Ten Worst Verses

Satirical website, Ship of Fools, has recently been running an open forum on what the worst verses in the Bible are. From this a top ten has been produced which the Telegraph has shared for everybody.

  1. St Paul’s advice about whether women are allowed to teach men in church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)
  2. In this verse, Samuel, one of the early leaders of Israel, orders genocide against a neighbouring people: “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)
  3. A command of Moses: “Do not allow a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18)
  4. The ending of Psalm 137, a psalm which was made into a disco calypso hit by Boney M, is often omitted from readings in church: “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)
  5. Another blood-curdling tale from the Book of Judges, where an Israelite man is trapped in a house by a hostile crowd, and sends out his concubine to placate them: “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. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight. When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, ‘Get up; let’s go.’ But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.” (Judges 19:25-28)
  6. St Paul condemns homosexuality in the opening chapter of the Book of Romans: “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)
  7. In this story from the Book of Judges, an Israelite leader, Jephthah, makes a rash vow to God, which has to be carried out: “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.’ Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’” (Judges 11:30-1, 34-5)
  8. The Lord is speaking to Abraham in this story where God commands him to sacrifice his son: ‘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)
  9. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)
  10. “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)

What amazes me about this list is the theological naivety it displays about those who have picked some of the verses. For example, number 5 is a clear example of someone who does a wrong thing (gives his concubine over to the mob). How one leaps from a descriptive story to some how accusing the text of being uninspired because you simply don’t like the events is a real puzzle to me. The same goes for number 10 – the Scriptures are very clear (i.e. Paul’s letter to Philemon) that slavery is not to be practised by Christians, but in Peter’s letter he is talking about how we demonstrate the love and grace of God by doing good even when we are treated unfairly.

Number 7 (read in context) is clearly an object lesson in making rash vows, but also highlights the fact that it is God who makes covenants with us, not the other way round.  As for 1, 6 and 9, well most of you know where I stand on these issues.

One or two of the verses do raise interesting issues. Number 3 (not letting a sorceress live) is challenging, but must be read on the context of a Hebrew society learning what it is to follow YHWH. Number 2 is disturbing, but when you realise that we are all under a sentence of eternal death because of sin then we can see these things in the correct perspective. While with our 21st century eyes the mass murder of innocents is abhorrent, we are foolish if we disregard the lesson of 1 Samuel 15 that to disobey the Lord is a dangerous thing. Saul spares the king of the Amalekites in disobedience to what God has told him to do, and it lays the seeds of his doom. Furthermore, as the text tells us, it’s not as if the Amalekites are innocent in their dealings with the Israelites.

Equally, Psalm 137 is challenging, but verse 9 expresses the deepest pain of those who have been dispossessed of everything. The Psalm speaks of the judgement that will be exercised against Babylon because of their actions against Judah. If we reject that judgement then we simply don’t understand the holiness of God.

But the verse that really displays the utter theological ignorance of those who voted for it is the one voted number 8 – the sacrifice of Isaac. Really, I’m left completely speechless by the fact that any Christian would have an issue with this passage which is one of the most celebrated types of Christ. Abraham takes Isaac to the very same hill (Moriah) where the Temple will later be built. Abraham is prepared to give up his only son, his only son, but at the last moment the Lord substitutes, he substitutes, another. That’s not a problem. That’s the Gospel.

The real problem here is that, unlike the other verses, Ship of Fools ever thought it was worth voting on it.

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24 Comments on “Ten Worst Verses

  1. The real sadness about a list like this for me is that it shows how many people have lost a biblical worldview. It seems to me from the choice of scriptures that many ‘Ship of Fools’ readers have chosen their ‘worst’ scriptures by reference to a modern and post-modern human rights framework that is derived primarily from the idea that man is autonomous. While there are noble ideas and intentions within this framework, the central philosophical idea is essentially utilitarian: that the purpose of human life and organisation is to ensure ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Such a framework inevitably sets up a context of competing rights (such as freedom of religious expression and of sexual expression) that can only be applied through continued negotiation over what balance of these rights constitutes the view of the majority.

