Interpretation of biblical atrocities?

With a lot of these, I can take any newspaper and do the same thing adding words like “this is cool” or “this is ok.” Never mind that such words are not in the text, the point is to mock and ridicule what we do not even want to understand. Such a context does not deserve an answer… its too much like “when did you stop beating your wife.”

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Understandable but I try to ignore the mocking part of the article and focus solely on the verses mentioned, mainly because I haven’t touched my Bible till very recently and I never took the time to cover some of the more hard to swallow verses, rather I would just ignore them all together when I was younger. Now I am trying to fix that by going over things that I do not understand in the text and I figured I’d start with the more harsh ones.


Basically I would like to break these seemingly harsh and often misunderstood verses down enough as to what they mean when they say something in relation to topics that one may assume that the Bible is inferring such horrible acts to be ok so that I may have a better understanding.


Well done. Good idea.

This is Josephus AJ 4,8,23 “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, [and many such causes happen among men,] let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do: but if she be misused by him also, or if, when he is dead, her first husband would marry her again, it shall not be lawful for her to return to him. ” Excerpt From: Josephus. “Complete Works of Josephus.” Apple Books.

Though Josephus just earlier in the same section listed one case where the man couldn’t put a woman away unless under great suspicion and absolute proof of something. If he had previously accused her of not being a virgin but a judgment was rendered in her favor. “If the damsel obtain a sentence in her favor, that she had not been guilty, let her live with her husband that accused her; and let him not have any further power at all to put her away, unless she give him very great occasions of suspicion, and such as can be no way contradicted. But for him that brings an accusation and calumny against his wife in an impudent and rash manner, let him be punished by receiving forty stripes save one, and let him pay fifty shekels to her father: but if the damsel be convicted, as having been corrupted, and is one of the common people, let her be stoned, because she did not preserve her virginity till she were lawfully married; but if she were the daughter of a priest, let her be burnt alive. ”

Nice guy that Josephus eh? At any rate, Philo also reports the “for any reason” whatsoever when commenting on the same passage in Deuteronomy as Josephus. Meier writes, “Still, an important difference must be noted between the “whatever reason” approach of Philo and Josephus on the one hand and the view of the House of Hillel on the other. Philo and Josephus give no indication that they are combating any other view current in mainstream Judaism concerning the sufficient reason for a divorce—for example, a view that might be more restrictive. In contrast, in m. Giṭṭin , the latitudinarian approach of the House of Hillel is pointedly opposed to the narrower view of the House of Shammai: the wife must have done something shameful, for example, adultery. We will return to this difference later.”

Meier also writes: “The most remarkable point about this final passage in m. Giṭṭin is some- thing that is often missed by commentators on the NT: only when we get to the Mishna do we have, for the first time in Palestinian Judaism, clear documentation of a scholarly dispute over what precisely constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. As far as datable documents are concerned, this is something startlingly new in Judaism. What is found prior to this in Palestinian Judaism is (1) first of all and predominately, the near-absolute right of the husband to divorce his wife (Deuteronomy, Philo, Josephus); (2) secondarily, a sectarian attack on polygyny that may also imply (at least in the view of some scholars) an attack on divorce when it is followed by re- marriage (the Damascus Document ); and (3) finally and marginally, a total prohibition of divorce (Jesus). Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronis- tic use of later texts to explain earlier ones.81 That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century a.d. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century a.d., with written attestation in the 50s by Paul and ca. 70 by Mark. Considering the dearth of any clear attestation of the dispute over the grounds of divorce between the Houses in the pre-70 period,82 we would do well, as least initially, to explain Jesus’ teaching on divorce solely in light of what is truly prior to and contemporary with the Palestinian Judaism of the early 1st century a.d.”

Its not that I disagree with the point you are making about what Jesus is doing. Jesus is talking about a package deal involving divorce AND remairriage but given Philo and Josephus are both 1st century references continuing a tradition established by Deuteronomy, there is no evidence of any sort of debate on this issue or schools of thought during the time of Jesus. It was simply taken for granted that men could divorce their wives for whatever reason. But when we use Shammai and Hillel we are just uncritically assuming these texts we find this material in that that come a couple hundred years after Jesus describe two schools that actually existed in Jesus day. There is no real evidence for this and Philo and Josephus don’t seem to be aware of any.

The article you cited writes this:

That looks like imaginative fiction to me that gives Jesus no credit whatsoever. It’s much simpler just to think Jesus flatly rejected conventional thought on divorce. Jesus was already condemned for being a friend of tax collectors and sinners given his table fellowship. He has had run ins with Jesus leaders and scribes repeatedly. Jesus wasn’t worried about being labeled “morally permissive.” If one thing is clear, he was unique in a lot of ways, flouted convention and beat to his own drum.

