An Atheist Reads The Bible: None Of This Makes Any Sense

The one thing about reading the Bible that has really taken me by surprise is how odd it is. Growing up Catholic, I was told that the Bible (like religion generally) was a perfect example of love, mercy and justice. Even after I lost my faith, I still presumed that the Bible a collection of stories that were created to teach lessons and that there was always a moral to the story (like children’s TV). But reading the Book of Genesis, I can’t make any sense of the stories. They seem to be a random collection of murder, rape, incest and senseless cruelty. Neither God nor humans seem to act with any logic or reasoning, the most bizarre things happen without explanation.

So one day God appears to Abram and tells him that he will make him the father of a great nation and bless him (Genesis 12). Considering this is the foundation of the Jewish people, you would have thought this would be an important section in the Bible, but instead we quickly move onto God promising the land of Canaan to Abram’s descendants. There is no explanation why Abram was chosen or what elevated him above all the people of the world. Why was he chosen for such a task and why does he accept it without question? It is estimated that the Book of Genesis was written in the 5th or 6th century BC, perhaps a thousand or more years after the events it describes. When it was finally written, the Israelites were already in Canaan and looking for a justification for taking the land. So a lot of these early stories should be seen as propaganda written to justify the actions of later Israelites, rather than as historical documents.

In a case of foreshadowing the Book of Exodus, there is a famine which forces Abram and his wife Sarai to seek refuge in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). Abram is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife, so pretends she is his sister. Sarai is so beautiful that she is taken to the house of the Pharaoh (it’s not said what she does there, but we can guess). Sarai would have been 64 at the time, which is ancient societies would have made her a great-great grandmother, so I doubt she was that attractive. In any case, God punishes Pharaoh with a plague, causing him to release Sarai and Abram. Then follows some boring genealogies, a skirmish that Abram gets into (and wins), which for some reason causes a King to bless him, but I don’t see the point of it, so I’m going to skip ahead.

God then (Genesis 15:18) promises the land from the river of Egypt (the Nile) to the Euphrates River to Abram’s descendants, which is land that the Israelites never controlled. Sarai was infertile, so she suggests (Genesis 16:1-4) that Abram get her servant (or slave, the Hebrew word covers both, which is a recurring problem in translating the Bible) Hagar pregnant instead (huh? She was ok with that?). Abram doesn’t seem to have any problem with this arrangement but after the child was conceived, Hagar looked “with contempt” on Sarai so Sarai banishes her. Really? She banishes a pregnant woman alone into the desert just because she didn’t like the look she gave her? Perhaps Sarai wasn’t so comfortable with her husband getting other women pregnant. Anyways an angel appears to Hagar and tells her to return to Sarai, so it all works out in the end (this story is really weird and I haven’t a clue what the moral is).

Moving on, God (Genesis 17) tells Abram to change his name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, as he is to make a covenant between them to make Abraham the father of nations, kings and a vast number of descendants. Canaan is also promised as an “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8) which considering the many times it gets conquered and taken from the Israelites (including a 2,000 year stretch between the Romans and 1948) I don’t think God kept his word. In return, God requests that every male be circumcised, including his slaves (whom I’m guessing didn’t have too much of a say in the matter). Anyone who doesn’t is to be “cut off from his people” (either banished or killed). I think this is interesting for a number of reasons. If God doesn’t like foreskin, why did he create humans with them in the first place? It’s also interesting that this is the only requirement God asks to keep the covenant, you don’t have to pray or attend synagogue or even be a good person, you only have to be circumcised. Out of all the ways of proving your devotion and worthiness of God, I don’t know how mutilating your genitals was chosen.

God then decides to destroy the city of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he doesn’t give a reason, merely that “their sin is very grave.” (Genesis 18:20) But how could they have sinned, when God hasn’t issued any rules? At this stage in the Bible, nothing is sinful. God hasn’t given any warnings to the people or even tried to change their ways. Abraham seems to be the only living person on the whole planet he has spoken to, so he doesn’t give the people any chance. However, Abraham stands up to God and rightly asks why he will kill the righteous as well as the wicked? God compromises and says he will spare the city if there are 50 righteous people, which Abraham eventually haggles down to 10 (Genesis 18:22-32). Why can’t God just punish the wicked and spare the righteous, why does the punishment have to be collective?

