Pope Benedict on the “Dark” Passages of the Bible

How should Christians understand the so-called “dark” passages of the Bible?  Even the Old Testament protagonists have some pretty shady and even disgusting doings.  To take one obvious example, there’s Lot drunkenly impregnating his own daughters in Gen. 19:30-36, after earlier offering them to the would-be rapists of Sodom, as an attempt to distract them from raping visitors (who turned out to be angels).  Like many other passages, these sins are simply reported on, without comment.  Scripture doesn’t praise or damn the behavior – it just reports it.  Should Christians take this silence as approval of this obviously-immoral behavior?

Benedict’s got a very good answer from September’s Verbum Domini, which is all about the role of Scripture within Catholicism.  In a part specifically addressing these so-called “dark” passages, he writes:

In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”. [Propositio 29] I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.

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