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10 Bible Verses That Are Always Misunderstood

by Chris Jenkins
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The Bible is a part of daily life for many people, offering wisdom and guidance for how they live their lives. Unfortunately, the text has been translated and retranslated, and somewhere in the transition between Hebrew and English, there have evolved more than a few verses that we just don’t understand.

10 Sodom And Gomorrah

In heated discussions about the Bible and sex, passages in Genesis 18 and 19 come up as proof of the sin of homosexuality. God singles out the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as especially grievous, and many readers associate that with their attempt to sodomize their angelic visitors. But there’s a catch. God was planning to destroy those cities already.

In Genesis 18, God makes it clear that He has heard of the people’s sinful ways (without specifying exactly what they are) and is planning to destroy their cities if He doesn’t find at least 10 righteous people there. The angels arrive later, so destroying the city is not a spur of the moment decision based on an attempt to rape angelic visitors.

It is true that many men in the city were gay, but scholars read that as one aspect of other sins of the flesh the city was known for. It would be difficult to pin the entire destruction on only one type of sin present among the residents. Some scholars even think one of those sins could be inhospitality—that is, horrible treatment of guests was the final straw for God.

9 The Evil Of Masturbation

218. What Was Onan’s Sin?

One commonly accepted bit of wisdom is that masturbation is a terrible sin. As biblical proof of this, many point to the book of Genesis and the story of Onan. Onan was commanded by God to impregnate his dead brother’s wife. Instead, “knowing that the seed would not count as his, he let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as to not provide offspring for his brother.” “Let it go to waste” has been interpreted as Onan having pulled out at the last minute or even as having finished his act by masturbating, which led to the charming euphemism “Onanism.”

The problem with this is, as with Lot, it involves much assumption on the part of readers. The earliest interpretations of this story focused on the larger sin of ignoring God’s will; rabbis later believed that the sin was not ejaculating inside the brother’s wife, as opposed to masturbation in lieu of sex. The sin only became synonymous with masturbation over 1,000 years later, when Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas sought to codify the worst sins. He included sodomy on the list, and the broad definition of “sodomy” included any sex not intended to impregnate someone. “Onanism” then became code for all of it.

As the centuries passed, “sodomy” became a much more specific idea. The notion of “spilling seed” as masturbation remained attached to Onan, presumably making Christians practicing birth control breathe a bit easier.

8 Do Not Kill

One of the most relatable aspects of the Ten Commandments is also the most well known: “Thou shall not kill.” While non-believers may scoff at some of the other commandments, such as observing the Sabbath, it seems everyone can agree on the morality of not killing each other. Yet this commandment may be based on dubious translation.

It doesn’t take long to find problems with the idea of never killing. Does that mean one can never kill an animal for food, or kill someone in self-defense? What about the numerous people God kills in the Bible? The original Hebrew for this commandment provides the answer, as it reads more like “you shall not murder.” Everything from state-sanctioned executions to God’s judgment would fall under the idea of justice rather than unnecessary murder.

Why the confusion, then? Some biblical scholars think that early translations tried to bridge the later wisdom of Christianity—to love one’s enemies—with the earlier wisdom of the Old Testament, written by those who believed such maxims as “he who comes to kill you, kill him first.”

7 Being Gay Is An Abomination

If the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah leaves a lot of room for interpretation about sexuality and sin, it would seem that the book of Leviticus does not. Leviticus 20:13 reads: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” The problem here is a typical one. The Bible wasn’t written in English, and “abomination” is not a very solid translation.

The original Hebrew word is toevah, which means something that is considered ritually unclean for Jewish people. Therefore, it’s just as much an abomination as other ritually unclean activities that Leviticus speaks against, ranging from getting a haircut to eating pork to wearing clothes with mixed fibers. Avoiding homosexuality, then, served the same social function that avoiding pork did: It helped foster Jewish identity by encouraging them to avoid doing something that other cultures and other people did.

Thankfully for believers, Paul makes it very clear that the sacrifice of Jesus means that individuals do not have to abide by every single rule in the Book of Laws, which is good for any Christians who like to eat sausage. The difficulty comes when Christians must decide which of the old laws they will follow and which they will not. It’s certainly a gray area.

6 The Creation Myth(s)

The biblical creation story about the world and life is seemingly well known. If nothing else, it serves as the religious centerpiece and counterpoint in debates about evolution versus creation. However, what is more interesting for the eagle-eyed reader of the Bible is that two separate (but related) creation stories are offered in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 1:25–27, the story where God creates the world in seven days, clearly states that humans were created after other animals, and that man and woman were created at the same time. In Genesis 2:18–22, which launches the story of Adam and Eve, animals were created after man, and woman was created from the rib of man.

