarm the debate with empathy, acknowledging that we, too, struggle mightily to understand such texts and square them with our understanding of God. Rather than Bible-splaining a particular passage in a narrow context, let’s appeal to the context of the whole book. Let’s acknowledge the complexity of understanding a book written over a period of 1,500 years, on three continents, in 3 languages, by over 40 authors and then let’s share with them how the God of this story is absolutely transforming our lives. How about we invite them into a journey of exploration and discovery with us? And above all, let’s see it as an opportunity to listen for the pain underlying their probative questions. These kinds of questions most often aren’t about the Bible or God, and certainly not us. They are about pain and longing.


Father, reveal to me the deeper wisdom of your will and ways in the wilderness. We are living in a wilderness in these days and so many are wandering around lost and confused. Help me to see your detractors and those who would question or even abuse your word as people gripped by pain and lost in confusion. Give me your grace for them and make me a vessel of blessing to them. Help me remember that your best defense is always the offense of love. Come Holy Spirit for only you can bring this transformation in me. In Jesus name, Amen.


What is it within and about us that makes us want to defend God and God’s Word? Do we really think God needs our defense? What if he most desires our offense; even the willingness to receive persecution as a mark of blessedness? What must change in me to get to this place?

For the Awakening,
J.D. Walt