08 November 2006

When you don't "get" a verse

by Dan Phillips

'm in Leviticus in my personal Bible reading, and candidly it's pretty tough slogging. Numbers will be harder. Parts of both readily yield meaning and blessing, but other portions are... pretty chewy. It is from one of those parts that I take my illustration.

I hit Leviticus 12:5, which reads: "But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days." So, the time for purification after giving birth to a girl, under the theocracy, was twice the time for purification after the birth of a boy (vv. 2-4).

Why? What in the world does that mean?

Uncharacteristically, Matthew Henry admits he hasn't a clue, which is somewhat comforting. I looked at a few others I had available electronically (Gill, JFB, K&D, Geneva [tersely "Twice as long as if she gave birth to a boy"; gee, thanks, guys], Clarke, Barnes). Nothing.

So here's the part where I unveil the grand insight I came to after further study, right? Sorry, there won't be any. I have one lame guess—so lame I'm not saying it in public. What's more, I'm not doing any further study right now. Sure, one of you smart cookies will have the answer, you'll tell us all, and we'll all applaud and marvel at the awesomeness that is you. But me? I've got nothing, and I'm stopping there deliberately at the moment—because that is going to be my focus.

What do you do when you hit a verse, or a passage, that either is totally impenetrable to you, or even initially strikes you (let's be honest) as absurd?

You and I have several options, theoretically.
  1. Reject it. It doesn't make sense to us, it is offensive, so it's wrong. Right? Well, if you really think you're smarter than Jesus, this is an option. I am not, at the moment, writing for that audience.

    But, to you, Dear Reader, whoever you are, I will say this: you may believe in Jesus, or you may reject parts of the Word you find difficult, uncongenial, or repulsive. You may not do both.

  2. Make fun of it. We can loudly tell others how stupid the text/passage is, mock it, make fun of it, parody it. We might look very clever, "transparent," "authentic," bold, and daring.

    I hope that the problem with that approach is obvious to all: it is ruinously inconsistent on the one hand to say we believe in Jesus, and on the other to mock the Word that He affirms as His sovereign Father's inerrant revelation (Matthew 5:18; John 10:45b; 17:17, etc.). Whatever wonderful things we tell our friends, relatives, children about our view of the Word, giving vent to mockery and belittlement can give the lie to our formally professed position.

  3. Refuse to draw a conclusion until we've made it make sense to us. By this I mean, do not commit to whether it is true or false, whether you believe it or not, until it makes sense to you, on your terms. This may seem to make better Christian sense, but I see two hazards, one of which is sizable, the other of which is deadly.

    The deadly hazard comes if by this we mean, "I'll withhold my opinion until I decide whether I agree with the passage or not." This is to head straight back to the Garden, take our stand next to Eve, and nod in agreement. Eve didn't say she necessarily disbelieved God. Maybe the fruit was bad, maybe it wasn't. She would find out for herself, and then decide. She might end up agreeing with God, she might not. Whatever she did, it would be on her terms. And so, in rejecting God's "Turn back, road out," she'd already made a decision, she'd already made a commitment. No longer was her knee bowed to God; autonomy had taken the throne. And that's the issue that we are supposed to have settled when we confessed that "Jesus is Lord"—for the corollary to that confession is, "and I'm not."

    The sizable hazard is the possible failure to come to grips with an important Biblical truth: omniscience is an attribute of God, and not of man. There are simply things that are over our heads, that we will not understand this side of Glory, period. The reasons for this state of affairs may be good (God hasn't provided enough objective light yet), or they may be bad (we're lazy, we're stubborn, we don't like to admit having to change our minds), but there it is. Peter—Jesus' right-hand man, the apostle, recipient of actual revelation—confessed that Paul's letters contained some pretty knotty passages (2 Peter 3:16). If Peter could say that of his contemporary peer, then how can it surprise us to find the same, as we seek to understand Moses, the prophetic historians, Ezekiel, or Solomon?

  4. Adopt a reverent, qualified, specific agnosticism. Confess our ignorance and, at the same time, confess the text as God's Word. I say "reverent," because the divine origin and authority of the Word doesn't cease at the limits of our understanding. In my case, a favorite verse such as Romans 5:1 or John 14:6 is God's Word for me, deserving of my submissive faith—and so, to no lesser degree, is Leviticus 12:5. I virtually never cite Matthew Henry as a model exegete, but he sounds a wise note here: "Why the time of both those was double for a female to what it was for a male I can assign no reason but the will of the Law-maker...." Henry admit he's hit a wall, but no less confesses the verse to be God's revelation.

