From a talking donkey to a man being eaten by a giant fish, the Bible has no shortage of strange stories. In her new book “A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible” (Oxford University Press, 2021), Kristin Swenson, an associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, delves into these stories and many others. Here’s a look at 20 of the more bizarre biblical stories that Swenson discusses in the book. Some, such as Jonah being eaten by a giant fish, refer to important archaeological sites, like Nineveh, an ancient Assyrian city in modern-day northern Iraq. Others, such as that of a literal scapegoat, explain how phrases that are commonly used in modern times came into existence.
The Bible also introduces mysterious superhumans that influenced God’s decision to send a flood that covered the Earth.
The Book of Genesis says, “The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:2) Their children were god-human hybrids that the Bible refers to as the “Nephilim.”
God was unhappy about this interbreeding and “regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” (Genesis 6:6). So he sent a flood that wiped out many of the humans and Nephilim, but not before ordering Noah to build an ark that saved a select few. The biblical story suggests that the breeding between gods and humans was a major factor in God’s decision to send the flood.
Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the Gospels, being composed around A.D. 70, about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also the Gospel with the most abrupt and unusual ending: It finishes with Mary Magdalene and two other women bringing spices to Jesus’ tomb so that they can anoint his body. They find the tomb open and a young man in a white robe sitting inside.
The young man told them not to be alarmed. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here,” the young man said, telling the three women to go and deliver the resurrection news to Jesus’ disciples. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8) That is the last line of the Gospel.
Why the Gospel of Mark ends so abruptly has long been a mystery. In later times, Christian writers tacked on a longer ending to the gospel that included Jesus talking to his disciples and Mary Magdalene; his disciples then went out to preach.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has an unusual requirement for his disciples: that they have to hate their own family.
“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them, He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.'” (Luke 14:25-26)
Why Jesus said this is a matter of debate. One possibility is that there was additional context that was lost over time or that information was passed down incorrectly or misinterpreted.
“People are responsible for the texts as we have them. Did God have a say in it? That’s a matter of belief. But there’s no denying that the texts come to us through human hands,” Swenson wrote.
Big fish story
Did a whale really swallow Jonah? Not quite.
The Book of Jonah tells of how God tried to convince a man named Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh “and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) Jonah was not enthusiastic about the idea and tried to run away from God by boarding a ship and sailing to a city called Tarshish.
Jonah never made it to Tarshish, as a storm ravaged the ship. In a bid to calm the storm, the ship’s sailors throw Jonah overboard. God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17) While people sometimes think a whale swallowed Jonah, the Bible uses the word “fish.”
Other mysterious resurrections
The Gospel of Matthew claims that Jesus wasn’t the only one who came back to life: “The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matthew 27:52).
The Gospel doesn’t tell us much more about these other people who came back to life. What were they like after they were resurrected? How long did they live afterward? Did they resume their previous lives? How did they interact with their family members? The Bible provides little insight into these questions.
At one point, God is annoyed at Aaron, the brother of Moses, for frequently standing behind a set of curtains near the Ark of the Covenant. God regards the area behind the curtain as a private area that people should stay away from when possible. God is also frustrated with the Israeli people in general for their “uncleanness and rebellion.” As atonement, God orders Aaron to present offerings, including two goats; one shall be sacrificed, and the other “shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.” (Leviticus 16:10).
Swenson wrote that “the biblical scapegoat was, then, an individual innocent who nevertheless bore away the people’s sins. In this sense, the scapegoat prefigures Jesus, centuries before Jesus ever was.” The term continues to be used today for an innocent person who takes the blame for the sins of others.
Exceedingly long life spans
The Book of Genesis is chock full of centenarians.
“When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died. When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh. After he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Seth lived a total of 912 years, and then he died. When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. After he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enosh lived a total of 905 years, and then he died.” (Genesis 5:3-10)
Scholars have long debated why the Book of Genesis tells of people having superlong life spans, Swenson wrote in her book. One possibility is that the writers of Genesis measured the length of a year differently, she said; another possible explanation is that the shortening of life spans as the Bible goes on is a punishment for humanity’s sins.
Nile turning to blood
The longest river in the world could have been filled not with freshwater but with blood, at least according to one passage in the Bible.
