The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

The Bible has been called an historical document, a guidebook for moral living, and a work of fiction. No matter how you view it, there is no question that certain parts are confusing. We'll take a look at the possible meanings of the nine strangest passages in the Bible.

9. The Many Begettings

One of the features of the Bible, which have been satirized many times, are the long passages that say things like, "and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse." The longest begetting streak is at the beginning of the book of Matthew. It starts with Abraham and ends with Joseph, the father of Jesus. This is puzzling, not just because the Bible is keeping track of people's sex lives, but because it includes Joseph at all. The supposed intention of the passage is to link Jesus, son of Joseph, to Abraham, father of the people of Israel, and yet the entire point of Jesus is that he is God's son by the virgin Mary. Joseph had nothing, biologically, to do with it. If anything, the Bible should be linking Mary with Abraham, and leaving Joseph out of it. Why the many listed begettings?

The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

Some say that there is a subtext to this passage. Many of the people who were doing the begetting were not married to those who were begat upon. Therefore the sons that they begat held the technical definition of "bastard." Jesus was born to a single woman who was known to be engaged to a local man, and who was also in occupied territory. This kind of thing gets people talking. Although the begettings link Jesus to Abraham, they also necessitate acceptance of paternity that was outside the norm, negating questions about how, exactly, Mary got pregnant. Whatever happened, Jesus was God's chosen son and connected with God's people.

8. Jesus Gets Mad at a Tree

One day, Jesus is strolling along with his disciples, and he's feeling a little peckish. As Jesus walked, "he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away." In another book, which repeats the story, it is stressed that "the time of the figs was not yet." There was no real reason to expect that the tree would have fruit. So it looks like Jesus, the son of god, had a tantrum and wrecked a tree because it didn't have out-of-season fruit for him.

Some people point to this passage as an example of Jesus's humanity. He was supposed to be divine, but human, and have his cranky days like any other human. Others note that this was an emotional time for Jesus in general. He was four days away from crucifixion - which he knew was coming - and just about to take a whip to some moneylenders in a temple. It's also noted that figs and fig trees were often used as a metaphor for the people in the area. The fig tree, like the people, wasn't spiritually ready. This passage was meant to show that something extreme had to happen to make people righteous, and to demonstrate what would happen to people who didn't turn righteous.

7. What did Ruth Do?

Here's one that only gets more confusing with explanations. Many people know the basic story of the devoted Ruth. When her husband died, she followed her mother in law, Naomi, to Naomi's land and dedicated herself to Naomi's people and faith. This was a problem, as now Naomi and Ruth were living without a lot of money on leased land. Enter Boaz, the wealthy kinsman of Naomi. Naomi had a suggestion for Ruth, instructing that she should, "Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking. And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie and thou shalt go in and uncover his feet and lay thee down, and he will tell thee what thou shalt do." Ruth did so, Boaz woke up in the middle of it, and she and Boaz got married soon after that.

The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

If that sounds suggestive, it's because you're paying attention. Some people say that Ruth simply lay at Boaz's feet in submission, but that leaves a few things unexplained. Why did he need his feet uncovered for her to lie there? Some say that "feet" can also be translated as "legs," which cover the lower half of the body. This explains why Ruth had to "uncover" them to get a marriage proposal. By far the most wholesome explanation hinges on possible slang. Boaz was staying away from home at the time. Finding out where a person was staying, some say, was referred to as, "uncovering their feet." But why was the passage in there at all? Basically, because the ethnic and political situation in the middle east was as complicated then as it is now. Ruth, some claim, was a gentile, and she wasn't from that area. Boaz and Ruth were in the genetic line that lead to Jesus. Jesus was meant to be a local boy. So there needed to be a compelling reason why Ruth was in the line that lead to Jesus. The story stresses that she was a dutiful daughter-in-law, and that she married the kinsman of a local woman.

6. Beware of dogs! And circumcision!

A surprisingly small amount of the Bible is actually dedicated to what Jesus did and said. After that's over, the rest of the book consists of letters from various apostles to various groups of followers. The most famous (and extensive) correspondence is that of Paul. If you read through them, you'll notice a trend. At first, Paul talks about circumcision in reassuring tones. He explains that circumcision is fine - and he himself performed one on Timothy, whose mother was an ethnically Jewish convert and whose father was Greek - but it's not mandatory. Feel free, he says, to abstain. After a time, Paul cools on the idea, saying that people should concern themselves with the spiritual, not the physical. Towards the end of his letters, though, you get lines like, "Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, and beware of the circumcision." It's like they're all going to jump out at you from a closet.

Why the slide towards circumcision hatred? It turns out that, during Paul's lifetime, a group known as "Judaizers," sprang up. They wanted the new Christians to conform to existing Jewish law. This alienated outsiders, and Paul's vision of religion was one that was based on conversion. What we see in his letters was not a dismissal of existing laws, but an increasingly desperate attempt to turn the tide of a political movement inside his religion.

