What should we do when we are confused by the Bible?
The Bible is the inspired work of God. The Bible is a human book. It is an inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it was written by humans. It is incredible when you think about. The holy and transcendent God condescended to communicate with us in ways we can understand. However, no one will ever understand everything contained within Scripture. We will always come across passages that disturb or confuse us. In fact, if we do not have questions, then we are not reading closely enough. What do we do with our unresolved questions? What do we do with our concerns? The short answer, keep reading.
First of all, we have to be humble enough to admit that we will never understand everything in Scripture. We construct systems and frameworks in an attempt to make sense of it all. However, the Bible itself is not systematic and no system will ever contain it or exhaust it. To paraphrase a former professor, every school and system has that verse or verses that throw the whole thing into shambles.
Therefore, when we are reading the Bible, we should expect to come across passages that are bewildering to us. Some passages simply do not make sense. Others cause a cognitive dissonance because they do not cohere with the framework of understanding that we have built around the text to understand it. What are we to do with these bothersome passages?
An intuitive answer to that question might be to disengage from reading and seek explanation immediately. There are endless amounts of commentary on the whole Bible and the answer is probably there somewhere. This is an acceptable response, but it is not the one I am advocating here. What would happen if you simply kept reading?
As an example, I have been disturbed by Mark 5:1-20 recently. It is the story of the Gerasene man possessed by demons. The story begins like many of the other exorcisms recounted in the Gospels. Jesus displays a mastery over Legion, the name given to the demons possessing the poor man. Then, the story goes off the rails somewhat.
Jesus allows the demons to possess a herd of swine grazing in a nearby field. The possessed swine then run off a cliff and drown in the sea. Why would Jesus allow this wanton destruction of animals? God is supposed to care about livestock (see Jonah 4:11). Plus, the loss of 2,000 pigs is devastating to the townspeople. Jesus’s visit benefited the single demon-possessed man, but it has been a calamity for the community. In fact, the townspeople asked Jesus to leave. If you look at it from the perspective of the town, he got off easy. The actions of Jesus did a great deal of apparent harm to the community.
Why did the demons need a host? The Gospel of Mark includes a number of exorcisms. To my memory, none of the other exorcisms required another host for the demon(s) to inhabit. To make it seemingly worse, Jesus explicitly allows the demons to inhabit and then kill the pigs. It would be better, at least in my opinion, if the demons left the possessed man and went to the herd of swine on their own accord. Rather, the demons asked Jesus for permission to possess the pigs and he allowed it. On the one hand, this displays Jesus’s power over the demons, but on the other, none of the other exorcisms indicate that this was necessary. In fact, in Luke’s telling of this story (Luke 8:26-33), the demons beg not to be thrown directly into the abyss and into the swine instead. This suggests that Jesus has the power to dispense of the demons without a host.
I have not had the time to go to a library and fully research the opinions of scholars on the passage. I have perused my own library and have yet to find an answer that satisfies me. Many note that the demons’ show their own self-destructive impulses by throwing themselves into the sea. Jesus only allowed the demons to enter the pigs. He did not instruct them to cast themselves into the sea. This still does not explain the need for a host.
The answer could lie in the story’s literary/theological value. Pigs are unclean to the Jewish audience of Mark. The story is reinforcing the idea that Jesus is rooting out the unclean elements of the world. This is a fine explanation for me as a reader in the 21st century, but what about the actual owners of the pigs? If this story actually happened, to focus on its theological value potentially ignores the impact of Jesus’s visit to the actual people of the town. It also glosses over Jesus’s apparent disregard for aspects of God’s creation.
The end of the story also presents issues for me and the theological framework that I have constructed around the Gospel of Mark. The healed man requests to follow Jesus, but Jesus denies him. Instead, Jesus sends him home with the instructions to proclaim what that the Lord has done for him. This could present an answer to the concern about the pigs. The community lost 2000 pigs, but it gained the gospel. However, other communities got the gospel “for free.” It does not completely solve our conundrum over the pigs.
Jesus’s instructions also directly contradict his previous instructions to others he has healed. Up to this point, Jesus has instructed those he healed to keep it under wraps. He has also instructed demons to keep quiet about him. Why would Jesus be hesitant to be proclaimed as a healer and exorcist? This pattern is often called the Messianic Secret motif. I have an explanation that makes sense to me. Jesus instructs the healed to be quiet because being a healer does not make him the Messiah. Jesus instructs the demons to stay quiet because being an exorcist does not make him the Messiah. Jesus even tells Peter, James, and John to stay quiet after his transfiguration because being a heavenly being does not make him the Messiah. Jesus only goes fully public at his trial. In Mark 14:61-62, the high priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the blessed?” Jesus answered, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” It is a powerful response. Jesus can only be understood as the Messiah within the context of his suffering and resurrection. He is not the Messiah because he came from heaven, is a healer, or is an exorcist. He is the Messiah because he died for the world’s sins and defeated death in the resurrection. The motif is a narrative structure that reinforces this truth.
Jesus’s response to the formerly possessed man in Mark 5:19-20 throws that whole framework into question. Jesus is letting the cat out of the bag early. As a reader and interpreter, I do not like this. It has the potential of dismantling the framework I have constructed around the Messianic Secret motif.
In response to my concern, I have to develop perspective. First of all, I may have to ditch my explanation of the Messianic Secret. I may not be correct. But does the truth behind my explanation still stand? I argue that it does. There are other healers and exorcists, but only Jesus is the Messiah because of the atoning nature of his death and resurrection. The Messianic Secret motif might not be as neat and tidy as I would like it to be, but the truth still stands.
I should also move past my concerns and read further. Reading further expands my knowledge of Scripture and widens my overall perspective. In the best case, our concerns will eventually be answered. Even if our concerns are not specifically answered, they are incorporated within a proper perspective. Does my concern significantly call into question a primary theological truth about God and the gospel? My petty concerns about Mark 5 do not. I should keep reading and bring the whole weight of Scripture to my concerns in Mark 5. I should not let the small concerns I have about Mark 5 impede developing a wider perspective.
To bring the point home, if we are reading well, we will have concerns about some of the things we read in the Bible. We should seek answers to those concerns. Sometimes, those answers will elude us. However, those unanswered concerns should not cause us to lose our trust in Scripture and stop reading it. Instead, I am advocating that we read further, trusting that our concerns will eventually be put into proper perspective with further information and the passage of time.