After Egypt’s pharaoh refuses to grant the Israelites freedom, God tells Moses and Aaron to use their staffs to turn the Nile river to blood. “Moses and Aaron did as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood. And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:20-21)
The pharaoh simply shrugs off what happened. “Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the Nile.” (Exodus 7:23-24)
There is one Egyptian record that refers to an event that sounds a bit like this. The Ipuwer papyrus, written in the name of a man named “Ipuwer,” discusses Egypt suffering from chaos and warfare and says that “the river is blood.” The text dates back more than 3,000 years although its precise date is a matter of debate among scholars. Another, more mundane, explanation for why the Nile may appear red is that red algae bloom can cause the water to appear red.
Hell is a garbage pit
The bible doesn’t shy away from the abode for the eternally damned.
Jesus warns people of the dangers of going to hell if they sin. He says, for example, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)
In her book, Swenson noted that the word “hell” is a translation of the Greek word “gehenna,” which is an actual place that one could see in ancient Jerusalem. “Gehenna was where Jerusalem burned its garbage, and since the city and the surrounding communities generated a lot of garbage, gehenna was always burning,” Swenson wrote. “When Jesus warned that a person might end up in gehenna, he probably didn’t mean the literal, incinerating gehenna-dump outside of Jerusalem.”
Another, more heavenly fire burns in the Book of Exodus, when God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. Moses was tending a flock of animals when he saw that a “bush was on fire; it did not burn up.” Moses went over to investigate, and “God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.'” (Exodus 3:4)
“‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:5-6) God then tells Moses how he plans to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
The use of a bush that burns but is undamaged is but one example of God “coloring outside the lines of natural processes,” Swenson wrote. “That is, God, in all God’s godness, does extraordinary things because God can.”
God tries to kill Moses
The Book of Exodus also contains a baffling turn of events: At one point, God gives Moses instructions on what he must do to help free the Israelites from Egypt’s pharaoh. God gave Moses special capabilities, such as the ability to turn his staff into a snake. However, as Moses heads toward Egypt, God gets another idea.
“At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah [the wife of Moses] took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,’ she said. So the Lord let him alone.” (Exodus 4:24-26)
Scholars have been baffled about why God initially planned to kill Moses, Swenson said. One possibility is that some passages from this biblical story that may have shed light on that question were lost.
Moses has horns?
It’s also in the Book of Exodus that Moses’ horns come out, literally.
Moses, on behalf of the Israelites, made a covenant with God on Mount Sinai. In the covenant, God promises that the Israelites will take control of a vast amount of land in the Levant but, in return, must worship God and follow his rules, the Ten Commandments in particular. Moses chisels the covenant onto two stone tablets. After he returns from Mount Sinai, his face has been transformed, and he is wearing a veil.
“Most modern translations say it ‘shone’ or some such synonym,” Swenson wrote. “But that’s a guess, because the [Hebrew] word, qaran, doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible.” One possibility is that the word “qaran” actually means “horns,” because it is similar to a common Hebrew noun, “qeren,” which means “horn.” In other words, Moses grew horns after making the covenant with God.
Some people in the Middle Ages believed that Moses had grown horns and that “much medieval artwork — as well as earlier and later work — depicts a Moses with horns,” Swenson wrote, noting that the iconography of the ancient Near East “shows the prevalence of horns on gods and goddesses, the association of horns with exceptional beings and special power.”
In the Book of Numbers, a prophet named Balaam is on the road when his donkey stops three times. Each time, Balaam beats the donkey in an effort to get it moving. Apparently, God has given the donkey the ability to speak and it says: “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” she says to Balaam. (Numbers 22:28)
Balaam, who does not appear to be surprised that his donkey is talking to him, replies, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.” The donkey replies, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (Numbers 22:30)
Then, the “angel of the Lord” appears and tells Balaam that the donkey had saved Balaam’s life. “The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it,” the angel of the Lord says. Balaam then apologizes for his behavior.
Balaam must be baffled over why God is threatening his life, Swenson noted, especially since Balaam had not carried through with harming the Israelites. Prior to the donkey incident, a Moabite leader named Balak had been asking Balaam to curse the Israelites. Despite the vast amount of gold the Moabites offered Balaam for the job, Balaam obeys God and spares the Israelites.
