6 Controversial Bible Passages the Skeptics Love to Hate—Explained

I occasionally find articles that like to poke fun at some of the more “unusual” passages in the Bible. Often the authors use these stories or commands to show that the Bible is ridiculous or anti-women or anti-science or just downright immoral. Here are six passages that seem to make the rounds on skeptics’ websites, with my accompanying explanations.

1. Did God actually command rape victims to marry their rapist? (Deuteronomy 22:28,29)

No, He did not. The verses say:

If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days. (New King James Version)

The KJV and the New American Standard Version (literal translations) pretty much say the same thing. Does “seize” mean “rape” in verse 28? We need to compare it with the word “forces” in verse 25 where rape and its penalty actually do take place.

In verses 25-27 Moses is discussing rape and its penalties. There the word for “forces” is hazak. In Hebrew it consistently means violently overwhelming someone (Brown/Driver/Briggs Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon, p305). The person who “forces” (hazak) himself on another (rapes) gets the death penalty. But, we have a different story in Deuteronomy 22:28. There the operative word is “seizes” and in Hebrew it is taphas, which does not have the consistently violent meaning of hazak. The popular New International Version mistranslates it as “rapes” in this verse. However, the word generally means “to acquire, to handle, to catch, and even to do something skillfully” (Brown/Driver/Briggs Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicion, p1074).

So what’s happening here in Deuteronomy 22:28,29? Notice, there is no death penalty for anyone. The penalty is merely paying a fine, and the two must get married and they cannot get divorced. Here a guy finds a girl, chases her, catches her and they have sex. She is not crying out, she is not resisting. Certainly seems to be a passion-of-the-moment love chase. What does God say to do for these two who are not engaged? Pay a fine and get married. There is no rape, no woman is forced to marry her rapist, and these two kids get married.

2. Were the Jews happy about babies being dashed against rocks? (Psalm 137:9)

This is a psalm composed after the Jewish people were carried off into captivity in Babylon. They were mourning their terrible misfortune at the hands of the Babylonians. They were certainly not happy with their captors. Then in verse 9 the psalm says: “Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.” Sounds awful! It was awful! Somehow skeptics like to take this verse and turn God or His people into monsters who were cackling with glee over Babylonian babies getting killed. But read the whole psalm again. Does it say that the psalmist was happy about this? No, it doesn’t. All it records is the emotion of the people who will one day destroy Babylon. In verse 8 it says “O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us!”

A future enemy will eventually come against Babylon. They (not God) will be happy about dashing their little ones against a rock. Persia eventually came and overwhelmed the Babylonian Empire, and their soldiers were quite happy about their massacre of the population. The Bible simply records the emotions of the people who were doing the deeds, as unpleasant as it was.

3. A widow must marry her brother-in-law? (Deuteronomy 25:10)

This is a passage that teaches “levirate marriage” (which was quite common in the ancient world). “Levirate” comes from the Latin word levir, meaning “brother-in-law.” The law states that if a man has a wife, but he dies without an heir, she must marry his brother so that they can have a child to inherit the man’s possessions. Sounds terrible to our modern ears, doesn’t it?

But in the ancient agrarian world, it was practical and merciful. If a widow did not have any children from her first husband, then the land could be sold off, and she would be left destitute. By marrying her brother-in-law, she would be keeping the property (which she may have brought into the family) within the family. She and her family could lose the property if she married someone from the outside. The brother-in-law could refuse to marry her, but according to verses 7-10 she could go through a ceremony to publicly shame him into marrying her.

In marriage the woman would be financially secure and she would have children to take care of her in her old age. Sounds strange to us today, I know, but that was the “Social Security/Medicare” set-up of the ancient world.

4. Are parents to stone to death their disobedient sons? (Deuteronomy 21:18:21)

Yes, and not exactly. Look at the passage carefully. First of all, the passage is not talking about a child. It is talking about a young man who clearly knows right from wrong. It is also not dealing with a temporary lapse in judgment or occasional bad decisions (if it were, no one would survive!). The passage is talking about a young man who consistently rebels against his family. He is incorrigible. Notice, there are no allotments for prisons or jails in ancient Israel. Rebellion was dealt with severely. After repeated warnings, the parents take him to the elders of the town and lay the formal charges against him. Elsewhere in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:9) God gives the death penalty to anyone who curses his parents. In the Law, rebellion against parents undermines the whole fabric of society. Apparently, God thought it was a pretty serious offense.

However, the parents are not to stone him; it clearly says that the elders of the city are to stone him. And the text ends in verse 21: “. . . all Israel shall hear and fear.” If this law were carried out, then ancient Israel certainly would not have had much juvenile delinquency. The Law was pretty harsh, but there is no recording anywhere in the Bible or Jewish or Christian tradition of this command ever being carried out.

5. Why did bears kill children who made fun of Elisha? (2 Kings 2:23, 24)

Here is the one the skeptics love. Bears came out of the woods and killed 42 little kids who made fun of God’s prophet because he was bald. Except that’s not exactly what happened. Elisha, the successor of the prophet Elijah, was accosted by dozens and dozens of young men. They were not kids. The Hebrew language here is pretty clear; they were young men in their late teens and early twenties. So, a large gang was confronting God’s prophet. Elisha and Elijah were battling the prophets of Baal at this time, and these Baal worshipers were not nice guys. They regularly burned babies alive in sacrifice to their god Baal and practiced every form of sexual deviancy.

Here was a large gang of Baal supporters who were insulting and taunting Elisha. They told him to “go up”— a reference to Elijah’s previous ascension into heaven. They sarcastically wanted him to repeat Elijah’s performance. And they called him “bald head.” Not a big deal to us today. But in that ancient world, it was a term of scorn. Leprous people had to shave their heads, and they may have been saying that he was as desirable as lepers.

Certainly they saw him with contempt. And to see God’s prophet with contempt was the same as viewing God with contempt. Elisha called down a curse and the Lord answered by sending bears to maul them. The text says forty-two were mauled (though not killed). So apparently it was quite a large crowd mocking God’s prophet. Lesson learned: God is not mocked. He is not a senile old grandfather. He is real, we must take Him seriously, and He will execute judgment on the earth.

6. Why was Jesus so mean that He cursed that poor little fig tree? (Mark 11:12-14)

Jesus was not mean. There was a very good reason for everything He did. In this story Jesus had just completed His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The people were proclaiming Him to be the King. Then He saw this fig tree with leaves all over it, but no figs. And verse 13 tells us it was not the season for figs. But when Jesus saw that there were no figs, He cursed it and the thing withered up and died.

What’s going on here? The fig trees in that area generally produced figs that grew with the leaves twice a year. In April it was not the season, but here was a tree that had grown the leaves anyway. It had all the promise of fruit, but it was misleading. Its leaves were deceiving people since there were no figs.

In the Bible, the fig tree is often a symbol for the nation of Israel (Hosea 9:10; Nahum 3:12; Zechariah 3:10). Here Jesus used this tree as an object lesson about the nation of Israel. Like this fig tree, they were showing all kinds of productivity and promise by proclaiming Him to be their King, but He knew that in reality they were completely fruitless and really did not believe. They would soon show their true selves, and wither just like this fig tree.

There are plenty more “unusual” stories in the Bible, and I will deal with them in future articles.