Are these, then, two separate stories? That depends on whom you ask.

Some scholars speculate that this is the natural effect of having a text with many authors edited into a single volume. Different accounts from multiple time periods might simply offer different views of the same event. Others point out that the apparent contradiction may be a stylistic choice. While the first chapter of Genesis gives us the quick, Sparknotes-like account of all life on Earth, the second chapter makes man more central to the text and gives more details so that his fall through original sin would be better understood.

5 Submissive Women

The notion of women “submitting” to men is another Christian idea heard often by believers and non-believers alike. Many read verses (specifically Ephesians 5:22–33) as saying that women must be particularly submissive to men. Though men are supposed to honor women, women must ultimately bow before men’s authority.

This interpretation has several problems, starting with the fact that the verse only applies to husbands and wives (as opposed to all men and all women) and ending with the verse immediately before all of this, Ephesians 5:21. That verse simply states, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” A proper Christian framework has no hierarchy because believers are supposed to channel Christ and submit to everyone.

The subsequent verses about the specifics of women submitting therefore serve as a more specific example, saying, “Here’s what one form of submission looks like.” According to some biblical scholars, since everyone submits to everyone and since husbands are to treat their wives like Jesus treats the church—all while themselves submitting to Jesus—this passage guides married life according to Christian principles but does not mean men are in charge of everything.

4‘Judge Not Lest You Be Judged’

This verse remains popular in modern culture precisely because of the ability it has to shut down a conversation. Frequently, it is regarded as saying that only God can judge you. However, the faithful quickly run into a problem with this. How does one ascertain and preach against sin without ever judging another human being? Moreover, how does a Christian believer reconcile the idea that “only God can judge” with serving as God’s representative on Earth?

One possible interpretation is that judging another means that it is fair game to be judged by those same measures. The Book of Matthew specifically speaks about hypocrisy, though in the context of helpfully advising others: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” By being self-aware in judgment, everyone has the capacity to help one another in a positive way.

Meanwhile, several parts of the Bible do ask believers to be judgmental. When they see fellow believers doing things that are sinful, they are required to call them out on it. They’ve all agreed to follow the same rules, after all. But non-Christians have not agreed to follow those rules and should not be looked down upon because of that.

3‘I Can Do All Things Through Christ’

As far as inspirational Bible verses go, it seems difficult to find a better one than Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” There’s a reason that it adorns everything from coffee mugs to cat posters: It seemingly speaks to our ability to do anything we desire if we put a Jesus-centric mind to it. However, the problem with this is when the believer faces failure and despair. Was the only reason that they failed that they lacked strong enough faith?

According to several scholars, one possible answer is that this verse was written as a meditation upon failures rather than a celebration of success. The verse involves Paul writing from a dank and dark jail cell but finding contentment through God. It goes on to say, “For I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”

“All things” are not necessarily what he wanted but rather what he had endured. Paul may not be offering your coworker hope for that promotion but offering spiritual comfort for when life seems full of pain and misery.

2‘Ask And It Will Be Given To You’

This verse often serves as a partner to “I can do all things through Christ.” It, too, is an assertive motivation to go out and make the world your own. It also faces the same problems. When believers ask for something and it is not given to them, they may wonder exactly what they did wrong.

According to many biblical scholars, the problem is that we interpret “ask” as “ask for anything.” The verse is actually Jesus’s answer to followers curious about how to pray. He tells them what you might expect: Ask for daily bread, ask for forgiveness, and pray for the kingdom of God. It is only after all of this that He says, “Ask and it will be given to you.”

According to this theory, God does not necessarily answer prayers for material success. He instead wants believers to focus on simple things necessary for survival. For instance, God commands people to ask not for bountiful feasts but instead for “daily bread.” In this context, believers should ask for the basic nourishment of body and abundant nourishment of soul but not for material luxury.

1‘Be Fruitful And Multiply’

This is another verse often brought up in the context of God’s attitude toward homosexuality. As a command from on high, the meaning seems pretty clear: Humanity must go forth and expand itself. However, this presents a problem to gay and straight people alike: What if you physically can’t multiply, such as due to infertility? What if you simply don’t want to get married or have children? Does this mean you are sinning?

According to many biblical scholars, context is key. God gives this commandment to Adam, Eve, and a great many animals. These are not necessarily instructions meant for all humans throughout history. In fact, Jesus in the Book of Matthew specifically praises eunuchs who have given their lives to glorifying God, so it would seem that the inability to have children is not a sin. These scholars claim that Adam and Eve, while the progenitors of the human race according to scripture, are still individuals with individual mandates from God, separate from general mandates later given to all of humanity.

Throw the good book @PocketEpiphany.

fact checked by Jamie Frater