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The top 10 absolute worst Old Testament verses

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While writing GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, I found myself wading through the murky waters of the Old Testament, something I was hoping never to have to do again. I arose before 5:00 am for more than 16 months to research and document Richard Dawkins’ famous sentence from The God Delusion:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

angry moses The top 10 absolute worst Old Testament verses
Gustave Doré

During that grueling task, I began to understand how Nietzsche felt when he said he needed to put on gloves before reading the bible, and I knew why Ruth Green said she wanted to take a bath in Grandma’s lye soap. I eventually dredged up about 1,500 slimy verses — more than 2,000 if we count those that do double duty for more than one characteristic.

I had forgotten some of those passages. It’s been many years since I’ve preached the Gospel. I was often shocked by stories that I don’t think I ever knew were in the so-called “Good Book,” the best-seller that nobody reads. It’s not just the pew-sitters — many clergy are unfamiliar with how the Old Testament portrays the unappealing character of Yahweh. It was like finding a recipe for a meal marinated with blood, peppered with pestilence, battered with a vengeance and baked with fire. Yummy. Citing just one of those nasty verses is enough to indict the biblical deity, but the authors force-feed us a banquet of barbarity.

Here is my list of 10 worst Old Testament passages, in reverse order. (Okay, 11, because there is a tie for second place.) You might choose a different list from mine, or a different order, but these particular passages have been troubling my mind the past few months while working on the book. My main criterion is that this list show us something about the character of God. All believers admit that the bible contains some stomach-churning tales, but these examples reveal the LORD himself commanding, committing, or condoning the brutality. Dawkins was not exaggerating when he called God a capriciously malevolent bully.

10. Slaughter everyone, but keep the virgins as war booty

The Midianites were also descended from Abraham, like the Israelites, but they worshipped the wrong god. They had to be destroyed.

They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. . . . The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. . . . Moses was angry with the officers. . . . “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. . . . “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” . . . So Moses and Eleazar the priest did as the Lord commanded Moses. The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man. The half share of those who fought in the battle was . . . 16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32. (Numbers 31:7–40 NIV)

The priests were awarded 32 virgins. The bible doesn’t say whether those lucky orphans were used as sexual slaves or sacrificed on the altar. After seeing their parents, siblings and friends massacred by God’s loving people, they might have preferred the latter.

9. God destroyed a good family “for no reason”

God made a bet with Satan that Job, a good man, would remain faithful even if he killed his children and ruined his life. Here we see God indicting himself for the crime, openly confessing that he destroyed a “blameless” family “for no reason.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” (Job 2:3 NRSV)

8. God destroys the fetuses of those who do not worship him

This is not the only aborticidal passage in the bible, but it is the worst:

You shall acknowledge no God but me. . . . You are destroyed, Israel. . . . The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open. (Hosea 13:4, 9, 16 NIV)

7. God approved the massacre of a peaceful people so one of his tribes could have a place to live

Most believers think the Canaanites were depraved and immoral, although the bible does not make that claim. God killed them—and labeled them “evil” and “wicked”—simply because they did not worship him. They were also in the way of the Israelite invaders.

Here is a group of people who did nothing wrong. They were “at peace and secure” (NRSV “quiet and unsuspecting,” NAB “quiet and trusting,” KJV “quiet and secure,” OJB “peaceful and unsuspecting”), but they had to be eliminated.

And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking a place of their own where they might settle, because they had not yet come into an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. . . . Then they said to [the priest], “Please inquire of God to learn whether our journey will be successful.” The priest answered them, “Go in peace. Your journey has the Lord’s approval.” . . . Then they took what Micah had made, and his priest, and went on to Laish, against a people at peace and secure. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city. . . . The Danites rebuilt the city and settled there. (Judges 18:1–28 NIV)

The Canaanites were not the evildoers. The Israelites were the invaders! They were like the European Christians who invoked “Manifest Destiny” with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other to destroy the native Americans, admiring the same genocidal god.

6. Babies slaughtered and wives raped

In GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, Chapters 7 Bloodthirsty, 8 Ethnic Cleanser, 12 Infanticidal, 13 Genocidal, and 14 Filicidal prove that the murderous Old Testament deity deemed human life to be worthless, placing his own megalomaniacal glory above human values. Here is one of the worst examples:

See, the day of the Lord is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger. . . . I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty. . . . Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives violated. (Isaiah 13:9–16 NIV)

5. A mixed-race couple was murdered by a godly priest to keep God’s people pure

The righteous priest Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, murdered a loving couple for the “crime” of miscegenation. Then he was praised by God and rewarded for the hate crime with a perpetual priesthood for keeping the nation racially pure.

