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Difficult Passages of the Bible

Updated: Jan 24

Weird Stuff in the Bible

We all have those stories or verses or psalms that we read and scratch our head and wonder what in the world this could possibly mean. That’s probably why there is no shortage of books on difficult passages of the Bible that attempt to explain many of them. Recently, the newly revamped radio show that I cut my Reformed teeth on nearly 30 years ago—The White Horse Inn—came out with a new episode in a larger series tackling the subject of “weird stuff.” (“Misunderstood Passages about the Weird Stuff in the Bible.”) In the episode they take us through the ordinary way we should approach the broader subject and use two passages as their examples. The passages are Genesis 6:1-4 and Psalm 139.


Given that this is the Og Blog, how could I pass up the opportunity to make some comments?


Just a little background. Michael Horton, who started the show and now hosts again after a few years sabbatical, has been one of my theological heroes. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him and count it a blessing to know him (although we have not spoken in many years). I’ve recently been quite disappointed in how he has dealt with cultural events since 2020, to the point of incredulity and nearly tearing out my hair in fact, but when it comes to the basics of theology and how to communicate that, Dr. Horton is as good as it gets. So I was interested to see where they would go with this episode.


They begin with a very important if not also ironic doctrine: The Perspicuity of Scripture. This means, rather comically, that Scripture is plain or clear on what it teaches. Leave it to theologians to use an obscure word to teach clarity! This doctrine is vital because the Bible is not a mystery book. God gives us his word so that we might know exactly what he requires of us and how we might be saved.


That said, we realize that The Scriptures are clear, but we don’t always understand what we find there. As both the London Baptist and Westminster Confessions confess, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them" (London Baptist Confession 1.7). So the Bible is clear, but it is not all equally clear.

The Good

It’s important to reiterate the good things they bring up, especially at the beginning of the show. How should we come to strange, weird, or difficult passage in the Bible? They give three great thoughts:


  1. Don’t make the strange passage the foundation of a doctrine. Too many people do this. It’s what leads to cults.

  2. If we have a burning question, don’t locate answers in obscure passages. We are prone to want to find what we want to find in the Bible. And it is particularly easy to use obscure passages to get there. 

  3. We don’t want to just dismiss a passage because it is weird. We want to dig into it. Dr. Michael Heiser used to say that if it’s weird and it’s in the Bible, it’s important; and you should probably try to figure out what that is.

Genesis 6:1-4

Given that I’ve spent a lot of time—some might say too much time(!) on Genesis 6:1-4, I was interested to see what they would do with it. But while I was interested, I was also not expecting much. Sadly, I wasn’t disappointed. Now, besides the great things they’ve said up to this point, this is the other reason I wanted to make this post. As much as they meant for this show to be a help, the examples they gave in my opinion were anything but.

They start out with a rather bizarre, but I suppose these days possible, reason someone might go to Genesis 6:1-4. Since the government has recently been dripping out some rather startling information on UFOs, it’s a topic on a lot of people’s minds. So, I want to figure out if there’s anywhere in the Bible that explains this all to me, and I think I found it—in Genesis 6:1-4. Of course, here’s the famous text:


When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years." The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.


After reading they text, they rather joking laugh and say, “Look, I found it. Aliens in the Bible! UFOs are real and they then ask, “Is this a fair reading of the text?” And the obvious answer is, of course not. Now, I suppose if Giorgio “The Hair” Tsoukalos  and Erich von Däniken were who they had in mind, fine. I guess. But are the actual hosts of the Ancient Aliens crowd really their target audience for this show? This isn’t how and why Christians take a supernatural view of this text. They’ve erected a pretty little strawman.


Now, Horton begins by explaining that this is a strange passage and we are allowed to have different interpretations. And for the record (again), I completely agree! This is not a doctrine of salvation. That said, it is important. Much more so than a whole lot of people have ever imagined.


In trying to get to an understanding of the passage, he begins by saying that we should never go to a passage and read it in light of what is familiar to us (i.e. UFOs) and then inject that into the text, as if the Bible only reveals all its secrets to modern people who read the Weekly World News (yeah, I’m showing my age there). Of course, I completely agree with this.


But in his understanding, this is the only reason someone would ever have for thinking that this passage speaks to truly bizarre and supernatural things. As their alternative explanation, the hosts all again rather ironically use what is familiar to them to interpret the text. They may not understand that this is what they are doing or even be aware of it, but let’s look at it.


They attempt to give the same arguments that have been used for centuries to tell us that the context of this passage is essentially Christians marrying non-Christians. Thus, the “sons of God” are the sons of Seth and the daughters of men are the daughters of Cain and what we have are forbidden marriages (never mind that such marriage laws didn’t exist for thousands of years). Now, I’ve dealt with this at length so many times, I won’t reiterate that here, except to say, go buy my book and read the Introduction or at least go listen to this podcast where I take you through an actual exegesis of the passage. Importantly, to their point, everything I’ve ever said and done in regard to taking a supernatural view of this passage has been only and to ever point to Jesus Christ—and in his First Coming at that!


