This is an excerpt from “Gory Stories of the Bible,” my latest book project, coming soon.
Murder. Rape. Genocide. Palace intrigue. Cover-ups. Abuse.
No, it’s not the latest season of Game of Thrones. It’s the Bible stories you learned as a kid in Sunday School.
If you grew up in the church, you’re probably familiar with many well-known tales from the Bible: Noah’s Ark, David & Goliath, Jesus’ birth, etc. But what if I told you that those stories you think you know are actually much darker and bloodier than you thought? The story of Noah is about the near-extermination of the human race, followed by Noah getting completely passed-out drunk and stumbling around naked (yeah, I never heard that part in Sunday School either). David & Goliath is a cage-match fight to the death which ends in decapitation. And did you know that the true story of Jesus’ birth—with all the twinkle lights and carols and manger scenes—actually includes mass infanticide? Do you remember any verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” about the blood of babies flowing in the street? Me neither.
And that’s just the well-known stories. Don’t get me started on the gang rape and dismemberment at the end of the book of Judges, or the sexual slavery which sets the scene for Esther, or the icky incest in Jesus’ family tree. The Bible, it turns out, is a pretty dark book. Why do you think we have cheerful, brightly-colored children’s Bibles? Because the real version is way too intense for kids.
It’s sort of like how we treat fairy tales. If you’ve ever read any of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales, you know that they are, well, grim. Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their appendages and get their eyes plucked out by birds. Can you imagine if Disney’s version did that? Bippity-boppity-boo, indeed.
Of course, censoring these Bible stories is okay to a certain extent; my four-year-old doesn’t need to know all the tawdry details of the David & Bathsheba incident, or how many people Samson killed with a jawbone. But somewhere in our growing up process—the progression into a full-hearted, mature walk with Jesus—something has gone wrong for many of us. We never exchanged the pastel Sunday school tales for the real thing. We stuck with a safe, domesticated Bible instead of wrestling with the wild, dangerous God who is. And in the process, we became so anesthetized by our sanitized stories that we lost their true message. We’ve grown comfortable with the Bible, and the radical, explosive gospel message it contains. And so our knowledge of the Bible, and our faith in the Bible’s God, remains stunted. Incomplete. Immature.
See, here’s the problem: the Bible is not a fairy tale, open to re-imagining as a family-friendly adventure flick. The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes about itself is that it is the very Word of God, the infallible revelation of God’s character and purposes. If it actually is true that the Bible is God’s Word—as 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful”—then these stories aren’t just make-believe legends that we can adapt and modify if we feel like it. No, these stories are divine, perfect, life-giving, transformational, and true. And not just the happy, Instagram-friendly stuff. All Scripture. The violent book of Judges is “God-breathed and useful.” The gory story of Esther is “God-breathed and useful.”
These “gory stories” are in the Bible for a reason, and all their violence, intrigue, and darkness are important. In fact, I would argue that for many of these stories, the violence, intrigue, and darkness is the main point. Miss the gore, and you miss the point.
As I see it, there are three reasons to focus on these gory stories.
The first is this: real life is hard, and the Bible doesn’t shy away from that reality. From heart aches and daily disappointments to life-altering tragedies and disasters, this groaning world is filled to the brim with pain. If the Bible was all sunshine and rainbows, what would it have to say to those in grief and despair? Naïve, superficial spirituality doesn’t penetrate down to the darkest depths of the pit.
But the Bible never puts a happy face on life’s most perplexing dilemmas. It faces up to the world as it is, with all its grittiness and depravity, and meets it head-on with a God who is bigger than all the storms. In the gory stories of the Bible, we see life at its most desperate… and a God who is working out his purposes through it all.
Secondly, these gory stories put a bullet through the heart of the myth that Bible characters are heroes to emulate. Sure, there definitely are valuable lessons to learn from the men and women of the Bible. We learn humble leadership from David, faith from Abraham, wisdom from Solomon. There are certainly principles here to apply to our lives.
The problem is, these “heroes” all have feet of clay, and none of them live up to the hype. At the very best, they are more “Batman” than “Superman;” complex, shadowed amalgams of good and bad. At worst, they’re just terrible. We do learn humble leadership from David… but also how to murder your friend and cover up a rape. We learn faith from Abraham… as well as “how NOT to treat women.” Solomon teaches us wisdom, until his own folly eats him alive. Every one of these “heroes” is a failure.
When we face up to the gory stories of the Bible, one truth quickly becomes clear: there is only one Hero in this book. Everyone—including you and me—is compromised, guilty, and broken. Each of us is a bit player, and there is only one main character. The bloodstained pages of the Bible teach us not to build our hope on our heroes, or on ourselves, but on the Savior who came to rescue us from even our best impulses.
Thirdly, and most importantly, when you begin trace the darkest threads of the Bible, you’ll start to see the place many of them are running towards: the darkest day in history, the center of all the stories—the cross of Christ. The betrayal, torture, and murder of the Son of God—so sanitized today with our crucifix jewelry and steeples— is the goriest story of them all. But in its gore, the cross is the one story that gives life and meaning to all the others. All of the Bible’s slaughter (and there is a whole lot of slaughter) ultimately points us to this slaughter, which makes sense of it all.
Forever and ever, the theme of heaven’s song is, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb!” (Revelation 5:12, author’s translation). The angels don’t think this gore is something to shy away from; no, they lean in, amazed and eager to know more. 1 Peter 1:12 says that “angels long to look” into the mystery of this violent grace. And if the angels themselves are amazed, how much more should we be?
So buckle up and brace yourselves. We’re about to take a tour through the most gruesome moments in the Bible, in all their gory glory. Prepare to be amazed by violent, saving grace.