Five Hard Bible Passages and What They Mean

Understanding the difficult parts of the Bible.

Elisha and the bears.
Elisha and the bears. (photo: Register Files)

Problematic Biblical passages are only a problem because we don’t approach them properly. Either we’re taking a passage too literally (or perhaps not literally enough), excising it from context, assuming an action of humans is a divinely approved, relying on faulty translations, or simply failing to understand the real meaning because of our distance from the time, place, and culture in which it was written.

These are human, not divine, errors, and they require intelligent engagement. They’re easy to mock, and the internet is full of scoffers doing just that rather than trying to understand the real meaning. Sites such as The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible pile ignorant derision on the text as though Jewish and Christian scholars hadn’t poured over every degesh and iota for several thousand years. There are no hard questions that have not already been asked and answered many, many times. All you need is the willingness to seek an answer.

Amputation for Touching a Man’s Genitals (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)


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; your eye shall have no pity.

Difficulties with this passage go back a long way, with Talmudic scholars arguing (unconvincingly) that the passage means a woman should be fined the value of her hand. Other exegetes see this not as a judgement to be delivered after the fact but as a method of getting the woman to release her hold on the genitals. Certainly, the act of grabbing a man’s genitals in the midst of a fight is immodest (not to mention odd), but hardly worthy of the punishment meted out. Beyond mere modesty, an injury to the genitals could affect a man dearly, preventing him from having more children, which could lead to shame and impoverishment in the Biblical world.

The JPS Torah Commentary says: “The meaning is: If a person is attacking another in a potentially lethal way (such as seizing his genitals, which is considered a lethal spot), you may even wound the attacker if that is necessary to save the victim (‘you may even cut off her hand’); if that doesn’t suffice, you may kill the attacker (‘show no pity).”

The Middle Assyrian Laws (A8) shed further light on the legal context of the Ancient Near East:

If a woman has crushed a man’s testicle in an affray, one of her fingers shall be cut off. And if, even though a physician has bound it up, the other testicle has become affected along with it and becomes inflamed, or if she has crushed the other testicle in the affray, they shall tear out both of her (last word missing).

The problem of interpretation is exacerbated by the use of two different words (yad and kap ), the second of which is polyvalent. It can mean palm, sole of the foot, bowl, hip socket, handful, and control (“But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” Judges 6:13). Since different words are used, it’s reasonable to assume different meanings are intended. In addition, the word translated as “cut off” (qss) is also used to mean take away or remove. Given that the passage comes immediately after one about a woman’s right to a levirate marriage (in which a widow is instructed to pull off her brother-in-law’s sandal and spit in his face if he refuses the marriage), perhaps the punishment has to do with marriage rather than mutilation. Perhaps she is “cut off” from her husband, or the community.

The point of this exercise is not to come up with convoluted explanations for inexcusable passages, but to realize that the meaning of words can be complex and changing. We still don’t really know what “selah” means despite it being used 74 times in the Old Testament.

What Jesus Knows (Mark 13:32)


”But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

If Jesus is the incarnate Word, how can there be things he does not know?

The passage can’t be plucked out and interpreted in isolation, but must be understood with other comments in which Jesus discusses the relationship of the Father and the Son. It is similar to Matthew 20:23, “To sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” Yet it must be placed alongside Matthew 11:27, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” John 3:35, “the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand,” and similar passages attesting to the divinity of the Son.

The Church Fathers pondered these passages as well, and St. Augustine developed the “form of the servant” interpretation based upon Philippians 2:6-7: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”

In De Trinitate Augustine argues that there is no contradiction in the Son being greater than the Father and the Father being greater than the Son, because Jesus is True God and True man. In his deity he is equal and in his humanity he is not: “The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion.” Scripture passages are thus interpreted by the understanding the “two resonances in them, one tuned to the form of God in which he is, and is equal to the Father, the other tuned to the form of a servant which he took and is less than the Father.” When we start to understand the true meaning of the two natures of Christ, then numerous passages start to slide into place.


