10 Terribly Misread Bible Verses
Does religion mean you don’t get fact-checked? I grew up with that thinking. But come to find out, there is such a thing as Bible scholarship, and sometimes it’s really just about facts.
Let’s look at ten terribly misread Bible verses—why are they so often about sexual subjects?—and be reminded the world runs on facts. This is an ancient text in ancient languages, and you have to know facts.
1. “One flesh” doesn’t mean sex!
The phrase “one flesh” in Genesis 2:24 is often thought by Christians to mean the basic function of marriage is having sex. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
No. The word translated “flesh” is a very typical word for “family.” Like “flesh and bone,” it refers to shared family. Note Leviticus 25:49, where ‘flesh’ (basar) is translated as ‘clan’.
As David Instone-Brewer, writes: “The phrase ‘they shall be one flesh’ would probably have been interpreted to mean ‘they shall be one family’.”
2. Women aren’t cursed to “desire” men
Christian men like to say that women are cursed by God to “desire” them. It’s a beguiling reading of Genesis 3:16, when God is talking to Eve. “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls were helpful in untangling a mess Christian tradition had made. Joel N. Lohr’s 2011 paper “Sexual Desire? Eve, Genesis 3:16, and תשוקה” lays out the evidence. The rare word, teshuqa, translated “desire” actually means “turning” in the sense of “returning.”
As Lohr paraphrases Genesis 3:16: “Despite increased pain in childbearing, Eve would actively return to the man.” She’ll accept the pain of childbirth, and keep reproducing the race. Someone’s gotta do it?
3. “Adultery” doesn’t mean cheating
When Christians read most anything in Old Testament law, like Exodus 20:14, they introduce a lot of confusion. The famous words go: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
This does not mean a husband or wife in a monogamous marriage gets sexy with someone else. First of all, the Bible assumes polygamy, and biblical heroes from Abraham to Solomon have sex with slaves, prostitutes, concubines and wives.
These women are viewed as possessions. ‘Adultery’ is a crime in property law, since men often like to see wives as property. To commit adultery is to steal a married woman, and that’s it.
“The commandment,” as David J.A. Clines writes, is “not concerned with sexual ethics or social stability or anything other than the threat of theft to a man and his property.”
4. God doesn’t like sex interrupted!
Traditionally, Christians get hives around the Song of Songs — all that sex! — but the one line they like is the refrain (2.7; 3.5; 8.4): “Do not arouse or awaken love.”
And they’ve taken this to mean: you’re supposed to wait until the right time to be sexual. Like when your parents and clergy say it’s okay?
In “A ‘Do Not Disturb’ Sign? Reexamining the Adjuration Refrain in Song of Songs,” Brian P. Gault lays out facts. The verse is saying that lovemaking will last “as long as it desires,” so the lovers are indicating they’re not to be interrupted.
5. “Lust” is not a sexual word!
Lots of Christians think Jesus says it’s a crime to think ladies are looking sexy and fun and you wouldn’t mind spending time with them. Isn’t that Matthew 5:28? “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Fact check. The word translated “lust,” the Greek word, epithumia, is the regular word for ‘desire’. Jesus ‘lusts’ in Luke 22:15 — to eat Passover!
A fact you might not hear in church: the language of Greek, like Hebrew, has no different words for ‘woman’ and ‘wife’, so translators actually don’t know if Matthew 5:28 refers to a woman who is single, or married.
Jason Staples notes that epithumia can point to the Hebrew word for ‘covet’—a crime not of sex, but theft of property. It seems Jesus is identifying, not inner sexual thoughts, but an intention to steal.
6. “Eunuch” doesn’t mean a non-sexual person
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus praises someone often thought highly disfavored: the eunuch. He indicates, then, a religious category called the “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
For Christian tradition, this was taken to mean a non-sexual person. Aren’t eunuchs non-sexual? So you were allowed to be single—as long as you weren’t having sex, is how the thinking went.
As J. David Hester reminds us in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus,” the eunuchs of the ancient world were not celibate, often having phallic functioning, and famous for other sexual skills.