    The core problem is that we have lost the biblical world view of the great Reformers of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuaries. At the peak of their impact on society they had established a public discourse that saw God as both omniscient and omnipotent: sovereign over the world that He had made and knowledgable and involved in the smallest detail of our lives. It follows from this world view that one of the main tasks of the Christian is to discover God’s revealed intention for us in the world: in the words of Francis Schaeffer’s famous TV series ‘How should we then live’.

    This great Protestant legacy of faith is in danger of being washed away by a liberal relativism in the Western Church that sees virtue in doubt and uncertainty, even in the essentials of the faith. I think if many theological liberals were honest with themselves, they are not certain that God is sovereign, all-powerful, just and loving, they are not certain that Jesus took our sins upon himself as the perfect sacrifice in our place, and sometimes they’re not even certain that God exists. And that is a tragic state of affairs.

  2. How refreshing to see a defence of womens’ ordination that honestly sets out the motives driving proponents: we just don’t want to believe the Bible.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe.

  3. It might be worth considering that Ship of Fools left the definition of “worst verse” rather open – different people could chose worst verses in quite different grounds; not necessarily because of theological disagreement with the ideas behind the verse. Here is a snippet from the page which talked about the reasons for the vote:

    “That’s why Ship of Fools is launching a poll to find the worst verse in the whole Bible. We want you to tell us: which sacred text makes you reach for the red pen? Which hallowed verse makes you laugh for all the wrong reasons? Which blessed passage leaves you groaning with embarrassment? Which piece of holy writ troubles you at night, but at least keeps you awake in sermons?”

    As for theological naivety: isn’t that what one would really expect from something like this, thrown open to the general public, who might not necessarily be Christian at all (although clearly SofF imagine that most of their readers will be), and even if Christians will not necessarily be very well developed theologically? Having said that I do admit that the sacrifice of Isaac is a rather odd thing to vote for in this context.

  4. The best comment that I have read on the Amalek passage is that of the late Sir Oliver Lodge in his book “Making of Man” (1924):

    “The excuse is made that the nations round were sunk in idolatry and evil practices; and that missionary enterprise would have been too dangerous for the still half-enslaved missionaries of Jehovah. But at least the cattle were innocent and harmless. It is no use making virtuous excuses for such conduct. They were utterly mistaken. The only explanation is that they were in an early stage of civilisation. Cruelty and blood-thirstiness are appropriate to savages; and their Theology was not high enough to guide them aright.”

    In his book “Reason and Belief” (1910) he has this to say on the more general theme of morally objectionable passages in the Old Testament:

    “But in the Old Testament you will recall cases, too numerous indeed, when in the mouths of priests representations of Deity fell far below any reasonable standards of mercy and justice, and when acts of cruelty and deceit were perpetrated in the Divine name. Quite true! At such times man’s notions of God were degraded, – records of priestcraft are often painful reading; but at other times, and in the mouths of some of the prophets, the Hebrew scriptures rise to a magnificence of utterance which no other nation can parallel.”

  5. To my mind the real problem is your inability to see why passages such as these cause real problems for many today in encountering the Bible. The real naivity is in thinking that, if everyone was able to explain away the plain meaning of many of these passages by way of the same theological framework as yourself, there would be no problem with these texts.

  6. Dear Jonathan,

    I don’t know which poster your query was aimed at but I think many of us do realise why these passages cause real problems for people. They all call us to submit to God’s way of viewing things rather than our way of looking at the world. That’s offensive to us because we prefer our way.

    But that’s the Christian life, isn’t it? Have we reached the point where we say ,”let God be true though every man a liar”? And there’s no other place an evangelical can stand.

    Regards,

    John Foxe.

    • Well said John Foxe!

      I am also reminded of the great Jim Packer’s words in the forword to his essential book ‘Knowing God’: ‘Christian minds have been conformed to the modern spirit: the spirit that is that spawns great thoughts of man and leaves room for only small thoughts of God’.

    • John Foxe wrote, I think many of us do realise why these passages cause real problems for people. They all call us to submit to God’s way of viewing things rather than our way of looking at the world.

      You seem to be arguing that justifying genocide, subjugating women, accepting slavery, condemning homosexuals, taking revenge by killing children, and murdering sorceresses, among others are all part of submitting to God’s way of viewing things rather than our own. If so, that is part of what often appalls people today coming to passages such as these.

