Why Does God’s Character Matter When It Comes to Interpreting Difficult Passages?

A couple of years ago I wrote a series of blog posts on why the God of the Old Testament is worthy of worship. We looked at His mercy, His love, and His truthfulness, along with several other attributes. At the time, I had several commenters tell me that considering all the attributes of God is of no help when interpreting difficult passages in the Bible. We should take those difficult passages as isolated texts.

This has always seemed flatly wrong to me. Every time we listen to a person speak, we are interpreting what they say based on what we know about that person. If a friend of mine has been caught lying several times, and he makes an excuse for why he has to cancel a night out with me, I’m going to guess that he’s lying again and that his excuse is fabricated.

A friend of mine who has always been truthful with me will get the benefit of the doubt when he cancels a night out. I will assume he is telling the truth.

It is standard procedure for lawyers and prosecutors to bring forth evidence in a trial about various witnesses’ character so that the jury can decide whether to believe the witnesses or not.

So when someone says that we can’t take into account God’s character when we interpret difficult Bible passages, I immediately know they are applying a double standard. They are refusing to hear the evidence of God’s good character.

If we take the conquest of Canaan as an example, a person who is considering God’s character would not immediately jump to the conclusion that God is capriciously trying to wipe out a particular ethnic group (committing genocide) just because of where they live. Since we know that God is loving, just, and merciful, we would search the Scriptures to find out exactly what’s going on.

We would discover that God had waited hundreds of years before judging the people of Canaan, thus exhibiting His mercy. We would learn that He was first, and foremost, driving them out of the land, as opposed to killing them. We would learn that God’s justice demands that He punish a people who routinely have sex with animals, commit incest, and sacrifice their children to pagan gods by burning them. We would see that God held the people of Israel to the exact same standards which He applied to the Canaanites. We would learn that God welcomed anyone in Canaan who renounced their detestable sinful lifestyle and turned toward Him, thus demonstrating His love for all mankind.

The bottom line is this: it is completely illegitimate to read any difficult passage in the Bible and draw conclusions about what God is affirming or commanding, without first considering what the Bible overwhelmingly teaches about God’s moral qualities. To do so is to apply a standard to God that is utterly foreign to the standard we apply to anyone else whose words we are trying to understand.