Other things they say are that “Nephilim” means “mighty ones” or “those who cause others to fall,” not understanding that the word is actually Aramaic for “giant.” They talk about “sons of God” in Job meaning angels, but poo-poo it because Israel is also called God’s son, failing to understand a biblical-theology of this phrase and why it is that Israel and Christians are given this same title. They wonder how non-material beings such as angels could procreate, forgetting that these same being age with Abraham, had their feet washed, wrestled with Jacob, grabbed Lot and went to his house, etc. At one point, they go to Numbers 13:33 and read the verses that end here, verses that actually tell you that these creatures were extremely tall. But even though they read that very thing to us, they then strangely manage to completely ignore that it was even there.


Essentially what we have going on here is men in a certain tradition using their tradition to interpret the text. They think they are using the Scripture, but they are selectively forgetting or ignoring vital things from the very passages they are reading so that they won’t end up anywhere else. This is not how exegesis is supposed to work, and if you know anything at all about this Sethite tradition, you will know that Augustine, Chrysostom, Theodoret, Luther, and Calvin’s only arguments against the other view is that such a view is just absurd. No serious person would ever think that is even possible! Importantly, they don’t address at all that we have 100% uniformity of interpretation in the first three centuries of the church. Every single Father believed this passage refers to supernatural beings, not sons of Seth. This has been exhaustively documented by a Reformed scholar in his dissertation, and it’s the same even in among the Jews until the Rabbis put a stop to it, ironically, because of Jesus Christ the Son of God (his heavenly title).


The fact of the matter is, this passage, once you actually do study it—not your own tradition of it, but the passage itself and its history, really isn’t even a difficult passage at all. It might be weird, but that’s only because we are antisupernaturalists completely saturated in Rationalism, the Enlightenment, Darwinianism, Materialism, and near complete and total incredulity about most everything in the spiritual realm, and we don’t even realize it.

Imprecatory Psalms for Today?

I do want to briefly mention the other passage they use, because how they dealt with it was nearly as frustrating. Psalm 137:9 says, “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Now, this is a disturbing verse, to be sure. And they use it as the classic example of what are called Imprecatory Psalms. These are Psalms that, importantly, call upon God to judge their and his enemies—often in gruesome ways.


Now, they put the Psalm in a covenantal context of Israel, which they say makes it unique for that people at that time to pray these psalms. Perhaps. They say that we are not under their covenant, but a new covenant, and it is therefore inappropriate at all times anywhere for us to pray them. Perhaps. They note that when Jesus says pray for those who persecute you, Jesus doesn’t want us praying imprecatory psalms against people. Maybe.


I wasn’t persuaded by their reasoning, but these arguments are not terrible. In fact, I’m willing to listen to them. The problem comes not so much here (it’s a radio show, I get it), but in how they then describe people who do think it is right to pray these psalms today (to be fair, one of the hosts tried to insert a version of this against the other two).


Just like the caricature they gave for the person approaching Genesis 6 and the only possible way one would ever come to a supernatural reading, which was just wrong, they say things like imprecatory psalms are the psalmist delighting in the death of the wicked, we should not be publicly or even privately calling down fire on our enemies, calling down God’s judgment, delighting in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, delighting in the death of our neighbors who do not call upon the name of the Lord.


I mean, I get the point. But that really isn’t what the imprecatory psalms are doing. They bring up not praying an imprecatory psalm against the guy who steals your parking spot. And yes, that’s totally true. But that would be a complete misappropriation of an imprecatory psalm. But so also is saying that the psalmist when he prays this has this kind of maniacal laughter and uncontrollable glee that he simply relishes, loves, adores, treasures, and is in every sense happy at calling down curses. This is absurd and is not the point of an imprecatory psalm. First of all, these psalms are about God doing something, not us. If anything, praying an imprecatory psalm rightly means that we remember that it is God’s place to judge, not ours, that it is God’s place to punish, not ours. And yes guys, God still does judge men today, it isn't always and only about the Final Judgment. Ironically (there’s that word again), I believe that praying these psalms rightly actually helps us obey Jesus’ call to love our enemies, because in praying these psalms, we entrust all judgment to the Lord, our sovereign all good, all wise, all just God who will do what is right. That takes the pressure off of us!


At the end of the day, while there were some helpful general tips about coming to weird or difficult passages, they did not deal with their actual examples in a way that took the high road. Doing this does not engender people to want to believe your larger theology, because you’ve spent the entire time giving bad and ignorant arguments and even ridiculing those who disagree with you. People can see through pretty clearly when they aren’t locked in their own tradition.


I love Reformed theology and still think it’s the best expression of an overall systematic theology that the church has yet developed. I love what the White Horse Inn has done for me over the years. But this episode was anything but helpful.


In the words of one of Dr. Horton’s books, surely there is a better way forward than this.

Douglas Van Dorn

Jan 23, 2024

1 Comment

Mar 22

This is not surprising but it is disappointing. I used to listen to White Horse Inn years ago. I don't' appreciate the arrogance in which they approach this subject, especially the Genesis 6 stuff. I wonder if they knew of Heiser's work and what they thought of it. Love the new website Doug. Looks great.


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