God sends two angels to investigate the city (Genesis 19:1), which is strange because surely God knows everything, so he already knows whether the people are wicked or not? Also how are the angels supposed to judge the city, when has not given any teachings yet or said what is and is not wicked? They stay with Lot, Abraham’s nephew, but during the night every single man in the city comes to the house and demands that the two angels are brought outside so they can have sex with them (Genesis 19:4-7) (this is why the word Sodomy means homosexual sex). I have a big problem believing that literally every man wanted to gang rape the angels, this detail was probably added to justify God’s destruction of the city. Notice how the men of the city are evil, but no comment is made about the women, who apparently don’t count. It seems that it doesn’t matter whether women are good or evil, if men are evil, they must die too. What about children? Were the babies evil too? Could God not have spared children who were too young to do any harm?

Lot tries to appease the mob by offering his two virgin daughters (what the hell?) but the mob refuses, so the angels strike them blind (Genesis 19:8). Lot and his family escape the city which God is raining sulphur and fire on, but on the way out his wife (who is not named) looks behind and is turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Why the hell did God do that? I can think of no possible justification at all for this pointless cruelty. What harm was there in seeing your hometown one last time before everyone and everything you know is being destroyed? Who wouldn’t want one last look? Also, if you are going to punish someone, why turn them into salt? That seems to be the most random punishment ever. It also inexplicable that God destroys Gomorrah, even though the angels only visited Sodom. Gomorrah could have been innocent, yet they were still destroyed. It’s probable that these cities were destroyed by a volcano and later people came up with this story to explain it (people always looked for a divine explanation for natural phenomenon back then).


Lot escapes and lives in a cave with his two daughters, who for some inexplicable reason, decide to get him drunk and have sex with him (Genesis 19:30-38). The Bible is a seriously weird book and none of these stories make any sense. There would be a lot less religious people in the world if they opened up the Bible and read all this craziness. So Lot’s daughters get pregnant by their father (ignoring the odds of getting pregnant first time and the difficulties of having sex when the man is so drunk he’s unconscious) and these incest children become the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites. As these people are enemies of the Israelites when Genesis was written, this story was most likely created to slur their enemies.

The story returns to Abraham (Genesis 20) who yet again pretends that Sarah is his sister and she is yet again taken by a King. Sarah would have been a hundred at this stage and it was miracle she was still alive, so I don’t see why men who could have any women in the kingdom would choose her. In any case God comes to the King in a dream and tells him to back off and Sarah is taken. This is basically the same story as before, except this time Abraham explains that technically he wasn’t lying as Sarah is his half-sister (there is more incest in this book than Game of Thrones). So Sarah and Abraham are set free and randomly given lots of money (why not?) and God reopens the wombs of the kingdom which he had apparently closed in punishment for taking Sarah. (Genesis 20:18)

Sarah goes on to give birth to Isaac, but she sees the son of Hagar (the servant/slave from before) laughing and demands that Hagar and her son are banished as punishment (for what? Laughing isn’t a crime and I don’t see why the mother should be punished when she didn’t do anything). Abraham doesn’t know what to do, but then God tells him that’s okay to banish the slave he had a child with (great moral lesson there God). Hagar and her son (who is so young his mother has to carry him) are about to die from lack of water in the desert when an angel rescues them. Again, I don’t get this story at all. How did the writer know that Hagar was rescued? Maybe that part was added on later so that the story didn’t have such a dire ending.

We then come to one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible (Genesis 22). God demands that Abraham sacrifice his only son (who is still a boy) to God as a burnt offering. But Abraham does not question God (who I defy anyone to claim is still loving and merciful). At the last moment an angel intervenes to stop the knife, saying God was only testing him (Genesis 22:11-12). What sort of foul creature would demand a man murder his only son? That is the not the action of a kind and gentle religion, but of a brainwashed and murderous cult. Yet again, God gives no explanation for this senseless cruelty nor do we find out what Abraham and Isaac thought of the process. What is the lesson here? That we should be willing to murder those we love most if God tells us to? Any God that demands such a thing is not worthy of worship.

Abraham and Isaac Laurent de La Hire, 1650

So I’m not sure what to make of these stories. There is a great deal of cruelty ranging from exterminating entire cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, forcing a father to murder his son to masters banishing their slaves to die in a desert. There is a lot of random and weird events, like Lot’s wife being turned into salt of all things. Most nations have “creation myths” stories about the glory of their founders that serve to inspire people today (in America this would be “The Founding Fathers” and in Ireland “The Men of 1916”). These stories praise them for their wisdom, courage and justice. Abraham is considered the founder of the Jewish people, so this would be their “creation myth” but I don’t see anything to be proud of here. I don’t see any lessons to be learned or how future generations would be inspired. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

For the rest of the series, see here.