      Your glib response refuses to acknowledge in any sense the real issues raised in many people’s minds by such passages. Instead, these very real issues are just bracketed away into a category which seems to say that if you question a Bible passage you must be viewing things from your sinful human perspective instead of submitting to God’s way of viewing things.

      The great figures of the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, Jesus, Paul, among others) all argued with God and grew in their understanding of his ways as a result. That is much more what we need to recapture in our faith when we read passages such as these, instead of the supine acceptance of injustice which you appear to be advocating.

      • The great figures of the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Job

        But let’s be honest, Job doesn’t argue with God does he? He wrestles with the issue of God’s sovereignty, but then the book ends with God turning up and essentially saying, “I am God, you’re not – what’s your problem with what I do?”. Job’s response is to recognise God’s authority and right over his life.

        Interesting…

        • Peter,

          It baffles me how people that are so concerned about the plain meaning of scripture are so willing to ignore it when it doesn’t fit with their theological preconceptions.

          Of course, Job argues with God. How else can passages such as Job 3. 2-10, Job 9. 34 – 10. 22, Job 13. 19-28, Job 16. 6 – 17. 3, Job 19. 6-20, Job 21. 4, Job 23. 1-2, Job 30. 20 – 31.40 be understood as they are passages where Job explicitly addresses his complaints to God himself? God himself says in Job 40. 1-2 that Job has challenged him and the upshot of all this is that Job sees God with his own eyes. He is not condemned, in fact his prosperity is restored, and it is his three friends with whom God is angry.

          Arguing with God is an essential part of relationship with God and one that leads to a greater understanding of who he is, as all of the arguments that human beings have with God in scripture demonstrate.

          • What you completely miss out in your analysis of Job is the conclusion – God is God, Job is not God and Job (and us) better get used to it. The fear of God, after all, is the beginning of wisdom. This is the very teaching of the utter sovereignty of God that you seem so keen to reject.

            • I have no problem with the idea that God is God but you then take that and read back into the text the idea that all we have to do is accept this and live with it. That is essentially want Job’s three friends argue and they are the ones with whom God is angry at the end of the book. Job’s arguing with God is what brings about his personal revelation of the greatness of God: “In the past I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.”

              The testimony of scripture in this and in all the other arguments/debates/conversations with God recorded within scripture is that those who argue with him gain a greater understanding of him.

              • Jonathan

                Sorry, I really feel that you’ve missed the major point of the Book of Job. Yes, Job’s friends do make the point that he should just accept the hand that God has dealt him but they argue even more strongly that he is suffering because he has sinned (a common point of view in biblical times). Job on the other hand is searching for a reason for his suffering and, yes, , he argues his case before God.

                But the real power of the Book of Job lies in Chapters 38 onwards when God answers Job out of the storm with a display of His sovereignty. Essentially, God says ‘You have questioned me, and my answers are “Are you God?”, “Do you know my reasons and purposes?” To paraphrase the words of Job 40:8-14, “Do you have any idea who you are talking to?”. yES, God condemns Job’s friends and commends Job, so we are right to question God and seek answers. But the real message of the Book of Job is not that God provides answers to pain and suffering, but that He is sovereign Lord and provides His presence in our sufferings. At the end, Job is drawn into a deeper understanding of God and his character: His love, justice, power and mercy. That is why his final comment is Job 42:2-6.

                My advice is to find a good, biblically sound commentary on the Book of Job and then get into the riches of the perspective that this important book can offer on pain and suffering. I’m sure that Peter can advise :-)

      • Dear Jonathan,

        what is glib is believing that we stand in judgment over God’s word. After all, the number 1 verse above says, women shouldn’t be elders. What’s so difficult to understand here? Nothing. What’s so difficult to submit to it in our culture? Everything.

        Most of the other verses can readily be understood in the difference between OT and NT dispensations. To assume there is a problem here which the church has somehow been unable to find a satisfactory solution to over the last 2000 is glib hubris.

        And so it comes back to choosing either to reject God and his word, or to say ‘Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.’ One of these is very glib indeed. The other is the very measure of Christian profundity.

        Regards,

        The Foxe.