    "Qualified" in the sense that I confess that I do not understand the text, but I grant that I will one day. It isn't that the text is meaningless; it is that I haven't yet gained its meaning. I don't even have a right to say much about it until I have worked hard to try to gain its meaning (which I haven't yet done with Leviticus 12:5). All I can say is, "I don't immediately catch that one." But I won't sit in the seat of scorners, and ridicule the text because I have failed to grasp it.

    And I say "specific," because to admit one personal interpretive dead-end is not to cast a shadow on the whole. There is a great deal in the Bible that is perfectly clear. In fact, this verse is perfectly clear, as to its practical impact under Moses. Some are fond of collapsing in a feigned inability to understand, when the problem is the will, not the intellect. Others take easy refuge behind a showy dodge of trumped-up and endless questions, like a precocious early teenager, when the real dilemma is that they simply don't like a text or a doctrine. All we need to know is what we are to do. This text is pellucid in that regard. The rationale may be murky, but the duty is not.

    So I can say, "It is the word of God. It is not to be mocked, ever. I know it makes sense, I know it is true, I know it is profitable—because God said it. I'm just not seeing it right now. Maybe later, I'll take the time to study it to the best of my ability, and maybe then God will open my eyes to the sense of it. But then again, maybe I won't ever see it, in this life. I can be content with that, because I can't expect to be able to make sense out of absolutely everything. I'm finite, flawed, fallen. My new nature is still shackled to my flesh. When I get to Heaven I'll see things very differently. If this passage hasn't made sense by then, it will."

    So what I do in such cases is say that I'm putting that on my list of things-I'll-ask-God-when-I-see-Him. (Though, to be honest, I expect the list to drop from my hand, overwhelmed by wonder, love, gratitude, and awe.)
Dan Phillips's signature


FX Turk said...

What? You mean that sometimes God is inscrutible?

... gotta lie down ... I hate it when God is inscrutible ...

S.G. said...

Great post by "The theological pitbulls".

Steve said...

DJP said, All we need to know is what we are to do. This text is pellucid in that regard. The rationale may be murky, but the duty is not.

If only more believers saw it this way (in regard to other difficult passages) so that their lives would be more fully submitted to the Word.

DJP said...

Steve, a secular prediction: once they've thought it over, not all our commenters (on- or off-blog) will like that one as well as you.

donsands said...

Very encourging thoughts. Thanks.

There are certainly verses that can be perplexing, and even irritating.
1 Cor. 15:29 is one that always pokes me in my spirit.

FX Turk said...

I am reminded of a certain boy and girl who were given a set of three signs by a Great Lion, and when they came to the final sign (having ignored the other two), they realized that they were supposed to follow what they were told to do -- but not that they would know what was to happen if they did.

I wonder how Paul felts in his last moments, having done exactly what God told him to do, and he didn't have a Roman Farmhouse with lots of slaves and a pretty wife but instead was going to die a cruel and public death because the Gospel is an affront to Caesar? Isn't it odd that Paul's "meetings" with the heads of state were not strategy meetings but were because he was being brought before them in chains?

How influential is that? That Paul must have had it all wrong ...

Matt Gumm said...

Dan: You need to read Neal's blog more often. That used to be all he ever talked about.

Cent: Paul's meetings weren't strategy, in the sense you mean, but they were clearly strategic; as I read, it seems as though he planned out exactly the steps necessary to preach the gospel even to the highest echelons of government, even at the cost of his own life.

jigawatt said...

centuri0n, that happened because Paul didn't pray the prayer of Jabez.

Kay said...

I wish I had a grumpy marshwiggle to help me in those moments when I know what I have to do but I don't want to.

Mind you, Frank is a good sustitute, as is Dan. They probably look really silly in a pointy hat, though.

yes2truth aka Charles Crosby said...

"When you don't "get" a verse"

Check it against the original Hebrew or Greek.

Check out the context to see if it affects the verse in anyway.

Pray and wait for The Lord to reveal it's meaning to you.


Steve said...

Well, n2sbp, if those are the simple steps, then surely you can enlighten us on the "why" of Leviticus 12:5. We're eagerly anticipating your explanation.

In your glibness you've missed the point of Dan's post. There are most definitely steps any good student of the Bible can take to gain understanding of a passage. But there are still some passages that are, as Frank said, inscrutible--no matter what steps we take to gain insight into them.

Libbie, now that you've mentioned grumpy marshwiggle's pointy hat, I expect we'll see a graphic of Frank in such sometime soon...