In one utterly bizarre vision of God, the prophet Ezekiel says God appears to him on “a throne of lapis lazuli” as “a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.” (Ezekiel 1:26-27)
In the vision, Ezekiel also mentions seeing four “living creatures” near God. “In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.” (Ezekiel 1:6) with a wheel on the ground beside each of the creatures.
This story is set after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., Swenson said. And so, she noted, this dramatic appearance may be a way of saying that God is alive despite the destruction of the temple.
Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, according to the books of Mark and Luke. “In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we read that Jesus cast seven demons out of her,” Swenson wrote. “Just what were those demons or the nature of this possession, the Bible doesn’t say.
Were these the seven deadly sins?
“It doesn’t say that these were seven sins, deadly or otherwise, though you can imagine the heyday artists have had depicting them,” she added. “And the Bible doesn’t say what effect the demons had on her, physical or emotional, though modern readers have speculated that they may have manifested as what we today would diagnose as varieties of illness, mental and otherwise.” It’s not known whether Mary Magdalene suffered from any illnesses nor what those illnesses may have been. The Bible provides few clues as to her health, and there are no historical records revealing that information.
In modern times, cherubs are often depicted as angelic infants with wings. In biblical stories, however, cherubs are sometimes menacing. In fact, they guard the Garden of Eden and the Ark of the Covenant.
“Contrary to popular opinion and many a Christmas card, the Bible’s cherubim are ferocious creatures — hybrid beings not found in nature but probably informed by ancient Near Eastern iconography,” Swenson wrote. “They would have to be scary, serving as they did to guard the sacred.”
Modern-day commercial appeal appears to have played a role in reducing cherubs from biblical guardians to harmless angelic infants. In 1946, an Indianapolis department store included images of cherubs drawn as infants in their holiday catalog and the popularity of the image grew from there, Swenson noted.
A pharaoh’s hardened heart
God is not a stranger to evil, and nowhere is that perhaps more true than in Exodus when God offers to harden the heart of a brutal dictator.
In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that He will help the Israelites leave Egypt and that he will harden the heart of Egypt’s pharaoh so that he will be more resistant to releasing the Israelites. God tells Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21) This sounds contradictory since the hardening of pharaoh’s heart will make it harder to convince him to let the Israelites leave.
The result is that the pharaoh is incredibly reluctant to let the Israelites go, and God has to inflict the Egyptian people with more of the 10 plagues — locusts, darkness and hail, among other afflictions, before the Israelites can leave. God even kills every firstborn son in Egypt, the story goes.
Demoting the gods
Although Judaism and Christianity are both monotheistic religions, the Bible sometimes implies that other gods exist. One example, coming from the Old Testament, is Psalm 82, which says, “God presides in the great assembly; He renders judgment among the gods” … “The gods know nothing; they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.”
The passage suggests that the Almighty has power over other godly figures and can demote them. In the following passage, God then announces that he has decided to demote the other gods, turning them into mere mortals. “I said, ‘You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Stories like this may provide clues as to how religion evolved in Israel. One theory among scholars is that multiple gods may have been worshipped early in Israel’s history and that over time the Israelis adopted a single god.
Though there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of the Garden of Eden’s star couple, the Old Testament describes in great detail how God created Adam’s companion. What you may not have realized is that matchmaking wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Turns out, God had a difficult time finding a good partner for Adam, the human He had created.
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable helper was found.” (Genesis 2:18-20)
Finally, God decided to use a piece of Adam’s rib to make Eve, who became Adam’s wife. Swenson noted that in the original Hebrew the word Adam “can apply to human beings or a human being generically” and doesn’t refer to a male or female specifically. Other scholars have noted the same thing and have suggested that biblical writers intended for Adam to be an androgynous individual.
2.5 million people leave at once?
In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Sinai desert, where they wandered for 40 years.
“How could approximately two and a half million people, with all their animals, collectively leave Egypt to wander in the Sinai Desert for forty years?” Swenson wrote in her book. “We are told that they drew water from a rock and that food miraculously appeared, but practically speaking, that’s a whole lot of people with dependent animals in a barren space for a very long time.”
The number 40 is mentioned several times in the Bible, with Jesus wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. What symbolic meaning the number has, if any, is a matter of debate among scholars.
Originally published on Live Science.