        • There is a problem there, John Foxe. How do we decide what is God’s word and what is not? Is it the Bible? The Qur’an? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures? The Bhagavad Gita?

          If our own reason and moral judgment are incompetent to guide us, how do we decide in the first place that it’s the Bible?

          “Reason is the only faculty by which we have to judge of anything, even of revelation itself.” – BISHOP BUTLER.

          • William

            We have two ways to judge which religions are the truth: Firstly what they declare themselves to be, and secondly the words of Jesus Himself.

            1. There are three great monotheistic religions in the world: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. All other major religions are polytheistic, pantheistic or pagan. So the first major question about God (after deciding that he exists) is: ‘Is he unique, or is he many or simply some divine force?’ If he is many or diffuse, then we cannot know him, at least in the human sense of the word. So we are reduced to either performing rituals to appease the gods or obtain their pleasure, as in pagan religions, or to divine paths or methods to access the divine within us, as in Buddhism, which, in line with its pantheistic origins is a kind of ‘smorgasbord’ religion where you can pick the bits you like.

            The true Muslim would not dare to suggest that Allah can be known in the personal sense. He cannot be approached but he has revealed his will through the prophets, culminating in Mohammed. Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come and so they persist with the rituals of the Old Covenant which they have been given as the truw way to worship YHWH. Christianity dares to claim that God can be known personally: that Christ has come as the Son of God, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, thereby tearing down the walls of ritual and religion that have stood as a barrier between us and a Holy and Perfect God.

            So the real question is what kind of God do you want? One (or many) that you need to appease, or a divine force that you can keep at a safe distance, or a wrathful God who is too holy to approach? Or God the Father of Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, so that we might be delivered from sin and thereby approach Him and know Him. In the words of the Westminster Catechism: ‘What is the chief end of Man? To know God and to worship and enjoy Him for ever’.

            2. Jesus tells us that we shall know who are His disciples by the love that we have for each other (John 13:34,35). And I think that is a good general rule by which to judge all religions. I humbly submit that though Christians, being human, have often loved imperfectly, no other religion has demonstrated love in action more effectively than Christianity. Shall we turn instead to Islam, the religion of the sword, that has brought its converts by conquest and forced conversion? Shall we turn to Hinduism, with its fatalism of karma, burden of justification by good works and burning of widows through sutee? Or shall we turn to Christianity, the religion of life, that has ended the slave trade, Atlantic and East African (almost), reformed prisons and mental institutions and built and continues to build schools, hospitals and clinics throughout the world.

            • Philip,

              First, just to forestall any possible misunderstanding, let me say that I’m not intending to attack the Christian religion. I was brought up to believe in God and I still do. I was brought up as a Christian and I still am one.

              However, I don’t find your answer convincing or satisfactory. It seems to leave us exactly where we were before. Here are some of my thoughts at the moment; others may come to me later.

              You say:

              “So the real question is what kind of God do you want?”

              And then you enumerate some possibilities. So at the very beginning we’re not asking what God is like, but what sort of God we want. In other words, we’re deciding for ourselves what God ought to be like. By what criterion? If the answer is that the Bible tells us, then we’re back to the question of why we should take the Bible’s answer rather than that given by any of the other supposed sacred books. And so the circular argument continues indefinitely, as circular arguments do by their very nature.

              You then say:

              “no other religion has demonstrated love in action more effectively than Christianity”

              Some people would say that that’s highly debatable. But even if we accept it, one might also add that no other religion has demonstrated hate in action more effectively than Christianity – although some might want to modify that by adding “except, perhaps, for Islam”. Think of the Inquisition, for a start, and that’s not all: the early Protestants treated Catholics just as badly when they got the chance – although they were sometimes willing to co-operate with Catholic persecutors, as when some Protestants in Calvin’s Geneva helped the Inquisition to get on the track of Servetus.

              You ask:

              “Shall we turn to Hinduism, with its fatalism of karma, burden of justification by good works and burning of widows through sutee?”

              My answer would be no. (Does sutee still take place nowadays, by the way? I hope not, but I’m interested to know.) But there again, I have to use my own reason and my own moral sense to judge of these things. A Hindu could reply, à la “John Foxe”, “I think many of us do realise why these things cause real problems for people. They all call us to submit to God’s (or the gods’?) way of viewing things rather than our way of looking at the world. But that’s the Hindu life, isn’t it? Have we reached the point where we say, ‘let the gods be true though every man a liar’?”

