Hard Sayings of the Bible

By Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. DAvids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Brauch
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1996). 808 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
8.2 (Fall 1997) : 241-244

This work is one of the best recent evangelical works on problem texts. As a re-editing of four previous books, now combined in one volume, it adds new material on more than a hundred verses. It includes a Subject Index and a Scripture Index. A general introduction answers twelve questions, such as “How Do We Know Who Wrote the Bible?” Other questions are on matters like how we can believe in miracles, why God is angry (OT), then loving (NT), so-called discrepancies in numbers, whether archaeology supports the Bible, whether prophecies are accurate, NT quotes of the OT, and why there are four gospels. From the introduction on, the book lists 64 Bible books consecutively and discusses problem passages in sequence (it omits Obadiah and Zephaniah).

Kaiser does all the OT, Bruce the synoptics, Brauch Paul’s letters, and Davids the remaining NT books. The writers purportedly believe in inspiration of Scripture, though the four differ in how they define inspiration, as evidenced by viewpoints they express that some readers will regard as explaining Scripture away rather than explaining it from a high view of Scripture.

Sometimes references guide users to other passages or introductory essays that supplement what is said (e. g., Gen 2:17 on death, linked with Rom 5:12). Where dealing with the same problem, different authors at times have varying explanations.

Kaiser says that a study of the OT problems helps in texts where no explanation seems to be offered in Scripture. Its other benefits include helping to understand when passages allegedly contradict other biblical texts; enabling a sharper understanding of God’s Word and consequently spiritual growth; trying the believer’s faith, patience, and commitment; illumining idioms; showing credibility and not collusion between writers of Scripture; overcoming doubts; helping to see in the explanations the unity in the Bible; allowing one to see apparent reasons difficulties arise (multiple names for some people or places, different methods of figuring official years, abbreviated accounts, sayings in which the meaning is hard to grasp); and many more.

 The work contains a profitable survey on “The History of Hard Sayings” (32-34). This study traces the history of interpreting these from early treatises such as those by Eusebius, Chrysostom, and Augustine to the present. The section lists and dates many books and essays dealing with the topics. Among them in the last century and a half are: John Haley, 1874 and later printings, An Examination of Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible; George DeHoff, 1950, Alleged Bible Contradictions, F. F. Bruce, 1972, Answers to Questions; Robert Mounce, 1979, Answers to Questions About the Bible; Gleason Archer, 1982, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, etc. Other works this discussion omits are E. J. Young, 1957, Thy Word Is Truth; William Neil, 1975, What Jesus Really Meant; Neil and Stephen Travis, 1979-198l, More Difficult Sayings of Jesus; William Arndt, 1932, Bible Difficulties and also 1926,Does the Bible Contradict Itself?; Robert Stein, 1996, Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament, combining three works of 1984-1988; Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, 1992, When Critics Ask (includes a section on 17 mistakes people make which bring texts into supposed error, 15-26).

 Beyond this “History of Hard Sayings,” the volume includes a great assortment of books in connection with discussions of separate passages. Among these are OT and NT introductions, works on archaeology and the Bible, books on Bible chronology, Bible history, manners and customs, hermeneutics, biblical inerrancy, systematic theology, and particular issues such as the role of women in the church.

The present book has entries that discuss passages in detail and others that merely list another passage where relevant details appear. It has 50 listings on Genesis, 67 on 1 Samuel through 2 Chronicles, only 7 on Ezra/Nehemiah/Esther, 37 on Psalms, only 15 on Isaiah, just 7 on Jeremiah/Lamentations, 7 on Ezekiel, a mere 27 on the Minor Prophets, 78 on Matthew, 15 on John, 26 on Romans, and only 17 on the Revelation.

Readers, according to their convictions, will react differently to viewpoints. The book denies that Gen 3:16 refers to a woman’s sexual desire for her husband or any order a husband is to observe in relation to his wife. It holds the text to mean that Eve, due to her sin, would turn from sole dependence on God to her husband, though God warns that the results of this curse will not be pleasant (98). Discussion on Gen 4:17 furnishes a good answer for where Cain got his wife; he married a sister; in those early days genetic possibilities of Adam and Eve were very good, with no biological reasons to bar marrying within the family as became necessary later (101). Five reasons support taking “sons of God” in Gen 6:2-4 to mean titularies from kings, nobles and aristocrats, despots craving power or renown (108). The same discussion advances much reasoning against other views. Another place views Melchizedek as a historical person, not the pre-incarnate Christ (120-21).

 Some will question seeing the difference between 24,000 (Num 25:9) and 23,000 (1 Cor 10:8) as a slip (error) of memory by Paul. Here the writer assumes an error, then explains it away as if it were not an issue, since it does not bother Paul’s purpose in the point he intends in 1 Corinthians 10. Also, the treatment of Joshua 10 does not understand the sun standing still as a miracle. The sun was simply hidden behind clouds during a thunderstorm, allowing coolness for Joshua’s men to fight. To stop the sun and moon would cause a catastrophe for the entire planet due to the force of gravity. One can question this opinion in light of the sufficiency of the God who created heaven and earth; however, the writer on this problem does not deny God’s infinite ability. In Judges 11, the writer sees Jephthah as sacrificing his daughter in death; no matter what one decides on this, he will have readers who passionately agree and others who strongly disagree. The book defends Ruth’s decency on the threshing floor. Samuel really appeared in spirit when Saul visited at Endor (1 Samuel 28). A good discussion of imprecations appears (Pss 5:5; 137:8-9; 139:20). In Romans 12:20, the solution explains heaping burning coals on the head by an Egyptian custom and reasons from the context; it has a positive sense in line with Prov 25:21-22, bringing a person to repentance.

 In another text, the writer defends Jesus’ calling the mustard seed the smallest among seeds “you plant in the ground” (Mark 4:31). Jesus did not claim it to be smallest in all the world of botany. Romans 1:27 condemns homosexuality. The “thorn” (2 Cor 12:7) refers to a human opponent of Paul because of the OT use of thorns as a figure for enemies (Num 13:55 etc.), “messenger” always denoting a person in Paul’s writings and because of 2 Corinthians 10–12 pursuing the basic topic of Paul’s opponents. In 1 Tim 2:11-15, women who are not to teach are not to let persuasion by false teachers spur them to undermine authority of male leaders; outside of local problems here and in 1 Cor 14:33-40, women can have authority, without a curtailed life, says the problem solver. The entry misrepresents the view that the passages deal only with roles, not nature, when it says the “roles” view makes women in some sense “inferior” (666). Those taking the “roles” view have often sought to show that proper subordination taught by God does not at all suggest inferiority.

Comments on some passages will stir strong opposition from those who teach perseverance of the genuinely saved and the falling away of mere professors. The entries on Heb 6:4-6, 2 Pet 1:10 and 2:20-22, and 1 John 5:16 all assume that those once saved can lose their salvation. And in Revelation, the 144,000 are Jewish and Gentile believers (763), while the “woman” (Chap. 12) is also both Israel and the church, i.e. Christians (767-68).

Clearly the book is a mixture of viewpoints. Different readers will judge its 808 pages as outstanding, mediocre, or less. In a great number of the cases it offers helpful summaries and is quite beneficial.