Tricky Verses

I was in conversation about belief with someone the other day. Most people hold to belief systems that they absorbed as children, whether or not they recognise the fact. The usual issues came up – ‘why does God allow injustice/disease/war/famine’ – and so on. Then the conversation switched to scriptural authority when even cursory readings proclaim that as translated there are holes in reasoning, morality and narrative. I didn’t really think that this was the time or place to discuss the Marcan codicil or the existence of Q, but I was left with a few unresolved thoughts.
Some time ago, a group of people were once asked for their Top Ten Worst Scriptures. Here they are, as voted for by panels of experts – the man in the pew, in other words.
Paul cantered home in first place with his rules for church life in first-century Ephesus, beating genocide, infanticide, executions, dismemberment, human sacrifice (and donkeys) to get there. All the verses that placed from fifth to second place resorted to violence to do so. Number 1 is I suppose, predictable, since voters were Western liberal and, presumably believers in some form of democracy. Hold your breath, ladies…
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12) It’s a verse that’s particularly difficult to discuss, obviously, if it’s opened as a topic for discussion in Church, since all the women have to contribute in either semaphore or sign language. But, see number 6. 
In second place, Samuel give Saul a tutorial in ethnic cleansing: “This is what the Lord Almighty says… ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'” (1 Samuel 15:3)
At number 3 is the only entry from the Torah: “Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18) There isn’t really a proper legal definition of ‘sorcery’ to this day. A man in Saudi Arabia has been sentenced to death for it, but he claimed only to be doing a bit of fortune-telling for fun. Sorceresses elicit greater sympathy than blasphemers, rebellious sons, unfaithful fiancées and brides who fail to prove their virginity. No mention is made of sorcerers in the passage, but, back to 1 and 6.
Number 4 is particularly nerve-racking because it comes at the end of a favourite psalm. Boney M missed this bit out of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9) No concealment of emotion here, then…
Judges, a history of Israel before its first king, has the reputation for being the most unpopular book in the Old Testament. Here’s why…”So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go.” (Judges 19:25) The man in question is so outraged by the treatment of his woman that he cuts her into a dozen pieces and sends a piece each to the twelve tribes in protest. The biblical writer makes no comment, so I don’t think I will either.
Back to Paul and familiarly homophobic ground. “In the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:27) You don’t hear much preaching on that these days. Unless you’re a Southern Baptist, that is…
Now back to Judges for some human sacrifice:  “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.'” (Judges 11:30-1) Lovely. Turned out to be his daughter. Tough call, that.
God speaks to Abraham.”Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:2) Muslims seem to remember this one, slaughtering ovines publicly.
Paul again. He can’t have had a wife, or if he had, she must have been really high maintenance. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22) Nuff said.
And scraping in at number 10, it’s the man who gets a much better press for saying most of the same things, St Peter: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18) Great. You get to feel guilty for being a slave.
So, what have we got? A mixture of historical horror and crackpot restrictions that some enjoy applying today. Biblical sexism trumps genocide, but maybe it’s because it’s more of a live issue. No one is using the Book of Samuel to justify genocide today, but Paul’s observations are still used to silence women.
I think the Scriptures are capable of surviving the spotlight of a bad press sometimes. I once believed that every word was true because my Sunday School teacher told me so, and, for openers, it’s probably no bad premiss. I suppose now I view Scripture with an eye that is nuanced enough to treasure its comforts and challenges, its classic stories and groundbreaking ethical wisdom, while facing the plain fact that some of it is unjust, dogmatic and cruel. Much like life, really.

3 thoughts on “Tricky Verses

  1. As a solitary (thir)teen reading one to two books a day, getting A+ for all my essays had became a routine.
    I could nearly recite the New Testament by heart but had never read the Bible. Opening the Old Testament, I quickly stumbled over the kind of quotes you are mentioning ; my young feminist-to -be blood immediatly started boiling and I wrote a militant and fiery essay . I'll never forget the teacher throwing it back on my desk, an infamous big red D over it. She said I was stupid, that Bible was full of symbols and therefore should not be taken literally…What about that for a narcissistic injury?
    I wish Christwire authors had met
    Miss Whatwashername ? when they were teenagers…
    Even if there is still a small part of me who would so much prefere this website to be a complete oax…


  2. Bible, Torah, Quran, Book of Mormon, The Art of War, Bhagavad Gita… people read and misinterpret, misapply, misuse, and misunderstand any and/or all of it. Sometimes, hundreds of years after the original author penned his thoughts, we get it right, and sometimes we don't.
    I've always liked Paul – in spite of growing up silenced. When I had opportunity to choose for myself, I chose differently.


  3. Out of curiousity I checked out Christwire which I'd never heard of.
    I wish it were a hoax – too many people I (unfortunately) recognize from a past I am ever more thankful is exactly that… past.


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