I was reading the book of Jonah the other day, and I came across a passage that seemed to contradict a concept I knew to be true about God. In short, it said that God repented of what he planned to do to Nineveh. (Jonah 3:10) But, I know from scripture that God is immutable. He never changes. Well, how can God be both immutable and still end up repenting of something?
While I knew that the scripture in Jonah didn’t contradict the immutability of God, I’ve never really dug deeper to see why. But what if someone presented that passage to me and asked what it meant? What if they wanted to know whether or not it contradicted the rest of the Bible? How would I answer them? What would I point them to?
It’s important to have faith for what we believe, however it’s even more important to have a solid foundation for our faith. We shouldn’t just believe something because it’s what we’ve been taught. We need to know the truth for ourselves.
I want to use this example from Jonah to illustrate how we can approach passages in the Bible that seem to contradict each other. By the end of this article, you should have a pretty good starting point for interpreting Bible passages you don’t understand.
Why you shouldn’t ignore difficult passages in the Bible
Again, I knew that Jonah 3:10 did not contradict God’s unchanging nature. But, how well could I explain why? Sure, you believe that the word doesn’t contradict itself but do you have a foundation for what you believe?
It’s also important to remember that we don’t know all there is to know about the Bible. There’s so much we can learn from digging deep into difficult passages. The Bible tells us that those who seek will find. (Matthew 7:7) Maybe God wants to use that difficult passage to teach you something you really need to know.
“The more we know Him, the more we will desire to know Him. As love increases with knowledge, the more we know God, the more we will truly love Him. We will learn to love Him equally in times of distress or in times of great joy.”Brother Lawrence
Finally, difficult Bible passages can strengthen your faith in God. As you explore difficult parts of scripture, you learn more about God than you would if you just stayed on the surface. I love this quote by Brother Lawrence. The more we know him, the more we truly love him. As you explore the deep and beautiful truths about God, your faith is built and your relationship with him grows stronger. You know him more intimately because you know his word more intimately.
Why do people think there are contradictions in the Bible
I notice two major reasons why some people adamantly believe that the Bible contradicts itself. They either read out of context or they insert their own personal biases into scripture.
As I was researching this topic, I came across an article on Thought Catalog entitled, “30 Pairs of Bible Verses That Contradict One Another.” And honestly, without much investigation, I could easily see many of the holes in the author’s argument.
Jim Goad, the author who also happens to be a former Christian, either took these verses out of context and obscured their intended meaning or inserted his own personal opinion into what the Bible should mean instead of considering what the Biblical authors actually intended.
Let’s look at a set of his “contradictory” verses:
For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.—Exodus 20:5
The Lord is good to all.—Psalms 145:9
Goad is saying that God cannot both punish wrong and be good. Well, what does it mean that God is good? Goad defines good by his own standards instead of Biblical standards and neglects the truth that God can be both good and just.
Next, he ignores the second part of the sentence in Exodus 20.
but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.— Exodus 20:6
Yes, God punishes iniquity up to the third and fourth generation. But look at the second part — he shows love to a thousand generations of people who love him and keep his commandments. In other words, God rewards love and faithfulness at a much greater degree than he punishes sin and unfaithfulness. Isn’t that amazing?
A final point. When Exodus 20:5 says that God punishes the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation, it implies that the children are also sinners and unfaithful to God. How do I know? It is consistent with God’s nature that he forgives those who repent. So, if the next generation turned to God, they would not have been punished. See this article from Got Questions for more on this.
With all of this in mind, it’s clear that these two verses do not contradict each other. But, you may not have known that from looking at it on the surface. I want to teach you how to dig deeper so that you can understand the truth about scripture and know how to handle verses that seem to contradict.
How to approach passages in the Bible that seem to contradict
Let’s walk through how you can approach Bible passages that seem to contradict by using Jonah 3:10 as an example.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.Jonah 3:10 ESV
Don’t skip over it!
First, I want to encourage you to not skip over the passage. Honestly, I wanted to skip Jonah 3:10 because I knew that it didn’t actually contradict God’s immutable nature. But, it was important to dig deeper so I could have a firm foundation for what I believe.
I invite you to do the same. You never know what you’ll find.