It also says:

Since when is Moses no longer relaying the commands of God in the Torah? That is all the Pharisees would have had to respond with. Josephus, Philo, apparently Shammai and Hillel are all just offering the most common interpretation of divorce that began in Deut 24. To me Jesus’ statement is even more radical because he is rejected something the Torah clearly regulates and permits. It is not Moses vs God as most Jews thought the Torah represented God’s Law delivered through Moses. Its Jesus vs a lot more here. This isn’t rabbinic alteration. It is literally in the Torah itself as plain as day.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4: Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house 2 and goes off to become another man’s wife. 3 Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); 4 her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession.

It doesn’t even skip a beat at a man divorcing his wife for any reason. This all starts in the Torah and Jesus erases it all. Meier again:

Too many exegetes bring the thoughts attributed to Shammai and Hillel back to the time of Jesus without any proper historical justification for doing so.

edited to add…and we don’t have a lot of data points about what everyone believed about divorce ca 30CE. We just have a few texts that may or may not support larger inferences…


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They are only misunderstood when they are denied as harsh (‘They didn’t really men it, it’s allegory’) or justified as Love, and claimed to be true historically. They were written by Iron Age men. The fouler the older usually, showing evolution in their Bronze Age source material and in themselves. The utter vileness of the Heresy of Peor - regressive by remarkably timeless, humane Babylonian standards that Jesus got back to after nearly two millennia - does not compare with the sublime beauty of Jonah.

After a lifetime of reading and studying the Bible (I am now in my 70s) I have reached the conclusion that at least 98% of the Old Testament can safely be ignored in a literal sense. This includes all the evils supposedly committed by the Hebrew Yhwh. It is supported by 3 axioms. 1. The Bible writers assigned virtually everything to Yhwh whether it was good, bad or indifferent. This was a literary device rather than any form of inspiration as it occurs over and over in all the OT books 2. All the OT stories contain exaggerations, impossibilities and miracles. This is again a literary device as it was good for the story and the reader/ listener as the story would be remembered. It was also good for Yhwh and the worship of Yhwh as he would be praised more than if the event was just an everyday occurrence 3. The writer of the Gospel of John ( not actually ‘John’) makes it fairly plain that Yeshua/Jesus was identical to Yhwh as he did and said everything his father told him to do and say…… e.g. John 5.19. Coupled with the possible pre-existence of Yeshua “before Abraham was I am” this makes Yeshua equally responsible for all the evils in the OT as well. As this last statement cannot possibly be true we are obliged to ignore the evils and violence of the Old Testament as sent literally from Yhwh. The evils and violence still exist but that is a totally different topic.


Interesting points. The third one is problematic because we can also ignore the literal sense of Jesus claiming to be Yhwh in John. Most critical scholars will tell you Jesus talked about the kingdom of God (synoptics) not himself( John). The fourth Gospel is recasting ancient traditions after a very long time reflecting on Easter. Yes, it does put Jesus on par with God and we need to theologically reckon with that, but equating responsibility onto Jesus here just presses the details too literally. Just as we need to deal in the OT with what you call “literary devices,” the NT is in the same boat.


I can understand why someone would ask that question in this forum: What I wonder, though, is what response(s) the question has gotten from Jews, the folks who had the original form of the Bible first?

I to wonder what their response would be, however I have not seen any videos or articles yet of jews faced with the same questions, it seems that Christians are the most common search results when it comes to answering these sort of questions.


I think I will start us off by asking why God smited 50,000 for looking into the ark in 1st sameul 6:19?

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Er, I read 70. Not 70,000. Just 70. I mean that’s nowt for the God of the Bible.

Jesus saw Himself in the OT. He didn’t remember. He was wrong for possibly the right reason. But He was wrong. The possible right reason is that He was the Son of God, the divine nature incarnate, through the virgin birth, as Mary told Him. Or she made it up. In good faith. In PTSD. In shame. And He believed her. For if He were just human, His mother was a truly remarkable woman. And Joseph was a truly decent man. The novel writes itself doesn’t it?

Whether He was right or not about being God’s Son, the Son of God, He was wrong, of course, about being YHWH, initially the adopted Canaanite warrior storm god from the Midianite desert, evolved over a thousand years, to a remarkably, suspiciously, humane degree. The socialist humanist God of proto-Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Micah.

Because none of the things attributed to that God actually happened, bar the actual few historical events. And actual God, if there be such a being, didn’t do those either. You know, the sick, arbitrary atrocities. If He is, He did Jesus. And a bit of inspiring, of universal social justice.

Fundamentalist attempt to explain such atrocities by pointing out that divine revelation was progressive; that is, incomplete until the Incarnation. Stumbling over divinely ordered atrocities are a problem if one believes everything in the Bible is divinely inspired rather than divine revelation is found mixed in with Israel’s cultural understanding of deities. The Bible consists of texts written, edited, and compiled from ancient, cultural perspectives. Only those texts that complied with the purview of the community of faith were selected for the canon. The amazing thing about the Old Testament is that Hebrews made these selections. These selections narrate the story of repeated unfaithfulness by Israel to keep the covenant. This is just the opposite of what all other kingdom narratives record. Why did the scribes of Israel record and preserve a narrative of repeated failure? Historians of the kings court glamorize the king and omit atrocities.