“In the form of God, all things were made by him (John 1:3); in the form of a servant, he himself was made of woman, made under the law (Galatians 4:4). In the form of God, he and the Father are one (John 10:30); in the form of a servant, he did not come to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him (John 6:38). In the form of God, as the Father has life in himself, so he gave the Son also to have life in himself (John 5:26); in the form of a servant, his soul is sorrowful to the point of death, and Father, he said, if it can be, let this cup pass by (Mattew 26:38). In the form of God, he is true God and life eternal (1 John 5:20); in the form of a servant he became obedient to the point of death, the death even of the cross (Philippians 2:8). In the form of God, everything that the Father has is his (John 16:15), and all yours is mine, he says, and mine yours (John 17:10); in the form of a servant, his doctrine is not his own, but his who sent him (John 7:16)”

Lot Offers His Daughters For Rape (Genesis 19:8)


“Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

The offer of Lot to sacrifice his daughters echoes other sacrifices of loved ones in the Bible, such as Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Sarah (twice, in Genesis 12:13 and 20: 2) to the lust of Abimelech and Pharaoh, and the sacrifice of Isaac. In none of the cases is the sacrifice necessary, but it is offered to show the seriousness of the situation. Lot’s daughters were virgins, but were betrothed, which had the same legal status as marriage. It’s unlikely Lot even had the legal right to offer them to them mob, which is an example of his panic and the gravity of the offense to Lot’s hospitality embodied in the Sodomites. In the next section Lot's daughters will get their father drunk and copulate with him in order to bear children, so even though lot and his daughters are rescued, they’re not being held up as models of righteousness.

The angels were offered protection by Lot. As Claus Westermann points out in his three-volume Genesis commentary, “The ‘shadow of his roof’ became thereby the place of security for the guests, the violation of which was a fearful crime with incalculable consequences.” Lot exposes himself to great personal risk in order to reason with the men, leaving his home and closing the door behind him. He councils them against committing the sin of homosexual rape by offering heterosexual rape as an alternative. Quite clearly, this speaks to the reduced respect for women in the ancient world, but it also emphasizes the grave depravity of sodomy. The two acts of sexual violation would not have been considered equal. There’s no reason to choose among misogyny, violations of hospitality, or violent anal rape as the sole root of Lot’s offer and the source of Sodom’s condemnation. They’re all reasons.

The offer itself is wicked by any understanding of moral theology. You do not address one grave evil with another. We don’t have to believe that Lot is in the right to understand the point of the story.

Children Eaten By Bears (2 Kings 2:23-24)


[Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.

Once again we have a popular passage for scoffers, but that’s nothing new. St. Caesarius of Arles, for example, tells us this was a favorite passage of the Manichees for mocking the Old Testament. Elisha has a few dozen kids killed by bears for making for making fun of his baldness? Hardly behavior worthy of a prophet of God, right? Let's break it down and see what's actually going on here.

The curse has been considered potentially immoral by exegetes almost from the beginning, leading them to look for deeper reasons. One interpretation is that this is just a tale to instruct children in respect, and therefore it’s meant to be didactic and not literal. It was meant to show the power of the prophet’s word and the respect due to him.

A variant in the Lucianic recension of the Septuagint has “they stone” rather than “they mocked,” which obviously makes their offense much more serious. It’s also worth noting that the word translated as “small boys” in English can also mean young men. This may well have been a mob intent on doing Elisha harm.

“Forty-two” may be a symbolic number simply meaning “a lot.” We also encounter it in 2 Kings 10:14 as the number killed by Jehu. The Babylonian Talmud (b. Sota 47a) records the number of sacrifices by Balak of Moab as 42, and claims that the boys killed by the bears were taken in payments for these deaths.

What about the baldness, though? Was he naturally balding, or had he shaved his head in lamentation for Elijah? If the latter, then the mockery did not enrage him because he was vain, but because it disrespected the great prophet. Were they jeering at baldness because he was contemptible as a bald man, or were they jeering at his baldness because it signified his prophetic gift? The latter certainly would have been a more serious offense. The honor of the Lord Himself was injured by the children of Bethel. We may also read it as a condemnation of the adults of Bethel through the curse on their children.

