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miriam bier – handle with care

I believe in biblical preaching. I believe, I think, in biblical preaching from the entire Bible. I believe that God can, and does, in some mysterious manner, Speak through Scripture and its faithful exposition.

And yet, there is all sorts of muck in there that – perhaps appropriately? – seldom rates a mention in weekly sermons. War, rape, genocide, discrimination, vengeance – the whole gamut of destructive human and divine behaviour cuts a swathe through our Bible. This is particularly so in the Testament we evangelicals call “Old” but still – in theory, at least – affirm as an essential part of our sacred book. And so we politely put these texts aside, figuring that they are simply too hard to handle.

Andrea McDougall has recently picked up on this in her observations of the “censoring” of lectionary readings. The rejected passages she mentions are Psalm 58 and parts of Psalm 137. These and other challenging passages – those that call for vengeance, those that advocate bloody genocide in God’s name, those that degrade women or others – are all examples of passages I have dubbed the “handle with care” texts.

They are texts that are uncomfortable (perhaps even dangerous?) because they are so foreign to our understandings of Jesus and his message from the Gospels and from Christian theology. They threaten to challenge what we thought about God and what we thought about humanity. But they, too, appear in our Book. How, then, might such “handle with care” texts be carefully handled in faithful preaching and exposition?

A friend of mine once preached on Ezekiel 16, a chapter that is full of explicit sexual imagery and perversion. He warned his congregation the week before, that it would be “Adults Only,” and contain content that “some listeners might find disturbing.” Is this an appropriate approach?

When I preach on Lamentations, a book that often portrays God in a less-than-flattering light, I leave space for response and discussion. I am careful not to decree, but to ask questions of the text and of the congregation. Is this an appropriate approach?

Conversely, might it sometimes be more appropriate to take a stand against the text? To state unequivocally that actually, this kind of conduct – vengeance, genocide, discrimination – though seemingly sanctioned in sacred text, is NOT, in this day and age, okay?

Or perhaps, as the lectionary has done, it would be more appropriate to set these difficult texts aside. Given so little time on a Sunday morning in which to encourage and equip congregations for their working weeks, why dwell on a “handle with care” text anyway? Why look at things that are disturbed and disturbing? Why preach something that requires so much extra sensitivity when there are plenty of positive, uplifting, and purposeful passages from which to choose?

But what are the perils of neglecting a Judges 19, a Psalm 137, a Lamentations 2?

Perhaps the Bible doesn’t just/always describe/prescribe life as it should be; but also as it actually is. Often broken; sometimes hoping.

Perhaps it presents us with problematic, “handle with care” texts because life is, for most us at least some of the time, problematic.

Perhaps the raw emotion and inner darkness of a “handle with care” text might connect with people in their own times of darkness, indicating that this darkness, too, is under the care and concern of the God of the text.

Might “handle with care” texts, perhaps, speak something of the reality of God-Who-Is, into the reality of situations that Are?

I believe in biblical preaching. I believe, I think,
in biblical preaching from the entire Bible. I believe that “handle with care” texts, along with the more obviously “useful” bits of the Bible, might also be sites from which God may Speak.

* * *

Miriam is a beginning scholar, a sometimes preacher, and a constant writer; for the moment mostly on Lamentations (her PhD thesis). She’s also an excellent babysitter and a passionate puddingologist.


  1. This is profoundly helpful. Thank you.

  2. Excellent and important questions raised! I’ve got no simple answers that come to my mind 🙂 Thanks for raising the issue!

  3. Paul Windsor says:

    Thanks, Miriam. Some of that immersion in the Wisdom writings is rubbing off on you 🙂

    I would make one further contribution. It doesn’t take the angst away, but it still needs to be said. And that is that the ‘part needs to be interpreted in light of the whole’. When we read the Genesis to Revelation story through from cover-to-cover there are times when divine behaviour appears ‘destructive’ and yukky things are ‘seemingly sanctioned’. It is shocking. But there is something else that is shocking – namely God’s extraordinary mercy and grace and love shown towards the nations. He didn’t need to – but he does. As early as Genesis 12 he is on the move to reach them. I try to keep these shocks together…

    Your post reminds me again of how tough the issues are. But the total story does help me and I suspect the alternatives are even worse in their implications. Some will pit the OT over against NT on this one. I don’t find that helpful at all. Some expressions of God’s love in the OT are as shocking as some expressions of God’s judgement on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels.

    The other principle from hermeneutics that helps me is the care we need to take in distinguishing what the Bible really does sanction and what it only records. I’d hate someone to see me punishing my child and build their view of me as a parent solely from that incident.

    I am all for preaching all the texts as best we can, even the ‘handle with care’ ones. In fact we might be surprised at the comfort such authenticity might bring.

    Thanks again, Miriam – a great debut 🙂

    1. Mark Maffey says:

      Miriam you raise some salient points, like Paul W I believe that we need to see such passages and how they fit within the wider meta-narrative. Many moons ago I did a story telling sermon on Samson which I issued a PGR rating due to violence (Killing Lions, Fox tails burning etc) One of the issues coming out of the sermon review was how we deal with God allowing the use of force to overcome enemies and how youth may see this as a justification to act violently.

      Preaching these types of texts does mean stepping back and thinking “how might the audience construe what I am saying” After this we need to work through how we can overlay God’s wider plan of mercy and justice, and yet his demands for righteousness within our text.

  4. Grant says:

    I think it requires a certain openness in the congregation and for pastors to be sensitive to their flock. While I would heartily agree that the whole Bible is scripture, to paraprase Paul, not everyone has this knowledge. However to paraphrase Wright – We must do business with the text. We cannot pick and choose which parts of the Bible we like and don’t. We must be wise to know when culture is setting the agenda and telling us certain things are not ok to preach on and when we should pastorally sensitive with the flock we have been given.

  5. Miriam says:

    thanks folk, some helpful comments here. Yes, I’m well aware of the need to interpret “in light of the whole,” a constant challenge when one is necessarily immersed in one small part for a specific time and purpose!
    I still wrestle though, to know whether “the whole” sufficiently answers and addresses the challenges raised by “handle with care” texts; or whether these “ugly” bits tend to unsettle or undermine the whole.
    Which is a bit of a trick to try and handle with a congregation! If I were preaching more regularly I’d have to give serious thought to what weight a preaching schedule ought give to “handle with care” texts, and what to a more positive, overall message.

  6. Myk Habets says:

    My only thought here is to ask what place a theological interpretation of the text makes? In light of Paul’s sage advice to read in light of the canon we also have to read with our theological aparatus in tune – that is, at least, what theology is for – to help us read Scripture (and yes, I know that comment is controversial to some :-)). So what theology one takes to these texts in order to read them ‘aright’ is what makes all the differnce. Right?

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