I find that a very good liberal theist take. Which is the nastiest thing I could possibly say : ) God the Killer gets more and more pragmatic, more and more civilized, sophisticated with increasing civilization. He still does. Where’s amazing divine revelation in that?

Great question. Here’s a quote in NIV, but I agree that KJV says 5,070. KJV is not the most accurate version. Here’s a commentary about the typographical error–it’s thought perhaps that it was meant to say 70 men out of the 50,000 of Beth Shemesh. 1 Samuel 6:19 Commentaries: He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. (

Why do you think that God would have killed 70 people for looking at the ark?

As a kid, I was told that this was because they may have been drunk or disrespectful–gawking.

That’s a tough one. In context, once the ark was in the Holy of Holies of the temple, a priest was only allowed in once a year (I think), and he had a cord tied to his ankle so that if he was struck down by God for unworthy attitude, they could pull him back without endangering themselves.

I struggle with this a lot.

It’s definitely not the picture you see in Jesus, where we treat our enemies with love despite their abuse, or allow children, the least powerful and weakest (and most likely to die of natural causes) to come to Him in front of others.

Other passages in the OT, I think, reflect the times–they were brutal. In Psalm 137:9 “Blessed by he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

If you notice people who grow up in grouchy families, they tend to be grouchy. Also, in tough straits, sometimes the parents are pretty strict.

I think that happened in the Old Testament. They considered God to be a “warrior God,” like the surrounding nations’ gods, who fought for them and killed many people.

They inflated ages, like the surrounding folks did, to give their kings and patriarchs dignity.

there are quite a few books out there about horrible things attributed to God. I think that they are from a poor view of God. George MacDonald wrote,

i. If it be said by any that God does a thing which seems to me unjust, then either I do not know what the thing is, or God does not do it…Least of all must we accept some low notion of justice in a man, and argue that God is just in doing after that notion.

I think that that’s a good insight, always keeping in mind that the people of the time judged based on their own limited insight; as we do. Thanks

There is a thread about "Inerrancy and Mass Slaughter" from earlier, that you might find interesting.

Other books are by Greg Boyd as above, and also Paul Copan, “Is God a Moral Monster” (though i don’t agree with Copan, who mainly seems to think that God did them, but not as badly as the numbers imply). Thanks.

I’d be interested in what you think. Thanks.


Great point. I think Enns wrote that much of the history was written in the context of the Babylonian captivity, and the recurrent reminder that the Israelites constantly failed was a theodicy of why God did not keep David’s house as a king for eternity, as at one time seemed prophesied. Maybe others can correct me here. Thanks.

I suspect it would also be accurate to say that it wasn’t the kings or their supporters who wrote the versions of the books of the Bible we now have (with the exception of some of the psalms). Also after the return of many of the exiles it seems to have been the high priest who ruled and that is when most of the texts were chosen and/or finalized. Official histories of the kings didn’t survive (though they were probably mined for info).
It would be fascinating to see an official histories of Ahab or Manasseh or even more so of the kings of Edom, Moab, or Ammon (we do have the Mesha Stele)

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Because once you let go, where do you stop.

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Yes! But, if we really think about it, God is on the side of truth, and not of a label. So, if truth takes me away from my original beliefs, then God’s still on my side. We’re here to follow truth, not whether we’re Christian, or evolution, or young earth, or any other label.

One passage that reminds me of that is when Joshua asked if God was for him, or for his enemies. When God answered, “Neither,” that was a great Hebrew lesson–that He’s on the side of truth, not of identity (Joshua 5: 13-14a)

A severe irony, of course, is that this passage involved Joshua’s intent for killing many innocent people–so the message is garbled in all that. However, looking at Jesus, who was, as He said, a better revelation, gives us a better vision of God, I think. Thanks.

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There is no revelation of God but Jesus, at most. That’s the final thread I’m left with.

PS So why that time? Why that place? Why that culture? The natural explanation is that. Time and place. The perfect confluence of cultures. Jewish, Greek, Roman with all their heritages in Persia, India, Babylon, Egypt, Canaan, Sumer. If God does not exist then this is still the greatest individual human story ever told. If He does, it’s that and infinitely more. But we have no way of deciding. None. Rationality has become vastly easier and, necessarily, inevitably, faith inversely less. Faith stories evolved with society and Christianity’s kept up more than any other. Objectively. Which of course is an insult in the eyes of all others I’m sure, but best case Christianity has always been orders of magnitude better, more moral, more humane, more inclusive, more just, more rational, more beautiful, more profound than the competition, including all the second rate and less Christianity, from the get go. It still is. In fact that high bar has always been a minority one in post-Jewish Christianity, but it has always been there. It still is. That is intriguing.

Belief, folk belief, faith belief even intellectual belief was easy, right belief as difficult then as now, but now faith at all is rationally, intellectually difficult and best moral belief, though plainly obvious, is politically impossible.

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