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man into the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by manifesting such zeal among them on my behalf that in my jealousy I did not consume the Israelites. Therefore say, ‘I hereby grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:6–13 NRSV)

pinehas The top 10 absolute worst Old Testament verses
David Martin (1737-1797), History of the Old and New Testament. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.

4. A daughter was burned as an acceptable sacrifice to God

General Jephthah made a vow with God in order to defeat the enemy. When Jephthah won the war, God received his hundred pounds of flesh.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” . . . When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! . . . After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. (Judges 11:30–39 NIV)

After burning his daughter, Jephthah was rewarded with a prestigious judgeship and was later buried with honor.

3. The cannibalistic God makes people eat human flesh

There are nine passages in the Old Testament where God makes cannibalistic threats. Here is the worst:

And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins. And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat. (Leviticus 26:27–29 KJV)

That is a rare example of gender equality in the bible: You will eat your sons and your daughters.

2. God threatens rape, then takes credit for it

This was new to me, and it blew me away. I guess I had only read it in the KJV before, where the sexual molestation is not obvious. Here it is in the NRSV, when the Israelites were asking why they were being attacked by the Babylonians:

Hear and give ear; do not be haughty, for the Lord has spoken. . . . And if you say in your heart, “Why have these things come upon me?” it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated . . . because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen. (Jeremiah 13:15–26 NRSV)

“Skirts lifted up” is sexual assault. “Violate” is rape. The KJV has the quaint “heels made bare,” which obscures the sexual assault. For “skirts lifted up,” the NIV has “skirts torn off,” the NLT has “stripped,” CEV “clothes torn off,” and the LB has “raped.” For “violated,” the NIV has “mistreated,” CEV “abused,” and the NLT “raped.” The Good News Translation has the good news that “your clothes have been torn off and you have been raped.” The God we are supposed to admire boasted that “I myself will lift up your skirts.” Rather than worship such an abusive cad, we should seek a restraining order, or lock him up.

Notice that the “iniquity” for which they were being raped was not immorality or depravity; it was simply because “you have forgotten me.”

2 (tie). God threatens sexual molestation

The Lord will harass attractive uppity women by exposing their private parts.

Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. (Isaiah 3:16–17 KJV)

The NIV covers up this embarrassing passage with “make their scalps bald” in place of “discover their secret parts [Hebrew: poth = vagina].” Other translations are more honest: the OJB has “lay bare their nakedness,” AB “stripped naked,” CJB “expose their private parts,” CEV “uncover their private parts,” and LB “expose their nakedness for all to see.” Even if “daughters of Zion” is a metaphor for Israel, it is a metaphor of sexual assault.

1. God wants you to be happy to dash babies against the rocks

I have always thought this was the worst verse in the bible, and my opinion remains unchanged.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8–9 NRSV)

God was not merely saying that regrettable collateral damage might occur during wartime. He said believers should be happy—some translations say “blessed”—to kill innocent babies of those who are keeping you from worshiping your own god.

In God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction you can also read about the shameful treatment of Korah (the first Protestant), the sacking of King Saul (called “evil” for not being genocidal enough), God’s jealous grandstanding on Mt. Sinai, the heartless ethnic cleansing of the Amalekites (“blot out their remembrance”), Samson’s homicidal sham wedding, the gratuitous massacre at Beth Shemesh, the far-fetched destruction of Sodom (which was not strictly about homosexuality), Noah’s merciless flood (killing “every living thing”), Abraham’s willingness to slaughter the “son that he loved,” the tragically pointless plagues of Egypt, and much more.

Anyone who claims to admire and worship the biblical God has either abandoned all sense of moral judgment or has never actually read the Old Testament. Since most believers are good people, I will assume the latter. I think the world would be a much better place if people would actually read the book.

A. A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, said: “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.”

Before we can cure an illness we have to diagnose it. Please, let’s read the Old Testament, and then excise the cancer from our lives.

AB = Amplified Bible; CEV = Common English Version; CJB = Complete Jewish Bible; KJV = King James Version; LB = Living Bible; NAB = New American Bible; NLT = New Living Translation; NRSV = New Revised Standard Version; NIV = New International Version; OJB = Orthodox Jewish Bible.

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