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Not sure I understand why you would lose any sleep over finding some small fragment of Torah hard to understand. If I had consulted all available resources without success and wanted an answer to this question I would post it on the b-hebrew list which tolerates questions about interpretation. Your answer might come from a Jewish Torah scholar but I assume you can live with that.

On the question of "is it true" when it doesn't make sense to me, you are posing the question as if you had adopted a post-modern framework while making it quite clear that you don't really operate within that framework. The issue of reading the bible from a subjectivist post-modern framework is in my mind completely unrelated to the problem of understanding Leviticus.

When I come on a difficult text I find it exciting. Being up against the exegetical wall is where I want to be. Being in the state of suspended judgement about a text (what it means not is it true) is something that can go on for decades without causing any consternation.

Theological systems are another matter. Since we have no inspired systematic theologies the state of suspended judgement may in fact be about "is it true". But adopting that sort of suspended judgement in biblical studies will put you on the wrong road, a road which leads nowhere. I assume you would agree with this.

Colin Maxwell said...

A native convert once said that he liked the Bible because it shone a lot of light on Matthew Henry :0)
(I hesitated to repeat that one because I like old Henry, but your post tipped the balance.)

SB said...

This was helpful. Good thoughts.

Jim Crigler said...

So if Frank is reminded of two kids and a Lion, I'm reminded of Psyche's sister. "You are Yourself the answer. ... How can we meet God face to face till we have faces?"

tcblack said...

I can't by any measure offer the end all answer to the question. But I've responded to your post over at stilltruth.com.
The passage is a mixture of raw theology and basic pragmatism. It is not teaching that having a son is less sinful than having a daughter. It is an issue of differentiation in the sexes which are neither moral nor arbitrary. They are rooted in creation order as well as in responsibility.
In the context of Leviticus ritual plays a central role. That statement ought not suprise anyone. Ritual also provides a key to comprehending this passage.
The relative destiny of girls and boys wrapped up in gender identity is the most logical reason for the difference. Because in bearing a girl the woman has replicated herself together with the life giving capabilities and it’s requisites for cleansing. In bearing a son she has replicated her husband together with the headship responsibilities he bears.

A less rambling and slightly expanded response is posted on my site. (http://stilltruth.com/2006/leviticus_12-5/)

DJP said...

1. You do understand that Leviticus 12:5 was not the point of the post?

2. I'll read it later, and then decide whether to marvel at the awesomeness that is you.


tcblack said...

I did indeed understand the point. But if all I did was repeat your post I wouldn't add much to the conversation would I?

Don't bother marveling, Just share your thoughts. ;-)

Incidentally I can't get your Captcha to be visible in Firefox.

Solameanie said...

Hmm. Perhaps we could all ask Brian McLaren what he thinks? At the very least, I think we should put a five-year moratorium on Dan's post until we can figure out what to say about it.

(That was tongue-in-cheek)

Dan, I think you should send an email to Bill O'Reilly with the word "pellucid" in it. Then he can add it to his usual "popinjay," "jackanapes," "ninnyhammer" and other obscure words of yore.

Stephen Dunning said...

Surely it is obvious what it means....


C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

There is yet another kind of suspended judgement. A biblical author may introduce intentional semantic indeterminacy into the text. There is a lot more of this in the bible than some of us are comfortable with, particularly if your job is to get up on sunday morning and tell people what this text means.

There are biblical texts where semantic indeterminacy is not a question of our ignorance concerning the language, historical and cultural context, and so forth. Take for example Acts 17:22 Paul's use of deisidaimonesterous in his Mars Hill address. Was Paul flattering or insulting his audience? None of the above. Irony, perhaps but subtle irony. Paul wanted deisidaimonesterous to be sufficiently ambiguous that it would allow for several readings from his audience. Jesus' parables are full of this sort off thing.

The recognition of semantic indeterminacy is not a capitulation to post-modern subjectivism. In your example from Leviticus it is safe to assume that the author didn't intend for this to be ambiguous or hard to understand. All of the problems are due to the time and culture gap between the exegete and the author. On the other hand Paul's use of deisidaimonesterous does introduce some instability which cannot be removed by gathering more information. We have plenty of information, almost too much information. The instability is there because Paul wanted it to be there. In both cases we retain a strong affirmation of authorial intent (cf. E.D. Hirsch Validity of Interpretation). Post-modern subjectivism just flat out denies the validity of authorial intent. See also K.Vanhoozer "There a Meaning in This Text?

Jim Jordan said...