Filed under Religion

14 responses to “An Atheist Reads The Bible: None Of This Makes Any Sense

  1. Robert, I highly recommend you check out Richard Carrier’s books Proving History and On the Historicity of Jesus. He talks a lot about what religious historians know about the allegorical stuff in both the old and new testaments, which makes the literal brutality on the pages of the bible make a lot more sense. Basically there’s a lot of political polemic going on that a surface reading doesn’t give you, because you need to know the context under which sections were written to understand them.

    Plus, they’re just fun reads, B-)

  2. Wow, I had the same recommendation as Keith (above). Interesting.

    Do keep in mind that the Pentateuch was written in the sixth Century BCE in an attempt to provide a back story for a new king of Judah to give meaning to his claims of sovereignty. In an attempt to write hundreds of years of “history” and to provide certain messages, it was necessary to echo stories told before. I am certain that people hearing the beginnings of those stories could have told you the end without ever having heard them before. Maybe the names were changed, but the characters were the same. (The story of this is actually told in the Book of Kings.)

    Consider the simple tale of Abraham being tested by Yahweh by sacrificing his son. We have the modern idea that Yahweh is omniscient, so he had to already know Abraham was true, so no test was necessary, especially not one involving human sacrifice. (The Jews did have human sacrifices to contend with but they managed to obliterate the practice (possibly not by the time this was written). So did the idea of Yahweh in the 500s BCE include the idea of omniscience or was that just being come up with? Hard to say. Invent a monotheistic religion may have involved some negotiation of such a god’s powers. (Many consider Yahweh to have started out as a tribal war god, one of many.) But rest assured that the vast majority of the TO and the historical aspects of the NT are fictional and can be shown to be so (Carrier’s books basically nail the coffin shut on that topic).

    Do, assume, though, that such stories did make sense 2500 years ago and that some of them have been poorly copied or deliberately redacted over time, possibly losing any sense they once possessed.

    • “Do keep in mind that the Pentateuch was written in the sixth Century BCE in an attempt to provide a back story for a new king of Judah to give meaning to his claims of sovereignty.”
      -The more I look back at the Book of Genesis, the more evidence of slightly later composition (say, 80-100 years after Josiah) I see. The whole spirit of the book is strongly indicative of a date immediately after the Persian conquest, when the descendants of the Babylonian exiles were allowed to return to a greatly-reduced Judah on a small scale. A Hellenistic date is not very likely for most of Genesis. Anything before the eighth century BC is extremely unlikely.
      BTW, Josiah died in the late seventh century.
      Agree strongly that these stories became much stranger outside their original context.

  3. Then follows some boring genealogies, a skirmish that Abram gets into (and wins), which for some reason causes a King to bless him, but I don’t see the point of it, so I’m going to skip ahead.

    -Note that the events of Genesis 14 would have been completely impossible before 734 BC, when Tiglath-Pileser III first marched into Palestine. By the early Persian period, however, Mesopotamian campaigns into Palestine were quite normal. If anything, Genesis 14 might be based on Nabonidus’s Arabian campaign.

  4. “It’s probable that these cities were destroyed by a volcano and later people came up with this story to explain it (people always looked for a divine explanation for natural phenomenon back then).”
    -Earthquakes do occur around the Dead Sea, and there is much salt and brimstone throughout the area, but no volcanic activity. Sodom and the other Cities of the Plain are clearly placed on the northern end of the Dead Sea in Genesis 13, around the area of the modern M40 road in Jordan. The story is clearly very old, being referenced in the earliest of the Prophets (8th century BC). It might have been inspired either by salt and sulfur formations or Chalcolithic ruins.

  5. “Again, I don’t get this story at all. How did the writer know that Hagar was rescued?”
    -This one’s easy: the Arabs of Northwest Arabia exist.

  6. Reblogged this on stacygturner and commented:
    Props to Robert Nielson

  7. “I don’t see any lessons to be learned or how future generations would be inspired. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
    Here’s my stab at a message:
    1. Being rich is good.
    2. Our nation came from comparatively rich and powerful ancestors.
    3. God is a fearsome being; the punishments he has decreed on our nation are simply part of his nature.
    4. Our connections with Mesopotamia are very deep and began very, very early.
    5. Our ancestors were not sinless; thus the fact they were punished by God is not inexplicable.
    7. We have close blood ties with our enemy neighbors.
    8. Mesopotamian interventions in Palestine are surely not innovations of the 8th century BC, but were countered by our national leaders very long ago.