5. Protect Yourself From God With Foreskins

Moses had a wife named Zipporah. Zipporah gave him two sons. They all traveled around together, and one night, at an inn, God decided to kill Moses. I'm not sure how long it takes God to kill someone, but apparently that day He was taking His time. How much time? Quite a bit, because, according to the Bible, "Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me."

The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

Zipporah's quick thinking apparently saved the day, because God stopped trying to murder Moses and went on His way. The thing that is meant to catch the reader's eye is not Zipporah knowing how to make God feel better (or possibly gross Him out), but that Moses's sons still had their foreskins. Moses was attacked because he was neglecting religious law and when you procrastinate, sometimes you have to make do with whatever is to hand at the last minute.

4. Jesus Forms a Psychic Connection to a Donkey

The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all deal with the life of Jesus, and they all mention his entrance into Jerusalem. Before he enters the city, Jesus tells his disciples to go to a certain place, where they'll find a donkey and the donkey's colt. They are to bring both animals back out, and he'll ride into the city on them. They do so, with Jesus getting on one of the donkeys, and the disciples piling their extra stuff on the other. And Jesus comes into the city.

Previously, Jesus had fed the hungry, healed lepers, raised the dead, walked on water, and calmed storms at sea. Knowing where to find a nice donkey is not impressive, in comparison. And yet every book mentions that damn donkey. Why? Because in the book of Zechariah, in the Old Testament, it was said that the messiah would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus didn't just appear and say he was the son of God. He claimed to be a specific messiah that people had been making predictions about for some time. Much of the more bizarre stuff that Jesus does (in one version of the story of the Last Supper he actually confirms aloud that Judas will betray him and no one does anything about it) are done to conform to an existing legend. This was the ancient world's version of proof of identity.

3. Jacob Takes God's Lunch Money

The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

Well, not literally, but he could have. One day, Jacob goes out into the desert to think and gets tackled. It's late, and he doesn't know who is doing the tackling, but he isn't about to be out-wrassled. He struggles all night, and at dawn, the stranger does something weird. He touches Jacob's hip, which immediately dislocates. Jacob realizes that it's God he's fighting, but decides that he didn't go out into the desert to take silver at the spiritual Olympics. He refuses to let go of God until God gives him a blessing.

Some might call this defiance. Others consider it redemption. Jacob wasn't wandering in the desert for fun. His relatives had divested him of all his money and were still gunning for him. One interpretation of this is Jacob realizing that God could kill him, but hanging on because having the favor of God meant more than his own life. It's a redemption story wrapped up in a story about mixed martial arts.

2. Jesus Drowns Some Pigs

In multiple books Jesus comes the edge of a lake. Near the lake, in a cave, lives a man who is possessed by many demons. Jesus decides he's not going to put up with that, and orders those demons out of the man. The demons beg Jesus not to just turn them out, but to send them into a herd of pigs who are grazing nearby. (Some versions of the story number the pigs in the thousands.) Jesus decides to give the demons what they want, and sends them into the pigs. The pigs then run into the water and drown.

This is, to put it mildly, weird. And no real explanation is given for it in the text. There is one interpretation of this story that hinges on the personality of Jesus. He's generally snarkier and more a fan of word play than he's given credit for. There are a lot of passages that show people trying to force him into saying something that would amount to treason or sacrilege, and him cleverly evading the answer. This might be another form of evasion. The demons don't want to be sent to hell, and Jesus says he won't send them there . . . and then the pigs send them there instead. The key to understanding the passage, though, might be what the demons say. Jesus asks who they are, and they say, "We are legion." There is also another "legion" in the area - a Roman legion that was not fastidious about eating pigs. The story is often interpreted as a symbolic casting out of the Romans, represented as dirty swine bent for hell.

1. Why Did Cain Kill His Brother?

Cain and Abel were the children of Adam and Eve, and were the participants in the first murder. What's never made clear is why the first murder even happened. The Bible describes the events leading up to the murder - "And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell." God talks to Cain, encouraging him to try again, but instead, "Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him."

The 9 most baffling passages in the Bible, and what they really mean

There's a myth, regarding that passage, which claims that Abel offered up his best, while Cain gave god the discards, but the text doesn't support it. We don't know why God rejected Cain's offering. Nor is it specified what the brothers talked about before Cain killed Abel. What's interesting is that Cain is a farmer, while Abel is a herder. A herder had an easier life than a farmer. There are some theories that state that Cain was trying to live God's punishment, toiling for a living, and resented Abel for his easier life. Cain believed that Abel should be punished by God, and did the punishing himself. This did not go over well with a deity who specified that "Revenge is mine." Other theories have it that this was a symbolic tale of the traditional animosity between settled farmers and nomadic herders. Still another variation of the story holds that the brothers were to marry twin sisters, and whoever had the better offering got the pretty sister. This finally explains why Cain would even bother to kill his brother. Cain couldn't possibly have thought that he could hide a murder from God (especially since there were only about six people in the whole world) but he might have thought that he could have the bride of his choice. Maybe that was worth committing the first murder.