But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days

Is it possible that this practice gave a health advantage to the child or to the mother? Perhaps this is a good question for an obstetrician. My understanding of a lot of these laws is that they, if followed, would give the Jewish nation the ability to grow faster than would otherwise be possible. What if it was better for a woman to abstain from sexual relations for a longer period after birthing a female?

What makes it such an inscrutible passage is that God has the totality of facts at His disposal and we don't; a point we must never forget.

Also, it's not categorically opposed to the known attributes of God, so there is no urgency to examine it further. The only solution is to trust it, and move on to Lev. 12:6.

~Mark said...

Number 4 + prayer + more study! :)

tcblack said...

For Dan's sake I'll respond to the point of the post.
God doesn’t waste ink. All those passages which we stare blankly at until the drool drips from our beards are passages that matter to God. Therefore they must matter to us. Fools and unbelievers are free to Ignore or mock. But we must wrestle with it - if not until it is clear for all, at least until God has made it clear for us in the practical way he envisioned when he first moved the author to pen it.

I was desperately seeking a quote which I simply know is in Heiko Oberman’s biography of Luther: Man between God and the Devil. In it, Luther describes his dogged determination with a text which bothers him. He wrestles it like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. Not that he might walk away victorious having dominated the text but rather that the text might finally yield it’s blessing which God so intended.

That being said, we all come across texts which no amount of wrestling seems to render clear. Perhaps we give up too soon. Like Joash we should have struck our arrows five or six times instead of only three (2 Kings 13:14-19). Or perhaps we have come across a passage which God will hold in reserve for our sake at another time. But it is God’s word and we must by nature of our confession of faith trust that God in His inimitable wisdom has written truth. We then doubtless hope that God’s Spirit will some day remove the blinders from our poor miserable eyes and grant us another glimpse at his glory. If instead of granting a small measure of satisfaction in teaching us in this life; our Father chooses to bring us into his presence to live with him forever. I like Dan fully expect all my questions and wrestlings to evaporate in the consuming presence of my blessed God when I shall simply bow in adoration of the full revelation of my savior.

Mike Felker said...

Dan, I was going to present a full exegetical response to Lev. 12:5, but then I remembered that you haven't retracted your fear of me.

joey said...


this post is full of what I love most about the Pyromaniacs. Love of the Word, and submission to it. It convicted me that oftentimes when I read those types of passages I just move on, and tell myself there is no reason to worry about every single little law of the Lord, instead of doing the hard work of trying to understand, even if those attempts fail to yield an immediate breakthrough. Excellent post.

Lance Roberts said...

I like the hard verses because when you set yourself to understand them, God seems to reveal a lot.

The verses in Leviticus are giving us the only form of Biblical birth control, abstinence for set periods of time. The longer time for abstinence after the birth of a girl, helps the woman heal up. It's related to the birth of a girl using more female hormones from the mother.

It's always amazing to see God's love for his people shown in his law.

We obey God, because we love him; God gives up principles to obey, because he loves us.

Neil said...

djp, This was a very good post. You exude awesomeness. :)

God's ways and thoughts are a teensy bit higher than ours. It would be misguided human arrogance to think that we should be able to get every little bit of the "why" for every little bit of the Bible.

Phil Johnson said...

Here I go off topic....

C. Stirling Bartholomew:

How can I e-mail you? I want to get your permission to use one of your brilliant photos for a PyroGraphic.

DJP said...

Et tu, Phil?

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

Phil you can reach me at

jackson[dash]pollock[at sign]

with the suffix: earthlink.net

You are free to use any photo you like.
If you want a high res version e-mail me.


DJP said...

tcblack -- oh, I thought it was great you wanted to give your thoughts on Lev 12:5. I just wanted to make sure you understood that it wasn't what the essay was about. Thanks for your additional thoughts.

I'll mull over your post, and may bestow Awesome status later. In the interim, I commend this to you, with a friendly smile.

David A. Carlson said...

Leviticus is my fav OT book.

When you dig into it, the NT becomes so much more understandable.

(not withstanding 12:5)

Phil Johnson said...

C. Stirling Bartholomew:

By "dash" do you mean hyphen or underscore character?

Coz I sent you an e-mail message. If you haven't got it, that's prolly because I'm too dense to decipher your instructions. You can e-mail me at: phil at spurgeon dot org.

(That's two off-topic comments under one post. Am I in danger of getting permanently banned?)

Craig Schwarze said...

As a related aside Dan, have you ever done a speed reading course?

