Some Bible-believing Christians play fast and loose with their sacred text. When it suits their purposes, they treat it like the literally perfect word of God. Then, when it suits their other purposes, they conveniently ignore the parts of the Bible that are—inconvenient.
Here are 11 kinds of verses Bible-believers ignore so that they can keep spouting the others when they want to. To list all of the verses in these categories would take a book almost the size of the Bible; one the size of the Bible minus the Jefferson Bible, to be precise. I’ll limit myself to a couple tantalizing tidbits of each kind, and the curious reader who wants more can go to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible or simply dig out the old family tome and start reading at Genesis, Chapter I.
1. Weird insults and curses. The Monty Python crew may have coined some of the best insults of the last 100 years: Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. But for centuries the reigning master was Shakespeare: It is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice. Had John Cleese or William Shakespeare lived in the Iron Age, though, some of the Bible writers might have given him a run for his money. Christians may scoot past these passages, but one hell-bound humorist used them to create a biblical curse generator.
- She lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. Ezekiel 23:20 NIV
- You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. . . . The Lord will afflict your knees and legs with painful boils that cannot be cured, spreading from the soles of your feet to the top of your head. Deuteronomy 28:30-31,35
2. Awkwardly useless commandments. The Bible is chock-a-block with do’s and don’ts. Some of them are simply statements of universal ethical principles like, do to others what you would have them do to you, or don’t lie, or don’t covet your neighbor’s possessions. But from a moral standpoint most of them are simply useless or even embarrassing—especially if you think God could have used the space to say don’t have sex with anyone who doesn’t want you to, or wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.
- Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. Leviticus 19:19
- Ye shall not round the corners of your heads. Leviticus 19:27
3. Silly food rules. The early Hebrews probably didn’t have an obesity epidemic like the one that has spread around the globe today. Even so, one might think that if an unchanging and eternal God were going to give out food rules he might have considered the earnest Middle-American believers who would be coming along in 2014. A little divine focus on amping up leafy green vegetables and avoiding sweets might have gone a long way. Instead, the Bible strictly forbids eating rabbit, shellfish, pork, weasels, scavengers, reptiles, and owls. As is, Christians simply ignore the eating advisories in the Old Testament, even though they claim that edicts like the Ten Commandments and the anti-queer clobber verses still apply.
- All that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you. Leviticus 9:10
- Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Exodus 23:19
4. Holy hangups about genitals. God, or the Bible writers, is hung up about sexual anatomy in a way many modern Christians, fortunately, are not. In The Year of Living Biblically, the author, A.J. Jacobs, attempts to obey Mosaic laws about menstruation. When his wife finds out what those laws actually are, she gives him the middle finger by sitting on every chair in the house.
- When a woman has a discharge, if her discharge in her body is blood, she shall continue in her menstrual impurity for seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything also on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean. Leviticus 15: 19-20
- When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Deuteronomy 25:11-12
5. God’s temper tantrums. Modern Christians may talk about God as a loving father, or even a Jesus buddy, the kind you’d want to play golf with, but in reality Bible-God goes out of his way to be intimidating. Worse, he appears to lose control of his temper at times, lashing out like an oversized thwarted three-year-old; and his earthly representatives—including Jesus—do the same.
- Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 2 Kings 2:23-25 NIV
- Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. Matthew 21:18-22 NIV
6. Times when the Bible God is worse than Satan. In the Bible, Satan is described as a roaring lion who prowls the earth, seeking whom he may devour. But if you actually read the stories, Satan doesn’t do much other than to tempt people into disobeying the dictates of Yahweh, who acts like a heavenly dictator with borderline personality disorder. God, by contrast, professes his undying love, kindness and mercy, but then commands his minions to commit brutal atrocities when he isn’t up for it himself. Some of the stories are so bad even Hollywood, with its passion for glorious biblical sex and violence, won’t touch them, especially the plentiful Bible stories about sexual slavery and human sacrifice.
- Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.Numbers 31:17-18
- He [Josiah] executed the priests of the pagan shrines on their own altars, and he burned human bones on the altars to desecrate them…. He did this in obedience to all the laws written in the scroll that Hilkiah the priest had found in the LORD’s Temple. Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses. And there has never been a king like him since. 2 Kings 23:20-25 NLT
7. Instructions for slave masters. The reality is that the Bible says much more in support of slavery than against it. Even the New Testament Jesus never says owning people is wrong. Instead, the Bible gives explicit instructions to masters and slaves. Awkward.
- You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT
- Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Ephesians 6:5 NLT
8. Bizzare death penalties. Years ago, I wrote an article titled, “If the Bible Were Law Would You Qualify For the Death Penalty?” It identified 35 different offenses that earn a person capital punishment in the Bible. Hint: You probably qualify. And so does the dog who belongs to your kinky neighbor.
- If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die. Deuteronomy 21:18-21
- If a man has sex with an animal, he must be put to death, and the animal must be killed. Leviticus 20:15 NLT
9. Denigration of handicapped people. The yuck factor is probably wired into humanity at the level of instinct, a way to avoid contamination and pathogens. Shit smells bad to us as does decaying flesh. Our revulsion at illness and injury fuels a whole Hollywood horror industry. The Bible writers had the same instincts, but unlike modern health professionals, who have the benefit of germ theory, they had no idea what was contagious and what wasn’t, and they blurred the ideas of physical purity with spiritual purity. Modern Christians largely escape their denigration of physical handicaps.
- No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Deuteronomy 23:1 NRSV
- Whosoever … hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, Or crookback, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken … He shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries. Leviticus 21:17-23 KJV
10. Moral edicts that demand too much.If much of the Bible gets ignored because it is morally irrelevant, immoral, outdated, or factually wrong, another portion gets ignored because it sets the bar too high, like putting divorce on par with—omg—homosexuality. If you want to send a conservative Bible-believer into a froth, try suggesting Jesus was a socialist. Then, when he goes all Jehovah on you, quote from the book of Ephesians.
- Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. Luke 3:11 NIV
- Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place. Ephesians 5:4 NIV
11. Passages that are a waste of brain space and paper. Some years ago I worked on a website called Wisdom Commons, a library of timeless quotes and stories from many traditions. I had the idea that I would go through the Bible and pull out bits that were relevant, so I started reading.
What I found was that most of the Bible was neither horrible nor inspiring. It was simply dull and irrelevant: long genealogies written by men obsessed with racial purity; archaic stories about ancient squabbles over real estate and women; arcane rituals aimed at pleasing a volatile deity; folk medicine practices involving mandrakes and dove’s blood; superstition that equated cleanliness with spiritual purity and misfortune with divine disfavor; outdated insider politics.
On top of that, it was badly written, with some stories garbled and others repeated, though rarely in complete agreement about the facts. The Bible’s supposed author seemed like a psychological mess, and I found myself irritated. With a finite number of pages to set the course of human history, this was the best He could do?
Thank God Bible-believing Christians don’t take the Good Book as seriously as they claim to.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.