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Five bible passages you might have misunderstood

Most Christians would agree that there are some passages in the bible that are very challenging, for various reasons. Perhaps they contradict other parts of the bible, or maybe they seem to demonstrate that God approves of actions that are clearly evil, or perhaps they just seem massively out of place. In this article I will discuss five well-known passages that are often easily misunderstood. For each of the passages, I shall seek to provide an alternative point of view. My responses are not necessarily authoritative, but hopefully they provide food for thought.

Do not kill

Let's start with a simple example taken from listverse.com, referencing Exodus 20, verse 13.

You shall not murder.

What people think it means: Do not kill. What it actually means: Do not murder.

The bible distinguishes between killing and murdering. This means that it is possible to kill someone but not murder them.

The article at listverse.com describes this in more detail, and contains many more examples of easily misunderstood bible passages, so be sure to check it out if you fancy some further reading.

Criminals on the cross

Now, let's take a look at the passage describing Jesus' hanging on the cross in Luke 23, verses 39-43:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!"

But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Jesus answered him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

What people think it means: The criminal went to heaven on the same day that he died. What it actually means: One possible alternative to consider is that, since the original text didn't actually have any commas, the introduction of the comma was somewhat arbitrary. Without commas, the verse reads "truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise" and can therefore feasibly be translated as "truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise". Various websites discuss this in depth, but they do not necessarily agree with this alternative interpretation.

The 120 year life span

Let's take a look at some fascinating pre-flood story from Genesis 6, verses 1-3:

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, "My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years."

What people think it means: Human lifespans shall never exceed 120 years. What it actually means: In 120 years, God will send the flood, notably at the time of the death of Methuselah. There is documented evidence of people living longer than 120 years in modern times.

Sacrificing humans

Now, here's a tough one. Here is a passage describing Jephthah's regretful promise in Judges 11, verses 29-38:

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 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."

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break."

"My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."

"You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

What people think it means: Jephthah's daughter was sacrificed as a burnt offering. God doesn't mind. What it actually means: Jephthah's daughter sacrificed her virginity. Note the focus in this passage on the state of Jephthah's daughter's virginity. Jephthah's daughter is stated to have spent a lot of time lamenting her virginity, rather then her death. The passage even ends by specifically saying "and she was a virgin". Note, in particular, that God's opinion on all of this is not expressed.

Onanism

Lowering the tone ever so slightly, let's take a look at Onan in Genesis 38, verses 8-10:

Then Judah said to Onan, "Sleep with your brother's wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother". But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight; so the Lord put him to death also.

What people think it means: Masturbation is a sin. What it actually means: Deliberately disobeying God's clear command is a sin. In this situation, God's will is clear and unambiguous.

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