              “Or shall we turn to Christianity, the religion of life, that has ended the slave trade..?”

              Christianity as such didn’t end the slave trade. Some very noble individual Christians fought against it (one thinks of men like Newton and Wilberforce, for instance), but plenty of Christians – including clergy – fought tooth and nail to keep it, and much of the Christian support for its abolition came from Christian groups that were at the time regarded as marginal or even heretical, such as the Quakers and the Swedenborgians.

            • “Shall we turn instead to Islam, the religion of the sword, that has brought its converts by conquest and forced conversion?”

              Once again, I, having the temerity to follow the light of my own reason, would answer “no”. But a Muslim could reply as follows:

              “What is glib is believing that we stand in judgment over Allah’s word in the Qur’an. After all, Surah 8, v. 39 says, ‘Fight them until there is no dissension and the religion is entirely Allah’s.’ What’s so difficult to understand here? Nothing. What’s so difficult to submit to it in our culture? Everything.

              “I think many of us do realise why passages like this cause real problems for people. They all call us to submit to Allah’s way of viewing things rather than our way of looking at the world. That’s offensive to us because we prefer our way.

              “But that’s the Islamic life, isn’t it? Have we reached the point where we say, ‘let Allah be true though every man a liar’?

              “And so it comes back to choosing either to reject Allah and the words that he has communicated to us through his holy prophet, or to say ‘Allah, I believe, help thou my unbelief.’ One of these is very glib indeed. The other is the very measure of Islamic profundity.”

              • William

                I’ll get back to you with a response to your two comments here once I’ve got past some work deadlines on Wednesday

                All the best.

                Philip

  7. Peter began by writing, “let’s be honest, Job doesn’t argue with God does he?” I have argued that he does and you clearly agree with me stating that Job does argue “his case before God,” but you then criticise me rather than Peter. There’s something not quite making sense here.

    You then go on to restate in your own words the argument that set out in my previous post.

    I wrote, “Job’s arguing with God is what brings about his personal revelation of the greatness of God (seeing that God is God, as Peter put it): “In the past I knew only what others had told me, but now I have seen you with my own eyes” and that this means that those who argue with God gain a greater understanding of him.

    You wrote that Job “argues his case before God” “so we are right to question God and seek answers” and that “at the end, Job is drawn into a deeper understanding of God and his character.”

    But despite reiterating my points and agreeing with them, you tell me that I am missing the point and patronisingly suggest I read a good commentary.

    But I have no problem with the idea that God “is sovereign Lord and provides His presence in our sufferings” and have no idea why you think I would have.

    I wrote originally that John Foxe:

    “seemed to be arguing that justifying genocide, subjugating women, accepting slavery, condemning homosexuals, taking revenge by killing children, and murdering sorceresses, among others are all part of submitting to God’s way of viewing things rather than our own. If so, that is part of what often appalls people today coming to passages such as these.

    Your glib response refuses to acknowledge in any sense the real issues raised in many people’s minds by such passages. Instead, these very real issues are just bracketed away into a category which seems to say that if you question a Bible passage you must be viewing things from your sinful human perspective instead of submitting to God’s way of viewing things.

    The great figures of the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Habbakuk, Jesus, Paul, among others) all argued with God and grew in their understanding of his ways as a result. That is much more what we need to recapture in our faith when we read passages such as these, instead of the supine acceptance of injustice which you appear to be advocating.”

    Nothing written by yourself, Peter, or John in response to this has addressed the issue that I raised. All that has happened is that you have tried to argue that I don’t understand the Book of Job, when, as I have set out above, what we are saying about Job is actually very similar.

    It appears to me that this site is more about propping up your own theological worldview that it is about open debate, so I’m off to seek honest debate elsewhere.

    • Jonathan

      You’re right: you had raised the difficulties of many of these verses without anyone responding from an orthodox perspective. So, if you’re still out there trawling the internet for ‘honest debate’ then I’ll happily try and give you a reply. Its just that I’m longwinded at the best of times and I don’t want to get started unless you’re still interested!

      Philip

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