Study one passage at a time in context
If you have two passages that you’re looking at, don’t study them together at first.
First, study each passage within its context. A lot of people will look at them together at first, but that’s not helpful. You can’t compare two things if you don’t first have a good foundation for each of them.
As you study, look into words, phrases, historical context, author, and type of literature. Try your best not to bring your own preconceived ideas into it. Just study what you are reading in front of you. Sometimes, simply studying the context of each passage will clear up the contradiction right away.
If you want to learn more about Bible study tips, check out these articles:
- 5 Important Questions to Ask As You Study The Bible
- How to Answer Tough Questions With a Topical Bible Study – Her Style of Tea
- How to Study the Bible (A Beginner Friendly Guide) – Her Style of Tea
- Why Should We Read the Bible Every Day? – Her Style of Tea
In the case of Jonah 3:10, my question wasn’t between two verses. It was between an important truth about God and the verse. So, let’s look at Jonah 3:10 in context to see what it’s really saying.
Who is “they” in this passage?
The passage is speaking about Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. We know it’s speaking about Nineveh because Jonah 1 tells us. Assyria was a huge and powerful empire that conquered many of its surrounding neighbors. Assyria also oppressed Israel, God’s people, for many years and brought them into captivity. They were ruthless in their conquests.
Note: You can look up Nineveh and Assyria in a Bible dictionary to find out more information about them and other places they are referenced in scripture.
What evil did they turn from?
Jonah doesn’t make it clear what kind of evil they were involved in. But, other Bible passages do.
Nahum 3 tells us all about Nineveh’s evil after Jonah’s time. While they originally repented, they later on went back to the evil they were used to.
Woe to the city guilty of bloodshed!
She is full of lies;
she is filled with plunder;
she has hoarded her spoil!Nahum 3:1 ESV
Ask yourself why you think it contradicts
Once you’ve studied both passages in context, look at them together with your findings. Which part of each passage seems to contradict the other? Are there any main ideas or concepts that seem to contradict? Consider your own personal biases. Are there any ideas you might be bringing to the table that aren’t consistent with scripture?
When you’ve processed why you think the passage contradicts, you can begin asking the right questions.
Dig deeper by asking more meaningful questions
- What did the author mean by this word?
- Is this literal or figurative? Take the plain meaning of the text at face value except when the literal does not make sense. Then it is most likely a figure of speech.
- Look up specific words and learn what they mean in the original text.
- Example: God doesn’t change but God repents?
- What does it mean to repent?
- How is it different when God repents than when we do?
- What does it mean that God doesn’t change?
- Is there anything else in scripture that tells me how God works in situations like these?
- Example: God doesn’t change but God repents?
- Finally, ask yourself if your interpretation is consistent with what is true about God
In Jonah 3:10, I ask, how can God “repent” and still be unchanging? But then I asked another question. What caused God to repent? Nineveh turned from their evil. If Nineveh hadn’t turned from their sin, they would have been destroyed. My final question: how does God consistently respond to people and nations when they turn from their sin?
How does God consistently respond to people and nations who turn from their sin?
Nineveh turned from their sin. How does God respond to people or nations who turn from sin? He forgives them, right?
We know that this doesn’t contradict God’s unchangeable nature because he responded to Nineveh’s repentance in the same way he always responds to repentance. God can change his actions. He just doesn’t change his character. He’s immutable, not static.
Use the Bible to interpret itself
Difficult passages in the Bible can be interpreted with clearer passages. What do we know about God based on what the Bible consistently says?
Also ask yourself if there are other passages in the Bible that speak about this particular topic.
A concordance can definitely help with this. Look up the word repent and read the passages where the word is found.
A commentary is also helpful. Often, commentators will address seemingly contradictory points.
I used a commentary and found this passage:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.Jeremiah 18:7-10 ESV
The answer to our question can be found in another part of scripture. That often happens and this is why we use scripture to interpret scripture.
What if you still can’t figure it out?
- Make a note and come back to it later.
- Ask your pastor or another trusted leader.
- Pray about it and ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand.
- Keep studying until you understand.
I hope this article was helpful! Have you encountered a passage in scripture that seemed to contradict another? How did you approach it?