I've found speed-reading books like Leviticus and Numbers (in 1 or 2 sittings) really helpful. You get a good feeling for the big picture, which can be lost when you are working through them over a period of weeks.

It has to be complemented by careful verse-by-verse study, of course. But I'd recommend people give it a go...

Sharon said...

Here's a simple answer (but then again, I'm a simple person):

Many times God gives us a command and expects us to obey without giving a detailed and logical reason why. Perhaps this is one of those examples?

David A. Carlson said...

when you get to numbers, do you mind sharing your opinion one the use of "elef" in Numbers?

Mike Messerli said...

great post. thanks. glad someone else doesn't know what it means! love your blog, thanks.

Unknown said...

This reminds me of circumcision. Ah yes, one of the new testament's favorite subjects. I ask 3 Pediatricians why we should perform the act on our son, BTW, we have 4 boys. I found out it is a good idea if you live in a desert region to avoid infections, which live in the Southeast. I thought this was pretty cool given where the Jews live.

I imagine this command also involves some sort of medical insight that we may or may not possess, but God, our Creator, obviously does.

In Christ,

Luke and Rachael said...


Suppose the verse you're struggling with stands in apparent contradiction to some other verse you feel relatively confident about. Suppose the verse you're unsure about is Ex. 32.12, which finds Moses pleading with YHWH: 'Turn from thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against thy people' (KJV). Suppose the verse you're pretty sure about is James 1.17, which states that in God there is no shadow of turning.

My suspicion is that you're not going to want to take your post's advice on this one. You're not going to want to say, w/ respect to Ex. 32.12: 'I don't know; put it on the ask-God-when-I-see-him list.' You're going to want to say that Ex. 32.12 is anthropomorphic, or rhetorical, or at any rate to be read in light of James and other NT texts. Is this right?

Steve said...

Sharon, I should let Dan answer to your comment, but the fact it's a simple answer doesn't diminish it in any way.

If it turns out that simple happens to be biblical, that's what counts, isn't it?

Steve said...

Phil said: "(That's two off-topic comments under one post. Am I in danger of getting permanently banned?)"

Phil, might Mark 2:27-28 sort of answer your question?

Dennis Elslager said...

I do think a point of seeing that we are not all on the same level of understanding and growth in the Lord may be important. Other believers and myself at times would get stuck on a verse at the expense of going on into the stage of development we are at in God at that time. We need to feed on vital doctrine from God’s Word to nourish the soul in the growth which He uses to prepare us for the next stage. Every Word of God is important as Jesus said to Satan, but the when it is important to our life in Christ is the question. If I struggle to much with some verse or passage of verses, I may be quenching the Spirit of God in preventing Him from the work He wants to do with His Words in my soul at the time.

In building a house, you shouldn’t install the windows until all the walls are up. You should install the drywall before you run the wires. Why would God do any thing with less wisdom than we have? He is our Creator.

"Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it"

Dennis Elslager said...

You should install the drywall before you run the wires.

meant to say "should not" unless you really like alot of extra work.

Mike L. said...

I think you make the same mistake in your analysis that many extreme fundamentalists make. The first rule in working with scripture is to look at the text in context of the author, the setting, the time, the political environment, etc. This is exegesis. You have to understand that the person that wrote this text had a much different understanding of the universe and of basic biology. The purpose of this text was to help the people of ancient Israel maintain good health. That is the reason for all of these types of laws in Leviticus. It isn't some complex spiritual message to people in the 21st century. It is just a simple matter of ancient people trying to help their community stay healthy in the best way they know how. These particular people (like most ancient people) actually felt that there was a spiritual difference between men and women that accounted for their biological differences. Therefore, their particular rules are often down right gender-biased. You can't blame the author for not understanding modern biology or sexual equality the way we do today.

Also, you can't try to blame God for this. He didn't say it. He did inspire the author with the passion to protect his people, which is exactly what the author is trying to do. Proper exegesis lets us see past the particulars of the surface level and find the key purpose and intent of text. God loves and wants to protect his people and he inspired the leaders and poets of Israel with the desire to protect his people through these types of laws. He didn't however tell the the best way to do it. Otherwise he would replaced the 10 commandments on a stone tablets with a detailed library of modern medical manuals.

This was their best whole-hearted attempt to protect their people in a beautiful "ancient world-view" sort of way. When you try to turn God's word into God's "words" you distort scripture and you distort God by making him into man's image.

Don't be afraid to view scripture through a trained critical eye. Don't confuse inspiration with dictation. The more we embrace the humanness of scripture the more it comes alive and stands the test of time and the less we confuse the message with the messengers.