Genocide (various)


Deuteronomy 20:16-17:  But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per′izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb′usites, as the Lord your God has commanded.

Joshua 6:21: Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword.

1 Samuel 15:3: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

The ancient world could be a barbaric place. Total annihilation of an enemy was a standard element of warfare. When we find God commanding this violence, we're shocked. How can a Creator of love and compassion order the killing of women and children?

There are a couple of easy responses. Some readers merely recoil and condemn God as a moral monster, turning away from Him and losing faith. Some try to wave the passages away as evidence of ancient tribal culture given a veneer of divine sanction, rather than the true word of God. Neither of these is an acceptable response. The God of New and Old Testaments is the same. There's no slithering away from this. Either you take Yahweh and Jesus together, or you take neither.

And that's the key to understanding this. Canonical criticism (which I discuss here) approaches the Bible as a totality rather than a series of independent stories sliced from context. It is the revelation of one God mediated through many human voices. It shouldn't surprise us that the Origin of all things speaking across time, space, and matter to people separated by vast cultural differences and temporal contexts should communicate in polyphony. The work of the faithful is to tune our ear to better hear His voice, particularly when the words strike discordant notes, as they do in passages about merciless warfare.

The main recurring narrative theme of the Old Testament is Israel turning away from God to follow false religions. Modernists like to think all religions are equally valid (or invalid) and thus none is better than any other. History reveals this to be demonstrably untrue, so when we look more deeply into the past shouldn’t be surprised to find barbaric people and belief systems. The Canaanites engaged in a laundry list of awful practices, including child sacrifice, temple prostitution, witchcraft, idol worship, and just about every thing the Lord had ordered the Jews not to do. "Every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deuteronomy 12:31)

(One curious difference with warfare in the Bible is that the Lord forbids Jews to take spoils of war in certain cases. Indeed, the story of Achen's punishment in Joshua 7 is an example of the harsh punishment meted out when someone disobeys this command. Spoils made war more appealing and prosperous, and forbidding them meant people were not fighting simply for financial gain.)

Israel, in fact, didn’t wipe out the Canaanites. They rarely did what God commanded, and they often reaped the whirlwind of this disobedience. In Psalm Psalm 106:36-39 we’re told just happened:

They served their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;
they poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus they became unclean by their acts,
and played the harlot in their doings.

The People of God took up the wicked habits of those they had been ordered to conquer, and fell into damnation because of it. God had chosen the Jews to be His people, writing the history of His work in the world through their lives as he slowly ushered them from savagery to salvation. It's hard to read passages like those found in Numbers 31, when Moses orders the destruction of the Midianites: "Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man." He wants to extinguish the line of the Midianites so they will no longer threaten the Jews by rising against them or tempting them to follow foreign gods.

After 2000 years under the New Law of Christ, this kind of cruelty is unthinkable to us. Good. The world moved on, guided by Jesus, who speaks with the same voice as Yahweh. The entire approach to the wicked was flipped on its head. No longer were they to be wiped out. Now, the People of God had to be willing to die rather than to kill. We were commissioned to go into all the nations of the world and preach the good news, even if it meant our deaths, as it often did. “Do not spare them” was changed to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Temptation is no longer fought with the edge of the sword, but in the heart of man.

God does not change, but man does, and history is the story of his rough progression. The God who tried to shelter his beloved people from the corruption of wicked nations is the same God who ordered his followers to humble themselves even unto death in order to spread the word of His saving love. 

One passage doesn’t make sense without the other. You have to look at the entire Bible and consider it as a single message from a single God. This is why heresies like Marcionism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and others that rejected the Old Testament were rejected so firmly by the Church Fathers. The accounts of Israel’s God and Jesus of Nazareth tell one story with one consistent meaning. It is the story of man being drawn, kicking and screaming, from the depths of sin to the Kingdom of God. It was never going to be easy.