Also note—non-married sex is not a crime in the Bible. There was never evidence to think eunuchs are okay with Jesus because they’re unsexual.
7. Paul’s “burning” doesn’t refer to sex
In yet another effort to pretend that God hates sex, the Christian tradition reads 1 Corinthians 7:9 rather badly. “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”
What is this burning? Christians say ‘sex’—as they typically combine ideas of sexual desire and hellfire.
The classics scholar Ann Nyland points out in her Source Bible translation that the ‘burning’ is probably grief. In ancient Rome, we find phrases like a mother is “burned up” with grief over a child’s death. Tombstones have inscriptions like: “father and mother who are burning with grief.”
Then note that Paul, in 2 Corinthians 11:29, writes of those who’ve left the Christian community: “Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” They’re gone, and he grieves them.
So let’s re-read 1 Corinthians 7:9. Paul is speaking to candidates for missionary work. It’s more for single people, he says. But some are regretting they’d have to abandon a love interest. For them, Paul says, “it is better to marry than to burn”—which means: Get married and be happy.
Fact: In the teachings of Jesus, love has great significance.
8. God’s “bosom” means His womb
In the eerie scene of John 13:23, Jesus and an unnamed younger man are lying together, and the other guy is “in the bosom of Jesus.”
Elizabeth E. Platt offers a literal rendition: “There was reclining, one, from among his disciples, in the bosom of Jesus, whom Jesus loved.”
This “bosom” is also found in John 1:18, where Jesus is in the “bosom” of the Father. Except “bosom” is really just the regular Greek word for womb. In “The Kolpos of the Father (Jn. 1:18) as the Womb of God in the Greek Tradition,” Daniel F. Stramara, Jr. lays out the evidence.
In John 13:23, we’re finding the phrase: in the womb of Jesus. If you don’t like sexual duality in the divine, the Bible is not for you.
9. No, God doesn’t want women to keep quiet
What could be more clear than 1 Corinthians 14:34? “Women should remain silent in the churches.” God thinks women should be quiet in church, right? No, sorry. As Paul had written just a few lines earlier, in 14:26:
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”
The answer is that 1 Corinthians has been misread as a letter. As scholars have been documenting for a century, the 1 Corinthian letter is clearly structured with passages of Q&A, with lots of language like: “In regards to…” As a text that was originally performed, with speaking parts, the ‘letter’ is essentially a dialogue.
As many scholars have documented, like David W. Odell-Scott in “Let the Women Speak in Church,” the strongest reading of the “female silence” passage is that Paul includes a quoted section of a question, likely from a traditional Jew. A ban on women speaking is not a ‘law’ in the Bible, but it is found in the Talmud, owing not to ideas of female inferiority, but to menstruation purity codes.
Paul sharply disagrees. His reply starts in v. 36: “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?” (KJV)
10. No, Paul doesn’t list being gay as a ‘vice’
Christians are amazing at injecting lunacy into weird corners of the Bible. Typical translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (cf. 1 Tim 1:10) read: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…”
In 1980, the historian John Boswell, in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, reminded the faith of basic facts—like bisexuality being the norm in the ancient world. Also, he noted, there was almost nothing known about that very rare word, arsenokoita.
A scholarly search ensued for traces of what it could mean. William L. Petersen, in “On the Study of ‘Homosexuality’ in Patristic Sources,” documented the trail of evidence leading to an unexpected scene in Greek mythology: the god Zeus abducting the shepherd Ganymede and taking him to Olympus. Petersen writes: “In the taking of Ganymede, Zeus is the model of someone who commits ἀρσενοκοιτία.”
Except this wasn’t a sex scene—the shepherd had godlike beauty, and Zeus wanted to show him to the other gods. Even if it was sexual, Zeus was not ‘homosexual’, as Petersen notes, but “seduces women and men with equal relish.” The crime in view remains a puzzle.
Do you have to know every little jot and tiddle before you can tune into Jesus’ main message?
Which seems to be the insistent refrain: ‘love one another’.