Five Ways to Study Difficult Passages in Scripture

by: Tiffany Dickerson

One word: Leviticus. Reading the name of this book just evoked some sort of emotional response, and it likely was not an especially warm one. The same could be said for other books or chapters within the Bible that honestly, just do not make a lot of sense to us sometimes. We know that all of Scripture is inspired by God, points to Jesus, and is profitable for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), but we often lack that lightbulb moment to help us connect all the dots. So how do we approach these passages and learn all that God wants us to? How do we make sense of something that seems so archaic? Let’s take a few moments to look at some helpful tools that enable us to be better students of the Bible and make those hard passages a little more understandable. 

So often we sit down, open our Bibles, and just begin reading. We finish one or two chapters, say a prayer, and then expect the Holy Spirit to give us an “aha moment” that will carry us through our day or week. But the problem with this approach is that we have not really put in any real effort. Yes, we showed up and we read, but we were not students of this amazing book. God tells us in Isaiah 55:11, “my word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty.” So we can trust that any time we read the Bible, there is something God will teach us, but to truly grow we must do what Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom.” Furthermore, we must seek to live out Psalm 1:2, which says, “his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.” To truly grow in our knowledge of the Word, we must dwell and meditate on it. 

When we come to hard books like Leviticus or a tough passage like the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38, we cannot simply read it and move on. Frustration, confusion, and head-scratching will abound. However, there are a few things you can do to better understand confusing passages. A good study Bible will help you find the answers. You can also take a look at those introductory pages at the beginning of each book of the Bible that are so often skipped. 

Below are a few additional steps to follow when you come to those hard places in Scripture or any passage for that matter. 

1. Understand the genre of the book you are studying

First, as you approach a book of the Bible, find out what genre it is written in. Is it prophecy, narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, or a letter? Understanding genre will help you know how to read a passage. Historical narrative will not have allegories and metaphors like poetry, thus changing how you approach your study of a passage or book. Some books and even chapters can have two types of genres. We do this when we go to a bookstore and skip the science fiction section and head for the biographies, or when we choose a historical fiction novel over poetry. Genre matters even in Scripture!

2. Look at the cultural and historical context

Next, you need to know the audience. Yes, the Bible transcends time and applies to those of us who live thousands of years later, but each author of every book wrote to a specific, original audience in history. When we understand what was happening culturally and historically in these people’s lives, it helps make sense of various details that might seem confusing, ancient, or obsolete to our 21st-century minds. For example, the prophet Jeremiah had a very different audience than the Apostle Paul. And Moses’s audience was vastly different from that of the Apostle John. Also, take time to know locations on a map or who the ruling world power was at the time. You can find most of this information in the introduction to the Bible or by going online to sites like www.blueletterbible.com. Looking up this information will give you a bigger and clearer picture to help you understand a book or passage.

3. Understand the major themes of the book

Look for the major themes of the book. You can do this by reading through a book in its entirety. You can also look at the introductory pages in a study Bible. Knowing the major themes will point you in the right direction when you reach a difficult passage. It will remind you of the bigger picture and bring proper interpretation.

4. Understand what the passage teaches you about God’s Character

Ask yourself the question, “What does this difficult passage teach me about God’s character?” Does it show His sovereignty, love, faithfulness, mercy, grace, or patience to name a few? When we stop and remember who the Bible is about and that it teaches us about God and His character, we take ourselves and our personal interpretation out of the equation. Instead, we look through the lens of what God is doing in history to bring redemption through Jesus.

5. Make sure you incorporate prayer in your study of Scripture 

Never underestimate the power of prayer. Pray before you study the Bible, pray when you come to a difficult place in a passage, and pray when you end your study for the day. Prayer will help bring illumination and understanding—sometimes in the moment or sometimes as you go throughout your day. The Spirit is always at work, and He will help you grow in your understanding of the Bible as you seek to be a better student of the Bible.  

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