3 Tips for Understanding Confusing Bible Passages

by Shelby Turner

Have you ever read a verse in the Bible that left you wide-eyed and bewildered? This happened to me recently. I was chugging along in my Bible in a year reading plan, listening to a portion of the book of Judges. And then I heard it. The befuddling story of Jephthah and the daughter he sacrificed on an altar to the Lord in Judges 11:29-40.

What? My heart sank. I pictured my snuggly infant daughter asleep in her crib upstairs. Why did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter? Did the Lord ask him to do this? If so, how could He do that? I could barely bring myself to think of the precious girl that lost her life. 

Jephthah and his daughter’s story is only one of many true stories found in the Bible that seem confusing, odd, and sometimes concerning. I’m sure you’ve read a few that have made you scratch your head. And you will undoubtedly uncover more as you continue to spend time in the Bible. 

Some will point to passages like this as a way to invalidate the Bible or criminalize God. But difficult to understand passages never discredit the validity of God’s Word or convict God of being less than perfect. In fact, they can be a means to deepen our faith, strengthen our trust in God, and better understand the beauty of His infallible Word–if we know how to handle them. 

Here are three tips for understanding confusing Bible passages:

  • Keep a high view of God. 

It’s only natural that reading a confusing passage would cause us to wonder if God really is who He says He is and really does what He says He will do. The worst mistake we can make is following that trail of breadcrumbs to a premature conclusion of who God is.

In Jephthah’s story, my first thoughts circled around God’s involvement in the sacrifice of this little girl, but wisdom told me that God doesn’t ever compromise His character. And He repeatedly commanded the Israelites to never take part in child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31, Leviticus 20:2-5, 2 Kings 21:6). 

Rather than trying to find a loophole in God’s character, I chose to keep a high view of God. I chose to believe that God is good, kind, loving, and just. We don’t fully know God’s response to Jephthah, but we can trust that when He told the Israelites never to take part in child sacrifice, He meant it and was likely grieved by Jephthah’s actions.

  • Slow down and break it down.

Once I’ve settled who God is in this passage based on His character in the whole counsel of Scripture, I take a closer look at the part of the story that is most concerning to me, and then I slow down and break it down. 

I’ve found that it’s important to work through tough passages as fully and completely as I can when I come across them. Leaving little questions lingering isn’t edifying to my faith, and it won’t be to yours either. 

In this particular passage, I wanted to know why is this in the Bible? Second Timothy says 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” How does that apply to the death of Jephthah’s daughter?

After reading a few supplemental resources, I took some time to sit in this passage and think about it. The heading of the story is “Jephthah’s Tragic Vow.” The moral of this story isn’t to be like Jephthah. In fact, it is to not be like Jephthah. Jephthah shouldn’t have made a vow to kill in exchange for a victory in battle. He should have feared God and kept His commands, but instead, he bound himself to his foolish words.

  • Embrace the mystery. 

Sometimes passages of Scripture don’t have clear explanations. There is some debate in Jephthah’s story on whether he actually sacrificed his daughter or whether he symbolically sacrificed her by dedicating her to a life of celibacy and service of the Lord. You can find some support for both views in the text. No one can say with one hundred percent confidence which route Jephthah took. 

In these moments, all we can do is embrace the mystery. It is only fitting that the words of a God whose thoughts, ways, and wisdom are infinitely higher than ours would occasionally be above our understanding. Scripture can never be perfectly understood on this side of heaven. That’s where faith comes in. We have to trust that God alone knows all and has revealed what we need to know and hidden what we don’t.

The next time you come across a difficult-to-understand passage of Scripture, remember that there is a way to handle it that will draw you closer to God and not further from Him. 

Keep a high view of God, take it slow and break it down, and embrace the mystery when needed. God’s Word is a good gift, and taking the time to understand it will always be worth it!

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