    • Actually, if you look closely, you’ll see the Genesis 14 offensive campaign was actually Iranian-led, further suggesting an early Persian-period date for much of Genesis’s composition, as Iran never had anything to do with Palestine before 539 BC.

  8. Pingback: An Atheist Reads The Bible | Robert Nielsen

  9. Pingback: 18 April Religion and Atheism News Digest | Evangelically Atheist

  10. Corto

    Some (un)related thoughts:

    Bearing in mind that there are many (philosophical) conceptions of “God”, not to speak of idiosyncratic ones, and that it is a concept difficult to define:

    1. The ancient Greco-Roman World had their notion of a monotheistic God. As there is a monotheistic interpretation of Hinduism so there was a monotheistic interpretation of the Greco-Roman paganism. Furthermore several Greco-Roman thinkers operated with a philosophical conception of God very similar to the one of Judeo-Christian monotheism (and before any contact with the Jews): Plato, Aristotle. the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, etc.

    So, it is not true that monotheism came to Europe with the Jews. Monotheism in Europe is as old as Greek philosophy.

    2. The concept of a monotheistic God also appeared in Asia independently of the Jews.

    3. The smartest position in philosophy/logic is not atheism but agnosticism. Which is not the same thing, really. Atheism is as irrational as theism!

    4. Compelling refutations of “rational arguments for the existence of God” (however defined) doesn’t “prove” the validity of atheism but of agnosticism.

    5. Most people when asked why they believe in God give a rational argument (one or several of them).

    6. However, when people ask you whether you believe in God or not, they don’t mean whether you believe in the existence of an abstract philosophers’ God (be it of the theistic kind), but whether you are a practicing Christian or not (in the European context).

    7. Logically a person can believe in “the existence of God” and be non-religious (not a follower of any theistic religions). E.g. deists. (But even a theist can be non-religious).

    8. An agnostic can follow a theistic religion without contradicting themselves.

    7. After answering positively to 5. asked why they are Christians instead of Jews or Muslims or Deists or Pantheists, etc. people do not know what to say. For them it seems natural that the rational arguments for the existence of God lead to following Christianity (in the European context).

    8. The vast majority of people follow the religion of their parents.

    9. The supine spouse has no qualms in “converting” to the religion of the dominating spouse.

    10. Religion is the ideology of a society, its “noble lie” (apud Plato).

    11. There are other religious notions such as “soul”, “afterlife”, “heaven”, “karma”, “destiny”, “reincarnation”, “miracles”, etc. as “irrational” as god/God/transcendence/sacred/numinous.

    12. “Atheists” have a strange obsession with “God”. They talk about it as if really existed…

    13. People who in fact believe in God but hate Him are called not atheists but misotheists… (E.g. E.M. Cioran)


    • Corto

      Ideologies (feminism, Marxism, “democratism”, “progressism”, belief in “moral progress”, equalitarianism, “anti-racism”, -secular religions in truth) and things such as “psychoanalysis”, “analytical psychology”, “yoga” and other such “cures”, beliefs in the existence of ETs, UFOs, in man-made global warming, scientism, “salvation through science”, optimism about the future of humanity, etc, etc, are as irrational and as harmful as religions.

  11. The Sane One

    I am just leaving a quick message. It is confusing to me when I hear Christians/religious people referring to the bible as being “stories” and how they are supposed to be used to teach a lesson. I have recently began reading the bible. Anyone who has actually read the Bible, cover to cover especially, would know that it is actually an extremely literal book. It includes the most listing and irrelevant repetitive info of any book that I have ever read.The only time that anything in the Bible is meant to be a “story” is the parables that Jesus uses, and even then it specifically states that Jesus is using these stories as examples, not truths. If repetition, the listing of weird ways that incense should be burned and how to properly worship god, the irrelevant details on how they built certain temples etc and what supplies they used, the oddly even numbered and numerous accounts of animals given in sacrifice or just as a gift, the genealogical listings that seriously go on and on and on, and all of the contradictions (and Im sure that I could keep going with this but I have errands to run today)were removed from the Bible, It would probably consist of about 10 pages. It is almost hilarious that people can identify with it and use it the way they do. I say almost because so many people use it negatively and to condemn(which is really they way God and Jesus would want it, despite the loving and caring version that they like to talk about). it’s actually a bit scary that we can be so ignorant and follow something fictional so blindly.

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